KFC is sinking its teeth into social media, and gaining some juicy results. The fast food chain is using social channels not only to interact with its customers and engage them, but also to create buzz about its products. According to Rick Maynard, KFC's public relations manager, the ultimate goal is to cultivate brand supporters. "We like to think that all these millions of people who follow us on a social space become advocates for the brand," he says.

For KFC, social media is a way to keep the brand relevant by reaching out to customers in a space where they already spend a lot of time. "Our customers like to connect with the brand in those channels, and we like connecting with them [there] and telling them what's going on," Maynard says. In fact, the brand's Facebook page has received nearly 3.5 million "likes," and close to 50,000 consumers follow KFC's Twitter page.

The company's attempts to communicate with its fans via social media have not gone unnoticed. In fact, a study of about 400 consumers carried out by Ogilvy and ChatThreads found that customers who were only exposed to KFC ads via social media were seven times more likely to spend more than those who didn't see these ads. Maynard says these results make sense. "Social media is totally opt-in. If you're sitting at home watching TV and a KFC commercial comes on, you may be interested in what you see, but you didn't ask for that commercial," he says. "But if you're a follower of our brand, you contacted us and said you wanted to hear about us. It's an audience that is obviously very interested in our brand, what we have to say, and our product."

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KFC is building engagement with its fans and followers through interactive means that center around the brand, like answering trivia questions for a chance to win coupons for free menu items. Additionally, the company is taking a multichannel approach to getting more attention online. For example, last year KFC introduced its Double Down Sandwich (bacon and cheese sandwiched between two chicken filets) on April 1 through an email blast to customers subscribed to its newsletter with the headline "It's Real," intentionally making people think it was an April Fool's joke. "It generated so much buzz [in social channels] that even before we sent out the press release a few days later, we were getting calls from customers and the media," Maynard says. As a result, people took to Twitter to organize trips to KFC to be among the first to try the sandwich; now there are hundreds of YouTube videos showing people eating their first Double Down.

The company also uses social channels to answer its fans' questions and provide real-time customer service. Recently, for instance, when a customer tweeted that he had a bad experience at a KFC location, the company answered back, urging him to send an email with details about the visit. "We address all those questions rapidly," says Maynard.

Along with reaching out to customers, KFC has used social media to give something back. Last year it decided to award one of its annual 75 $20,000 scholarships to one of its Twitter followers, using a contest that had applicants tweet why they deserved to win. "We decided to put a creative twist to the typical college scholarship application, which can be pages and pages of questions and essays." Almost 3,000 high school seniors used their imagination and Californian Amanda Russell cooked up the winning tweet: "#KFCScholar Hey Colonel! Your scholarship's the secret ingredient missing from my recipe for success! Got the grades, drive, just need cash!" 

Keeping the founder's legacy alive
One of KFC's top marketing priorities is ensuring that its consumers don't forget the man who came up with the recipe for its chicken: Colonel Harland Sanders. So the company turned to social media to make sure customers know the Colonel's story. "We want to keep his legacy alive," says Maynard.

Consumer research led to KFC's discovery that a significant percentage of young Americans didn't know that Colonel Sanders, the founder and face of the now-worldwide fried chicken company, was a real person. Instead, a survey carried out last year on what would have been the Colonel's 120th birthday, found that 61 percent of Americans aged 18 to 25 couldn't identify the iconic bearded man whose face was imprinted on the chicken bucket. More than half of respondents thought he was a made-up corporate icon rather than the man who started the company with a $105 Social Security check at the age of 65. According to Maynard, even the people who were aware of the Colonel's existence thought that he was just a marketer. "It's true that he was a really great marketer, but he was also a real cook and he was happiest when he was in the kitchen frying chicken."

Last July the corporation launched an interactive website not only to tell the Colonel's story, but also to encourage those who met him to share their experiences. The site is peppered with decades-old photos and videos of the Colonel speaking and cooking his Kentucky fried chicken.  "We often hear stories from people who met Colonel Sanders and had interesting interactions with him, even though he died more than 30 years ago," Maynard says. "The more time passed, the more important it became to capture these stories and save them for future generations."

The strategy worked. Stories and photos started pouring in; to date almost 200 tales have been posted on the website. "We heard from people who were very appreciative that there is a place for their story. Some met the Colonel in passing while others actually worked with him, but they all share a lot of joy at sharing their stories," Maynard says. Some, like a comment by Thomas Cook, give a glimpse into the character of the man. Cook says the Colonel held his daughter when they met in 1967. "She pulled his beard and the old man laughed. That's one man I had respect for," he said in his post.

The result was a win-win: the company is keeping the Colonel's memory alive, and customers and former employees who met the man behind the famous fried chicken have a place to share their stories. "It's not about selling chicken, but keeping alive the memory of someone who had a really great story to tell," Maynard says.

The Colonel is also "alive" on Facebook and Twitter, and is interacting with customers there. Some of these supporters have not so subtly asked the Colonel for his recipe. But in a recent tongue-in-cheek tweet, he replied: "It won't fit in 140 characters."