Social media has opened many avenues for attracting attention. But attention can come at a cost. By John Burfitt
A fact of the modern business place is that social media has changed all the rules regarding customer interaction, not only in the constant endeavour to win hearts and minds, but more importantly in how to keep them. Postings, reviews, shout outs, likes and mentions on dining blogs, Twitter, Facebook and sites like Urbanspoon, Dimmi, Eatability and TripAdvisor have revealed an extraordinary power to impact on customers’ choices.
The challenge for the modern business lies not only in identifying and understanding relevant social media users to engage with them more effectively, but also in how to use this information to gain the best business advantage.
“Social media has changed diners’ habits significantly,” says Stevan Premutico, CEO of Dimmi.com.au. “Traditional word of mouth has been digitised. In the past we would ask our friends about what is good, but now we are checking websites like Urbanspoon, Facebook and Dimmi to see what other diners think and are making our decisions this way.
“Take Facebook. Food/restaurants is the second most popular topic of discussion, so I am seeing recommendations and reviews from my friends hundreds of times a week. That makes an impression.”
The vast numbers associated with these sites is impressive and also revealing of their impact. Dimmi claims it has over a quarter of a million restaurant reviews, while TripAdvisor lists over 28,000 Australian restaurants on the site, with a 69 per cent growth in reviews through this year.
Urbanspoon launched in the five mainland Australian capitals in 2008, and while the company refused to disclose membership details, it reveals double-digit growth in terms of content contributions and membership. While these sites, and others like Eatability, are all about public judgement of the good, the bad and the ugly of restaurant dining, it is Yabbit which is offering a more discreet process of allowing customers to provide feedback direct to the business. American Express offers Yabbit as a complimentary service to all Amex merchants, and to date, over 1000 businesses have signed on. “This is more like an old-fashioned comment card, rather than an online reviews site in which everything is on display,” Yabbit’s CEO Billy Tucker says. “It is one to one, with anonymous feedback provided directly to the business owner, who has the chance to respond.
“We encourage consumers to give constructive feedback, and the businesses on our site tells us the feedback is indeed constructive. Feedback is the brutal truth and is also a gift. Once you have received it, you have to deal with it but also you should be grateful for it.”
A newer innovation of the social media sphere that is particularly worthy of attention, says Jim Lund of Hospitality Consulting & Coaching Solution, is the range of discount coupon sites. These deal makers have earned great popularity in recent times, offering a range of restaurant dining packages for a fraction of the listed menu cost.
While a special deal can bring the people in and help attract a new range of customers, Lund believes restaurateurs must examine all the fine print and conditions before signing on.
“They can be very successful but the business owner has to be careful the discount offered is not too high so that it in fact loses them money,” Lund says. “I have seen this in some cases and it puts the restaurant owner off ever using them again.”
With so many social media options open, the decision of what message to unleash into an already overcrowded marketplace can be unclear.
Ed Charles is a social media consultant with Tomato Media and the man behind the Tomato blog. He claims restaurants should be using social media to build brand awareness and engage with the customers, rather than sending out endless deals of special menus.“There is so much activity on social media, and for some people, I think it is all too much. Do one thing and do it well. Don’t try to cover every single site with a different deal and approach for all of them. It becomes a waste of time,” he says.
“If you have a large Facebook following, then do that really well and make it one that people get involved with, rather than being that place that puts out a message about a dinner deal once a month.”
As anyone who has ever received an online review knows, market feedback comes in many shades and tones. The tough reality is that some consumers use reviews as sport, to humiliate a business. “There is a real problem these days with online feedback that has such a negative bias to it,” Yabbit’s Billy Tucker says. “If the feedback is negative or controversial or potentially toxic, then that is far more likely to be shared, which can become a very dangerous mix for businesses with their online brand. The challenge then becomes what do you do with it.”
Taking swift action to both positive and negative reviews, says TripAdvisor’s Avril Carter, is the key in taking care of business.
“Travellers think favourably of businesses that answer as it demonstrates the management really cares about customer experience and feedback,” says Carter, TripAdvisor’s territory manager for business listings Australasia. “In the case of a poor review, the management should use the opportunity to reply as a way to address any concerns and to present the restaurant’s side of the story.” While social media has opened the floodgates so that everyone is a critic with a number of ready platforms willing to give their views an airing, Stevan Premutico says this puts the onus on the restaurant owner to ensure the place is in its best shape each day as the doors are opened. “You can spend lots of time, money and emotion on all of this, but there is only one thing that matters and that is the actual dining experience. Get it right and your reviews will blossom, your ratings will skyrocket and your revenues will grow.”