The practice of "like-gating," offering Facebook users a special coupon or offer if they like a page, is something brands are doing more and more. One brand that absolutely rejects the idea, however, is Jersey Mike's. Rich Hope, the sandwich chain's chief marketing officer, calls those "empty likes."
"Since we aren't doing a lot of discounting or freebies, and we still see a high level of interaction on the page, we feel like we have a strong following from true fans," he says.
What Jersey Mike's, which has amassed more than 76,000 "likes," did instead was run two big campaigns on its Facebook page this summer. One campaign, Christmas in July, aimed to raise money for wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. The other, Throwback Summer, took fans through a history of the company.
Both spurred a lot of engagement, Hope says.
Christmas in July
Peter Cancro, Jersey Mike's CEO and founder, is a big fan of the charity Wreaths Across America, and had the original idea for the Christmas in July campaign, Hope says. This year was the company's third.
"The timing is largely due to necessity," he says. "Summer is a key fundraising time, as the money raised will help WAA lay more than 225,000 wreaths, one for every fallen hero's headstone, at Arlington National Cemetery on National Wreaths Across America Day, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012."
The company collected donations at its restaurants, which ended up totaling about $100,000. Jersey Mike's then matched that amount. The company also threw in $1 for each "like" on the Facebook page connected to the campaign. That added an additional $18,282 to the total.
"At the peak of the campaign, during the week ending July 8, the 'People Talking About This' stat for Jersey Mike's had increased 900 percent," Hope says. "The conversations online as well as our other marketing efforts encouraged people to visit our restaurants to support WAA."
Jersey Mike's promoted the campaign with a video of a concert on a battleship, as well as stories posted to the Facebook page about historical and current veterans, which the company worked with its agency, Glow Interactive, to create.
Jersey Mike's didn't celebrate a big anniversary this year—it turned 56 in 2012—but Hope says it didn't need one to revisit its history on Facebook.
"Because the campaign was authentic to our brand, we didn't need a milestone or special occasion for it to make sense," he says.
The campaign revisited a decade each week, starting with the 1950s, with posts of classic ads and early storefronts. Fans really engaged. The photos netted hundreds of "likes" each, and got dozens of comments and shares.
Between the Throwback Summer and Christmas in July campaigns, fan engagement quadrupled, Hope says, while "likes" increased by 30 percent.
"The number of fan stories created about Jersey Mike's subs online during summer 2012 more than doubled," he says. "Jersey Mike's has now extended its Facebook network of friends and their friends to more than 20.8 million."
Content over coupons
Hope says Jersey Mike's doesn't want to forget what people actually use social media for. It's a form of leisure.
"We believe that interesting content is more important than prizes when it comes to social media," he says. "It is important to create a fun user experience to keep our audience engaged."
The brand hasn't totally eschewed distributing free gift cards or prizes, he says, but it's not the main focus. The result of that philosophy is a fan base that really cares about the brand. During Hurricane Sandy, Jersey Mike's Facebook page became something of a hub for people concerned about the devastation on the Jersey Shore. More than 17,000 Facebook users were talking about the brand.
"This only happened because Jersey Mike's is an authentic brand, and we saw a genuine outpouring of love and concern from our fan base for those affected," Hope says.
He says the company plans to continue this course next year.
"One of our most popular fundraisers, Month of Giving, takes place in March, and each year the grassroots awareness about the program from social media and other marketing vehicles grows," he says. "Last year, with our generous customers, we raised nearly $858,000 for 74 different charities nationwide, and we hope to raise even more in 2013."
Right now, the company is running a Calendar of Kindness
, an advent calendar that reveals a new way that fans can help people in their communities every day.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.