Are U.K. Restaurants Anti-Social?

Maybe not, but if they’re like the majority of U.K. companies, their relationship with social media could be significantly friendlier. A recent survey from Aspect Software, an American customer contact firm, found that most U.K. companies don’t interact with consumers via social media.

This isn’t to say they don’t have a social-media presence at some level: 72 percent of U.K. company respondents indicated that they use social-media sites, according to a story on the survey from marketing think tank Loyalty360. But they’re using sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn as billboards only—posting company news without engaging customers (and potential customers) in conversations, the survey found.

That’s a major missed opportunity. Interacting with consumers through social media, whether by answering their questions on Facebook or replying to their tweets, can send the message that a brand is responsive to and in touch with its audiences. This evolved use of social media is dynamic rather than static. It’s about more than announcing new promotions or store openings; it’s about talking with customers to help communicate a brand’s story and personality in real time.

What does social-media engagement look like within foodservice? Unsurprisingly, two modern-styled giants of U.K. foodservice, Pret A Manger and Wagamama, are leading players in the social-media space.

Pret A Manger took to Facebook and Twitter last month to let customers know how much it values their social-media feedback: The chain installed at its corporate headquarters a giant screen featuring a live Twitter feed so that all corporate employees can see, in real time, what people are saying about Pret. Also last month, it announced that guest feedback via Facebook and Twitter helped spur the return of a popular menu item.

Wagamama, for its part, uses Twitter to post photos of its new locations and let guests know about upcoming menu changes, but it also occasionally will post a link to a humourous YouTube video or cute-animal photo. And in celebration of its 21st birthday last month, it invited guests to share their favorite 1990s memories using the hashtag #90smemories. The top 21 tweets won £20 Wagamama vouchers. Does all of this help sell more noodle bowls? Maybe not directly, but it helps add a human dimension to the chain. It conveys that there are real people behind one of the U.K.’s biggest restaurant brands, and those people are attuned to the same things Wagamama’s guests are attuned to. Building brand loyalty by cultivating connections with guests is one of the great benefits of social-media engagement.

Food trucks and food stalls also offer good examples of social-media interaction. Freebird Burritos, which has five food stalls in London, thanks individual guests on Twitter for their good reviews and boosts interest in online contests by responding to guests’ submissions. It also bolsters its image as a brand with an irreverent sense of humor—one likely to resonate with a young, urban audience—by engaging in lighthearted conversations with its fans. One tweet from earlier this week: “Cat vs. Burrito Round 1. Put guacamole on a cat & it’ll scratch your eyes out. On a burrito? Taste sensation. Winner? Burrito.”

Wahaca, a London-based Mexican concept with eight permanent locations and two food trucks, recently used Facebook to garner feedback on its retiring winter menu. “As our menu starts to pack up its winter wardrobe and heads brazenly into the sunshine with its shorts on, we’re wondering what your favourite dishes have been from the last 6 months,” the chain asked. The response? Twenty-five comments that Wahaca can consider when it plans next winter’s menu.

The question for restaurant operators today shouldn’t be whether they use social media but how they use it. Customers are already talking about their restaurant experiences—good and bad—on a host of social-media sites. Why not be part of the conversation?

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Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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