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The Globe and Mail

Fast-food firms make customer feedback a prime marketing tool

A slice of pizza.


At Domino's in Australia, delivery is guaranteed within 30 minutes. But they are not talking about the pizza.

The fast-food company is referring to delivery of answers: It has been hiring lately to ensure that a staffer is manning the brand's Facebook account at all times, and that no one who posts a question or a complaint there has to wait more than half an hour for a reply.

This division of Domino's Pizza Inc. is just one far-flung example of the way marketers everywhere are investing heavily in having a direct conversation with their customers – and increasingly bypassing traditional media to do so.

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Last year, for example, McDonald's Restaurants Canada attracted global attention with its "Our Food. Your Questions" campaign. It offered to answer any question consumers asked. While the campaign used traditional media such as television to promote itself, the conversation happened online, on the website it created for the purpose, on Twitter and through response videos McDonald's published on YouTube.

The company says it has answered more than 20,000 questions so far.

It is now the norm to have a team of people dedicated to managing a company's presence on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. But Domino's Australia has included some high-ranking executives on that team.

On Tuesday, the chain's head of marketing, Allan Collins, spent an hour fielding questions on the brand's Facebook page– responding to as many as he could in a feed that included more than 600 comments. It was the second time in a week that he did so(he did another hour on Jan. 9), and he is not alone. Domino's Australia's executive chef and chief executive have both taken part in similar exercises, Mr. Collins said in an interview just before his Q&A on Tuesday.

"There is only so much that marketing can do," he said.

More companies – and public figures – are recognizing that. Online forum Reddit has popularized a Q&A session known popularly as "AMA," short for "Ask Me Anything." It has become so well recognized that during the U.S. presidential campaign in August, 2012, a session titled "I am Barack Obama, President of the United States – AMA" crashed Reddit's servers.

This kind of open dialogue can be troubling for companies trying to manage their brands. A woman who said she used to portray Snow White at Disney World did a well-publicized session talking about her working life at the Magic Kingdom – including typical salary and body type requirements for Disney Princesses. Some of what she said was positive, but much of it fell outside of the tight controls that most corporations try to keep on their messaging.

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In Australia, the Facebook forums Domino's has hosted have yielded some changes. The company will sometimes take suggestions for products and test them in-market. For example, in 2011, it launched the "Spicy Island Pizza" based on customer suggestions (featuring bacon, double pineapple, capsicum, onion, chili sprinkles and barbecue sauce).

The new selection garnered roughly 5 per cent of pizza sales at the time, but after the novelty wore off, it was discontinued. Still, Mr. Collins envisages a time when new menu items are entirely determined by customer feedback.

It is affecting the company's branding as well: In February, it plans to change its slogan in Australia to "People-powered pizza" from "It's all good."

Increasingly, this kind of connection is what customers expect. And new media make that connection possible.

In September, Nielsen released a "Global Survey of Trust in Advertising," speaking to consumers in 58 countries. It found that word of mouth was the most trusted form of advertising in the world.

Companies that talk to their customers have the chance to appear to be part of a word-of-mouth conversation.

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"People were always talking about us, but now we can see what they're saying," Mr. Collins said. "… We weren't part of that conversation, and now we have the opportunity to fix it.

"We are relentlessly curious and crave answers from brands as we would from our own friends, families and colleagues," said Ed Lee, senior director of social media at Tribal Worldwide Toronto, which created the McDonald's campaign. "The new mindset is that 'if you're not telling me what I want to know, you have something to hide.' … Companies that are acting in a modern, human way and who are being transparent are being rewarded with consumers' time, attention and more importantly, trust."

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