The Tweet Life

The Tweet Life

Social networking programs may be the next generation strategy for developing customer relationships.

At the University of Kansas, customers of The Underground food court in the school's Memorial Union can check for daily specials and menu updates on a Twitter feed. (Twitter allows members to send short messages to other subscribers.)

Twitter is just one of a host of social networking platforms popular mainly with young people. Now, onsite dining providers, especially in the college segment, are beginning to explore their marketing potential.

At KU, Marketing Manager Jason Arnett, a regular Twitter user, launched the service in February and currently has 29 active followers, with more logging in to check on the updates though they don't get them automatically. Given that The Underground sees more than 3,000 customers on an average day, there's plenty of room for growth.

In addition to The Underground, KU's other retail food court, The Market in the main student union, is also a Twitter subject.

“In the morning, I let everybody following us know we're open at 7:30 so they can get hot coffee,” Arnett reports. “Then I tell them what we have in the Jump Asian Express and what our soups are for the day and what our special smoothie of the day is.

“I do four or five blasts at a time, so I may also remind them that if they use their KU card to pay, they can get 10 percent off on Fridays, or let them know if we're having a special event. It's certainly curtailed phone calls like, ‘What kind of soup do you have today?’”

A more common social networking related marketing strategy is the Facebook or MySpace page. More established than Twitter, these sites offer what is basically a department website, but with networking interactivity.

The Sodexo-managed dining services at Northwestern University launched its Facebook page last summer to get a start on recruiting “fans” when fall classes began, says Marketing Manager Pamela Yee. “We use Facebook to advertise our specials and events on campus,” she says.

“We also send our fans event notices that go directly to their home pages as an event. Facebook has reformatted so you are able to give status updates on a profile page. For example, we can say ‘nuCuisine [the name of the dining department] at Northwestern is looking forward to celebrating Earth Day.' This status update goes on our fans’ profile page as if it came from a friend giving a status update.”

Yee says Northwestern Dining started the Facebook page as an additional way to promote its campus events at no cost. Event and status updates not only go directly to fans' profile pages, meaning they are more likely to see it, but because the department Facebook page is public, nonfans can see it as well.

Of course, anyone with a browser can access a traditional website as well, but Facebook offers the advantage of providing insights on viewer attributes (age, gender, etc.) and tendencies — how often they view your page and when.

“We also advertise on Facebook,” Yee adds. “We run ads for our coupons and some of the specials on campus. What's nice about advertising on Facebook is that you are able to control who sees the ad. For example I can say I want the ad to be shown to anyone in the Northwestern network, anyone in a certain age range in the Northwestern network, and so forth. This is great because you are not wasting any of your advertising dollars on people who are not even able to use the coupon or come to the event.”

There's also the coolness factor, Yee points out. “I think the benefit to having a Facebook page is that we are able to communicate to students the way they communicate with each other,” she offers.