an open letter to restaurants

For the past 4 years or so, you’ve read my thoughts on our experiences while dining out. Maybe you’ve agreed with me, and maybe you haven’t. But I’m willing to bet at least one time (probably more) you’ve thought to yourself – who the hell is she and what does she know? And you’d be right. While a long time ago I may have earned a degree in journalism, I’m certainly not a professional and never claimed to be. Food is incredibly subjective. I love food. I love our city. And I like to share my experiences. So there is no right or wrong answer, rather one person’s thoughts.

But there is something I do know. And at the risk of tooting my own horn, something I’m pretty good at (at least I like to think so or assume I wouldn’t retain employment). It’s my real job. And while I’m not a “traditional food critic,” I am a professional diner – as we all are. And that coupled with my day job is why I’m drafting this post today. Because there is so much opportunity for you, so much potential. That as a frequent diner, I’m eager for you all to grasp it and run with it so us customers can reap the benefits.

For the past 13 years, I’ve worked in PR, mostly consumer side and mostly as a media relations expert, for lack of a better word. For the past 5 years, I’ve seen my role blow up thanks to social media and evolve into a job I absolutely love because it has never been a more exciting time to be in marketing. And during the past five years, I’ve been heavily involved in educating others on the social media front, developing policies for companies and social media campaigns. And I’m a bona fide social media junkie myself (which is the reason this blog was started in the first place, as a means of self education). And given my love for our local restaurants and social media, I wanted to use this post as an opportunity to get you thinking – thinking about how you engage with your customer, how your customer consumes media and how the changing landscape provides you with more opportunities than you ever imagined.

My first bit of advice: please run from anyone that tells you they are a social media expert. And run fast. This space is way too new for anyone to be an expert and changes daily. These “experts” are all about numbers (social media is not about number of followers or readers, rather the quality of connections over quantity). Though I personally don’t believe there are experts, there are people with extensive experience and knowledge that are well on the right path. But just because you are on Twitter or have a blog or fill in the platform does not make you an expert. It’s one thing to have someone execute the tools, it’s another to have someone tell you why you need those tools, formulate a strategy, understand how the audience uses them, your ROI, and how they work together with other efforts. Social media is much, much more than the shiny object syndrome so many people suffer from and knowing how to use the tools – although first-hand experience is an incredibly important piece. If you were my client, I’d walk you through a phased process that starts with listening which is the key step when launching an effective and smart plan. But we don’t have time for that here. So let me get to the point and say I’ve made some pretty safe assumptions and these are the tools I think you’d benefit from, and in turn, so would us diners.

Foursquare (mobile) – this is the new customer loyalty program. Your diners are checking in when they visit your restaurant/market/store and thus telling all their friends where they are. The person who checks in the most is awarded mayorship. Many places have started to reward their mayors. You Need To Do This. It’s free. Create a page for your business, and when someone checks in either at your place, or in the vicinity, they will be alerted to your specials. Love what The Greenhouse is doing here – 40% off the bill for the mayor (I’m coming for you whoever you may be!). Reward people for choosing your venue. And not just on the 10th check in (that’s too long of a wait and a bit unrealistic). Start from the beginning. Offer something for each check in – a glass of wine, an app – they can get larger with each check in. But make it sexy enough that people will keep coming back. Think about it – at the end of the day, what’s a free drink or ½ off a dinner to you for what you’ve just earned in exchange? You’ve just received amazing word of mouth – that diner telling their network of friends (online and off) about this cool thing that such and such place is doing – oh and while they are there, they are likely to spend more and not just get the free good and go.

We are all sharing our experiences and generating content today, hence citizen journalists. Third-party credibility from a peer has more impact on a person than any form of traditional advertising or anything a traditional reporter may write. That’s a fact in today’s world. So give people something to talk about. Reward them. And they will in turn reward you.

