Restaurants and bars need more than a website to compete online today. Guests now demand an interactive digital relationship with their favorite venues, including posts on Facebook and updates on Twitter. Social media-savvy operators share best practices, promotions, and the rewards and challenges of consistent communication online with fans and followers.
“Social media has enabled us to build relationships with guests beyond the time they spend within the four walls of one of our restaurant or bar locations,” says Shannon Gewinner, vice president of brand marketing for the Dallas-based chain T.G.I. Friday’s. “We have the ability to maintain a two-way conversation with guests on a variety of topics, including food and beverage preferences, specific dining experiences they’ve had with us, and much more.”
Friday’s, which operates more than 900 casual-dining locations in over 60 countries, has more than 1 million Facebook fans and 14,000 Twitter followers through @TGIFridays. The chain uses social media to keep fans up to date about new cocktails and promotions.
A recent “Summer Drink Quiz” allowed Facebook fans to identify their perfect warm-weather libation. A live Twitter event with cocktail and spirits blogger Camper English discussed mixology-related topics and questions using the hashtag #ItsAlwaysFriday. The latter event resulted in more than 40 tweets per second, and over 3 million impressions in an hour.
At Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, social media is one of many tools with which guests can interact with the brand. “As part of our ‘Take Back the Bar’ initiative, we have been increasing social media messaging around our beverage program, and we used multiple social platforms to promote unique and different aspects,” says interactive marketing manager Marcie Everett.
The Greenwood Village, Colo.-based casual-dining chain operates over 460 locations in the U.S. and Canada. Its 500,000 Facebook fans can view pictures and read detailed descriptions of Red Robin’s signature cocktails on the social media site. “When they see our Ultimate Margarita come across their Facebook wall feed,” Everett says, “it gives them a reason to think of us and engage with fellow users about the beverage, pushing our brand at every turn.”
Twitter’s limitation to 140 characters per tweet means that operators must be concise and memorable when sharing their message via that medium. Red Robin tweets beverage photos to their 21,000 Twitter followers through @redrobinburgers, along with fun, witty quips that Everett believes taps into the brand’s irreverent nature.
Red Robin has also added a QR code to their drinks and dessert menu that links to exclusive downloadable smartphone wallpapers, including pictures of non-alcoholic signature beverages, and a frosty cold draft beer. The mobile site also includes a link for patrons to join the Red Royalty loyalty program, and direct links to the company’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.
Spreading the word socially
Venues today often use social media outlets as the primary marketing means for new beverage programs. The 141 locations of fondue chain The Melting Pot, owned by the Tampa, Fla.-based Front Burner Brands, recently launched Skinny Sipping.
The program features low-calorie cocktails mixed with Voli light vodka and Skinnygirl vodka and wine. The nearly 500,000 Facebook fans systemwide (90,000 for the corporate site; the rest for individual locations), and 10,000 Twitter followers of @TheMeltingPot can read and share promotional posts and tweets from The Melting Pot, and also from Voli brand owners Fergie and Pitbull, and Skinnygirl creator Bethenny Frankel.
“Using social media effectively can drive traffic to our restaurant, increase sales and build brand loyalty,” notes Sandy D’Elosua, national director of communications for Front Burner Brands. “We engage with our fans one-to-one, so we strive to respond to every single person who talks about our brand, building relationships that hopefully last a lifetime,” adds beverage manager Paul Brown.
The Mandarin Oriental in New York a few months ago unveiled “The Like Page,” a list of four cocktails inspired by popular social media sites. The menu includes the Garden of Google, with gin, cucumber, cilantro and sparkling sake; and the Brbon Tumblr, with Knob Creek Bourbon, grapefruit juice, maple syrup and blood-orange liqueur. The popular drinks, priced at $19 each, have also generated buzz on blogs and other websites—and management hasn’t failed to notice the word-of-mouth effect of sharing links about the promotion.
“Consumers send video links, menu links and favorite blog links,” says Jessica Seasholtz, director of marketing communications for the 248-room Mandarin Oriental New York. “Creating that real-time conversation and being able to see it spread is really rewarding. It can make a big impact on scaling a message or program.”
The New York location of the hotel has also incorporated food and cocktails into its “365 Reasons Why We Love NYC” campaign on Facebook. The daily posting including a custom image shot by a local photographer, along with an anecdote about what to love about that part of the city.
The campaign reaches nearly 5,000 Facebook fans and over 4,000 Twitter followers of @MO_NEWYORK. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group has almost 59,000 fans on Facebook and nearly 25,000 Twitter followers through @MO_HOTELS.
Encouraging guest visits
It’s not only large-scale hotels and restaurant chains that can benefit from using social media to promote drinks, however. Trendy dim sum spot Ping Pong Dim Sum, with locations in D.C.’s Chinatown and Dupont Circle neighborhoods, has an ongoing “What We’re Drinking Today” campaign for their 3,500 Facebook fans and 2,000 Twitter followers. The restaurant posts a menu-related beverage trivia question; the first person to answer correctly receives a free drink at their next visit.
Both locations also invite Facebook friends to join them for happy hour and receive a complimentary cocktail. This has proven to be a successful way to meet fans in person, and to promote events like their Dragon Boat and Beer festival.
