Over the last few years, the world of social media has exploded. According to a recent article in Fast Company, 93 percent of marketers use it for business, and social media is now the No. 1 activity on the Web. Because of this, the opportunity for bars and restaurants to connect with their fans has increased exponentially. But for many operators, social media remains intimidating and foreign.

While there are many businesses holding Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest accounts, very few of them are using them smartly and effectively. But with a few quick pointers on what this type of marketing really is, you too can become as prolific as the tweens. Consider this a demystification of the Wild West that is social media.

First and foremost, social media can be a wonderful tool for building a rabid fan base and communicating with guests in a more personal way than ever before. But it takes time and understanding to do those things effectively. 

“Social media is an investment,” said Stephanie Erb, social media marketing manager of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. “It’s about facilitating conversations and building relationships, not simply pushing out messages. Done effectively, it can yield enormous benefits, but you need to be prepared to dedicate the necessary resources. Taking the time to define your objectives and content strategy, as well as outline your response process, will ensure you have a holistic view of what’s required and realistic expectations.”

Many operators mistakenly think that social media is a one-way communication stream where you simply write your specials on Twitter and hit post. But in today’s world, this doesn’t cut it anymore – and in fact may prove to turn fans off. Laura Ryan, who manages the social media accounts for the New York-based Craft Restaurant Group describes it this way: “I think social media can be daunting and feels like the last thing you want to worry about as a business owner, but it’s become so important. More and more I see that a restaurant needs to have a personality and engage on a deeper level.”

So how does one capture this lighting in a bottle and use it to increase business? Steven Solomon, who oversees the social media channels for Hearth and Terroir in New York (where I am employed), was an early adopter and is now sought after to help restaurant and bar managers understand the rules of the game.

“Receive, don't just broadcast,” he said. “Social media is social. Would you show up at a cocktail party and do nothing but hand out your business card?”

Monitoring what your colleagues and guests are saying allows you to form alliances, Solomon added. Connect with people and businesses that have similar ideologies as you, and share their thoughts with your fans. If you take the time to spark up conversations and help them get the word out about their initiatives, you’ll find they’ll be there to act as your bullhorn when you need it. Engage people, get their feedback, and ask them questions. 

“A program which uses social media to tell stories and appreciate those of others is good,” Solomon said.

What impact has your social media strategy had on your brand? Join the conversation in the comments below.

The social media world is dynamic, fluid and, yes, overwhelming, so it’s important to have a structured approach.

“For us, the three most important things to remember are: engagement, consistency and participation,” Ryan said. “Engaging with followers, potential and past guests, and with current topics should be a daily task. Consistency in the frequency of posts and in the overall voice of our posts is important. And finally, it’s great to see staff participate and engage with the restaurants by posting new dishes and sharing what they’re working on and what they’re excited about.”

For the food and beverage community, in particular, the visual aspects of posts have become an important focus.

“We’ve developed a tip sheet for our restaurant community managers on taking mouthwatering social media images in their kitchens and dining rooms,” Erb said. “We also recommend surveying current staff for potential social media ambassadors – you might discover one of your servers is a closet shutterbug. Social media is a team effort, and you’ll have a much more engaging presence if you have involvement from all areas.” 

An old complaint of many operators is that their efforts on social media are not quantifiable, and it’s hard to tell whether they are driving sales. But the ability to track progress has increased dramatically. Today there are sophisticated analytics that show engagement levels and growing fan bases, but sometimes it’s simpler than that.

“I recently posted an Instagram photo of a dessert from our pastry chef,” Ryan said. “The next day a woman commented on the photo and said she stopped by just to try that dessert after seeing the photo.”

And social media offers opportunities to engage that didn’t exist 10 years ago. 

“Our restaurants might intercept a tweet from a potential patron looking for a five-star dining recommendation for an anniversary dinner,” Erb said. “The restaurant can then engage them in conversation and provide a high-touch interaction, demonstrating the level of service the guest can expect while in-house. More often than not, these examples result in a reservation.”

Another fear of operators is that in making themselves available via social media, they are somehow opening themselves up to direct criticism.

“You have to be prepared for the fact that people turn to social media to express their real-time experiences with your establishment, positive or negative,” Erb said. “There is a commonly held assumption that launching on social media opens your brand up to risk and a loss of control, but this is not the view we take at Four Seasons. People will provide their opinions on social media whether you are present or not. Being active on these channels allows us to quickly intercept guest feedback and respond appropriately; it provides an opportunity to go beyond and to provide a personalized ‘wow me’ moment.”

Social media is here to stay. And whether you’re already avidly posting tweets, quips or pics across a myriad of sites, or just starting to brainstorm which logo you should present to your online fans, it’s never too late to get in the game. Some operators simply assign a person already on staff to gather content, post and engage with fans, while other companies go farther and invest in digital firms that have a team of community managers working on their restaurant or bar’s behalf. But doing nothing is no longer an option. So go on: Step into the Wild West, and join the conversation.