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How to build buzz

It's the hottest, well, buzzword in marketing. Buzz. Everybody wants it. Not everybody has it. And to get it, best you forget the old lingo of media buys, bump rates and drive times and get hip to the "influencers," "viral marketers," "bloggers" and "blasters" who are driving things today. According to many of the top consumer advertisers, getting people talking about you—be it face-to-face, online or over the phone—is where it's at.

In the age of TiVo, when couch potatoes can tune out commercials at will and traditional ads reach fewer and fewer eyeballs, marketing pros who are out to build buzz have moved away from mass media and towards word-of-mouth.

"We call it the fall of advertising and the rise of PR," says Laura Ries, president of marketing strategists Ries & Ries. "Particularly in the building of a brand, we feel advertising is totally ineffective. For advertising to be effective, it has to have credibility. A new brand doesn't have credibility. Brands are truly built by word-of-mouth."

A growing body of consumer research suggests the 60-second conversation is dethroning the 30-second ad:

  • 2006 survey by GfK Roper Consulting found 81 percent of U.S. consumers cited "people" as a trusted source of information and purchase ideas, versus 55 percent for advertising.
  • March 2005 survey by CMO magazine found 44 percent of marketing executives planned to use word-of-mouth marketing in the next six months.
  • McKinsey & Co. estimated in 2000 that 67 percent of the entire U.S. economy is affected by buzz, defined as "explosive self-generating demand."

But what's bad for ad agencies may be good for restaurants—because consumers already love to talk about them. "The number one word-of-mouth category in America is food and dining," says Brad Fay, COO of researcher Keller Fay Group. "People talk about food and dining brands more often than they talk about any other kind of brands."

In diaries kept by 3,000 consumers, Keller Fay found they mentioned food and dining brands 7.6 times a week, edging out movies and entertainment. And small operators don't need big budgets to go toe-to-toe with McDonald's or Chili's. The trick is to plan a word-of-mouth campaign as systematically as you would an ad buy. Here, according to experts both in restaurants and other industries, are the five new rules for creating buzz.

New Rule #1

Talk back (it'll keep people talking about you)

Want more people to chat about you? Start by checking out what they're already saying—then get involved in the conversation. Travel Websites like Citysearch and social networking sites like MySpace are abuzz with unvarnished restaurant reviews. "Google your own name once a week to see where it shows up and whether there are any comments," says Don Schultz, professor of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Pay special attention to Weblogs, two-way Websites that get updated at lightning speed and let readers talk back. Most blogs are full of links to other blogs, so a single rave or gripe can quickly multiply all over cyberspace. Technorati.com, a popular search engine for blogs, lists 631 devoted to restaurants. At Icerocket.com, another popular index for blogs, a search on "Cheesecake Factory" yields 36,590 posts.

"It's a great way to get a temperature," says Chris Myles, senior vice president of the Atlanta PR firm GolinHarris. "I don't think blogs are 100 percent representative of your customer base, but if you can keep your fanatics happy, there's a good chance you can keep everybody else happy." Bloggers can alert you to problems. In 2004, word spread around the 'Net that Kryptonite bike locks, invulnerable to bolt cutters, could be picked with a Bic pen. The company offered some customers free upgrades to a new design.

If you think critics are misinformed, you can politely tell your side of the story. Just remember a few do's and don'ts, says Myles. Do respond within 24 hours. Don't brag, but do give useful information. Most important, be honest about your identity. Pretending to be someone else is likely to get you busted.

Better yet, follow some of America's biggest companies and start your own corporate blog. Some, like General Motors, answer detractors and offer new product news. Others, like software company Macromedia, ask their readers for features they'd like to see in new products. Either way, you're getting bloggers chattering, and you're building allegiance with people who, now connected in a way to your operation, can spread even more buzz.

"You might launch a blog with recipes from your restaurant," suggests Steve Rubel, senior vice president of me2revolution, a division of the global PR firm Edelman. "Or launch a videoblog with interviews of celebrities who come to your restaurant."

New Rule #2

Make a connection (with a connector)

Some people are natural know-it-alls. Marketers call them by many different names: mavens, connectors and influencers. Your goal here is to influence these influencers, to get them talking about you. "A customer evangelist is someone who not only buys from you on a regular basis, but believes in you so much he feels compelled to tell other customers about it," says consultant Ben McConnell of Creating Customer Evangelists in Chicago.

A 2002 RoperASW survey found influencers recommended restaurants more than any other type of business. In the previous year, 85 percent had talked about a restaurant, compared to 67 percent who mentioned movies and 38 percent who plugged a car. At one Chicago wineseller, word-of-mouth agency ComBlu tracked the impact of a single talkative customer. Besides spending $4,000 a year, he influenced $25,000 in purchases by others.

How do you court the connectors? An agency like BzzAgent maintains its own network of 220,000 connectors nationwide, volunteers who talk up products they like to their friends. But a small restaurant can find them in its own community.

