Before White Castle hands over the password to its coveted social media accounts, members of its marketing team have to do one thing — flip some burgers.
A single shift at the iconic burger chain is just one prerequisite to getting the keys to The Castle's Twitter account, but it's an important tradition, Lynn Blashford, vice president of marketing for White Castle, told CNBC.
White Castle is just one of many fast-food chains using social media for more than just promoting new menu items and value offers. Brands such as Wendy's, Arby's, Denny's and Taco Bell are developing unique online personas to engage with customers and stay relevant.
"When you consider all the various touchpoints a business has with customers, social media is one of the biggest outward faces of your brand, maybe more so than the public-facing website," Sally-Anne Kaminski, manager of global social media strategy at Zebra Technologies, told CNBC. "Even when your business is closed, social media isn't."
But there's an art to setting the right tone, to being funny and not overstepping boundaries. If you do it right, the upside is huge, and it can level the playing field against bigger rivals.
For White Castle, a few hours on the front lines at its restaurants, particularly during the midnight shift on a weekend, is the best way for its marketing team to familiarize itself with the brand's customs and customers.
The burger chain has a distinct reputation for drawing in the after-party crowd. On social, the company amplifies this persona, adopting a "little bit more of an edgy tone ... just a little bit more clever, a little bit more witty," Blashford said. "But always still respectful, always wanting to be inclusive."
White Castle currently has about 92,700 followers.
"A lot of brands see social media as a medium that is very fast-paced and a place to take those quick zingers," Kaminski said.
Wendy's was one of the first fast-food brands to embrace Twitter as a platform to magnify its unique voice. Kurt Kane, the restaurant's chief concept and marketing officer, told CNBC that Wendy's takes its food quality very seriously, but doesn't take itself seriously.
"We are tongue-in-cheek except when it comes to quality," he said.
Wendy's has more than 2.7 million followers on Twitter.
The burger chain has been at the forefront of guerrilla marketing tactics on social media, often using its competitors' promotions or gaffes to make a statement. Wendy's has taken a number of swipes at McDonald's, in particular, after the Golden Arches rolled out fresh beef for its Quarter Pounder burgers. Wendy's used this as a chance to tout that its burgers have always been fresh.
In this tweet, Wendy's tapped into a popular meme based on a scene from "The Avengers: Infinity War." The post was well-received by social media users, gaining more than 236,000 likes and 78,000 retweets.
Of course, McDonald's isn't the only chain to feel Wendy's snarky social media wrath. Dine Brands' IHOP bore the brunt of several tweets this week after announcing that it was temporarily swapping out the "P" in its name for a "b" to promote its new line of burgers.
White Castle also chimed in.
"Our social media voice is all about talking with our fans, not at our fans," a member of Wendy's social media team, who wished to remain anonymous, told CNBC. "We want to have conversations that friends would have. You want to talk about our opinion on the latest movie releases? Sure, we'll go there. The brand voice that brings that strategy to life is simply, sassy. Sassy is our voice across all consumer touchpoints, not just social media."
Last year, teenager Carter Wilkerson tweeted at the brand asking how many retweets he needed to get in order to receive a year of free chicken nuggets.
Wendy's answered: 18 million.
While Wilkerson was only able to get a paltry 3.6 million retweets, breaking the record set by comedian Ellen Degeneres for her Oscar selfie, he was still rewarded with his year of free nuggets as well as a donation of $100,000 to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in his honor.
Those that run these social media accounts must skirt the fine line between being on trend with the latest memes and pop culture references and appearing inauthentic and opportunistic.
Companies like PepsiCo have learned that the hard way. The soda company was accused of co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement in an advertisement and social media campaign that featured Kendall Jenner quelling tensions between police and protesters by offering a police officer a Pepsi.
Even Wendy's has found that you can go from top of the world to bottom of the barrel with just one tweet.
The burger chain briefly fell from grace in January 2017 after posting a Pepe the Frog meme in response to a customer. The image, which started out as a reaction meme, has been adopted as a white nationalist symbol and was deemed a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Wendy's deleted the post.
"There are some topics that just aren't fit for a cheeseburger brand to engage in and we stay far away from those," the Wendy's social team member told CNBC.
For both White Castle and Wendy's the magic age for social media mavens is late 20s to early 40s. The brands want someone who is young enough to use social media in their daily lives, but not so young that they are inexperienced and will be a liability for the company.
At White Castle, there is an in-house team and an outside firm that collaborate on planned promotions — national food days, new menu items, etc. — and can also handle spur-of-the-moment posts.
In-house there is one lead tweeter, a man in his 30s who is so entrenched in the company's tone and practices that he has leeway to engage with customers as he sees fit. Of course, there is a small team available for him to bounce ideas off or to discuss potentially sensitive posts. This team is made up of several employees ranging from 20 to 50 years old, Blashford said.
There is also one person at the outside agency who is constantly monitoring the feed and is allowed to post freely.
At Wendy's, there are five people in their 20s and 30s who are responsible for posting and writing the messages seen on the company's social media page.
"We help each other craft the tweets," the Wendy's social team member said. "We understand that one person isn't an expert in everything — from Broadway quotes to knowing the ins and outs of professional wrestling. We love the collaborative atmosphere that the team has built. There are absolutely areas where we aren't experts, and we're happy to admit that to our followers, which helps provide a sense of humility behind the brand."
Like the team at White Castle, Wendy's social media team has the autonomy to post as they see fit in real time. However, they will flag any sensitive posts and discuss them before putting them out on social media.
"We're not going to get involved in politics or things where there is a split feeling one way or another," Kane said. "That's not what [followers] want from us."
At the end of the day, the social media strategy for these fast-food brands is two-fold. There are the tweets and posts meant to be straight promotions of the restaurants' offerings and the ones that are meant to engage followers and bolster loyalty for the brand.
It is often difficult to determine if a viral marketing campaign is actually bumping sales. But, that's not really the point.
"Success comes in seeing the engagement and the conversation," White Castle's Blashford said. "There's a happiness element. Did we make someone smile or laugh?"
The brand is focused on generating content that gets its followers talking and sharing with each other.
"We are the forum," Blashford said.
Wendy's, too, relishes using social media to have fun. However, the brand also enjoys "leveling the playing field" with its "much larger competitors," Kane said.
"Social media is the great check and balance," Kane said.
The burger chain has just under 6,000 locations in the U.S. compared with the more than 14,000 that rival McDonald's operates. White Castle has nearly 400 restaurants. Although McDonald's has more than double the locations of Wendy's, its Twitter following is just 33 percent larger than Wendy's following.
"It's about humanizing our brands and not just being a marketing engine," Kaminski said. "You have to have a voice and have a personality. If you are just pushing marketing you are just a bulletin board."