Restaurateurs who really understand social media are a bit like a jealous prom queen: They want to own the conversation about what they do and how they're perceived by admirers and detractors.
Sadly, prom queens have no way to manage messages coming from outsiders. What's said is said, and she either responds in a poised or prickly manner.
Restaurateurs, on the other hand, can assert a great deal of control over the message, oversight that can boost that restaurant's sales and manage its reputation skillfully.
The key here is "owning" their restaurant's social network by managing messages shared online. That doesn't mean becoming a digital diva and obsessing over any remark uttered in the blogosphere. It means creating and owning a slice of the podium in which fans of your restaurant share their experiences. The more positive messages shared, the greater likelihood those messengers will return to their favorite restaurants.
Sound complicated? It's not, really.
A restaurant's social network isn't all that different from a prom queen's circle of friends. Each is bound by a common interest: In Queenie's case, their admiration for her; in a restaurant's case, their love of that business and its products. In either case, fans and detractors alike enjoy talking about those shared interests.
As I say so often, dining out his highly social, so a restaurant's fans will talk about it unprompted. Commonly they will even meet other fans who might say, "Oh, you like that restaurant, too? The pot roast is my favorite! What's yours?"
But true word-of-mouth buzz is slow moving, especially in an environment in which message management is crucial to capturing customers quickly. Restaurants have been trying to accelerate that process with Facebook and Twitter, hoping to expand their own social network by connecting fans who, while they may never meet in person, enjoy the same restaurants. Discussion among this crowd—say, at a dedicated Facebook page—generates credible referrals that could lead other people to that restaurant.
Technology has evolved so operators can engage those fans directly while they're in the restaurant. As good as Facebook conversations are, they happen after the fact and out of context. Operators who understand the crucial link between technology and social media engage customers with smartphones. They engage guests on the spot, asking about their meals and encouraging them to talk about their experiences in real time.
Smart restaurateurs now can use fun social tools, such as rewards, gifting (customers' ability to share rewards with each other) and invitations to special events. All three provide incentives for customers to engage their friends in a fun social experience and a means of thanking them for their public support online.
Those same restaurateurs also use tools that record customers' personal data, such as email addresses, Twitter handles and Facebook pages. Such data is used to provide targeted offers that bring these customers back or serve as means to refer friends to the restaurant.
Not convinced this is good? Then ponder the flipside of not "owning" that social network. Such restaurateurs rely solely on established networks to generate buzz about their restaurants. Whatever is said—good or bad—is shared with the world, but perhaps not likeminded customers or even the operator. The owner has little chance to reward compliments or make good on bad remarks.
The operator also creates no relevant social network dedicated to her restaurant—no circle of friends around the prom queen—and without that buzz, interest withers from neglect.
Worse, without interacting directly with customers, there's no chance of capturing that valuable customer data. Networks like Yelp!, OpenTable or Groupon own these customers and their pertinent information. Plus, they can sell that information to the highest bidders—including your competitors. So, if you think word-of-mouth referrals are important to your business, you need to gather valuable customer information and own it!
When next I visit this issue, I'll discuss using that "owned" social network to create fantastic social campaigns, such as fundraisers and group events.
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.