Onsite Operators Use Social Media Strategies to Reach Their Customers

Your customers are tapped into Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites. Are you?

Many out there are probably sick to death of hearing about Facebook fans, friend requests, tweets and followers. There is plenty not to like: self-obsessed people posting pictures of their dogs napping; long-lost acquaintances looking to reconnect; friends of friends ranting about politics, cars and fashion in 140 characters or less. Who has the time, right?

Wrong. Complain about social media if you want, but it's a tool millions of people today are using to lift their voices in electronic communities, and it's something you cannot afford to close your eyes to. Social networks like Facebook, mini-blog engines like Twitter, and video sites like YouTube are the most explosive outbreaks in the information world since the Internet itself. These sites are shaking up the way the world communicates and it's having a big impact on business. Onsite foodservice is no exception.

Each of these sites is nourished by millions of users — including your customers. They're using these platforms to talk about your operation, your food, and your service, whether or not you're part of the conversation.

So, while social media may seem like a trend that's too techy or too young for you, it's a phenomenon that you can't afford to ignore, postpone or delegate.

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Building Connections

Using social media well takes more than just creating a page and hoping it takes off. “Like any other part of a business, you have to plan, execute and revise your strategy to make it a success,” says Stephanie Keith, Marketing Manager/Controller at Roger Williams University (RWU), Bristol, RI. “Social media is more about the connections you create than the sales you drive. It's great for promotions, sure, but you have to make sure your fans and followers actually care enough to pay attention to your updates for it to work.”

RWU launched its Facebook page nearly five years ago at the urging of Keith. Today, it has more than 500 fans.

“When we launched, [management company] Bon Appétit (BA) was new to campus,” says Keith. “Having used Facebook throughout college, I thought it would be a great way to introduce the RWU community to BA and get instant and immediate feedback on what customers wanted from their new foodservice program.”

She was right. By building a loyal fan base, BA at RWU is better able to connect with its customers one-on-one.

“Social media has made communicating with guests much easier, plus it's an extension of our marketing efforts. We use it to promote events, increase traffic, drive sales and communicate important department updates or company wide initiatives like BA's Eat Local Challenge,” says Keith. “We also use it to move customers around.”

With eight dining facilities across RWU's campus, students tend to frequent the cafes closest to their daily routines. As part of it's social media strategy, RWU uses Facebook to let customers know about special promotions in locations they might not otherwise visit.

“We have a convenience store in a residence hall in north campus, far from any academic buildings,” says Keith. “It's hard to draw customers to the store if they don't already live there. We use Facebook to let campus know about special promotions we're having at the store, which helps to drive foot traffic.”

RWU also uses Facebook as a means of gauging students' interest in new products. “We were recently asked by one of our vendors if we'd like to stock a reusable cold tumbler in one of our cafés,” says Keith. “I posted a picture of the tumbler on Facebook and asked our fans to ‘like’ the picture if they'd like to see them sold at the café. We got almost two dozen ‘likes,’ so now they'll be for sale this coming semester.”

At the other end of the country, The University of Texas at Austin uses social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as a way to advertise food specials, showcase new items, offer students and staff a behind-the-scenes look at the dining operation, and give updates about environmental initiatives.

“What started as a way to share photos and video, quickly grew into something much more powerful,” says Scott Meyer, Director of Food Service. “Social media gives us the opportunity to start a personal dialog with our customers that can improve customer service. It gives us the chance to respond instantly to questions or ideas.”

UT Austin's social media strategy ties into its overall marketing strategy and is fairly straightforward: fish where the fish are. “Students are already in this space,” says Meyers. “So we want to be in there as well, giving them an opportunity to keep up to date with what we're doing."

Post Frequently, Respond Quickly

While keeping track of all these channels can be time consuming, both Meyer and Keith emphasize the importance of frequent posts and instant responses — whether comments are positive or negative.

“As long as the comments aren't derogatory, I leave them on the site and respond as thoroughly as possible,” says Keith. “I explain why a situation is the way it is and, so far, the students have responded quite nicely; they appreciate a detailed response even if they don't always like the answer.

“Many times, customers don't want to address problems or ask questions face to face with a manager,” she continues. “Having the option to go online and voice comments and concerns makes the dining department much more accessible.”

Meyer has a received a handful of negative Tweets on the dining program at UT Austin, but quick responses to these Tweets have yielded a fairly profound impact.

“Those who have shared negative Tweets were quite surprised that we replied,” he says. “By recognizing their complaints, we've been able to convert some of those initially negative followers into dining enthusiasts and advocates.”

Keith maintains RWU's social media strategy and she is extremely contentious of keeping the “voice” on the site friendly and professional. “I want to relate to RWU's younger crowd, but my posts don't go too far into the online slang. You'll never see Bon Appétit at Roger Williams University ‘lol’-ing,” she says.

