As technology and the way we use it continues to evolve at a seemingly breakneck pace, it’s a challenge to work out the best way to compete in the social media arena. Twitter or Facebook? Groupon or LivingSocial? E-mail blasts? Blogs? Mobile apps? And who has the time to stay current online? There’s no single formula that will work for every restaurant, but there are plenty of ways to use social media effectively. Here are eight ideas to get you started.
1. Create excitement through targeted promotions.
Quaker Steak & Lube recently wrapped an online contest that challenged entrants to combine up to three of the brand’s sauces and dry rubs for a customized taste. It netted about 1,100 entries, some 2,500 new Facebook fans and plenty of brand exposure over 10 weeks. E-mail blasts, text messages, Facebook photos and in-restaurant materials promoted the contest. “We wanted to tap into the networks of Lube enthusiasts on the page, and use the Sauce Boss promotion to get valuable feedback on sauce combinations and guest customization,” says Beth Choike of Gatesman+Dave, the firm that created the contest application.
Hot Italian, with units in Sacramento and nearby Emeryville, CA, burnishes its Italian pedigree by exploring Italian modern art, film and sport in its social media efforts. The restaurant recently leveraged the local community of Sacramento and Bay Area Italian cycling fans with a Facebook and Twitter promotion inviting them to peddle their bikes over to the restaurants for a free pizza.
2. Highlight holidays and seasons.
The fluid nature of social media makes it the perfect vehicle for seasonal and holiday promotions. And holidays extend well beyond Christmas and Mother’s Day. How about National Cheese Fondue Day? The Melting Pot Restaurants added 25,000 new members to its Club Fondue e-mail program during a 24-hour period earlier this year. The chain gave away about $400,000 in free fondue through vouchers as a lure; the giveaway was rolled out on fondue day through a press release, Facebook ad and social media messaging. More than 500 tweets, hundreds of Facebook shares and blog posts spread the message.
Seasonal specials are an ideal way to use social media. Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland, CA, sends “This Just In” e-mails to let its friends know when an item is on the menu for only a few nights or is the first of the season. When the restaurant first started running these promotions, co-owner Bob Klein asked people in the dining room why they came in that night; he found that the alerts brought in 15-20 additional tables. Oliveto has also run more extensive promotions surrounding the arrival of local tomatoes, cuts of grass-fed beef and other items. Tools include videos, alerts and special dinners.
3. Keep your name on the front burner.
According to the Pew Research Center, Facebook users are 40 to 50 percent more likely to read about your restaurant if it’s part of their news feed than by visiting your fan page. What that means is you need to post on Facebook often, preferably with some actual news (for instance, seasonal specials or a new menu item). It’s one thing to have a Facebook or Twitter page, says John Donnelly, a social media expert and director of social media marketing at Heartland Payment Systems. “But you can’t just let it sit there. Just like reading a newspaper every morning, you need to log in and put in a post—even a couple of lines, something about a special you’re having or an event going on that day. If it’s about food, you should have a snapshot, too. People love to ‘like’ food photos.”
Donnelly also advises careful timing. If you want to promote lunch, he says, post something between 10 and 11:30 in the morning, when people are logging on and starting to think about eating. For dinner, the sweet spot is 3-4:30.
Campo, in Reno, NV, created a schedule for Facebook posts to ensure its page stays fresh. “Half the key to success with Facebook is to make sure you don’t disappear from the news feed, and if you’re not posting, you’re not up there,” says owner Mark Estee. “Our team measured and understood the various items that our audience positively reacted to and built our content outreach around them.”
Estee also sets aside time to look for comments or questions and respond to them, and he blogs at least once a week and sometimes tweets.
Estee says he pooh-poohed the idea of social media a few years ago, but he’s committed to it now. “There is a lot of work to do and I have an awesome team, but the voice is mine and what I like best is having immediate results and feedback from a situation….we are recognized as being savvy, fun, responsive and engaging on social media. I feel 100 percent this translates to guests and revenue.”
4. Get customers engaged.
Engaged customers are likely to be your best guests, and there are many ways to boost engagement through social media.
One way is through listening to them, rather than sending them messages. Kevin Novellino, who owns Brooklyn Boyz in Bay City, MI, reached out to his restaurant’s 3,000-some Facebook fans when looking for ways to help his business grow and improve. Those fans said he should make a new location larger, and he followed the advice. Novellino routinely encourages guests to provide feedback about the food, atmosphere and overall experience.
“When people make comments, you have to respond,” Donnelly advises. “It’s an engagement tool. It shows you are human. That stuff really gets people motivated, and they start thinking about your restaurant first before others.”
Teresa Caro, v.p. of social marketing for a marketing agency called Engauge, says restaurants would do well to exploit any niches they have covered: long beer lists, a large cheese program, whatever. “Emphasize what is special about your restaurant so you can take advantage of that and reach out to interest-based communities,” she says.
“If you can get one of your customers to engage on your page, that will show up on their news feed and people will respond: ‘Have you tried that restaurant? I’ve wondered about it. How was it?’ It’s a great way to tap into your audience.”
Be an expert
5. Demonstrate your expertise.
Oliveto uses its Facebook and Twitter feeds to talk about food and politics and to promote lectures at the restaurant on topics such as the state of the local seas, grass-fed beef and farming. The ploy establishes the restaurant’s street cred in a community known for concerns about these kinds of issues. Co-owner Bob Klein blogs about the issues and sends e-mails to the restaurant’s list along with Facebook and Twitter links. “With every e-mail we send, we gain a good number of followers and ‘likes,’” says Catherine Meng, communications manager.
6. Pool resources for more marketing clout.
A group of about three dozen restaurants in Red Bank, NJ, decided to form a loose association, helped by social media, after an influx of newer competitors with marketing budgets opened in nearby towns four years ago. “We weren’t the only game in town any longer,” says George Lyristis, owner of Teak and Bistro in Red Bank and a third spot in a nearby community. The Red Bank Flavour Culinary Alliance member restaurants created a food and wine walk that helped generate marketing revenue; the marketing campaign is designed to promote awareness of the town’s eateries, theaters and hotels. The group uses social media to promote upcoming events, and its branded website spotlights a restaurant, food item and events and provides a restaurant directory.
7. Think beyond Groupon and LivingSocial, and create your own deals on your terms.
Facebook’s new Offers feature allows companies to feature special deals on their Events pages, which then show up on their fans’ news feeds. Posting an offer is free, but Facebook also suggests buying ads or sponsored content to draw attention to your offers.
8. Manage your reputation.
Restaurants may be more vulnerable than other businesses to online attacks because of how heavily consumers rely on sites such as Yelp to research where to eat. According to Technomic, consumers increasingly trust their friends and peers more than professional marketers to help them making buying decisions. And more than a quarter (26%) now say they use social media to choose a restaurant.
“A lot of people say they don’t want to be on social media sites because they don’t want to see people bashing their business. But whether you’re on it or not, people are bashing you anyway. You need to respond and handle it professionally,” Donnelly says. And if you do that in public, it will show other users of social media that you care enough to bother.
If you don’t have the time, and you do care, one option is to hire a company to manage your reputation for you. A typical approach is one used by Reputation Changer, which ensures that press releases, blog posts and “managed” review sites that frame your business in a good light are pushed to the first search page, often the only results seen in a web search.
“Every article about social media says you must own and monitor your online presence,” Caro says. “That’s tough, but incredibly important.” In a perfect world, a guest complains about something in a tweet and the staff recovers and fixes the issue before the meal is over, wowing the guest, who then tweets about it. “It’s an opportunity to create a deeper relationship,” she says.