5 Ways to Effectively Engage in Social Media

Okay, you’ve signed up for Facebook and Twitter. Now what?

Here’s a primer for operators on the fence about entering the social-media stratosphere, or for those who have created accounts, but are not actively engaged. We tapped local talent in our own backyard, Chicago, and they shared with us strategies they recommend to their clients. One thing they both reiterated is that we’re all in this together—these are the pioneering days in social media, and collectively we’re finding our way as technologies continue to evolve. But there are those (like the folks we talked to) who seem to understand not just those technologies, but the cultural norms within this brave, new world.

First, a quick survey of why you should pay attention to the flourishing social media landscape:

  • According to The Nielsen Company, Americans have almost tripled the amount of time they spend at social-media networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. In August 2008, 6% of time spent online was on social-networking sites. In August 2009, that number was up to a staggering 17%.
  • Consider that it took radio 38 years to reach 50 million users, TV 13 years and the Internet four. Facebook added 100 million users in less than nine months.¹
  • According to TGDaily.com, YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world.
  • Seventy percent of consumers trust opinions posted online.²
  • According to Facebook, it has more than 300 million active users worldwide, with 50% logging in on any given day.

The key is viewing social media through a different prism. The ultimate goal remains to increase business, but the tactics are radically different than other marketing platforms. It’s not one-way messaging, like traditional advertising. Social media is a conversation. The challenge is in crafting the right one that will create excitement about your operation and ultimately fill seats on a Tuesday night.

1. Understand and embrace that people find chefs interesting.

“I hear from chefs who don’t want to use Twitter or Facebook that they don’t think they have anything interesting to say,” says Ellen Malloy, president of Restaurant Intelligence Agency, a Chicago-based online media center promoting its restaurant clients through new and traditional media. “That’s just not true. Chefs are very interesting. People want a behind-the scenes look into their favorite restaurants. Chefs can provide that.” By tweeting (Twitter) or updating (Facebook) about specials, recipe development, ingredients, special events, promotions or simple musings on the life of a chef, operators can keep their restaurants top-of-mind. “People follow chefs [on Twitter] or become Facebook fans of their restaurants because they’re celebrities,” says Benji Greenberg, president of Chicago-based BCV, a social-media strategy and management company. “Chefs can engage by telling people what they’re doing. Folks want to be part of the club, and social media lets them in.”

2. Offer rich content.

Whether on Facebook or Twitter, make your content as three-dimensional as possible. “Twitter is only 140 characters, but if it’s all text, chances are it’s going to be ignored,” says Greenberg. “Share pictures of your food, pictures of your new spring menu. Include links to articles that interest you.” Adding rich content stimulates a conversation between you and your customers, and that intimacy can create loyalty.

3. Engage your customers.

“Your message will become white noise unless you harness social media correctly,” says Greenberg. “Your customers are on Facebook to participate in a conversation, so engage them.” One of his clients used their Bloody Mary carts as a way to involve customers in the restaurant’s process. “We took a photo of the cart, with all of the typical and not so typical things that go with Bloody Marys. We then asked the Facebook fans their favorite thing about it,” says Greenberg. “Once folks are invested, they tend to come back. These kind of things humanize businesses.”

“Twitter isn’t about tweeting cool,” says Malloy. “It’s about harnessing technology to build a customer base. Restaurant operators need to understand that investment in that kind of strategy is key.” She stresses that social media isn’t just about promotion. “It’s a vehicle for conversation and engagement,” she says. “Your online life is your business strategy. Some of your promotions may not be interesting to journalists, but they are to your customers.”

Greenberg and Malloy believe in the effectiveness of crowdsourcing, a strategy that engages consumers in a decision process usually limited to employees. Greenberg is working up a strategy where patrons of a particular restaurant can vote on which chairs it should buy. “We take three chairs we are choosing between and post them into a poll with photos on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, the restaurant’s own website, and then allow the individuals to vote,” he says. “The point really isn’t what chair is chosen, but that this restaurant cares enough to let me be a part of the decision. It might only be 100 people who are paying attention to this restaurant and this poll, but those 100 people feel involved, and they now care more about that particular restaurant than the next.”

4. Make your social-media strategy a priority.

Whether operators handle the social-media strategy themselves, assign it to someone in-house or outsource it, engagement needs to be savvy and dynamic. “Build a good Facebook page. Make your Twitter feed interesting and relevant to your customers,” says Greenberg. “Twitter is about getting butts in the seats,” says Malloy. “Understand the technology out there that help do that.”

5. Understanding location-based services

“Foursquare tags every tweet with the location of where you are,” says Greenberg. (Much like geo-tagging on all mobile devices.) “It’s a free service, but one that needs to be understood to leverage it properly.” Say two friends are tweeting each other about dining options, and they’re within a five-mile radius. If a chef or operator uses location-based services, they can jump into the conversation and suggest their restaurant as a destination. “It’s a public feed, so we’re not butting in on a conversation. We’re participating in it,” says Greenberg.