Commentary: Social media has earned a seat at the table

By Don Fox

I recently attended the inaugural Foodservice Social Media Universe conference in San Francisco. In light of the fact that I am used to seeing social media content at virtually every restaurant conference I have attended for the past four or five years, when I signed up for this event, I wondered if the organizers would be able to assemble two days' worth of meaningful material.

Let it be said that they succeeded (full disclosure, the event was presented by FohBoh and Networld Alliance, publishers of FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com).

It was a terrific event that featured practical discussions surrounding best practices, strategic and tactical use of social media, analysis of the existing social landscape, and robust discussion and forecasting of where the discipline is headed. If you're on Twitter, search hash tag #FSMU for attendee commentary and a sampling of the content.

My use of the word "discipline" is, in short, the key difference between where social media has been, and where it is now. The social media universe has been defined, and skill sets developed around the application of both ends of the social spectrum; one end being the forum that it provides for meaningful communication with current and prospective customers, and the other being the use of the social media universe for advertising and promotion. Social media has now become a discipline within the industry worthy of a seat at the table alongside all of the mainstream disciplines, such as operations, marketing, and real estate.

At this stage, it is abundantly clear that a restaurant brand that is not engaged in the social media universe is missing out on an opportunity to improve its relationships with customers. It is the method of communication that our customers have chosen. They enjoy operating in this universe, and they want the brands that they love to be there with them. They expect them to be there.

Those that are not engaged in that universe are not only missing an opportunity; they are placing their brands at risk by losing relevancy with their consumers. This is as true for a single unit privately-owned restaurant as it is for the world's largest restaurant brands.

As the social media universe has expanded, so, too, has the system of suppliers servicing -- and sometimes defining -- the needs of the marketplace. In a matter of just a few years, a multitude of companies have emerged and evolved, offering an array of products and services. Frankly, as an operator, it can be overwhelming keeping up with it all. This particular conference did help provide clarity on the options and resources that are out there.

It is also abundantly clear that the current universe of social media demands an increased allocation of resources within most organizations. Whether your efforts are centered around in-house resources or outsourcing, a minimalist approach is not going to serve you well.

When you are operating in a universe that is expanding at a rate such as this one, you need only ask yourself this simple question: If I am managing social media 10 years from now exactly as I am doing today, will I be in a better or worse position in the marketplace? Obviously, the answer to that is the latter. And with that in mind, every organization should have a clear vision of how it will expand in this arena in order to not only keep up with the pace of change, but rather, to get out in front of it and take full advantage of the potential it represents.

My intent in this blog isn't to recite all of the best practices presented at conference. Rather, it is to suggest to operators that if you aren't in this space, you should be. What is a good strategy for one brand is not necessarily a good strategy for another.

And while you may seek out a consultant to help devise your social media strategy, the one specific piece of advice I WILL give you is that you must know the voice of your brand if you are going to use social media with great effect. Your efforts should reflect your brand culture and personality. I believe that your audience expects this, and if your social media voice speaks in a language different than that of the four walls of your restaurant, you are going to have a problem.

Don Fox has 30-plus years experience in the restaurant industry. He joined Firehouse Subs in 2003 as director of Franchise Compliance, and was promoted to the position of CEO in 2009.

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