Pizza by tweet
Hideaway Pizza is asking its customers to create the restaurant's newest menu item in 140 characters or less. The winning entry will be dubbed the "Tweetza."
 
Hideaway, a nine-unit chain based in Stillwater, Okla., is soliciting entries from the more than 1,600 people who follow them on the social networking site Twitter. The company has received more than 100 entries so far.
 
"We have always had a pizza contest with our employees where they come up with their own pizza, so we thought we'd try it on Twitter as an experiment to see how people would respond," said Janie Harris, Hideaway Pizza's marketing director. "The winning pizza is going to end up in our menu insert where we would normally put our employee's winning pizzas, and if it holds its own it will make it to our regular menu."
 
Hideaway is one of several dozen pizzerias turning to the microblogging site in an effort to better connect with customers. Enter the term "pizza" in Twitter's search window and the service returns more than 150 users with pizza in their name.
 
Twitter was created in 2006 by software architect Jack Dorsey. The free service enables its users to send and read other users' updates known as tweets -- text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on the user's profile page and delivered to other users who have subscribed to them, known as followers.
 
While the service does not release information about the number of people using the service, industry observers put the count between 4 million and 6 million. Media research firm The Nielsen Co. estimates the service grew more than 1,000 percent between February 2008 and February 2009.
 
Pizzeria operators who have had success using Twitter say it enables them to establish a personal connection with their customers that's not possible with traditional marketing.
 
"It's very intimate and it enables us to stay in the forefront of their mind without banging them over the head with old-school advertising," Harris said. "On top of that, it's free."
 
Pizza Marketplace tweets under the username "PizzaMarktplace." Limitations on the number of characters in usernames forced the dropping of the "e."
 
Connecting with customers
 
That intimate connection with the customer is one of the reasons Domino's launched its Twitter account. In April, the company faced a public relations nightmare after two former restaurant employees posted a video to YouTube showing them tampering with food.
 
The company set up a Twitter account shortly after the incident and fielded questions from customers and employees. The company's Twitter efforts were credited for helping to minimize the fallout from the video incident.
 
A few weeks later, when Domino's launched its Bread Bowl Pastas, the initial announcement was done via Twitter.
 
Other big chains have been getting into the act as well.
 
Pizza Hut made headlines when it advertised for a "Twintern" to help the company establish a social media presence. And Papa John's founder John Schnatter is traveling around the country as part of the company's "Papa's In the House" ad campaign while interns tweet details about his trip.
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Most importantly, in a marketplace where consumers are faced with a dizzying array of dining choices, the service helps operators cut through the clutter, operators say. Whitewater, Wis.-based Toppers Pizza recently opened a Twitter account and uses it to keep customers apprised of restaurant promotions and new store openings.
 
"The cool thing about it for us is that it is a way to interact with our fanatical customer base in their own personal space," said Scott Iversen. "We have a very loyal, almost cultlike following among 18-24 year olds, and this is where they are living and breathing."
 
Calculating the ROI
 
The main question, though, is whether Twittering translates into additional dollars at the cash register.
 
New Orleans-based Naked Pizza, which advertises its Twitter feed on a billboard in front of the restaurant, has been tracking the amount of sales generated by its tweets. According to co-founder Jeff Leach, a Twitter-only promotion the restaurant ran at the beginning of May generated about 15 percent of the store's business the day it ran.
 
The company ran a second Twitter-only promotion May 29 and asked customers to reference Twitter when placing their order. To Leach's amazement, the store set an overall one-day sales record the day the promotion ran.
 
"A whopping 68.6 percent of total dollar sales came from customers who said 'I'm calling from Twitter,'" Leach said. "Of the 26 new customers who had never been in the store before, 22 of them were from Twitter. All in all, 'Twitter Friday' was an eye-opener for us."
 

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