Twitter – you all know what this is by now. All I can say here is that if you have 300 people following you and you follow 0, then you’re using this tool wrong. This is not a bull horn. The old model of advertising via shouting your message to the masses is dead. It’s about two-way communication. Twitter is a great, great tool to monitor the conversation, gain feedback, improve customer service and engage with your customers. Follow them back, share things, interact. If you just talk about yourself and promote your specials you will turn people off. This is not the place for that.

Website/smart phone – This is more of a personal plea than anything. Yes, you have a lovely website. And yes, you’re very proud of it. But what good is it if people can’t see it? More and more of us have a smart phone, like the iPhone. And this is becoming our primary screen (and the numbers continue to soar each year). Often times, people are out and about when they decide where to grab a bite – so they turn to their phone to check reviews (more on this later) and see the menu. What good is your fancy site if it’s in flash and no one can see the basic info they seek out – like the menu, location and phone number. As a customer that has experienced this over and over, it can be pretty annoying.

Bloggers – I know, I know, you either love ‘em or hate ‘em – myself included. But the truth is, this is the new journalism. They are content providers and contributing to the news. Their thoughts are encouraging others and ranking up rather high in search engines (search engines love fresh content). Get to know the people that love what you do. Their passion is priceless and people are listening. They are influential and can prove to be quite beneficial for you. But treat bloggers as you would any journalist. And when you pitch them, please don’t send a press release (the release is dead and no one wants to read it – in some forms it may serve a purpose, but not in this space). Would you want to read it? And don’t bcc everyone you know – that’s spam and no one likes to be spammed. Speaking from first-hand experience, most of you guys do a great job engaging with bloggers and building these relationships, but your PR folks could use a little work in this area (not all, but some).

I was asked to speak at the wine association’s License to Steal event last month as part of a panel on blogging. A lot of these wineries were thinking of (and encouraged to) start a blog. My first question to them was why? Like many, they said in an effort to get people to come to their site and move the conversation online. Again – why? This is nearly impossible. Instead, why fight it – and why create the extra work for yourself of creating a blog (note – I’m not discouraging people from starting a blog, rather just because the tools are available doesn’t mean everyone needs to use them). Instead, I encouraged them to get to know all the bloggers in their area, invite them to their space and use them to help spread their message. Now, this doesn’t mean bloggers are your personal mouth piece and will write whatever you tell them. Just the opposite. It must be newsworthy (and remember, just because something is of value to you doesn’t mean it actually is), must be a fit for their blog and must be worth their time – just like any journalist. Bottom line, don’t reinvent the wheel or try to get greedy with the conversation. Rather, see where you can add value to it and build relationships with those that are regular contributors and have influence.

Further, most tend to think that advertising or having a review in a traditional outlet like a newspaper, magazine or broadcast is the way to go. Not always, and especially not today. Think about it – the circulation of a daily or network affiliate may seem impressive, but what percentage of that audience is really within your target? A pretty small amount. Where as with bloggers, their numbers may be smaller but it’s incredibly niche focused. Their readers are all your audience. Plus it’s permanent.

There’s obviously much much more to cover in this space, but this post is already long enough. The point is, is that there’s so much opportunity in this space it makes me giddy just thinking about it – as a social media counselor and as a diner. And beyond social media, much of these opportunities create new story opportunities for you that could garner traditional news coverage (all going back to having a strategic plan in place and not just employ random tactics). People are passionate about their food. You can reward that passion and in turn, let it reward you. It’s a win win. If anything, I promise you that social media truly can be your friend. This space is truly not a scary one and in time, you may just be a bona fide junkie too.

16 Comments

  1. Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Businesses need to tell their employees to stop checking into Foursquare every time they get to work – and yes, I know of several establishments where employees play some sort of twisted game to see which of them can take control of the mayorship. It certainly isn’t making them employee of the month, in my book.

  2. Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Also, sorry for two comments in a row, but why don’t more people in Cleveland use Yelp? It’s a fantastic tool for finding great places in other cities, and yet, in Cleveland, neither businesses nor customers seem to have any interest in it. At the very least, businesses should keep the hours and contact info up to date on Yelp. They should also upload some photos of their place. I recently took photos of all the businesses on Lee Road and Coventry to upload to Yelp. It’s discouraging how few of them even had a single photo.

