To learn how restaurants can position themselves for success in 2010, Rebecca Pollack, SmartBrief’s food industry editor, reached out to marketing guru Ron Blake, the president and CEO of Rewards Network. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
What marketing advice can help restaurants and chefs stand out in this economy?
Keep providing value. Deals, discounts and incentives for consumers are only part of the value a restaurant can provide. Maintaining high standards — using quality ingredients, creating an inviting atmosphere, offering excellent service — will set a restaurant apart in this economy. Consumers still hunger for an enjoyable dining experience in which they’re made to feel like a guest of honor, but they want that experience to be affordable.
How is Rewards Network using social media successfully?
We’re using social media both to grow our business and to better connect our diners and restaurants. We’re on Facebook and Twitter every day, listening to what our consumers have to say — about everything from the scope of our network to the usability of our mobile apps — and using that feedback to improve. We’re also using Facebook and Twitter to create an online meeting place for restaurants and diners. Our iDine Facebook pages and Twitter feeds serve as virtual bulletin boards where restaurants can post news and special items, and consumers can dish on their favorite network spots and discover useful information and dining deals.
In your experience, are diners hanging out more in one social-media network compared with others? What social-media presence seems to be most profitable?
Facebook and Twitter are the dominant social media tools, but foodies also flock to sites such as Yelp, Urbanspoon and CitySearch or the forums on Serious Eats, Chow and other food sites. For restaurants, one social media presence isn’t necessarily more profitable than another. For L.A.’s famous Kogi BBQ truck, using Twitter to broadcast the truck’s location works best, earning Kogi more than 50,000 followers. In New York City, Dallas BBQ favors Facebook to share photos, promote events and converse with diners. Most social media tools are free. Finding which are best for your business and taking the time to use them regularly will make them profitable.
What incentives or deals seem to work best for foodservice groups in social media?
Insider deals available to your social media audience work great. They provide real value and create a reason for diners to monitor your social media content on a regular basis. A lot of our restaurants are pros at offering keywords on Facebook and Twitter that result in special discounts. Mention the word “cabernet” at City Winery in New York City for half-off flatbread. Tell Freshii you saw their tweet and get a free scoop of walnuts with your salad. Exclusive promotions like these can help a restaurant build a strong online following.
What is the next big thing for restaurant marketing?
More diners are adopting social media, accessing it on the go from mobile devices or starting to use location-based social networks such as Foursquare. To successfully market a restaurant, sitting on the social media sidelines won’t be an option. Social media will continue to foster strong, personal connections between restaurants and diners.
Social media also affords everyone an opportunity to be a restaurant critic. Engaging in an authentic, meaningful conversation with consumers will be the key to marketing success and growth, even if that means acknowledging negative feedback; transparency is paramount. Rewards Network provides tools that allow restaurants and diners to communicate directly, helping businesses use consumer feedback to their advantage.
Have you visited any restaurants lately that offered a memorable food experience?
Where can you find the perfect winter meal topped off with a flight of cupcakes? At May Street Market here in Chicago, which offers a $25 prix-fixe menu Monday through Wednesday. I loved their apple pumpkin soup, grilled brook trout in walnut balsamic brown butter and, of course, a big-enough-to-share cupcake flight. Such great comfort food! The white tablecloths, interesting seasonal menu, and great service made me feel honored as a guest — and yet the set menu price, BYOB option, and cash back on the bill (if you’re an iDine member), created exceptional value for me.
Image credit, webphotographeer, via iStock