A Brand Extender

Pomona College Dining Services (PCDS), Claremont, CA, developed its social media strategy when the school's foodservice went from contract to self-op earlier this year.

“Our culture was evolving,” says Glenn Graziano, General Manager for PCDS. “We created a Facebook page as well as a dedicated dining website that we now use extensively to communicate with our customers. On the site, we have an online comment forum that guests use to let us know how we're doing.”

Using social media to communicate the department's vision has been PCDS's primary strategy, but according to Graziano, “nothing beats the instantaneous feedback that you get in this space.”

At Rockwall (Texas) Independent School District, Director of the Child Nutrition Department, Julie Farris, SNS, RTSBA, uses social media as a way to reach parents and students with timely information.
“I started using Twitter — and now Facebook, too — to communicate the good things we're doing with child nutrition at Rockwall ISD. While I use it primarily to promote our menus, it also helps to keep our ‘brand’ in peoples' minds,” she says.

Twitter is essentially a giant conversation between unlimited numbers of individuals. Farris uses it to tweet valuable, important and unique information to the community. She monitors the foodservice department's social media presence and is diligent about checking it to see what fans and followers are saying. “With social media, your reputation can be affected quickly,” she warns.

Rockwall ISD's Child Nutrition Department's social media strategy aligns with the districts overarching marketing strategy to be transparent to its stakeholders and to communicate in as many ways as possible. “By using social media, we are showing our customers that we are keeping up with technology,” says Farris. “We're also being active, not passive, in communicating with them,” she says.

Graziano agrees. “Social media increases customer satisfaction, allows us to connect with our vendors and to react in a faster time frame to our customers,” he says. “It's basically an extension of our marketing efforts.”

Where Foodies Connect

Social Media sites aren't always accessible in corporate settings, but Ryan Conklin, Retail Manager of Culinary & Nutritional Services at Rex Hospital, part of UNC Health Care, in Raleigh, N.C., has found a loophole.

“I started a blog on our department's internal webpage,” says Conklin. “The Business Operations Manager was able to link to it directly from the daily menu site, which customers use quite frequently.”

On the blog, Conklin's posts get customers excited about the food program at Rex. “A written menu can be boring at times so I bring it to life by posting pictures of food being prepared, plated dishes and of fresh, seasonal produce as it arrives to entice customers.”

The high quality photos he takes with his smartphone and the detailed menu descriptions have helped to attract customers to the café, reports Conklin. “I'm able to email my blog entries to our subscribers, much like Groupon and Living Social do. I try to send really delicious looking images and posts right around mealtimes to help drive traffic.”

His blog has been a huge hit with customer and managers at Rex Hospital as they constantly encourage departments coming up with new ideas and programs to ask themselves, Is it Hip, Wow and Now?
In this case, it most definitely is. “We've been able to create a food buzz around the organization that gets people excited about our food before they even walk through the door,” says Conklin. “Today, we featured a local cupcake shop that we invited to sell their specialties in our café. I wrote about it in the blog and posted some photos of the pastries and, as a result, we sold over 150 gourmet cupcakes in just over an hour.”

Yammer Away

Daniel Skay, Manager and Executive Chef at Parker Adventist Hospital in Parker, CO, uses Yammer, a site that brings together all of a company's employees inside a private and secure enterprise social network. Although Yammer is as easy to use as consumer products like Facebook or Twitter, it is built to drive business objectives. Think of it like a Facebook for each individual corporate world.

“A huge part of our healthcare community is on Yammer,” says Skay. “The foodservice department uses it as a way to send specific targeted campaigns. Say it's cold outside, we'll send out a dollar-off coupon on a bowl of soup to help increase traffic.”

The free marketing seems to be working. “Our goal is to increase sales, and so far we've broken the record every single month,” says Skay.

Apps and More

Going forward Skay hopes to create an “app” that will allow customers to pre-order meals from the café that they can literally grab and go. He also wants to create a dedicated foodservice page from both the hospital's website and as its own stand-alone site.

“People find information through the Internet,” he says. “We need to be there in as many ways as possible, especially as we continue to attract street traffic.”

Skay is careful to monitor review sites like Yelp! where customers can submit reviews, unedited. “Right now, we have four and a half stars, based on completely unbiased, uninvited reviews of our food,” he says.

Skay also uses social networking sites to connect with colleagues across the country to share ideas on how to improve operations. “We can't always get to conferences and trade shows, but we can still share ideas and network this way.”

So, while there are plenty of challenges associated with social media strategy, the bottom line is that you need to be there.

“Posting and interacting with followers consistently is the best way to build a following,” says RWU's Keith. “The only way to keep up is to be a regular user. You have to enjoy doing it, too, or you won't seem genuine and that's the fastest way to turn customers off.”

For a Q&A on social media strategies with Boston University's Scott Rosario, go to food-management.com/business_topics/operations/letting-students-take-lead1011 [4]