  3. Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Good advice. On the web site structure and accessibility — HOURS. make them as prominent as reasonable. Seem to be tucked away on most restaurants’ “Contact” page, which is kind of odd.

  4. Michelle V
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Rob – really great point on Foursquare and employees – for certain types of establishments anyway. It defeats the purpose if employees have mayorship. I’ve seen some places create a second page for employees. As for Yelp, I’m not sure. Admittedly, I only use it from time to time. I used to use it more, but was tired of the faux reviews (you can always tell when someone posts about themselves).

  5. megan v
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    About Yelp, I do really like it, but as a New York to Cleveland Transport we need something like Menupages.com. This was an automatic go to when living in NYC, more than any other restaurant site. It lists all the local menus’s without having to go to each individual site. And I see now they have an Iphone app. Michelle, I think this would be something you should try to get for Cleveland!

  6. Posted May 19, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Michelle V, the problems with Yelp that you mention decline as more people use the service. As with most things, the bigger the sample, the more confidence you can have that the aggregate rating is legit. This is true on everything from books on Amazon to movies on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a vicious cycle to break when people don’t use the service because, for all reasons, nobody else uses the service. Somebody needs to step up to the plate and get the ball rolling.

  7. John
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Great job. I hope they take notice!

  8. Posted May 19, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Great ideas, all of ’em. One problem with the Foursquare idea, though: in Ohio, it’s illegal to give away liquor. That’s a great way to be fined and have your liquor license suspended.

  9. ennie
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Regarding Foursquare – you are SO right. My husband and I use it all of the time with our friends. I only have 5 followers/friends on it, but when I check in somewhere of interest, I share it with Facebook, which is a bigger group.

    Regarding YELP – it’s my understanding that usership amongst restaurants is waning due to some recent class action, extortion and fraud lawsuits. Heard a whole story on it on NPR earlier in the year.

    http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/02/26/reviews-site-yelp-hit-lawsuit-fraud/

  10. Posted May 19, 2010 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Michelle, you make some excellent points in your post. I think that as early technology adopters, we can see the obvious potential even before traditionally-run businesses (in this case restaurants) can. Traditional advertising methods that reach a wide, but not necessarily interested audience, have now been replaced with intensely targeted campaigns through social media. I think it is scary for most business owners to embrace this Brave New World of technology without any established proof that it actually works.

    As for Yelp, by the time I came around to discovering it, I had also heard about the alleged improprieties that @ennie discussed in her comment. I personally refuse to participate on a forum like that where legitimate negative criticism of my experience could allegedly be “buried.”

  11. Tom
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Man, I can’t even remember when the last time a bar or restaraunt bought me a drink. And usually when I dine out, if the place has a bar I prefer to eat there.

  12. Lauren
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I love what you said about social media. “Social media is not about number of followers or readers, rather the quality of connections over quantity.” This is so true!

  13. Posted May 20, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    nice post, michelle – couldn’t agree more on all fronts. you really struck a cord with the “social media expert” point. i guess my problem is truly with the term “expert” or any other self-imposed term that implies that one knows all they need to know in a particular category. to me, that says that they feel that they no longer need to learn. there is always more to learn. one should never turn themselves off from learning or discussion that is meant to lead to better, collaborative ideas.

    i don’t think “experts” make for good innovators. folks that strive for better, fresher, different – those are the ones that fuel creativity.

    exiting soapbox…now :)

  14. Posted May 20, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    slow clap is deserved for the whole piece especially the blogger portion.

    well written and though out!

  15. Posted May 21, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Love it. You have always inspired us to do more!

    PS Yelp is shady. First hand knowledge.

  16. Posted May 24, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    The Youngstown area has MyValleyDining.com which seems to be taking off. It’s somehow tied in to the tv stations, along with MyValleyWeather and sports. I have found restaurants through Twitter, blogs and FB, but I don’t do Foursquare.