Features

SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES

November 28, 2010

Restaurants’ New Frontier
By Rayna Katz

At this time of stretched budgets and profitability struggles, thoughts about spending money on marketing efforts can make restaurant owners queasy.

But social media outlets provide creative owners with a free and wide open field of opportunity to engage customers and generate significant buzz about their eateries, according to panelists at the “Everybody’s on LinkedIn and Facebook, Now What?” at the International Hotel/Motel + Restaurant Show on Nov. 14 (www.ihmrs.com).

“It’s a great opportunity to show your culture, and your attitude,” said panelist Arlene Spiegel, founder and president, Arlene Spiegel & Associates, a restaurant consulting firm (www.arlenespiegel.com). She cited two current clients as examples of this: New York City’s Hill Country, a barbeque spot, and Heartland Brewery, known for its beers. Hill Country (www.hillcountryny.com) uses lingo on its Facebook page that’s in keeping with the in-person experience and menus, while Heartland (www.heartlandbrewery.com) invites customers using social media to name the newest beers; winners get announced on Twitter.

Spiegel also is a fan of group-based social buying sites, such as Groupon.com. Companies post specials on the site and if enough people sign up for an offer, everyone gets the deal. If there aren’t enough people, no one gets it. Groupon collects payment and passes it on, minus their fee, to the business.

Stephanie Crane Faison, president and CEO, Restaurant PR (www.restaurantpr.com), believes Twitter is the site with the greatest potential. “Twitter is next, because it’s all about now,” she said. The site also offers the chance to post photos with a Twit Pic account. “This is very powerful in terms of solidifying expertise and establishing credibility, and it helps expand [a food establishment’s] universe of followers more than anything else. On one occasion, an owner of DeBragga (www.debragga.com), one of the last remaining butchers still located in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, was visiting a few farmers in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He tweeted [the term for a Twitter post] photos using Twitpic, with messages in the subject line, and we picked up many more followers because many existing followers re-tweeted. It was a lot of fun, and very effective,” she said.

Faison also likes #hashable, a site now in beta-testing that looks to be “the intersection of LinkedIn and Twitter. The postings are very brief, and the purpose is to bring business people together. The ultimate goal of any introduction or connection made is to physically meet (users post @coffee, @lunch to indicate that a meeting is taking place). This has very powerful implications for foodservice.”

Finally she recommended that restaurateurs reach out to, and follow, bloggers. Pay attention to what writers are being read and be sure to invite them in, alert them to news, etc. Such efforts build relationships, get a restaurant press, and will likely generate business.

Los Angeles-based blogger Caroline Helper attested to this. She noted that when a local blogger posted this summer that area pop-up restaurant Ludo Bites had chosen its latest location and was taking reservations, 3,000 requests were made within 15 minutes, causing a crash of the OpenTable reservation system. Similarly, an area lunch truck serving unique tacos – which are wildly popular despite the ubiquity of tacos in the City of Angels – reached out to bloggers to announce its latest location and people drove across town.

“Bloggers are great for restaurateurs because they’re young and reach a trend-setting audience,” said Helper. “They’re the ones who’ll crash a reservation system or drive across town for a taco and then post a great review.”

Of course, managing all of this can be overwhelming. Several panelists recommended signing onto what’s called a dashboard service, where one can manage their entire social media presence from one site. They are partial to one called hootsuite, but there are many similar options on the Web.

As for the commitment of time — something in short supply for owners and operators — restaurateurs must again think creatively here, said Shelley Clark, president, Platform Communications. “They might be able to get some part-time help from students. Or several restaurants could band together to hire a person to represent each of them online.”

The important thing is to use social media correctly, she noted. “If all a restaurant is doing with Facebook and the like is letting fans know about promotions and special events that are available to anyone, eventually those fans get turned off because it’s all self-promotional.

“We tell restaurants to engage fans, which they can do by offering special deals exclusively for online followers, asking their opinions and acting on that, and posting links to sites and articles of interest.”

Remember, she cautioned owners, “It’s not all about you.”

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