Does any restaurant owner, manager or chef really want to spend precious time tweeting or yucking it up on Facebook? Zack Pelaccio, chef/owner at Fatty Crab in New York, is a recent, reluctant convert to social media. A few months ago he confessed on a panel that he avoided spending time involved with social media, partly because of the need for constant updates, but also because “people expect you to respond.” But he understands the upside as well: It's often the most effective way to reach guests and potential guests directly.
If you are not already engaged or planning to be engaged on social media, time to wake up. It's now an expected part of your marketing mix, and ignoring it means you are probably leaving money on the table.
Plus, there are a lot of cool ways you can use social media to your advantage. Here are seven.
It's one thing for you to brag about your restaurant, quite another to hear your loyal guests singing your praises. Your fans are a good place to start. Corner Bakery, with 119 units across the U.S., ran a “Three Biggest Fans” contest, inviting Facebook fans to submit short essays explaining what they like about the concept. Fellow fans voted on the top 10 essays; the top three vote getters received a $50 gift card.
Homaro Cantu's latest Chicago restaurant, iNG, posts a tiny invitation at the bottom of the menu: “Live tweeting encouraged.” What more compelling spokesperson could you want than a guest enjoying a great meal?
Havana Central, a casual Cuban concept with two units in New York, makes it easy for Facebook fans to review the restaurant on Zagat and Yelp by providing links to both sites.
Birreria, a rooftop beer garden that recently opened at Mario Batali's Eataly food complex in New York City, uses an Urbanspoon application called RezBook to help do everything from manage reservations and tables to notify diners via text message that their tables are ready and alert followers of last-minute availability.
Eataly operations director Lori Lucena uses social media to promote tables on short notice — say on a sizzling hot summer day, when people might not want to sit on a rooftop for lunch. Eataly, she says, also uses many real-time updates to let its 7,000 Twitter and 17,000 Facebook fans know what's going on.
LoSo, a location-based social media app for iPhones and Droids, presents users with real-time information on local bars and restaurants — info like happy hours, drink and dinner specials, entertainment and more. LoSo also shares check-in numbers with users to give them an idea of how lively the place is likely to be. For a monthly fee, LoSo offers restaurant operators a web dashboard for managing online promotions and social media.
Rich Rodgers, c.e.o. of LoSo, suggests that last-minute phone text messages are the perfect way to stir up traffic, especially if they offer extremely limited-time deals, such as a free drink or appetizer for checking in within two hours. Why? “Mobile messaging has about a 90 percent open rate, versus about 20 percent for e-mails,” he says. “Everyone with a mobile phone reads their text messages and there is no spam filter.” And while e-mail users change addresses often, mobile numbers are likely to follow their owners around for years.
One of the key things to remember about Facebook and Twitter is that they are not passive forms of communication. Someone needs to take ownership of them and keep the message current. At Havana Central, that person is Tanya Castaneda, the designated social media manager. Since taking over full-time last fall, her goal has been to update Facebook and Twitter feeds every day. “Every time someone tweets, I try to respond, either with an answer to a question or a comment,” Castaneda says. “If they mention our moijitos, I'll tell them about our happy hour. I always try to keep the conversation going. I think that's the biggest point of social media.”
Contests are a popular way to take advantage of the reach that social media websites offer. Claiming to have the largest selection of rums of any restaurant in the continental U.S., the 13-unit Tommy Bahama Restaurant & Bar chain recently launched a nationwide search for the first Rumologist — a bartender/mixologist spokesperson type — via a Facebook campaign. Entrants were asked to submit short videos stating their case; the top 20 were then posted and public voting will determine the winner, who will receive $50,000 and a consultant gig.
“We see social media as a really good conversation tool to have with our customers and our fan base,” says Rob Goldberg, senior v.p. of marketing and restaurants for the company. “A lot of people don't know Tommy Bahama has restaurants, so it's a way to underscore that. We have an active fan base on the web with a lot of opinions on what we do and should do.”
The variety of contests is boundless: Create your own pizza/burger/coffee drink and post photos of it; score freebies or coupons for “liking” a fan page; win a spotlight for showing a tattoo related to the business…. Technomic's Darren Tristano says contests like this are a way to encourage a sense of ownership among customers. “While social media sites were initially an open forum for businesses to promote themselves while engaging with their consumers, the sites have become a place where customers can become involved with the development of the brand,” he says.
It was bad enough when restaurant and magazine restaurant reviewers held the power to make or break a restaurant. Today, anyone with a smart phone or internet connection has the ability to slam or praise a business on blogs, Facebook and elsewhere. Restaurant owners can't make the bad reviews vanish, but there are ways to manage negative information before things spiral out of control, a distinct possibility in this viral age.
