Last night in a Twitter chat (#smcnhchat), several people mentioned a lack of restaurants adopting various online platforms in the area. That inspired this post.
Restaurant owners know something much of the general public doesn’t: being in that business means you lose huge chunks of your time. It is truly a life choice, much more than a career. For this reason above all others, restaurants have a hard time adopting social media effectively. What little time they have that isn’t already bound up in the day to day of running a restaurant (one of the hardest jobs out there, folks), social media can eat alive.
You see, something interesting happens when a restaurant gets into social media. The customers who find it there want to own their presence and direct how it is used on an individual level. In any other industry this isn’t a big deal – you have more time, more brain space and more energy to be flexible with how the customers and potential customers want to interact with your social presences. In a restaurant it can be a huge headache.
Let’s take Twitter as a simple example (it’s one of the hardest platforms for a restaurant to be on, even though it is technically easy to use). There is a high drop rate for restaurants on Twitter. They simply get overwhelmed. Customers see a restaurant on Twitter and want to interact with it in so many different ways: as a customer service channel, a review channel, a reservation channel, a suggestion channel, a conversation channel, a recipe exchange, a recommendation engine, and more.
People in general don’t always take time for reading fine print, so even if a restaurant follows advice and makes it clear in their bio what kind of interaction to expect from them, and how often, and from who – you still have people who ignore that. And trying to deal with it in a way that promotes great customer service can totally eat your time. So unless a restaurant has a huge staff and can divide the workload, or is part of a hotel or other established organization and being rolled into a larger social media plan – Twitter is not always the place for them.
If a restaurant uses Facebook, it’s a little easier. It’s more controlled, and a bit easier to manage – but you still get people who make the type of interactions you have there into what they need to them be. This is not always what the restaurant wants them to be! Add in Open Table (which integrates with Facebook and other platforms) and other new tools and you need to have a fully trained staff to monitor this combination of very cool services. You also have to take into account the time it takes to keep up with these interactions – one person is simply not going to be able to do it alone.
Another issue is season and consistency. A local restaurant owner may have plenty of time to start listing daily specials on Facebook and Twitter or on a blog or in an email blast in the slow season, but when tourist seasons ramp up, these programs – which customers come to expect – often fall by the wayside, forgotten. This has a negative impact on the engagement you started online – it’s important to only start what you plan to maintain.
Restaurants who blog are very popular – people love hearing what makes the chef or restaurant owner tick, getting recipes, and hearing future plans and events first hand. The blog comes with several more layers of things to keep up with: comments, trolls, sploggers, and more. Toss in the fact that FriendFeed, Google Buzz, Delicious, Google Reader, Facebook sharing, Facebook Liking and more can toss your content anywhere on the web, where entire conversations could be happening around it that it would be beneficial to find and monitor, as well as participate in on occasion… well, you can see where the average restaurant owner would be completely intimidated to be online.
If you are reading this as a restaurant owner, are now freaking out but still want to be online, and can’t hire someone like me to help you, here are a few tips to get you started:
1) You need at least three people to manage your social media engagement. More would be helpful, but one is definitely not enough. They all need to follow at least basic guidelines you set out for social engagement – this will prevent someone from promising something you can’t deliver in a fit of being helpful, legal issues, etc.
2) Choose only two platforms to start yourself off, and add a third in a few months once you get the hang of it. There is nothing wrong with starting slow. I recommend Facebook Fan Pages as one of these platforms. It’s a little easier to set up and manage than others. The second depends on you: YouTube or Viddler if you want quick video blogging are nice, Twitter is easy (but can be time consuming – be careful), and there are hundreds more. Nose around and find one you like.
3) Learn to brand your business. You need a person’s face as your little avatar (picture) on Twitter and Facebook and other places, and then your logo, etc should be on the page background or in the sidebar. That way people feel like they are talking to a person when you engage, but it’s easy to see it’s a business, too.
4) Find tools to manage your time. I recommend Seesmic Desktop or CoTweet for managing business Twitter accounts, Tweetie or Tweetdeck on iPhones, PocketTwit on Windows Mobile Phone, Uber Twitter on Blackberry, Seesmic on Droids. Many of these tools also let you update Facebook, and many phones have a Facebook app as well. Do some searching on Google and on Twitter and see what other restaurant owners use and like. There are hundreds to choose from.
5) Be strict about your interaction routine. Make it clear in every bio who is managing the account, what their cotags are (they need to sign every status update everywhere with their initials, like this: ^LP – that’s a cotag that discloses who people are talking to) and when they check the account – and then hold to it. Make it part of your day, several times a day, for about ten minutes at a time. That’s manageable. You may find you need to increase your time as you get more popular, but that’s a good start.
6) Take a deep breath. It’s tempting to feel like you have to follow every person back and engage with everyone who talks to you, but that can be overwhelming as the weeks go by and you get more popular. Do follow many back, but don’t get obsessed with equal following ratios. Do engage people, but learn which engagements will have the most value to you (this will take practice).
I could keep giving tips, but that’s enough to get any restaurant started, I think. Good luck, and have fun!