The recent Domino's Pizza YouTube scandal was a stark example of how damaging the wrong kind of online exposure can be. But if you get it right, social media can be a powerful way to promote your business, engage with customers and give you the edge, as Caterer reports
The footage of two rogue Domino's employees doing disgusting things to people's food was not just a low point for a fast food industry dogged by urban myths of food tampering; it was a classic example of viral marketing gone very wrong.
Aside from repulsing viewers across the world (YouTube has 10.8 million users each month in the UK alone) and striking fear into the hearts of hospitality operators and consumers alike, it showed what a huge - and in this case devastating - impact the internet can have on a brand.
But it also showed the ability of the internet - and specifically of social media - to help brands manage slurs to their reputation. Luckily for Domino's, after a slow start in internet terms, it handled the incident effectively, issuing a sincere apology on YouTube from Patrick Doyle, president of Domino's USA. He thanked the online community for alerting the company to the incident quickly (leading to the arrest of the offenders) and explained a detailed plan of action being taken across Domino's outlets, including "re-examining all hiring practices to make sure that people like this don't make it into our stores."
It will take time for the brand to regain its customers' trust, but thanks to the interactive nature of YouTube, it was able to immediately vocalise its regret, show customers it cared and reassure them of its reaction.
WHY USE SOCIAL MEDIA?
So why, given the risks, should you get your business on social media? Well, for most people the internet is the first stop they use when booking a restaurant or hotel, which is why it's crucial to build up your business's online presence and reputation. Even if you're not on the internet much, the people who walk through your door will be, and it's time to engage with them.
Though you may already have a website (not having one these days is tantamount to turning people away), social media like Facebook, microblogging site Twitter and YouTube can offer fantastic opportunities to bolster this presence and increase your visibility and Google listings.
Neil MacLean, an online PR strategist and former Sunday Times travel journalist, says: "It's suddenly happening - just look at the companies that have jumped on Twitter. One of the great things about social media is that in times of recession it's an opportunity for brands and businesses to speak directly to, build relationships with, and reel in customers, one at a time.
"Marketing and big ads might not be affordable, but you can find people on Twitter who are interested in what you do and [you can] speak to them."
HOW DOES IT WORK?
What exactly is social media, and how does it work?
"Social media is such a broad term there's something in it for everyone," says Ciaran Norris, head of search and social media for Altogether Digital.
The term applies to sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube which are information-sharing utilities with a social, interactive element where you can build an online network and communicate with other users.
Your customers, potential customers and their friends are all engaging on these sites, swapping recommendations, vocalising their complaints and building relationships.
Of course, the plethora of social networking sites can be confusing and overwhelming. So familiarise yourself with the options, and consider demographics, your brand objectives and a strategy. Think about which sites are interesting to the people you're targeting.
However, as Norris points out, you will need to build up an online following or network before you see the returns, and this takes time.
"There is no quick way to build up a network," he says.
"You'll need to put a resource into it at first - be it time or money. The best way is to get involved in the conversation - an hour a day will make an impact.
"Try and offer help, advice and tips, and make people want to follow you. You have to prove that you're useful, engaging, funny or interesting for people to want to listen to you."
Essentially, you need to think about what might engage your customers - are you a restaurant with a charismatic chef who might work well cooking recipes on YouTube? Or do you have a web-savvy, office-based member of staff who can put your message out there on Twitter or write an insightful blog?
DO'S AND DON'TS
One of the biggest faux pas made by businesses on social media is to attempt the hard sell. Because of the open, personal nature of these sites, this doesn't wash, as MacLean explains.
"Look at it as a relationship tool, not a full-on old fashioned marketing tool," he says.
"There is no point in using something like a blog and Twitter as a megaphone to shout your brand values, because people will turn you off.
"You need to project the real you and the real brand. You should also encourage customers to create content - you might not have time to post pictures on Flickr, but if you've got loyal customers who've had a great time, encourage them to put pictures up, mention you on Twitter or blog about you."
WHO'S USING IT?
The hospitality industry has been quite slow to embrace social media until now, but the recession and budget cuts have driven people to look for cheaper ways of promoting themselves. Social media is generally free to use and is used by millions, which is why hotels and restaurants are now jumping on board at a rate of knots.
Twitter is a prime example - just type 'hotel' into its search facility and you'll find everything from family-run B&Bs to huge brands like Marriott on there.
A recent Twitter tendency for hotels has been to offer special room rates to Twitter followers, with The Hoxton Hotel in London selling rooms for £1 and Crowne Plaza hotels promoting a room giveaway.
Restaurants and chefs are at it too. One operator leading the way with its social media strategy is London's Galvin at Windows. Fred Sirieix , the restaurant's general manager, is a regular on Twitter, where he has nearly 1,300 followers after only a couple of months on the site.
Sirieix uses Twitter to speak to fans of the restaurant, put out special offers like the discounted "Twitter menu", and post pictures and videos of chef André Garrett cooking the dish of the day.
"It's not a question of whether you should be on social media; it's a question of when you're going to be there," says Sirieix.
"The connection you make is the best thing about it. I make great contacts and I have a lot of fun. It's not a replacement for engaging and communicating with people face-to-face; it's another way to communicate."
Using MacLean as a consultant, the Torridon Hotel in Wester Ross, Scotland has developed an all-encompassing social media strategy including Twitter and Facebook, with a blog at the heart of it - designed to drive traffic to its website. Owner Daniel Rose-Bristow enlists the help of his staff to generate new and interesting content for the blog.
"Les, my gardener, writes on it," he says, "and there's input from my chef, barman and others to keep people reading and keep the content fresh. It's about little and often."
Rose-Bristow explains that its measurability makes social media such a valuable tool.
"Eventually I think it will replace our traditional marketing, as I can monitor this - what people look at, what they subscribe to, whether they book, what links they click. It's measurable and you can see the returns. It's an enormous time investment, but it seems to be worth it . It's what people want; it's how people are operating now. Ultimately it's about getting people to buy into the brand and what we do. I'm looking to generate loyalty. In this day and age everyone, even my mother, is using the internet."
THE POWER OF THE BLOG
For MacLean, the blog is the most powerful tool for a social media campaign.
"I think it's a shame to focus on your website because it's just a static brochure and it's a bit 20th century," he says.
"It makes sense to have a blog at the heart of that because it's an ongoing, keyword-rich, search-engine friendly communications tool that works extremely well if you do it right.
"It's the constantly updated content [that works]. Google relishes this kind of content because its remit is to provide relevant, recent, useful results for people."
From a search engine perspective, blogs make sense, but it's also their personal touch that makes them effective, argues MacLean.
"From the point of view of converting lookers into bookers, it's great. You get more idea from a blog of what a place is like, who the staff are and what to expect."
These are dark times for operators, but if you're prepared to put the time and work into embracing social media, this incredibly powerful tool could give you the edge over your competitors.
Join Caterer's very own networking site for the hospitality industry, Table Talk. All you need to do is log on to keep up to date with the latest goings on from around the industry and make new contacts.
Members can keep up to speed with the hot topics within the industry, share their thoughts and ideas in the forums and share photos and videos. Got to www.caterersearch.com/tabletalk
All types of operators are using Twitter to interact with their customers, from family-run B&Bs to global brands like Marriott
DO'S AND DON'TS FOR USING SOCIAL MEDIA
By Walid Al Saqqaf, co-founder, Trustedplaces.com
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