When it comes to friends — or "likes," followers and check-ins, for that matter quality is much more important than quantity, panelists said in a social media session at the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show.
Whether restaurants reach out to customers through social media's "big three" of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube or with growing location-based services like Foursquare, they must be ready to keep the conversation going when those guests answer back, speakers during the "Making Friends, Building Followers and Turning Fans into Ambassadors Through Social Media" panel.
"We want to get people who care," said Ken Langdon, partner in Langdon Flynn Communications, a firm that consults independent restaurateurs and chefs in optimizing their digital marketing. "We want a conversation to happen, and we want the customers of those brands to really feel like they're part of it."
In the case of Wow Bao, a three-unit Asian-dumpling concept in Chicago owned by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, responsiveness salvaged a conversation on Twitter with a guest who started out as a harsh critic and eventually was won over as a brand ambassador, said Geoff Alexander, the brand's managing partner.
He walked the audience through the timeline of Wow Bao's response to a customer named Tony Bosco, who first asked his Twitter followers if Wow Bao "was going to suck as much as the reviews suggest." Alexander and his team contacted Bosco immediately to ask which review he referenced, offered him a mobile coupon to try a free entrée, and followed up days later to ask how it all went.
The customer had a very positive experience, and within a few months, he was posting positive tweets about Wow Bao's products and sharing a picture of him eating the dumplings at a Chicago White Sox game. Wow Bao gained further notoriety when an Associated Press reporter picked up on the story and spread the news of the chain's social-media strategy nationwide.
"Twitter is about trust," Alexander said. "If you feel like you're getting real information [as a customer], and you feel like there's a person on the other side of the conversation, you want to engage that brand and look forward to hearing from them."
He ended his case study by pointing out that Wow Bao was named to DigitalCoCo's "Most Influential Restaurants on Twitter" rankings despite having far fewer followers than the nearly 1.5 million people getting updates from No. 1 Starbucks.
"We have 2,500 followers, and 3,200 on Facebook and about 1,800 in our text message club — we are not the biggest," he said. "It's not about being the biggest, it's about being the best, and taking the time to do it."
Langdon, Alexander and panelist Seth Gardenswartz, vice president and general counsel for CoverBoom, shared several practical tips for beginning or refining restaurants' social media strategy:
Alexander said Twitter is Wow Bao's primary venue for communicating directly with customers, who tend to ignore brands that use the platform only to self-promote and talk about specials, limited-time offers and deals.
"If you're just going to be billboard after billboard, people are going to stop reading your tweets, so we use Facebook as that billboard," Alexander said. "We drive traffic to Facebook from our Twitter feed, but that [platform] is about having conversations."
He thinks of Twitter as a "cocktail party," where the chain can jump in on different conversations, even when it wasn't originally invited. If Wow Bao sees a Twitter user saying it's her birthday, the brand sends a quick "happy birthday" tweet. Every time the brand gets a new follower, it thanks that person as quickly as possible.
Twitter limits every tweet to 140 characters, but Alexander suggests that brands try to be even more succinct, making posts 100 characters or fewer. That leaves room for followers and other people to "retweet" the post and add their own comments, which their network of followers can then see and perhaps learn more about Wow Bao.
Langdon advises clients to promote news about their restaurants, such as new menu items, on their Facebook pages, but he suggests also mixing in some non-restaurant content so viewers aren't bombarded by self-promotion.
"To create an engaging page, you want at least half of it to be selfless content, and half of it to be promotions," Langdon said. "We'll go out and find things that match the brand's positioning and that match the customers' interests."
For instance, chefs of seafood-focused restaurants could link to online content about sustainable fishing, he said.
Gardenswartz said YouTube gives restaurants a chance to share cooking demonstrations or an inside look at the back-of-the-house for guests who have become more interested in the creative side of food from its exposure in popular mass media.
"Social media gives you your own Food Network," he said. "People love to watch shows where chefs have to make a soufflé under time pressure, so seeing the inside of the kitchen adds authenticity and makes people feel like they're on the inside. They love to share that kind of great content."
Gardenswartz pointed out that most Twitter accounts are abandoned relatively quickly. However, brands that keep their efforts on that platform going can cultivate a loyal fan base, as long as chains are interacting rather than endlessly broadcasting offers.
If a brand's Twitter page contains only news about deals, other users will follow the restaurant once to redeem an offer and then ignore that brand from then on, he said.
Source: Mark Brandau for National Restaurant News