Reporter's Notebook

Social media: Where to 'start'

As I looked around the room at the "Engage & Integrate: Social Media Tactics for Restaurants" session at the NRA Show this afternoon, I got a really good idea for a Tumblr blog. It needs a catchier name than what I've got so far, "Complicated Social Media Faces," but the basic idea is that the room was packed full of people trying to figure out how social platforms from Facebook and Twitter to upstarts like Pinterest will help their business — and the answers aren't always readily apparent.

Those furrowed brows were no fault of panelists Matt Bodnar, partner with Fresh Hospitality; Chase Gilbert, an owner-operator of Fresh's Taziki's concept; Melany Mullens, founder of Polished Pig Media; or Dr. Ajay Aluri of West Virginia University. They gave a very comprehensive overview of social media and clearly know what they're talking about.

It's just that getting started at social media — or getting better at it — can be daunting.

The first key point they brought up was restaurants can't use social media just to sell and just to self-promote. The brands using these platforms the best have come up with fantastic original content, the experts said, and inevitably they showed Chipotle Mexican Grill's famous "Back to the Start" video, which has been viewed on YouTube more than 6 million times.

In the middle of this conversation about engaging customers without self-promoting, an audience member asked how operators would have time to come with this kind of original content. I thought Bodnar's answer was a good place for any restaurant to start: "If you promote other people who are in your niche or in your area on social media, without asking for anything in return ... you start forming relationships where people eventually start sharing your story. The way that you build those relationships with people is you give to them first."

Small restaurant chains, and even some of the biggest ones, have to start their social-media strategies somewhere, and we can't all execute Chipotle's "Back to the Start" at the beginning. But a strategy as simple as what Bodnar laid out — start a Twitter feed, look for users, local organizations in town or other brands in your area that interest you, start tweeting their content or replying to their posts with your own (polite, I'm sure) comments — is a great start.

Gilbert, who opened his location of Taziki's seven weeks ago and already has exceeded his traffic expectations in part because of social media, added that a restaurant could even talk up a competitor to get on the radar for everybody following the restaurants' shared food scene.

"It just makes people realize that what you're putting out there for them to see on Twitter [or other platforms] is real," Gilbert said.

And that authenticity comes through as long as you're talking about what really interests you, be it directly related to the restaurant industry or not, Bodnar added. There is always a time to pulse in Facebook posts or tweets that promote your brand as well, he said, but consumers tune out brands that only self-promote.

"People don't go on YouTube to look at sales materials," he said. "They go on there to learn something, or see something cool or funny. ... So when you want people to listen to what you have to say, you have to start with something that's one of those things."

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Reporter's Notebook is NRN's newsroom blog, where our editors give their points of view on news happening in the restaurant business.

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