Why I'm a lightning rod & how to pick a social media firm

So it appears that I have stirred up a little controversy on the Internets, this past week. If you haven't read it, I wrote a blog post about 3 reasons Restaurants should outsource their social media efforts.

By putting myself and my "blunt, to the point" opinions out in the public, for anyone to read, I understand that I'm going to be called to task occasionally. Not only that, people are going to tell me why they feel I'm wrong, give me an example to illustrate their point and why they feel they are correct. This is what is called "constructive dialogue".

All in all, there was a great deal of spirited, passionate and constructive conversation that took place this past week. What I found interesting though, were the people that were either 100% in agreement with my post, or 100% in disagreement with my post. By nature, I find extremes interesting. I generally don't enjoy conversing with people with extreme viewpoints, simply because you can't talk with a person like that. You can only listen to them. But, conversation aside, I enjoy observing them, doing a little cyber snooping into what they're background is (professional background..... come on, I'm not creepy), and trying to put two and two together (I guess it's my psychology degree, begging to get some use :) ). As I'm sure it's not surprising, the general finding I've discovered among people that rest on both extremes is that they think they are much smarter than anyone else, and nobody else could possibly do their job. I hate to rain on anyone's parade, but that's not accurate.

I promise to get to the main purpose of my post in a minute, but I couldn't help but share a couple of the more interesting / entertaining viewpoints I received from these "extreme" proponents or opponents:

"Restaurant owners and staff cannot possibly grasp what is needed for an ongoing social media campaign. They should never even attempt such a thing"

First of all, let me be very honest with everyone. I would like to think myself, and others that do what I do for a living, with social media, web, and marketing, are nothing short of geniuses. The reality though is that we are not. We are very good at something that is difficult for the "average bear", yes, but that's it. Saying a restaurant owner "can't grasp" how to handle social media isn't fair. You might as well just swap out "can't grasp" for "ignorant", or something similar.

Owning and operating a restaurant is one of the most difficult professions that someone could possibly choose. These people are driven, intelligent, and always "on", often with very little down time. It's not that they are unable to grasp social media. They just don't have it on their agenda of important things they need to handle in-house.

That said, there are a few exceptions. It is very rare, but we do occasionally come across a restaurant that is handling things in-house, and doing everything "the right way", with their social media. This past Friday, I had a conversation with a woman that works at one of these rare gems, that I have actually had the pleasure of dining at, repeatedly, for the past ten years or so. If you want to see what an "in-house", well run social media campaign looks like, check out the Tied House.

As with every rule, there are exceptions. The Tied House is certainly one of them.

"I wouldn't ask my general contractor to blog about my restaurant. Why would I hire an outside firm to be the voice of my restaurant?"

Really? Ok, here's some more for you then: I wouldn't hire my housekeeper to perform brain surgery on me. I also wouldn't hire my CPA to mow my lawn.

I can come up with 999 more of these if you wish, but at the end of the day, this IS NOT even a valid argument. In fact, it makes no sense at all. Your analogy suggests that a marketing agency couldn't possibly know the first thing about how to dig into your restaurant and understand the first thing about what you do, your voice and how you wish to be portrayed to the public. That's just patently untrue.

Yes, I agree, and have already stated that successfully running a restaurant is one of the toughest jobs ever. But the actual "running of the restaurant" has nothing to do with the brand positioning, voice and execution of the marketing and social media for the restaurant. Social Media is a "strategy", not an "operation". My firm, as well as many, many others out there are more than capable of working with you to understand what the voice of your brand is, how you wish to be viewed in the public eye, and successfully deploying messages that not only reflect this, BUT are also most likely to be noticed by your clientele and perspective clientele (using our years of experience in branding and marketing and what the best practices are, for the given marketing vehicle).

True, we may not know how to make the perfect poached egg, the best way to prepare prime rib, or even how to manage the line in the kitchen. It does not matter though. The operations of your restaurant do not apply to your social media and marketing strategy. Now there will be some things you may want to incorporate into your strategy that the average firm, not entrenched in the Restaurant Industry might not understand. But guess what? Any marketing agency worth their weight will schedule time to meet with your chef, operations people, or whoever else necessary, to learn everything about that particular thing, and be up to speed in no time. If they do not take this approach, FIRE THEM and retain a new agency.

So anyways, for what it's worth, I really enjoyed all the conversations with everyone this past week. I'm sure the beginning of this post has given the extremists out there another week's worth of ammo, to work with. So be it. I write these blog posts not for them, but for those that are truly interested in learning, sharing their viewpoints, and teaching me things along the way. If I have to deal with a couple "keyboard tough guys", to accomplish that, I'm cool with it.

Okay, now on to the reason I am writing this post this week anyways:

Six Things To Consider When Choosing, And Working With A Social Media Management / Brand Monitoring Firm

A relationship with a marketing firm is kind of like a marriage. You will tell the firm things about your restaurant that are not public knowledge. You are busy, all the time, so you need to be working with a firm that is "in tune" with you and knows your restaurant's brand, voice and value proposition, so well that it's like second nature to them, thus freeing you up to run the operations of your restaurant. Last, but certainly not least, just like all marriages, you are going to hit bumps in the road. It's critical that your relationship is strong enough that both sides are able to constructively address and remedy the situation in the fastest method possible, allowing regular business to resume.

