Twitter is a communication platform that enables its users to send and read text-based messages of up to 140 characters, known as tweets. It now has more than 500 million users worldwide. You can use it to quickly share information with people interested in your restaurant, gather real-time feedback and build relationships with customers. When you combine messages that are quick to write, easy to read, public, controlled by the recipient and exchangeable anywhere, you’ve got a powerful way to communicate with your customers.
To listen in on the conversations happening right now, search Twitter for the name of your restaurant. If you have a Twitter account already, your home page has a handy search box on the right side. You can also go to https://twitter.com/#!/search-home. And you can click here for a quick intro to Twitter Lingo.
Updates in real time are probably the most important new tool in the hospitality industry. For instance, restaurants like New York City’s Babbo have a long wait for reservations, but there are also cancellations. We've recently started a program that features a regular tweet every day at 3:00 that gives followers first crack at that night's late openings. It has become hugely popular. Being able to reach thousands of fans at 3:00, 5:00 or even 8:00 p.m. to tell them that there is an available reservation for four at 10:00 will accomplish something else. First, obviously, it fills a vacant table in that time slot. What it also does, though, is much more subtle and actually more important in the brave new world of social media marketing. It establishes an immediate dialogue between the restaurant and its patrons, encouraging brand loyalty and identification. It can also bridge the perceptual gap that can make many restaurants seem out of reach for regular diners. Upscale should never equal inaccessible.
Don’t forget photos! The importance of visuals in deploying social media tools cannot be overstated. Descriptions of ingredients and preparations are important, but nothing compares to an actual photo of a skillfully executed dish. Keep a camera handy to the kitchen and, when possible, assign a specific staff member the responsibility of taking pictures of specials, menu additions and desserts. This can also include wine additions or special cocktails. A relatively simple digital camera (Canon Sureshot is a good example) will possess an automatic macro feature that is idea for photographing food. It is even better if you can schedule it for the same time every week so it becomes a part of a regular work routine.
Other potential sources for tweets are short updates on menu items, your wine program, special cocktails and events. Never simply use the platform for the repetitive trumpeting of your menu. Remember, Twitter, like Facebook, is a very competitive arena. You want to make sure that you also provide information of value to your followers. Links to articles about your purveyors, recipes from your chef or information about vineyards are just a few examples of interesting content that will not only engage your audience, but also encourage them to re-tweet your posts to their friends.
Part of the Twitter experience is developing your relationship with your patrons, which is not only valuable now, but may be even more important in the future as these platforms evolve. Always encourage dialogue—ask questions whenever appropriate and answer replies and direct messages. And, of course, any instant messages promoting immediate calls to action should always include a link to the Facebook page and the phone number of the restaurant.
Other tools. A very effective way to simply reference tweets on similar subjects, as well as index your own so they can be easily found, is the use of hashtags. You can find out all about them here.
Understand the rules of engagement. Not all of the feedback you get on Twitter is going to be positive. People will have complaints, both real and imagined, and they will be only too happy to share them with the world. Monitoring tweets that reference your restaurant will keep you informed as to what people are saying about you. While it’s good manners to thank someone for a complimentary post, you really don’t want to get into a long public discussion about what may or may not be a legitimate complaint about their experience at your restaurant. You also don’t want to just ignore them. I have found that the best policy is to answer their post with a simple “We’re sorry you didn’t enjoy your visit with us. Please contact us at this email address—we will be in contact within the next 24 hours so we can address the issue directly.” And then make sure to follow through.
Finally, the list of third-party Twitter apps can be somewhat exhaustive, but the one we’ve found to be most effective in managing multiple accounts is Hoot Suite. It supplies a number of metrics to track the effectiveness of your tweets and it also supplies handy tools for URL shortening, picture upload and document attachment.
Twitter has evolved into an essential tool for communicating with your customers in real time. It is an informal means of communication that may seem less than serious at times, yet it has also helped inspire revolutions. But, besides everything else, it is increasingly, inevitably, becoming the voice of your restaurant.
John Moore is a founder of SocialMediaRestaurant.com. His clients include Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and other prominent restaurant operators. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.