Sports and politics are dissected endlessly in the media, but it's my hunch that Americans spend significantly more time talking about food. Big games happen once a week and—thankfully—elections are far less frequent. Food, on the other hand—we can't stop talking about it, watching how it's made or reading about the people who make it.
The Food Network is absurdly popular, and whole forests are cleared annually to print magazines about what we eat and drink. Even The Travel Channel is in on the discussion as many of its shows say more about where and what to eat than where to stay or how to get there.
Food "talk radio" hasn't yet evolved, but people talk about it, text about it, blog about it and share their opinions endlessly about their chow of choice. Plus, the Internet, supported greatly by the emergence of smartphones, allows people to have their say anytime all the time.
And in real time, which is amazing to me. Someone can be in a restaurant enjoying a meal, take a picture with a smartphone, key in some remarks for a personal review and in seconds it's available for billions to read.
That's unnerving for restaurant operators who fear a bad review may harm their restaurants, but for those who understand that the benefits of mobile technology go both ways, customer remarks can be a source of brand building—if they know how to maximize them.
Smartphones are powerful, active devices used for literally thousands of tasks. They allow users to move swiftly into and out of select social circles through texting, Facebook, Twitter, the Web and voice-to-voice conversations.
Smart restaurant operators seek opportunities to join those circles by encouraging customers to engage their brands by accessing all those channels with smartphones. The best news is customers like the idea because they view smartphone communication about food with others as personal, yet without any intrusion into their personal physical space.
For example, when an operator roams the dining room talking to guests, asking how their meals are, she often hears, "Oh, everything's great," rather than a detailed answer.
Why? Probably because customers either don't want to be interrupted, they feel unable to articulate why they like their meal—maybe their mouths are full, too—or they're too shy to complain.
But let them share their opinions electronically, and their fears disappear. Anyone who's read Yelp reviews knows customers have little reluctance to rant or rave at will.
Again, while the potential for bad reviews disturbs many restaurateurs, this open format for communication also can be used to their advantage. Through social media and the use of smartphone apps by each restaurant brand, an operator can engage that customer immediately and offer compensation for a bad experience or, better yet, reward a customer for a good review.
Location awareness technology only improves this advantage; an operator who's really on the ball can reward engagement and respond even while the customer is still in the restaurant!
Exciting stuff, right? There's more: According to a recent Nielsen report, 55 percent of the U.S. phones are now smartphones, and that number is growing. Researchers said that the current "mobile boom is ... causing a new inflection point both in the kinds of data that restaurant operators can collect and the ways in which customers and restaurants can interact."
Don't take our word for it. Read what Wendy's CEO Emil Brolick said about mobile during the chain's August analyst call: "(A) brand must evolve and communicate with consumers the way that they communicate, and mobile is it."
Indeed, mobile is it. Keep following us to learn just what "it" is in my next post.
Jitendra Gupta is CEO of Punchh, the only mobile-centric marketing platform for restaurants that uses the power of mobile devices and social networks to drive and measure repeat visits, word of mouth, and referrals.