Blog Post

PANCAKES PLS: How Denny's Has Transformed Native Advertising on Social Media


Businesses that run a corporate blog and social media presence often face one crucial struggle: creating engaging content with a high click-through rate and number of impressions. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most people don't really like being advertised to -- that is, anything with promotional or sales-y language is likely to send an audience running in the opposite direction, or at the very least slamming on their browser’s back button.

And on the internet, users tend to be more savvy when it comes to separating ads from content, and ad-blocking browser extensions go a long way in giving them a commercial-free experience. People want genuine content that contributes something to their lives, even if it's only entertainment value, and many traditional advertising methods just don't deliver. So where does this leave companies that need to build brand recognition and increase sales?

For many, the answer lies in native advertising. This marketing technique focuses on generating articles, blog posts, graphics, videos, and other pieces that look like editorial content. By mimicking the appearance of content, users are less likely to pay attention to the byline and dismiss the post as an ad. As a result, the company could receive a more favorable opinion in the eyes of consumers.

Most people have seen native ads before, even if they don't think they have. For anyone who has visited Buzzfeed.com and taken one of their clickbait-titled quizzes, there's a good chance that that content was sponsored. Examples include "What's Your Superhero Power?" from the CW, which tied the quiz in with their latest show The Flash, or "How Swedish Are You?" from Scandinavian car maker Volvo.

The trick to native advertising (and to most content marketing) is adapting to the platform where the content appears. The more clicks it receives, the more advantages for that advertiser. For instance, People Style Watch made headlines with the success of its "Meet Your Celeb Style Twin" online quiz. The quiz featured hundreds of sponsored products, and its traffic helped the magazine increase its September issue ad pages by 6.6%. In cases like these, it's a simple equation: more impressions = more money.

But perhaps one of the more successful, and frankly bizarre, examples of native advertising comes from Denny's, the national diner chain. While advertising Grand Slam breakfasts may not sound appealing to some, the company's social media agency has helped the brand develop a following on Facebook, Twitter, and blogging platform Tumblr over the last year or so.

The diner's Tumblr presence takes content marketing to a whole new level. Much of Tumblr is geared toward millennials, offering the ability to "reblog" pictures, text, videos, and other content so it reappears on their own blogs. Not to mention users are more likely to find Doctor Who gifs and artsy photography than a typical "corporate" blog on the site (though the BBC does maintain a blog dedicated to promoting Who on Tumblr).

So what did Denny's do? They formatted their blog in the same manner of most Tumblrs. The blog features quirky gifs and images, references to pop culture memes, and sarcastic responses to user-submitted questions. "Do Denny's got da booty?" asked several followers. The reply from Denny's was simple: "We are a diner."

The team behind the social media presence for Denny's is from the Erwin Penland ad agency and managed by Kevin Purcer since 2013. When speaking to MarketingLand.com, Purcer explained the approach to creating content is "to be current, but not too mainstream."

As of July, the number of Tumblr followers grew by over 130,000, a 253% increase since the year prior. The most popular blog post, according to Purcer, was another snarky answer: in response to the question "r u single?" the social media team reiterated, "we are a restaurant." This brought the brand 200,000 engagements and increased their Tumblr followers by 14,000. This growth isn’t an anomaly when it comes to the platform: Search Engine Journal reports that as of November 2014, Tumblr is now the fastest growing social media platform, with its active user base expanding by 120% in the past six months. More users means a larger audience for advertisers to connect with, and going by figures from last year, those users spend more time per visit (14 minutes) on Tumblr than they would on Facebook (around 12.5 minutes).

Twitter has also given the company the chance to spread its influence 140 characters at a time, and Denny's currently has over 119,000 followers. The company's most effective paid tweet represented three stick figures demanding "PAN CAKES PLS," which received over 100,000 engagements. The company's top unpaid tweet, with 20,000 engagements, took a jab at war bonnet-wearing hipsters: "The best Coachella look is french toast remnants all over yr face while not appropriating any other cultures."

Purcer explained that one of the main ingredients to the success of the Denny's social media campaigns was branding the company as "America's diner." Having that clear vision and asking the question "What does it mean to be America's diner?" has helped the brand grow and reach a younger, more tech-savvy audience after earlier, failed efforts. (Remember the pop punk-inspired menu in 2009 with the Sum 41 "Sumwich" and Hoobastank's "Hooburrito"? Didn't think so.)

Simply put, just selling pancakes, burgers, and milkshakes isn't enough, even if those happen to be the core products offered by Denny's. When it comes to making genuine impressions and scoring retweets, reblogs, likes, and click-throughs, quirky -- and not adsy -- content that blends in seems to be the answer for some brands.

And that’s certainly not a bad idea even for small businesses looking for better social media engagement. Once a business figures out what its core demographics are, social media can help that business deliver timely content to customers. Sure, a company that sells garage doors might not need to create gifs of chainsaws chopping through stacks of pancakes, but they could use Facebook or a blog to display before and after home improvement projects or to give garage makeover advice. A law firm could utilize Twitter to link and comment on the latest celebrity divorces and legal battles in order to increase visibility. And with the amount of content available on the internet, sometimes even businesses can hit that “share” button, too.