“These are people who made the conscious decision to become a fan/follower, which means that they like Ping Pong and what the concept is all about,” explains marketing and sales associate Diana Chen. “These are people to care about and ask for opinions because they took the time to ‘visit’ [virtually.]”
Success in the social media realm results from always being mindful of your brand, posting content regularly, and including different interactive components, Chen says. “It doesn’t always have to be ‘come in and buy this drink.’ It can be something like a ‘how-to’ webisode that teaches your fans how to make the drink at home.”
The Hamilton is a 500-seat, two-level restaurant and music venue located in D.C.’s vibrant Penn Quarter neighborhood. Promoter and talent liaison Maya Sanford has found that social media outlets have become the best way for management to market The Hamilton. “We are able to get valuable information and specials out to everyone much faster with social media,” she says. Recent specials include a series of free concerts over a weekend in the spring, along with half-price beer pitcher specials. Many customers who came to the shows mentioned that they heard about them on Facebook (on which The Hamilton has more than 5,000 fans) and Twitter (@thehamiltondc has over 2,000 followers).
Social media minefields
Social media does pose several challenges for operators. Sanford points out that at a venue like The Hamilton, with frequently updated menu options and a constantly changing schedule of live music, organization is key. “The biggest challenge is pulling together all of the information that we need,” she says. “Then it’s important not to overwhelm our audience.”
Large chains with locations nationwide must be mindful of geo-targeting, especially when promoting regional beers or specialty cocktails that are only available in a certain part of the country. “We view Twitter and Facebook as a way to create engagement on a national level, and we focus on featuring beverages that guests can enjoy in all of our restaurants,” Everett says.
As with other means of promoting beverages, you have to consider legal concerns when using social media to share information about new drinks, menus and specials. Friday’s makes sure it targets an age-appropriate audience for any online promotions that feature alcoholic beverages, says Gewinner.
For instance, Friday’s works closely with their legal team to build in age-restricting barriers. Participants in the recent “Summer Drink Quiz” had to prove they were at least 21 through a virtual age gate.
When Ping Pong Dim Sum promotes its party brunch “Sumdays,” which feature bottomless tableside mimosas, management is careful to include a time limit to avoid misunderstandings and overconsumption. And the venues focus on promoting non-alcoholic coolers and the Dim Sum menus to its underage fans rather than alcoholic beverages.
Consistency in the form of regular posts on Twitter and Facebook is key to attracting and retaining fans and followers of social media—a fact that The Melting Pot finds challenging due to logistical limitations. The three-person communications team at Front Burner Brands constantly works on methods to implement the right digital strategies—all with a limited budget and limited resources.
And perhaps the greatest variable is the difficulty in measuring the ROI for all of the work involved in a social media program. The Mandarin’s Seasholtz notes that social media is still relatively new, and the methods to track and measure it aren’t precise.
Chen agrees, noting that the effort spent running a promotion through social media doesn’t always translate to a directly proportionate amount of engagement from fans. A well-produced video that took several days to create may only result in five likes, but a simple picture with a complimentary drink offer will receive many more.
“It’s hard to know exactly what brings fans/followers onto our page and ultimately into the restaurant,” Chen says. “It’s necessary to do it all and do it consistently.” ·
Check please? There’s an app for that
T.G.I. Friday’s is the first casual-dining concept to use a smartphone-based, pay-at-the-table application. The robust app allows patrons to locate a restaurant, view the menu, track their tab and pay directly from their phones when they are ready to leave through a seamless integration with Friday’s point-of-sale software. “The app also contains a portal to the brand’s social networking sites, where fans can share updates from happy hour, check out special drinks and menu promotions, and learn about the latest happenings,” says interactive marketing manager Marcie Everett. Smart, indeed.
Pinning to Beverage Bulletin Boards
Pinterest is a fast-growing social media tool that operators are using to spread the word about creative beverages and cocktail specials. The site employs virtual bulletin boards, onto which users can “pin” pictures linking to recipes, coupons, specials, tweets, and Facebook posts. Pinterest’s visually striking nature makes it a perfect way to stylishly highlight a new cocktail or bar menu item.
And since Pinterest encourages followers to share images via “repins,” and make comments just like on Facebook, the site has the potential for serious viral marketing.
The Melting Pot manages eight boards on its Pinterest site called “The Fondue Effect,” including a board of photos promoting the company’s Skinny Sipping program. T.G.I. Fridays’ several pinboards include “Happy Hour: Off the Clock. Off the Hook” and “Creative Cocktails: The Bar Has Been Raised.”
Ping Pong Dim Sum operates six pinboards. Its “China with a Twist” board has photos of current and formerly featured drinks (both with and without alcohol), including the Lemongrass and Lime Cocktail, and the Earl Grey Julep.
And while the Mandarin Oriental’s 26 Pinterest boards don’t specifically promote the hotel’s drinks programs, each highlights a neighborhood in the city (Williamsburg, West Village, NoHo), and includes photos of food and cocktails discovered around New York. With the city’s rich history, “we thought there was a great story to tell,” says director of marketing communications Jessica Seasholtz. “There have been some fantastic food and cocktail inclusions in [the Pinterest boards] to date, and there will be many more.”