When social media entrepreneur, CEO and investor Peter Shankman landed at the Newark Airport on Aug. 17, he was greeted with a porterhouse delivered by a waiter from Morton's Steakhouse.
Shankman was surprised by the gesture, tweeting "Oh. My. God. I don't believe it."
But perhaps he shouldn't have been, since he asked Mortons directly for the item two hours earlier, also via Twitter: "Hey @Mortons - can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours? K, thanks :)"
The case of the airport porterhouse delivery may be an extreme example of actionable social media monitoring, but it also illustrates how restaurants are increasingly leveraging the service.
Not new, but growing fast
Social media monitoring strategies have been around as long as social media sites have existed. Culver's marketing team, for example, has been monitoring the chain's Facebook and Twitter accounts since 2008, according to Emily Patterson, marketing manager.
"As the use of social media continues to grow, we embrace the opportunity to engage our guests and strengthen their understanding (about Culver's)," she said.
The difference between now and 2008, however, is an exponential growth in social networking sites. Facebook, for example, has grown from 100 million users in 2008 to more than 750 million in July, 2011. To keep up, many chains have turned to third-party companies, added to their agency of records' assignment lists or grown their own social media teams.
Culver's now works closely with its agency to monitor Facebook and Twitter throughout the day, seven days a week.
Chains such as Burgerville and El Pollo Loco have turned to a third party company, Market Force, which has experienced a three-fold growth in its social media monitoring and outreach services in the past 18 months. Other companies are seeing the growth in demand as well. ReviewAnalyst has been offering social media monitoring for hotels for about four years, but jumped into the restaurant industry earlier this year with Hard Rock International.
And FohBoh Inc. just launched FOHBuzz SnapShot, a social CRM reporting tool that delivers real-time, guest satisfaction analysis to help make restaurant operators access real-time "crowd-sourced" reviews and opinions to better manage guest satisfaction and gauge social media marketing efforts.
ReviewAnalyst's product manager Dean Schmit - who will speak on the topic of "Command Station: Monitoring Your Social Sphere" at the inaugural *Foodservice Social Media Universe conference Sept. 18-20 in San Francisco - said the addition of restaurants to the company's proprietary monitoring platform was a no-brainer, especially considering the growth of smartphone applications.
"Now there are augmented reality apps where you can point at a restaurant with your phone and reviews will automatically come up about that specific restaurant. New customers are making decisions on the fly now more than ever and you need to know what is being said about your business instantly," he said.
One of the biggest areas of growth in the social media realm is review sites such as Yelp, Urbanspoon, OpenTable, Google Places and TravelAdvisor. Additionally, check-in options on sites like Facebook and Foursquare allow customers to announce where they are specifically and post an immediate impression of that business.
Customers are not only exposed to these reviews more often, they're paying attention to them and posting them more themselves. Between this time last year and now, the number of customers who read an online blog, post, Tweet or review jumped from 48 percent to 61 percent, according to new research from Market Force. Also, the percentage of social media users who posted a specific opinion about a restaurant has grown from 13 to 18 in that same time.
"Basically you have one in five of your customers posting something about you. That's pretty staggering," said Janet Eden-Harris, CMO SVP of strategy for Market Force. "Restaurants need to focus time and attention on what's being said about them, and stay on top of this explosive growth of content. It's not just Twitter and Facebook anymore."
Turning monitoring into action
Staying on top of the content means providing immediate responses to both positive and negative comments and, in some cases, jumping into damage control mode. Social media experts suggest "responding no matter what" as guests increasingly expect a timely response.
"The challenge now that restaurants are getting more involved in this is doing something with all of the information they have and learning what actions to take," said Schmit. "All of them know they should be doing something, but they're not sure who should be doing it or what they should be doing."
The biggest tip, he said, is simply to interact – whether the responses are plentiful, positive or negative, and whether the conversation is public or private. That doesn't mean "pulling a Morton's" every single time, but it does mean not being afraid to get creative every now and then.
"Get involved in a customer's conversation and have that interaction. You have to balance the positives and the negatives and pay attention to both because they're equally important," Schmit said. "You'll be surprised about how much you can learn about your business just by interacting with those who took the time to go and to comment about it."
For example, if a handful of negative reviews are coming in about a certain offering, the restaurant can reconsider its inclusion or menu placement. If an unfavorable post slams a specific unit's cleanliness, a monitor can respond to the customer with an apology then contact that unit's team directly to remedy the situation. Monitoring and reacting is becoming critical as negative comments on social media sites spread like wildfire.
"If you don't make the customer experience fantastic, they not only won't come back, they'll tell their friends and before you know it, it will be viral throughout that entire social circle," Eden-Harris said.
If a customer feels dissatisfied, she said, offer them a coupon, gift card or discount to get them back in the door.
"Most brands are terrified of social media because they assume it's just going to be a big rant session. But what's true is that most customers take the time to talk about their positive experiences and are actually brand advocates," she said. "Reaching out to customers makes a huge difference for brand advocacy."
Culver's goes a step further, actively soliciting customer feedback to gauge interest about a new product or promotion. This active virtual interaction promotes guest loyalty.
"If a customer feels like they have a good relationship with the brand, they'll be more loyal. Even if they have a negative experience one time, by monitoring and responding, they'll feel better immediately because they'll feel a connection and you're making sure their experience gets better right away," Eden-Harris said.
Although the ROI of committing a team to social media monitoring is tricky – Schmit likened it to having a billboard – "you know there's value from it, but it's difficult to quantify" – most agree the ability to interact with customers is valuable and quickly becoming necessary.
"Through monitoring, we are able to speak directly with our guests and provide the same hospitality they would experience at our restaurants," Patterson said. "As the world becomes ever more social, it is imperative that we have an active presence with these platforms."
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*The inaugural Foodservice Social Media Universe conference, to be held Sept. 18-20 in San Francisco, is produced by FohBoh Social Media and NetWorld Alliance, publisher of FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com. Registration can be done online.