Back in ancient times when we were all rocking our first PCs, I got an e-mail from a friend that listed some of the outlandish calls fielded by computer help center technicians. One involved a woman who called to complain about the broken cup holder on her PC.
The technician was mystified, "Cupholder?"
"Yes, you know, the little drawer that slides open to hold your coffee cup."
"Ma'am, it's not a cup holder. It's the loading drawer for your CD drive."
I relate this story because it has relevance to a trend we're seeing today: the misuse of social media by restaurant brands.
This misappropriation takes many forms. There's the "if you build it they will come," assumption that the mere presence on social sites will draw fans.
There's the "This is a job for ... IT Man!" conviction that anything technical should be the responsibility of the 22-year-old Twitter geek in the MIS department.
There's the "Woohoo! Free advertising!" abuse. And finally, there's the "Here's our chance to modernize our brand" misappropriation.
None of these will build an avid social media following because, as the saying goes, "It's the Branding, Stupid." For any restaurant getting into social media, the starting point is the accurate, consistent, persistent and confident representation of the brand and what it does for fans.
This, of course, begs the observation that if your brand is confused, undefined, or otherwise in disarray, it's not a good time to get into social media. Figure out your brand identity and your strategy for presenting it. Then explore ways to take it online, keeping in mind the following.
First and foremost, social media is an extension of your brand, not a budget-friendly medium for retooling, reviving, repositioning or reintroducing it. Leave that to traditional mass media. Get the broad exposure you need there, then take it to the street with social media.
As an extension of your brand, your social media content should echo your brand "voice." If a stylistic approach doesn't fit with the attitude of your concept, then it doesn't belong in your online conversation. Which brings us to the next point: Make no mistake, social media is a forum for conversation. It is not a platform for selling, surveys or spin. Try to make it one and you'll find yourself un-liked and un-followed in a heartbeat. This is not to say that your online audience will not appreciate product updates and offers. This is why they friended you, so oblige them.
But don't abuse their friendship with endless meaningless self-promotion. Anybody who's blocked status updates from a friend who uses their Facebook account to advertise Longaberger Basket parties knows what I'm talking about.
This is why the next point is so critically important: Entrust your social media to an employee who a) has internalized your brand objectives; b) knows your audience and what engages them; and c) has the confidence and good judgment to do what's right for the brand. This last one is especially important when complaints and snarky comments show up as feedback. And be assured that they will.
Your social media manager must have the tact and temperament to defuse a situation and the latitude to offer a solution that will restore goodwill. If this just happens to be somebody in your IT department, fantastic. If not, remember that you'll have an easier time teaching tech skills to a brand-savvy people-person than teaching extraversion to someone who'd rather be in a cubicle devising Java code.
Also, have someone at the executive level monitor posts and feeds. It's okay if their privacy settings make them invisible. The point is that they experience and understand the social media scene and its importance to the business.
Treat your social media efforts just like any other formal branding and marketing effort. Give it time, strategic thought and support to cultivate and maintain a following of fans who will make it a word-of-mouth success.
Think about what it takes to cultivate and maintain a friendship: frequent entertaining chats, shared information, tips on interesting new places to eat and things to do. You get the picture. If you're going to do social media DO social media.
The bottom line: Make social media fun for your audience and they'll make it profitable for you.
Lori Walderich is chief creative officer at IdeaStudio, a chain restaurant marketing and promotions firm. Her company helps restaurant clients align their branding and implement strategic marketing plans to achieve consistent, sustainable growth.