"Look for people you believe are influential and invite them in," says Paul Rand, global chief development and innovation officer for PR firm Ketchum Inc. "You know the mayor, the women's soccer coach and the ice skating teacher at the community center know lots of people. Say, 'I'd like to have you come in for a meal and tell me what you think.'"

Jay Levinson, chairman of Guerrilla Marketing International in Olympia, Washington, suggests asking your diners what other businesses they frequent. In Marin County, California, a restaurateur found the answer was hair salons. "He gave a coupon, good for two free dinners, to all the salon owners within a two-mile radius," says Levinson. "The salon owners would go to the restaurant, check it out, come back and talk about the restaurant to their patrons. Within three months he had lines out the door."

Lastly, if you want evangelists to talk, do some listening, says Joe Chernov, PR director for BzzAgent. "This real-world, en masse focus group is gleaning real-world information from thousands of everyday people. It can shape how your restaurant or product is marketed, your menu or what your store hours are."

New Rule #3

Surprise people (and they may surprise you)

Nothing gets customers buzzing like a surprise. Sometimes it's a new product, or even a stunt. "Target does great word-of-mouth stunts," says Andy Sernovitz, CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. "They didn't have a store in Manhattan, but they brought a truck of $99 window-unit air conditioners, parked them in Union Square and sold them off the back of the truck. "The Drury Inn hotel chain gives you an hour of free long distance for every guest every day. It costs them nothing, but the first thing you do when you pick up the phone is to say, 'Can you believe there's a hotel with free long distance?'"

Even your humblest item can offer a surprise, says David Esrati, chief creative officer of ad agency The Next Wave in Dayton, Ohio. Like the pizza box he designed for Dayton's Original Pizza Factory. The front of the box reads, "Smile! Your pizza's here," while the bottom says, "If you can read this, it's time to reorder." Says Esrati, "Everything you do in a restaurant is an advertisement."

Unique service also gets people talking, says McConnell. At Cyrus, a fine-dining establishment in Sonoma, California, the hostess alerted the kitchen to a new guest's arrival. Once seated, a cart came up with champagne and caviar. "It's an experience I've talked about hundreds of times," McConnell says.

Another gossip-starter is to offer dishes that aren't on the menu but can be requested by people in the know. California's In-N-Out Burger has a cult following for its "secret menu," with burgers like the Animal Style, Protein Style, Flying Dutchman and 4x4. Jamba Juice has a similar reputation for smoothies, with unofficial concoctions like White Gummi Bear, Strawberry Shortcake and Peanut Butter and Jelly.

New Rule #4

Spread a virus (and catch some lightning)

Laundry detergent isn't exactly a hot product. But when Tide launched a new soap, meant to save energy by washing in cold water, it sent a special offer to its existing email list. Customers could get a free sample, calculate their savings and have the offer sent to other friends. At a special Website, they could track the email on a map as it passed from friend to friend. Site visits jumped 904 percent in one week, and in the first month, Tide added 484,343 people to its email list.

Viral marketing is word-of-mouth moved online. The same connectors who pass on jokes, doctored photos and chain letters can also be enticed to forward a clever commercial message.

When Burger King introduced its TenderCrisp Chicken sandwich in 2004, it seeded Internet chat rooms with links to "Subservient Chicken," a Website where an actor in a chicken suit performs any command typed in. The site recorded 20 million visits its first week. In the first month, sandwich sales jumped 9 percent.

"What they were trying to do was to introduce the brand of Burger King to a new demographic, college kids," says Jennifer Laycock, editor-in-chief of the Website Search Engine Guide. "They caught their attention and made themselves look cool to a new group of people."

Even more effective than a wacky ad, says Laycock, is a coupon for something of value, like a free burrito or latte. You can test the appeal of various offers by emailing them to small groups of customers and learning what's most popular before blasting your whole list.

The dark side of viral marketing is that you can't always control your message once you turn it loose. In March, General Motors invited customers to create video spots for the Chevy Tahoe. The campaign backfired when hundreds of environmentalists posted anti-SUV ads on GM's Website. The company belatedly announced it would screen ads for "offensive and inflammatory" content.

Another caution before launching an epidemic: Be prepared for it to get out of hand. In August, Starbucks Coffee sent Atlanta employees an email coupon for a free iced coffee. Six days later, after coupons were forwarded and forged nationwide, the company announced it would no longer honor them. The next week, Caribou Coffee stepped in and offered a free cup to anyone who brought in a Starbucks coupon.

New Rule #5

Go mobile (and get those cell phones buzzing)

What can a restaurant owner learn from "American Idol?" If you want quick customer response, the tool is right there in your pocket: a cell phone. Say you're running a special offer. Mobile marketing lets you spread the word via text or multimedia message. The idea? Cement customer loyalty by speeding those special offers to a select group: those who've "opted in" by text-messaging your restaurant to get on your list.

"What's unique about mobile is the opportunity to get the right information to the right person at the right time," says Jeff Ostiguy, vice president of mobile marketing firm g8wave in Boston. "You can't be sure someone's going to get an email in time."

