By Ellen Hartman
If you are at a loss when it comes to how best to engage in social media, it’s time you stick your toe in the water. Social media has become a vital and powerful tool for savvy restaurateurs in the battle for consumer awareness in this highly competitive marketplace. Effective communication efforts demand that operators embrace social media no matter how intimidating it might seem at first.
An unrelenting, constant emergence of new tactics, social media platforms and industry-specific websites has made it difficult to settle on a plan of attack. A limited amount of strategy and resources further complicates the process for many foodservice operators.
“The growing popularity of platforms like Zagat and Yelp demonstrate the importance of maintaining a vibrant social and digital presence,” says Jeanie Hornung, founder of Monkeybread, a social media firm. “Facebook’s recent Graph Search announcement means that those restaurants that have been actively building and engaging their communities on Facebook will have a leg up once this new feature launches. Social media is now imperative if you want your brand to remain relevant.”
Maintaining an effective and engaging social media presence can be overwhelming, but with 89 percent of consumers using the Internet to research restaurants (AIS Media), opting out is no longer viable. But take heart, even the most socially media confident and knowledgeable operators had to start somewhere.
An integrated marketing strategy that includes social media can make the difference between being a marginally successful restaurant and a runaway success. Increased revenue, strengthening existing relationships and attracting new customers are all byproducts of an integrated, strategic social media plan with legs.
One case in point is Georgia restaurateur Steven Chan, who is the founder and chief executive of Tin Drum Asiacafe. Chan, who has embraced the digital age in a big way, uses social media effectively and is making beautiful music at the same time. Through his collaboration with TwinBear, a social marketing agency, Chan uses Tin Drum’s website to allow followers to download music from local artists. The move is generating genuine buzz not only for the featured artists but for the restaurants as well.
“Social media is allowing Tin Drum to help launch the careers of local musicians, and that is a very exciting proposition,” says Chan. “The feedback we’ve received has been tremendous.”
To best leverage social media marketing opportunities, try following these eight steps:
1. Build a turnkey website that enables quick and easy updates, such as newly innovated menu offerings and event announcements. For larger companies or franchised operations, consider a content management system, which allows individuals to make website updates without much (if any) web development knowledge. Make your website social. Use reliable plugins that allow visitors to view your Facebook and Twitter streams and LIKE or follow you directly from your website. You should also display links to your social media profiles on your website’s homepage – cross-linking between your sites and sources will maximize your web presence and create synergy between different forms of digital media.
2. Choose quality over quantity – maintaining a concentrated, strategic presence on a few social channels is far more effective than spreading yourself too thin over multiple platforms without proper time or strategic investment. Select the channels in which your target market is engaged but also those that you feel comfortable with. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Foursquare and YouTube are the most popular social media platforms for restaurant operations, while Yelp, Urbanspoon and Zagat are three restaurant review sites that have likewise developed a strong following. Additionally, there are many other popular (and useful) social media sites, but the ones mentioned above are best for getting started.
3. Food is social! Posting pictures of menu items, providing recipes, showing videos of your chefs in action – that’s rich and shareable content. Use social platforms to inform and educate your customers about daily specials, wine pairings, seasonal ingredients and menu items. If you are interesting and engaging, your customers and fans will spread the content for you.
4. Monitor your presence daily. Responding to feedback with two to three personal and well-written sentences will illustrate your commitment to not only satisfying, but also surpassing customer expectations. Be conversational, and by all means, don’t do the hard sell. You should be warned, however, that thanking your fans and responding to your critics can take considerable time, resources and patience. To that end, many restaurant operators find they need to hire at least a part-time social media manager.
5. Use promotion and Facebook ads to drive fan acquisition. There are several DIY platforms like Shortstack or NorthSocial that allow you to build out promotional tabs that can be “fan-gated.” Facebook users must LIKE the page before they can access the offer or contest. This can be easily accomplished through a Facebook post or tweet. Facebook ads allow marketers to target down to zip codes. This makes advertising on Facebook very cost effective. This will generate engagement and, if done correctly, create considerable, bottom-line changing buzz. Celebrating milestones like anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, grand openings – and promoting such happenings on your website and social media profiles – will also enable you to connect with and entice your customers through fun, spirited messaging.
6. Pique customer interest with deals and special offers – according to a recent study by The NPD Group, coupons, deals and specials account for almost one-third of the decisions of where to eat. In actuality, a simple 2-for-1 Facebook post or printable coupon on your website might be the most effective influencer of all. With Facebook Offers, you can create a coupon or discount; post it for your fans that can then share with their fans. You are also able to control the amount of coupons or offers distributed.
7. Use consistent messaging across all channels – staying active in every channel or platform for which you engage is definitely important, but so is creating cohesive, consistent communication. For example, if your Facebook posts are fun and friendly in tone, make sure your Tweets and website content are of the same variety (and speak to the same offers, events and topics).
8. There’s an APP for that. As smartphone use increases, operators are using new technologies to provide speed, convenience and a boost to revenue. According to Noah Glass, CEO of OLO, launching a mobile payment application for their restaurant may be the No. 1 “must do” in 2013. “Mobile ordering has grown exponentially in the past year. Last year, orders through mobile phones was 10 percent of the total order volume for our partner restaurants,” says Glass. “Now, for hundreds of the restaurants we work with, it’s more than 50 percent of the order volume. It’s about finding your customers where they are – and customers are increasingly on their smartphones.”
So what’s your best bet? Hire a digital/social media expert, consider your target market and then develop a comprehensive strategy that aligns closely with the goals of your restaurant operations and the image of your brand. Implementing a strategic and consistent online marketing program can freshen your brand image and simultaneously trounce your digitally clueless competitors.
Ellen Hartman is president and CEO of Hartman Public Relations, LLC, a full- service public relations agency specializing in the foodservice industry. Hartman and her team have experience working for full service brands such as Chili’s, Huddle House and Olive Garden, fast casual brands such as Cosi, and many QSR brands including Popeyes, Church’s, and Arby’s. An industry leader for more than 20 years, Hartman is a frequent speaker at industry events, is active in the Women’s Foodservice Forum and Les Dames d’Escoffier International and has served on the board of the Multi-Cultural Foodservice Hospitality Alliance.