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Is MySpace right for your space?

Online social networking has businesses logging on.

Have you felt it yet? That sinking feeling that you’re finally going to have to figure out what MySpace or Facebook is. Makes you feel old doesn’t it?

Don’t worry, social networking—as these type sites are referred to—is still in its Wild West phase and ripe for experimentation without a big expenditure of cash.

Here’s how they work. Social networks at their most basic are Web sites where people can find and connect with each other. Users build profile pages to share information about themselves, usually pictures, bios and interests. They collect “friends”—other folks in the network that they already know or those who have found them based on similar interests. They can then engage with each other through the site by leaving and sending messages.

Increasingly, restaurants are joining these networks, building their own profile pages and connecting with existing customers and potential ones.

Social networking champs MySpace (myspace.com) and FaceBook (facebook.com) have millions of users. According to a recent report by Internet research firm eMarketer, 37 percent of U.S. adult Internet users and 70 percent of teen users engage in social networking each month. “Social networking is important for everyone, no matter what business you’re in. It gets your name out there and is a great way to communicate with your customers directly,” says Lindsey Jaffe, an emerging-media specialist with WordHampton Public Relations. It’s quickly becoming a situation where restaurants can’t afford to miss out on the opportunities.

It all starts with your restaurant building a profile page. “The best way to start is to just nibble at it bit by bit. Go to MySpace and go to Facebook and start an account. You don’t have to fill out your entire profile in one day,” says Jaffe. If you have limited time, Jaffe recommends checking into Facebook first. All Facebook profiles are built using a similar template, so you’ll save time by not having to pick out colors, backgrounds and other design elements. MySpace can require more design work.

With either one, it’s important to avoid clutter and make sure that the image of your restaurant is reflected in your profile choices.  After your profile is launched, it’s time to focus on making the right connections. MySpace can connect up with your Webmail address book to find customers whose information you already have. You can also search for users by location to find local customers that may want to be friends with you. Facebook has stricter rules on businesses contacting users, so it helps to be creative when promoting your Facebook profile. Place a link back to your profile from your main restaurant Web site. Consider adding that Web address to your offline promo material as well. Put it on the bottom of your menu or include it in ads.

Tangier Restaurant in Los Angeles is not just a popular spot in the physical world, it’s also a hip place to visit online. With well over 1,000 friends, it’s put a MySpace profile to work in its marketing plans. Tangier has been active on MySpace for two years and has found it to be an effective way to keep customers in the loop. It uses MySpace to send out digital flyers and emails about promotions and special events. The menu and photos of the restaurant are posted on the profile. “When you are linked to thousands of people that you normally wouldn’t reach with traditional methods, you increase your chances of exposure, establishing yourself and further promoting what your niche is,” says Matt Huhn, manager of booking and events at Tangier. 

Huhn estimates that Tangier spends about 40 hours per month on social networking. It recently launched a Facebook profile. “Receiving customer feedback is very important to us and we try to make it as interactive as possible to help gauge how we can make things better and differentiate ourselves from the competition,” says Huhn.

The shear number of social networking users make MySpace and Facebook tempting places to test the advertising waters. Facebook’s Social Ads let you target specific audiences. Social Ads are small banner ads that appear when users are viewing pages. You can purchase and customize your own Social Ads to help promote your restaurant. You can narrow down the target audience of your ad by location, sex, age, and other parameters. Your ad budget can be as low as $5 per day or as high as you want.

The number of times your ad is shown depends on the demand for your specific audience by other ad buyers. The more you spend, the more chances that users will see your ad. “The most important thing is budget. It’s a really low cost way to try something new,” says Jaffe. She suggests that traditional measurement methods work just as well for the new media. A simple coupon included in your social networking ad can help clue you into the effectiveness of your efforts.    

Lesser-known networks    

MySpace and Facebook are the biggest networks, but don’t overlook these other sites.

LinkedIn (linkedin.com)
This business social networking site can help you locate employees, managers and other business contacts. It’s more about resumes, education and work experience and keeping in touch with colleagues.

FohBoh (fohboh.com)
A recently launched restaurant-focused site, FohBoh is designed specifically for industry insiders to connect with other restaurant owners, employees, service providers and suppliers.

Ning (ning.com)
Ning provides a home for users to build their own niche social networking sites. This is a smart place to look for specialized social networks to join that cover your town. 

Yelp (yelp.com)
Yelp is a little different from many social networking sites. It is built on user reviews of local businesses. Restaurant owners can get involved as individuals to keep track of what customers are saying and chime in when appropriate.

Bite Club (biteclub.com)
Another recently launched restaurant-focused site, Bite Club is designed for restaurant workers to interact with one another, to find jobs and to research lifestyle information including new places to eat.      

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