Commercial text messages are already big in Europe, where most print ads now include a five-digit mobile short code right next to a Web address. But U.S. brands like Nike, Coca-Cola, Dove and Simon & Schuster are catching on, and so are some small restaurants.

In Iowa City, Iowa, Innovative Mediums keeps databases for several local eateries, from 100 to 500 mobile numbers. A restaurateur logs onto a Website and types in a message. A computerized system sends it out at the appointed time. In 10 seconds, the ad has reached everybody on the list.

Compared to email, the service isn't cheap, but it's competitive with print, radio and TV. Innovative has a base charge of $250 a month, plus 20 cents for every message sent, so a 100-person broadcast runs $20.
Most restaurants use the cell phone as an electronic coupon, with customers showing their phones to display the message when they arrive. "Free stuff is the most effective kind of offer," says Innovative's CEO Adam Kuperman. "People show up, get one special at the beginning of the football game and spend three more quarters hanging out."

Having a slow day? "You can mail your list to say, 'Come in for dinner and get a free appetizer,'" says Ostiguy. "If it's a rainy day, you can put out a coupon for 20 percent off a takeout order."

Just don't overdo it, he warns. "For loyal diners, you can send one or two messages a week without turning anybody off."

Buzz builder
Moe's Southwest Grill  

Atlanta, Georgia

Call it YouTube for burrito eaters. Moe’s invites customers to create their own 30-second videos using its tagline, “A Moe’s Burrito in Every Hand,” and upload them to its Website. Entries so far include burrito football, a re-enactment of William Tell using a burrito as projectile and an animated creature who sprouts hands as burritos fall from the sky. Viewers can vote online until January 15, when a panel will judge the top 20.

“We’re targeting 18- to 35-year-olds,” says Sara Riggsby, director of marketing. “They have an interest in videos, video-sharing and rating other customers. We’re trying to drive traffic to our Website.” There, they can join the 50,000 on Moe’s email list, who receive periodic email blasts and vouchers for one free burrito on their birthdays. The contest winner gets “Burritos for Life”: 2,860 vouchers, equal to one a week for 55 years.

With 327 units, Moe’s does few TV ads, says Riggsby. “Most of our markets only have a couple of locations. We tend to spend money more on guerrilla marketing efforts.” Besides her existing email list, she is promoting the video contest through online ads, at sites like MySpace and Meetup.com, and by contacting colleges and film schools.

Buzz Builder
Case d'Ice

North Versailles, Pennsylvania

How does a restaurant and bar southeast of Pittsburgh draw diners from around the world and 80,000 Web visits a day? Sometimes, by accident. Owner Bill Balsamico has found a cult following for his 6-by-8-foot signboards, where he touts his conservative politics in catchy and sometimes unprintable slogans. Sample: “This is America. Why must we press 1 to proceed in English?”

Recalls Balsamico, “I started doing it after 9/11. I put it up for my own personal opinions. Each time I changed the sign, I put it on my Website, for the hell of it. One day, it just took off like a jet.”

Since June, when a local paper covered the signs, he’s appeared on MSNBC with Tucker Carlson and launched a line of merchandise. Sales have jumped 10 percent, he says. “A lot of new people come in. You can tell they’ve never been here. Eventually, they ask for the guy who does the sign.”

Buzz builder
Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery 

Louisville, Colorado

Beer is not the only way Rock Bottom’s customers can catch a buzz. In 2003, this brewpub chain hired word-of-mouth agency BzzAgent, for 12 weeks, to promote a new menu and its “Mug Club” loyalty program. Each of 1,073 volunteers got a gift card, a backgrounder and a list of suggested activities, from conversation-starters to taking their softball teams to lunch. Agents filed reports on each interaction.

The Harvard Business School tracked the results: 9,755 new club members—a 55 percent increase—and $1.2 million in additional revenue. Comp store sales were up 6 percent for the year.

For $80,000, marketing director Marilyn Davenport says she got more bang than she could from TV or radio. With 30 stores in 15 markets, “We don’t have a lot of chainlike media efficiencies. We’re looking for alternative ways to get the word out. In my mind, this is a more effective, targeted way of building customer relationships, and that’s my philosophy of how to build a brand.” A second campaign is in progress.

Buzz builder
Boloco 

Hanover, New Hampshire

Ayear ago, Boloco, a fast casual burrito restaurant a block from Dartmouth College, got just 30 percent of its business from college students. How to boost that number? John Pepper, CEO and co-founder of Stellar Restaurant Group, which owns and operates 10 Boloco locations in seven states, says he needed to get students to create buzz about the restaurant on campus.

For several months, Boloco and a student-run firm, RIG Student Consultants, hammered out a buzz marketing plan that included an in-store rap contest, impromptu burrito drops at fraternity parties, casual emails sent by the students and other events. All were designed to look organic and student driven, rather than like official Boloco marketing ploys.

“It wasn’t like Boloco sending out an official blitz,” says Lou Williams, one of the student marketers. Slowly, delivery orders to campus grew, from just a few a night to a steady stream of 25 to 40, with an anticipated doubling of that over the next two years. 

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