Social media runs through nearly every restaurant industry engagement strategy these days. Yet many people agree that fancy new tactics need to be married to old-fashioned service and hospitality to have a lasting impact. Whether chefs or operators are connecting to consumers in a TV commercial, Facebook post or a table visit, they need to be talking about their guests more than themselves and listening more than speaking, experts said.
According to their peers, the restaurant brands most successful at drawing in customers talk more about the experience they provide than the food they serve and strive to connote value instead of discussing price. With so many choices for communicating, what matters is what a restaurant has to say, not how it says it.
Consumers still tune in to effective television advertising, and one great ad can carry a campaign even if other commercials fall flat, said Dr. JuYoung Lee, chief scientist at marketing research firm Ace Metrix. “Nobody has a monopoly on great advertising,” she said, citing as an example Starbucks, which had the highest-rated ad year-to-date in the firm’s Ace Score tracking system, but whose commercials for its Via product were “duds.”
Domino’s Pizza had the most spots in this year’s top 20 as measured by Ace Metrix, with documentary-style ads about the development of its new pizza landing at Nos. 2, 3 and 7. Authenticity was a big theme in restaurant advertising this year, seen in Starbucks’ top ad for its “Big Picture” campaign for the environment, Taco Bell’s public-service announcement for the teen dropout crisis, and Outback Steakhouse’s commercial about supporting American soldiers.
Top-scoring ads had higher marks than the average commercial for product desirability, relevance and being informative.
“These ads are telling consumers something they don’t know, as opposed to just using some humor or the same-old-same-old, where the food looks good but there’s nothing real about it,” Lee said.
Get to know me
Operators need to understand their patrons’ desires before reaching out to them.
It “doesn’t bode well for a restaurant to use social media as a pure marketing tool,” said Paul Barron, founder and chief executive of DigitalCoCo. “Think of it as if you were at an event. You wouldn’t talk about yourself first and then hand out a coupon.”
Restaurants should find out what appeals to their guests and provide content via Twitter, Facebook or YouTube that matches those interests, Barron said. He advises brands to elect a social-media expert in-house or partner with an outside firm to manage interaction with fans.
Social-media exchanges could include an eco-friendly bistro sharing a link to recycling tips or a pizzeria owner polling her dog-loving clientele about their city’s best dog parks.
“Enrich their lives outside just the food and experience,” Barron said. “That’s when the restaurant becomes second nature to the consumer.”
Barron’s firm has worked with Beautiful Brands International and Genghis Grill, and he admires the digital outreach of Firehouse Subs.
Firehouse, a chain begun by former firefighters and a supporter of emergency responder charities, has “a great story to tell,” and more than 109,000 Facebook fans, he added.
Make me part of a club
Some foodservice stories get passed around long enough to attain legendary status, like In-N-Out Burger’s secret menu — “secret,” albeit listed on the chain’s website. Barron said social media has helped the initiated restaurant fans spread the word not only of little-known offerings but also the whereabouts of the newest food truck.
But the Web isn’t the only way to build word-of-mouth about under-the-radar dining experiences. While Valerie Bolon is learning the ins and outs of Twitter and Facebook to promote her Culinary Speakeasy dinners, which pop up in different Chicago venues several times a month, she also puts effort into old-fashioned, face-to-face networking.
“My marketing has all been through the Internet and that game of telephone — where I tell people to tell people about Culinary Speakeasy,” said Bolon, a former “Top Chef” contestant.
To strengthen the reach of her message, Bolon collaborates with other industry players like Death’s Door Spirits, with which she hosts a brunch event.
Ask my opinion
A restaurant’s customers also make for great collaborators. At least 70 percent of the menu offered by the Streetza food truck in Milwaukee came from suggestions put forth by the mobile pizzeria’s Twitter followers, said owner Scott Baitinger.
“We’ll create a guest’s idea, produce it and give it to them for free. Sometimes the concoctions are horrible, but they facilitate far more conversations than if they’d been delicious,” said Baitinger, who co-wrote “#Twitterworks,” a restaurant industry social-media manual.
He estimated that 75 percent to 80 percent of customers opt for such specialty slices.
4food, a small restaurant in midtown Manhattan, asks customers to experiment with different burger combinations, then puts those custom sandwiches on the menu. Whenever a specialty burger is ordered, its creator gets 25 cents in store credit.
Papa John’s Pizza also recently rewarded guests who competed to develop the chains’ newest items. Papa John’s will award up to $10,000 in sales royalties and free pizza for life to Barbara Hyman, whose Cheesy Chicken Cordon Bleu Pizza won the chain’s Specialty Pizza Challenge.
Give me something
Baitinger’s experience with Streetza and social media also has taught him that, in order to receive what they want from customers — be it a sale, feedback or loyalty — restaurants need to give, and that makes sampling an effective way to engage people.
“Initially, when we launched, we did guerilla sampling, parking in random places and handing slices out,” Baitinger said. “We were determining foot traffic patterns and where our best field opportunities were, and sampling ... was a great barometer.”
Sampling also can spread easily into other pillars of a restaurant’s marketing strategy, he said. The more slices Streetza handed out, the more buzz it generated in word-of-mouth and among its social-media fans. Sampling soon became part of Streetza’s cause marketing platform, helping raise funds for a local radio station and chapter of the Humane Society, weaving the truck into the community.
Giveaways also benefit chains. For example, Dairy Queen handed out free Mini Blizzards in 25 cities for its Blizzard Mobile tour, driving content for its commercials and Facebook page. Chick-fil-A sparks attendance at grand openings with free food giveaways.
Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].