Online reputation management software is one way to tackle the job. Another is a recent American Express launch, YourBuzz (www.yourbuzz.com). This free social media tool is designed to help small businesses manage their online reputation, learn what people are saying about them and connect with customers on social media. Restaurant owners who sign up for the service can
find out what customers have to say about them on CitySearch, Yelp, Facebook and other popular websites
view an aggregation of customer reviews, ratings and online mentions
respond, retweet or create a new conversation
see how they stack up against the competition
get recommendations on actions to take
Just as you can turn a snafu into a positive when the guest is at your restaurant, you can turn criticism into a plus. “Not everyone is always going to love you,” says Conrad Saam, general manager at Urbanspoon, an online restaurant guide that aggregates reviews from across the web. The company also works with restaurants to help them manage reservations and seating online. How you handle the bad notice is key. Saam suggests the personal touch, a response along these lines: “‘Dear reviewer, we are sorry you had a bad experience,’ then offer your phone number and ask that person to call you directly. That's an amazingly strong marketing message to someone considering your restaurant.”
Groupon and other daily deals, and the companies that offer them, continue to multiply. While many small businesses have regretted their decision to sign up for these revenue-sharing discount arrangements, consumers remain hungry for more: A recent Technomic poll found that about two-thirds of daily deal users liked restaurant discounts better than any other type of offering. LivingSocial figures show that more than half of customers who buy a restaurant deal are first-time visitors; some 90 percent say they plan to return.
Groupon recently upped the ante with a new product called Groupon Now that taps into the impulsive nature of restaurant spending. The new platform allows restaurants to offer real-time deals that can be redeemed immediately instead of a day or more later. Targeted restaurant deals would pop up on a cell phone when the user enters an “I'm hungry” command.
Foursquare, Yelp Check-in and their ilk are perfect places to reach out to new guests. Havana Central ran $5 coupons for guests who checked in using these location-based applications during some slow weeks in January, and found that about 80 percent of the guests who took advantage of the promotion were first-time visitors.
Social media's power to create a public face for your restaurant can help in your hiring efforts as well. A study by CareerBuilder found that potential hospitality hires were likely to use social media to research employers and jobs. Besides job postings, they are looking mainly for fast facts about the restaurant (29 percent), evidence that working there is fun (25 percent) and information about career paths (25 percent). Among turnoffs: a restaurant's failure to reply to questions, communication that sounds like an ad, removing or filtering public comments and failure to update information regularly.
Location-based social media programs (Foursquare, Gowalla) started out as a way for friends to let their friends know where they were at the moment. That same technology can help a restaurant target guests through rewards for frequently checking in — discounts on appetizers and drinks, gift cards and so on.
Incentives to follow your restaurant are a great way to build a relationship — and loyalty. HuHot Mongolian Grill, a 38-unit regional chain, started an online scavenger hunt in June, posting clues on Facebook and Twitter. Customers who were able to locate the hidden Genghis head logo obtained a secret password for servers that would yield gift cards, coupons and jogging lights.
Those fan pages, by the way, translate into big numbers: In a 2010 survey, two-thirds of Facebook users reported that a positive referral from a Facebook friend made them more likely to buy a certain product or visit a retailer.
Whether you're new at the game or have 50,000 Twitter followers, there are a few basic rules you should make a point to follow, according to Stephanie Crane Faison, president of Restaurant PR. Her firm helps restaurants follow a do-it-yourself pathway to successful public relations.
What happens at your restaurant on the most ordinary day is more interesting than what most people experience in their work life. Be selective about what you'll post and tweet, use images to express the unique nature of the event, and as always, be brief.
Do you have favorite seasonal ingredients? Time-honored wine pairings? Recipes you cannot replace? Find out if it's the same for other people. Use Facebook to chronicle your customers' “Recipe of the Moment,” or “Favorite [seasonal] Ingredient” and you'll engage people in your restaurant and your social media. You also will learn about what they like.
Twitter is for what's happening now. Stay in the present and use Twitter to incite your audience to action. Examples: your restaurant is about to receive the first shipment of Wild Alaskan Salmon, and you tweet along the delivery, ending with a beautiful photo of the fish, and a listing of how it will be served that day. Tweet that you'll change the preparation each day, and make sure to tweet the new day's recipe early enough to promote reservations.
You know your restaurant, its philosophy, what makes it special and different in the marketplace. Make sure that all your posting and tweeting, including anything on blogs, Flickr or Youtube, stays in line and on message with the ethos of your operation. Everything you do should support the premise of your restaurant, including and especially social media work.
Nobody wants to follow a whiner. Why say something negative about a business, a person or an event, when you can go to the opposite extreme and point out the positive? People want to be associated with winners, and winners don't whine. Keep your posts and tweets upbeat and your followers will stay engaged.
Don't say you know people, or that you're part of an event, or that you have the exclusive on something, if you're not or you don't. When you make claims, check all facts before your post. You don't want to be discovered as someone who stretches the truth because you'll lose the trust factor, which you can never regain. And that goes for the terrestrial world, too. Everything you do needs to be done with integrity. People need to know they can rely on your word and then they will follow you everywhere.