To those ends, here are six things I always present to a prospective Restaurant client (as well as suggest they ask any other agencies they may be interviewing), when meeting with them for the first time, to determine if the two of us "are a good fit".

1) Make sure the firm you work with gives you some sort of monitoring panel that you can access to see how things are going, at any time

There is a lot of trust that goes into working with an outside agency. Even though you may have found the "perfect match" for your needs, it is always a prudent idea to take the stance of "trust, but verify". The easiest way to do this is by having them give you login access to the social media / brand monitoring control panel they are using to manage your campaigns.

If you are a firm like mine, you'll have your own, private label solution that handles every aspect of the campaigns. There are many control panel solutions out on the market though, so even if it's not their own, don't stress. The key thing here is that they need to give you access, so you can see how the messages that are being deployed look, what feedback is coming in, and how it's being responded to.

Now it is true that you could just go to each one of your online properties and look this information up, but you are busy. Why go to many places, when it can all easily be handled in one place?

If you interview a firm that does not have some sort of control panel, and login access for you or your team, eliminate them from the pool of perspective vendors. While they are no doubt good people, they most likely do not specialize in social media management, or online marketing, so it's probably not worth the risk.

2) Be understanding of an agency's social media portfolio

While we may post work we do for our restaurant partners, in our blog and on our website, we RARELY, if ever, post anything related to the social media projects we work on for these restaurants. There is a very valid reason for that:

Most of our restaurant partners DO NOT want the public to know that their social media is run by an outside firm

Would knowing this fact turn people away? Most likely not. But it is what the restaurant has requested, and as a professional firm, we grant their wish. That said, when contacted by a prospective client, we are more than happy to share our projects with them, in a one-on-one webinar or in person meeting (translation: NOT on the internet where anyone can see).

So, when you start your web search for prospective firms, don't be discouraged if you don't see any of their social media work online. Also, don't get upset if when asked to see it, they require an online or in person consultation. They are more than likely just granting their client's privacy wishes, which of course would extend to you and your restaurant, should you decide to retain their services.

3) Make sure any firm you interview is well versed in ALL the latest platforms (even if you don't intend on using them all)

Even if you don't plan on using every social media platform that is out there, it is very important that any firm you interview is well versed in all platforms, especially the latest and greatest.

If they are not, it may be an indication that they are "fat and happy", and not interested in improving their services. The thing about social media is that it moves quickly. Take a break even for a few months and you can get blown right by.

4) Make sure you have a dedicated person working on your account

Again, you are entering into a relationship with this firm. For them to truly speak with the correct voice and brand positioning for your restaurant, they have to think just like you, finish your sentences and truly "know" what you want.

The best way to accomplish this is to have a single, individual person, dedicated to your account, that runs lead. The reason for this is that they will get to know you, know your restaurant, and all the above described things will fall into place.

5) Be understanding

What you are about to embark on is a process, not an overnight quick fix. The reality is that these efforts could take 3-6 months to gain a full head of steam. While you obviously have to have benchmarks in place, it is important that those benchmarks are realistic.

One of the most common things we do with a new Restaurant partner is start out with a six month agreement. We have a formal analysis meeting at the three month mark, and then a final review at the six month mark. This allows our client to be satisfied that things are going the direction we have promised them. It also gives us the opportunity to make changes, mid way through the initial agreement, should something need changed up.

We find that after this kind of start up period, restaurants are must more comfortable, and willing to agree to long term arrangements.

6) Set realistic benchmarks to track progress

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

The number of followers DOES NOT equate to a successful social media campaign

If anyone ever comes to you and promises you "x" number of followers in an allotted amount of time, throw them out of your restaurant. If you have 1 million facebook fans that NEVER interact with your posts, then who cares? Low interaction rates mean your posts never show up in anyone's news feeds and all that work that is being done is for NOTHING.

Instead of number of fans, calculate fan interaction. For instance, sticking with the facebook page example, if your current fan interaction rate is 3%, perhaps set a goal for your firm of 8% or 10%.

Trust me on this. I would rather have 500 rabid fans on a fan page, than 2,000 fans that could care less about my brand and what I offer.

If you follow these steps, you should be able to comfortably know that you have made the right choice when choosing the right firm to work with your restaurant group. If you would like to discuss your current social media strategy, and if our firm might be a good fit for your restaurant's needs, please feel free to contact me anytime.

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Comment by Chris Leo on April 12, 2012 at 9:52am

Awesome! I'll check it out.  Thanks for the info.

