Social media isn’t all marketing

Ruby Tuesday’s narrowly averted cheese-biscuit apocalypse demonstrates how social media’s role is evolving from marketing to operations. The chain has spent several years working through a major brand refresh, migrating from a down-home bar-and-grill to a more upscale-casual concept. To that end, the company decided to phase out the free cheddar biscuits given to diners, testing the new program in one area where the biscuits went AWOL. The reaction was telling: customers had a fit, sharing their displeasure through social media.

In the olden days, a restaurant chain may have toddled forward, unaware of the unhappy customers who were busy telling their friends in person about their disappointing experiences. These days, it was all over social media.

Fortunately, Ruby Tuesday was listening, and a crisis was averted.

Social media no longer tucks neatly away into the marketing fold for restaurants. It’s now a key part of operations, informing everything from new menu items to how staff training is handled. Making that shift involves looking beyond the surface of social media comments and discovering the hidden insights and trends.

Kristin Muhlner, CEO of newBrandAnalytics, a social media monitoring firm, advises restaurant operators to look past the star rating of an online review and delve into the details. Was the server excellent, but the food cold? Was the food slow to arrive, but the atmosphere given high marks? Look for these sorts of items from multiple sources over time. You may discover a trend showing that customers are waiting too long for their meals. This is a problem that can then be corrected by implementing new processes or adjusting employee training. You can even track feedback on individual servers or see how the competition is stacking up based on social media commentary.

Fifth Group runs seven fine dining restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia, two of which feature Mexican cuisine. One particular dish made with chilies seemed to be getting hotter and hotter, leading to an internal debate about whether to leave it alone or change it. Social media feedback led to a toning down of the dish.

“Eventually, we saw enough people saying the same thing online so that even the chef could not argue,” says Robby Kukler, co-founder of Fifth Group. “It was a subjective view coming from multiple people online via social media that got our attention.”

Fifth Group also uses social media as one component that plays into regular bonuses. The company tracks social media sentiment about each restaurant. “We believe in quantitative measuring. We tie it to guest awareness bonuses,” says Kukler. Positive online feedback helps play into higher bonuses, giving staff extra incentive to provide excellent customer service, the kind that customers will talk about online.

Fifth Group is also planning to integrate social media into the hiring side of its operations. “Finding quality people to work in restaurants is as hard as it’s ever been. We want to use social media to help drive awareness of Fifth Group as an employer,” says Kukler.

Smashburger, a fast-casual chain of burger restaurants, was founded during the age of social media. Making social media a part of the company’s operations just came naturally. “It’s always been an integral part of our strategy. It is part of our DNA to be constantly communicating with guests in that context,” says Jeremy Morgan, senior vice president of marketing and consumer insights at Smashburger.

Social media chatter led to the chain’s launch of a veggie burger. “It was our number one guest complaint,” says Morgan.

He has some advice for keeping a handle on the wide world of social media. “A brand has to decide which channels are most important and most relevant for them and their guests, and pick their battles. It’s more important to do fewer channels really, really well than a whole lot of channels not so well,” he says.

For example, you may find that Facebook and Yelp give you the most usable feedback. Responding to customer complaints or compliments is only half the battle. The rest is about deep listening and reacting to what you’ve learned.

Whether you choose to hire a social media monitoring company or plan to handle it on your own, keep track of the trends that appear in customer comments and look to the operations side of your business to correct problem areas or stay the course in what you’re doing well.

“Don’t get overwhelmed. Start with the basics. Understand how you’re going to use this across the organization,” says Muhlner. “Using social data, which is unsolicited and freely given, really gets to the key aspects of the experience that people are going to talk about and care about.”

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