ChipotleSpecialty fast-food chains like Chipotle and Chick-fil-a are extremely
good at engaging consumers online. These smaller brands have become so
adept, they’re emerging as real competitors to mega-brands like
McDonald’s and Starbucks in terms of digital exposure.

Stats from media measurement firm General Sentiment show just how valuable that digital exposure actually is.

The company’s Fall 2010 Fast Food Industry Report highlights the brands that made the “most significant” online media impact between September and November. That impact – loosely defined as the sentiment and volume of all the buzz, content and conversations generated online about a brand – is then assigned a dollar value.

The goal is to help marketers answer the question: “How much would it cost to attract the same media exposure through traditional advertising channels?”

The market leaders

Starbucks topped the list, generating over $67.8 million worth of online media impact. McDonald’s came in second place, with over $32.1 million worth, followed by Burger King with $25.7 million worth.

Much of that online content was geared toward helping these brands generate more positive buzz about the “goodness” of their food and their improved corporate policies

Given the negative connotation of fast food, most of the top chains are attempting to change their images. Many of the top stories linked with these restaurants over the past three months involved revamping their menus to become healthier, using recycled materials to help the environment and using more natural ingredients in their products to encourage health and discourage obesity.

The upstart brands

Meanwhile, Chipotle came in fourth place, generating more than $17 million worth of online impact over the fall. Chick-fil-a came in eighth place, with over $8 million worth of online impact.

What’s notable is that these smaller brands don’t have the same budgets for traditional advertising that the mega-brands do, which means far less opportunity for them to use traditional ads (like TV or radio) to generate online buzz. Their willingness to experiment with less costly online channels has paid off. 

Chick-fil-a, for example, was one of the first brands to test a direct response ad on Facebook, offering consumers a free sample via the social network.

“The emergence of smaller fast food brands as competitors to the traditional heavyweights of the industry was the most compelling finding coming out of the brand analysis,” according Greg Artzt, General Sentiment CEO. “In terms of brand exposure, these smaller brands are becoming a real force in the industry as consumers have more choice in fast food than ever before.”