Comment by Kyle-Beth Hilfer on April 12, 2012 at 9:12am

Chris, promotions laws are a maze of 50 states' regulations as well as federal concerns. It requires real legal vetting to run a sweepstakes or contest. Note there is a difference between a sweepstakes and a contest too. You may be interested in my FOHBOH blog post on legal mistakes that restaurants make  in social media sweepstakes and contests.bit.ly/yBe33q

Comment by Chris Leo on April 12, 2012 at 8:59am

That's a very interesting and valid point Kyle-Beth.  Where we are always most cautious about these issues is when our restaurant client wants to do some sort of large scale contest.  We are always quick to slow them down, and take time to explore any applicable laws (especially for our clients that operate in multiple states), and any booby traps we could potentially encounter.

Your point is an EXCELLENT one. One that I think the typical restaurant operator, and many ad agencies would never consider.

Thanks for the great comment!

Comment by Kyle-Beth Hilfer on April 11, 2012 at 6:50am

I'd like to throw in one more point to consider in hiring an outside agency. The restaurant business is challenging and requires creativity. Unfortunately,  the most creative marketers are often unaware of legal risk. Be sure when doing your due diligence that you inquire as to the agency's familiarity with legal issues. Agencies may prefer to push legal liability back onto their clients, but a restaurant should ensure that it has the resources to do the legal vetting. So consider the contractual language governing the agency relationship carefully in this regard. In addition, when interviewing agencies, ask them about some of the legal issues they've encountered with their most creative endeavors. How have they cleared the campaigns? What legal resources do they have available? Even if they are passing liability onto the client, they should be able to refer the client easily to specialized outside counsel who practices in the advertising and marketing law field. This kind of legal due diligence will not  be done properly by your general corporate business counsel or your employment counsel. If the agency is not aware of the legal issues or has not considered them before selling a client on a creative campaign, perhaps it is not the right agency to hire. Unbridled creativity may be wonderful for making the cash register ring in the short run, but that will not help pay the legal fees should a regulator or a class action lawyer becomes interested in your marketing strategies. The best agencies are creative but prudent and work with specialized legal counsel on behalf of the client to envision marketing strategies and content that will sell the brand but minimize the potential for legal liability.

Comment by Chris Leo on April 9, 2012 at 1:35pm

I agree with you Michael.  I guess again, that's where my psychology degree always comes calling.  Some restaurants we work with, want to handle that aspect of it themselves.  Others wish us to handle it.  When we start working with the latter, our team is always VERY careful to learn the personality of the restaurant, the people that work there, the types of patrons that frequent the restaurant, and what the appropriate voice should be, when carrying out that 51% you describe.

For example, one guy on my team spent this morning chatting with a gentleman on one of our client's fan pages about the Master's Tournament, and what a great finish Bubba Watson made.  Is this out of the ordinary for this to happen? No. It's a sports bar style restaurant, so sports talk on the fan page is of course going to happen.  What is interesting though is that this conversation actually started last Thursday, off of a post that wasn't actually related to the Masters Tournament.

It was originally a post about a new beer special.  The employee that is dedicated to this restaurant's account remembered the conversation, doubled back and reengaged this customer, congratulating him on actually picking Watson as the winner, way back, last Thursday, before anyone else did (when Bubba was actually something like 9 shots off the leader). 

So there you have a case where the interaction is actually more important than the system.  Only it's kind of a chicken and egg thing though, because without our system, there is no way we could possibly keep track of these key types of interactions and remember to build the strongest relationship out of them possible.

I appreciate your comment, and I couldn't agree with you more though Michael. I may be over simplifying things, but at the end of the day, I think the people that are successful in running these programs simply care more. While I of course can't speak for an entire industry, I know that with my firm, we have very close relationships with everyone we work with. We realize and acknowledge that we are all in the same boat and have the same vested interests. If the our restaurant partner isn't successful and doesn't have a rabid customer base, we ALL lose.

I try to instill this passion in everyone on my team, and I'd like to think it shines, when we are working with our clients.

Comment by Michael Biesemeyer on April 9, 2012 at 12:59pm

Your insights reflect a very comprehensive and thorough process of customer development, Chris. In other words, you’ve created a system for delivering social media to restaurants, one that is measurable and scalable. That’s not easy to do, and it’s motivating me to get more focused on systems for my own business.

I think there is a missing piece here, though. Perhaps you could touch on it when you leave a comment later. A successful marketing strategy may get fans to your door. Once there, however, an entirely different skill set is needed to keep them interested. A restaurant can hire a firm to build them a social media presence, but ongoing engagement and service requires a voice and tone that is practically antithetical to the one used for marketing. This is where high touch hospitality and really excellent content comes into play. You can clobber your fanbase over the head with marketing speak all day long; what they really want is that feeling they get when they’re in your restaurant being served by your most talented, passionate, and empathic waitstaff.

Danny Meyer talks about the 51 Percent Solution with regard to staff performance in his book Setting the Table. I think the same could apply for measuring the effectiveness of restaurant's social media strategy. 51% of your focus should be on the emotional/soft skills of fan engagement, the other 49% on the technical execution of it. Just because a firm can talk about the how of Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter doesn’t mean that they know why to use it.

I appreciate what you’ve shared with all of us here, Chris. As someone who’s also trying to crack the restaurant social media code, I know all too well how much there is to learn about this space.




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