Denny's social-network plan may not be fully cooked

The restaurant chain invites its dinner customers to visit its Twitter account, but thanks to a misprint on the four-month-old menu, diners are pointed to a Taiwanese man's account.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
On Denny's dinner menus, customers are invited to visit the company's Twitter account at twitter.com/dennys. The only problem is that that account is owned by a Taiwanese man named Dennys Hsieh. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

If you've been to a Denny's restaurant recently, you may have noticed that on the bottom of the back page of the dinner menu, the company invites you to "Join the conversation!" by, among other things, visiting it on Twitter at twitter.com/dennys.

There's just one problem: that Twitter account is owned by a Taiwanese man named Dennys Hsieh, and of the 272 tweets he's posted--the last of which was on July 19, 2009--none appear to have anything to do with the ubiquitous always-open restaurants with the yellow signs visible from freeways throughout America.

The Denny's dinner menu. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

According to Alan Miller, the co-owner of Filter Creative Group, which manages Denny's social-media initiatives, the menu snafu was a simple misprint. Indeed, Miller said, Denny's is fully involved on Twitter, keeping two separate accounts, twitter.com/DennysAllNightr--for its late night customers--and twitter.com/DennysGrandSlam--for early birds--flowing with all kinds of promotions, information about the company's restaurants and feedback for customers.

And, Miller said, the restaurants' breakfast and late-night menus aren't marred by featuring the wrong Twitter ID.

Still, there's little doubt that this is the kind of social-media error that's bound to get the word "fail" bouncing around, especially since the erroneous menus first were put into Denny's more than 1,500 locations last October, and the company has done nothing customers can see to fix the problem. Indeed, while the mistake has gone largely unnoticed since then, a blogger named Matthew Petro wrote about "Denny's major social-media fail" last November.

And to hear Laura Fitton, the author of "Twitter for Dummies" and CEO of Twitter app store, oneforty.com, talk about it, "It's a pretty big screw up by whoever printed the menu."

To be sure, mistakes happen, and Fitton said that she's impressed with the way Denny's promotes its Twitter presence on its Web site, especially given that she said many companies still haven't figured out how to incorporate the popular microblogging service. But she also argued that the restaurant giant wouldn't have had anything to lose by offering a note on its Web site about the mistake.

And it may not be long before the problem goes away, said Bill Ruby, Denny's vice president for sales and field marketing. That's because the company has petitioned Twitter and asked that Hsieh's account be reassigned to Denny's under a policy that states that IDs inactive for six months or more can be claimed by others.

"We are working with Twitter right now, and we will have that (account) shortly," Ruby said. "It has gone inactive [and] we'll have that back momentarily. It's just a matter of having that worked out. [Twitter has] essentially told us it's our domain."

But Fitton said things may not be so clear-cut. Because twitter.com/dennys belongs to someone with a legitimate claim to the word "Dennys," this situation may well be in a gray area.

A Twitter spokesperson said she had no specific information regarding the request by Denny's to take over the twitter.com/dennys account, but did confirm that, generally, after six months of inactivity, accounts may be released to another party.

Hsieh could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Roller coaster
For Denny's the menu mess is just one element of the company's much larger social-media efforts. For two years running, it has paid millions of dollars to run ads during the Super Bowl inviting the world to drop by one of its locations for a free breakfast. In each case, it has followed up the ads with constant blasts on Twitter reminding people of the deadline to get their gratis eggs and bacon.

In 2009, while more than a million people took Denny's up on the offer, perhaps attracted by the dancing banana character Nannerpuss in the ad, some questioned whether the effort achieved what the company was after.

In a post titled "Nine worst social-media fails of 2009...thus far," Jennifer Leggio wrote on CNET News sister site ZDNet that "attempts to create a Nannerpuss following via social networks (i.e. Twitter) were a complete fail. Denny's had the right idea, but creating some sort of storyline [related to] the Nannerpuss ad (and its sister ads) would've done well to create more brand loyalty."

Others agreed. In her post, "Denny's Grand Slam Fumble," Lisa Barone, the chief branding officer of Outspoken Media, argued that the restaurant chain's attempts to use the ad to become more "relevant" weren't backed up by the response.

While the million-plus people surely dropped by to eat, she questioned whether the company would have been wiser to turn to a much less expensive social-media push in order to generate the same interest, especially because her research suggested that few of those who took Denny's up on its offer were thinking much about the company after their visit.

And a commenter on Barone's post named Shane Arthur added, "They could have set up a Twitter account for free, announced that they would [tweet] (to those that followed them) a URL with a free breakfast coupon to print out, and gained much more community involvement."

Without spending the $3 million for the Super Bowl ad, that is.

Fast forward a year, however, and the response to Denny's 2010 Super Bowl promotion--again, offering a free breakfast--seems to have been much more positive.

According to Ad Age, Denny's was one of two companies that saw the biggest bumps in "buzz," a metric that measures consumer perception of brands, as a result of their Super Bowl commercials. The other was E-Trade.

Looking at online response to the Denny's ads and the company's social-media efforts this year, "you'll see that that's completely turned around," said Miller, of Filter Creative Group. "It's a great turnaround and speaks to the forward thinking and progression of the campaign and improvement on all levels."

Denny's Ruby said that the company's social-media strategy involves "looking for different channels to engage with core guests in a way that's engaging and relevant to them." And he pointed to this year's Super Bowl, during which the company "leveraged all communications channels," including Twitter and Facebook, as well as the fact that Denny's plans to continue that plan throughout the year ahead.

Miller said that during the Super Bowl, at least, that meant Denny's deployed a team of people to monitor Twitter for references to the company, its ads, or its restaurants and to communicate with as many people as possible.

And that may well all be true. As Fitton suggested by pointing out that Denny's is ahead of the curve in putting a link to its Twitter account on its Web site, the company may be one of the leaders in turning to social media as a way of engaging its customers.

Then again, one has to wonder why, four months after the company printed the wrong Twitter account on its dinner menus, it hasn't done anything to alert the thousands of people who have picked one up to the error. Those savvy enough to look at Denny's Web site or search on Twitter will no doubt find their way to the company's real Twitter presence. But what about those for whom Twitter is something new?

In the end, it's impossible to know who was confused by the mistake, because, as Fitton said, an ordinary, nontechie Denny's customer who attempted to "get in touch with them [via the Twitter ID on the dinner menu] and discovered it's a dead end...[likely] wouldn't have a way to point that out."