NRA Show: Panel on Social Media Marketing

May 18 2009 - 8:00 PM

In addition to traditional booths and exhibition displays, the National Restaurant Association show offers over 65 educational seminars on various aspects of the foodservice industry. The talks cover everything from the practical "How to Surf the Economic Tsunami and Stay Afloat" to niche topics like "The State of School Nutrition: School Meals Under Financial Pressure." Of course, the presentation that caught my eye was on "Word of Mouth Marketing for Chains and Multi-Concept Operators." In essence, how are chains increasing revenue and building customer loyalty through blogs, viral marketing, and all the social networking tools that internet users have come to know and love?

The premise of word-of-mouth marketing is simple: happy customers are your best ad. This free army of marketers breaks the relationship between money and marketing, and gets the word out about your products much more effectively than traditional advertising ever could. Besides, the new reality is that your brand is what Google and Yelp say it is. But how do you motivate people, particularly happy, complacent people, to talk about you in a way that is authentic? A panel of industry executives presented their past forays into social media marketing and offered advice on the best uses of these tools.

Margie Myers spoke about Dunkin' Donuts and the company's use of Twitter. When the company first began using Twitter in May of 2008, they searched carefully for someone who understood the Dunkin' Donuts brand, and who could be original, engaging and funny in less than 140 characters. The key, Myers said, is to select your Twitterer with care, then get out of the way. Above all, be comfortable with uncertainty. In many ways, social media is antithetical to corporate principles, which tout polishing every word and waiting for authorization from higher-ups. However, the upside to social media is tremendous: a direct, unfiltered connection with customers.

Brad Wahl of Krystal (a burger chain in the southeast US) began by explaining that the best way to get people talking is to have them tell a story that they already love. Krystal offers small steamed burgers that are generally eaten in multiples. Since customers have been bragging for years about how many Krystals they can eat, the company decided to harness this energy into an eating competition, the Krystal Square-Off. This resulted in a huge number of fan-generated YouTube videos, Tweets and other buzz. To further interact with customers, Krystal inducts customers into its Hall of Fame and puts their photos on Krystal packaging. Though I've never tried a Krystal, I'm already tempted to drive the 400 miles to the nearest location (Sterling, KY) if it'll help me get into the Hall of Fame.

Billy Dec (Rockit, Sunda) weighed in to give some hometown flavor. He likened social media to his experience as a doorman at a club at age 19. Using the relationships and following he built through that position, he was able to open his first nightclub at 22. For his latest venture, Asian-themed restaurant Sunda, Dec traveled across the Asian continent and documented the trip. The resulting video presents Sunda in an interesting way, and allows the public to decide for themselves what to take away.

For all the success stories, it is easy to think of instances where viral word-of-mouth went horribly, horribly wrong. In response to a question on what to do if a problem takes off, Myers noted that you should develop thick skin and judge on a case by case basis whether a response is needed. Wahl added that oftentimes your customers will come to your own defense by posting counterarguments online.

And for those who are unconvinced of Twitter's longevity, Myers urged the audience not to sit back and ignore social media opportunities. "Twitter is just another channel, a new thing in the toolbox. Brick and mortar stores didn't go away with the appearance of e-commerce and TV shopping. The water cooler keeps moving, and you've got to follow the customers."