Restaurant execs: Social media requires response, risk taking

Two to three years ago, social media was an entity most restaurant brands were still trying to figure out. Now, it's not only a necessity, but consumers expect immediate interaction with their favorite brands.

That's a tall task, considering the number of people using channels such as Twitter and Facebook. To navigate these and other social sites, Scott Mulkey, vice president of Foodservice Strategy and Marketing at Coca-Cola, said it's important to realize social media can't really be controlled, no matter how many resources a company pours into the department.

"Social media is growing and we've got to know that we're not controlling it. At best, we are participating," he said.

Coca-Cola, which has one of the most active social media presences across all industries, had its Facebook page created by fans before the company had any sort of strategy in place.

"We had to think about the path we wanted to take and ended up partnering with our fans," Mulkey said. "It's important to take the handcuffs off and try new things. With social media, be bold; try new things to capture a piece of the energy."

Mulkey said "likes" and followers are important, but the key metric for social engagement is when something Coca-Cola posts is shared.

McDonald's, which has nearly 29M Facebook fans, also tries different things to gauge what gets the best response. According to Rick Wion, director of Social Media for McDonald's USA, the company uses Facebook to entertain and engage, while Twitter is used more for communication. McDonald's rotates its Twitter team, utilizing people from nearly every department to communicate with its followers.

"We take certain aspects of the company and roll it into customer service. On Twitter, everyone is involved," Wion said.

Wion's social media advice includes not overdoing it on calls to action.

"A majority of our posts is storytelling but we'll do a contest or a call to action — like 'Try our new McWrap' — to drive guest counts occasionally. You don't want to overdo the 'hey, do this for us' posts too often, though. It gets self serving," Wion said.

Another piece of advice? Respond.

"It is the customers' expectation that we're there. And if they complain, we respond," he said. "And if we're not doing that, they'll go elsewhere."

McDonald's is currently testing the Instagram and Klout Perks waters. Wion says there has been success, but the company is going to start small, get small results and try to grow from that. McDonald's has also tried Pinterest, but hasn't gotten the traction that it has with Instagram.

Sifting through the data

Perhaps the biggest challenge with social media is analyzing the constant feedback. Even for a smaller company, like Parasole Restaurant Holdings, that can be difficult.

"Sorting through the data is a lot of the challenge, but the world is talking and you can choose to listen and engage or not," said Kip Clayton, vice president of Business Development and Marketing at Parasole, which has nine concepts in the Minneapolis area.

When Parasole first jumped into social media, execs ignored fans' critical posts. Clayton said that was a mistake.

"Measurably, you can understand the impact you have on people. Everyone's a critic, but this offers you instant feedback.You have to learn from it and not be defensive or you're going to go out of business," he said.

Randy Stanley, division VP for Parasole, added that the company checks daily reports on what has been said about each restaurant within the past 24 hours. Parasole has used that information to hold operators accountable and to even change up its menus.

"The more you read, the more you can try to figure out what your guests are trying to say. Our customers told us they didn't like the limited menu at one of our concepts," Stanley said. "So we tweaked it and offered a create-your-own offering and after that, we nearly doubled our sales.

"The good news about social media is you're getting a lot of information," he added. "The bad news is, you can't control it."

Parasole has put into place steps on how to turn social media into actionable items. They include:

  1. Validate the authors to know the post is real;
  2. Engage with the poster;
  3. Analyze the information. Parasole calls this "bucketizing;" separate comments about the food, the atmosphere, the staff, etc.;
  4. Quantify it somehow. Parasole gives comments a letter grade ("The food is an A," "The service is a B," for example);
  5. Distribute this information to operators to put improvement strategies into action; and
  6. Monitor feedback and roll it into operators' reviews; hold them accountable.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Read more about social media strategies.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Michael Atkinson
    Yes, three years ago was a lifetime in social media. There is clearly more expertise and best practices for how best to manage a restaurant community. The big risk, of course, is doing nothing. I always recommend connecting with internal and external peers on both the marketing and operations side of the business. Operators tend to listen and crave customer insights, while marketers tend to use social as another channel to message or story tell. I think Randy is right about creating some type of response framework. But, ere are inexpensive tools that can save time executing this strategy, like FOHBuzz SnapShot.
  • Miller Finch
    For smaller enterprises without an in-house social media manager, hiring a social media management agency is the best bet. An agency can track mentions, respond to problems or refer deeper issues to the company liaison, grow the local community, and ensure the customer experience online enhances the brick and mortar experience. One social media management agency to consider is Miller Finch, a US company that does not outsource overseas, and fully understands the restaurant experience from both sides. Social media already has your customers talking about you, why not enter the conversation and be social?
  • Elizabeth Ducoff
    Thanks, Alicia and Kip. We'd add a 7th tip to the list - understand customer feedback in the context of sales. Swipely is a simple way for local restaurants to monitor reviews from across the web, transaction history and social media in one place.
  • Elizabeth Ducoff
    Thanks, Alicia and Kip. We'd add a 7th tip to the list - understand customer feedback in the context of sales. Swipely is a simple way for local restaurants to monitor reviews from across the web, transaction history and social media in one place.
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