Social media has grown into an increasingly important tool for restaurants, experts said Wednesday during a Nation’s Restaurant News webinar, making the strategies behind those efforts a key driver of brand success.
The webinar, “The State of Social Media: Where It All Clicks for Restaurant Operators,” included panelists Paul Barron, founder of DigitalCoCo; Tonia Ries, founder of Modern Media; B.J. Emerson, vice president of technology at Tasti D-Lite; and Andrew Bates of EyeTraffic Media. The panel was moderated by Sarah Lockyer, director of digital content for the Penton Restaurant Group, which publishes Nation’s Restaurant News and sister publications Restaurant Hospitality and Food Management. EyeTraffic is also a division of Penton Media.
The panel, which covered the latest data on social media activities in the restaurant industry, returns often noted from social media campaigns, best practices surrounding mobile offerings and how best to engage restaurant customers, offered best practices from both inside and outside of foodservice.
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“One of the reasons social media is so powerful, and so successful, and has been embraced by so many, so quickly, is because it gives people the ability to connect with each other in a way that’s very human and very personal,” Ries said. “And it removes a layer of formality that was inherent in previous ways of communicating.”
Restaurants, in turn, have put resources behind social media. Barron said restaurants and their suppliers have increased social-media budgets more than 300 percent in the past 18 months.
But at the heart, Reis said, lies the “social” part of social media.
“The type of messages that people tend to respond to the most – and to engage with the most – are the ones that have a human or personal quality to them,” she said. “So how you do that within the context of your brand is going to vary a great deal from brand to brand. But it is a wonderful opportunity to do some really hard thinking about what are the qualities of your brand that people truly love and how can you then express those qualities in ways that people can relate to.”
Social-media platforms can also serve a role in research, Ries added. “These days, you have a great built-in focus group with millions of people on Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook and who are talking about you,” she said.
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Local vs. centralized social media
Webinar attendees brought up for discussion a hot topic facing many multi-unit retail and restaurant brands — whether to centralize or localize social media strategies.
Emerson said Tasti D- Lite offers multiple Facebook pages for local locations.
“Many times, the first marketing effort in a new area is a Facebook presence for that particular locale,” he explained. “We empower our franchisees with training and show them how to manage these things … to help them understand the opportunity to engage their customers.
“We push that activity down to the local level, because that’s where the activity is happening,” he said.
Regardless of whether a brand’s social media strategy is pushed to franchisees or local units or kept centralized, Barron advised all companies to make certain “there is enough infrastructure in whatever system you have to be able to put your brand out there on the front end.”
Should companies control employees’ use of social media?
Another hot topic among the webinar attendees, Ries noted that there is not a simple answer to the question of control. Some profession sports teams have encountered problems with managing players Twitter streams and what they talk about in social media, she noted, and other industries are struggling to find best practices as well.
“My personal philosophy is that if you are a larger company, you need to treat your employees the same way your treat your customers,” she said.
She suggested the same strategies used with consumers: listening before speaking, being tuned in when they express concerns and addressing them in a constructive way.
Social media guidelines provided ahead of time for employees is important, she added.
“You’re not going to be able to shut people down,” Ries said. “Information is like water these days. It will get out.”
What platforms are on the horizon?
Besides the growing Google+, Barron offered six social-media platforms that restaurant operators should keep an eye on: EmpireAvenue, Foodspotting, Gowalla, Hashable, Namesake and Quora.
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What to do with social media feedback?
Ries cited successful restaurant-based social media case studies, such as Domino’s Pizza broadcasting customers’ Tweets on a Times Square billboard in New York City (80 percent of the comments were positive), McDonald’s providing a centralized location for customers’ TwitPic photographs and Hardee’s working to locate and Tweet out the status of employees in the wake of May’s devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo.
How to use social media in market positioning?
Andrew Bates, director of social media for EyeTraffic Media, said client Waffle House uses data from social media monitoring to tailor menu specials and better position itself among other breakfast-style operators.
Lockyer asked the panelists to name two tools they recommend restaurateurs watch to stay current in social media.
1) Video. “Integrate it into your entire brand landscape that you’ve got,” he said, such as YouTube channels or interactive videos. “Make it a story-telling process.”
2) The web-based application. Whether its iPad-, Android- or iPhone-friendly, mobile applications are how consumers are using social media, Barron said.
1) Open a Flickr account. “It’s a great place to post photos of the scene at your restaurants and the food, of course,” she said. “It also has a great impact on search. It allows the photos you share via Flickr to be used in other ways as well as on blogs and social-media accounts.”
2) Go mobile. “One of the most basic things that people overlook about mobile is that by 2015 half of Americans will be accessing the Internet — in other words, your website — via their smart phone,” she said.
“If you are a restaurant that has a very extensive Flash-based, heavy-download, fancy mood-setting website, you may want to rethink your strategy,” Ries noted, “and see if you can create a version of your website that is more mobile-friendly or just create a website that works very well on a smaller screen and with a smaller download time.”