Social media continues to gain ground for those in the restaurant business during the 91st annual National Restaurant Association (NRA) show running Saturday to Tuesday in Chicago. There were video screens on the show floor with live Twitter feeds, and educational sessions designed to help educate restaurateurs and vendors on capitalizing the different digital marketing options.

Social media isn’t just a marketing strategy for full-service restaurant operators. Quick-serve restaurants are increasingly tapping into new media strategies to drive traffic and loyalty. 24 percent of adults surveyed by the NRA in November 2009 say they would likely sign up for email notifications of daily specials, and 17 percent are likely to sign up for text message notifications.

Quick-serve restaurateurs are listening. More than half of quick-serve operators plan on adding a Facebook page in the next two years, and 38 percent plan on launching blogs about their restaurants, according to the NRA.

Understanding which platforms work for your business is an important first step. Using Twitter is an easier method of delivering information, which effectively conveys quick messages like weekly promotions or specials without requiring customers to “endorse” the company as on Facebook, said Brad Pierce, president of Restaurant Equipment World of Pierce Sales Co. Inc.

Pierce, after experimenting with different social media tools, settled on Twitter as the best way to quickly and unobtrusively blast out information to communicate messages or drive traffic to the company Website.

“Twitter, if you’re not using it, is a terrific place to start,” Pierce said.

Another arm of social media, online review websites, are now a logical first step for many consumers searching for a restaurant or service. 29 percent of people who use Yelp, seen by many as the ubiquitous review site, seek reviews on restaurants.

“Increasingly people are getting online before they make offline transactional decisions. That’s why this is so important,” said Luther Lowe, manager of business outreach for Yelp.

Lowe lead an educational seminar on Sunday at the NRA show, educating business owners about the best strategies for harnessing the online review website which boasts 31 million users a month and locations in five countries.

Presenting a managed business image only can only function to improve your business, said Lowe, largely because review sites like Yelp are largely transactional. Consumers utilize review sites in researching a place to spend money, and the better a business’ presence looks online, the better it will appear to consumers.

“Nobody is going to Yelp to type in ‘sushi near Los Angeles’ for fun. They’re trying to figure out where they’re going to eat dinner tonight,” Lowe said.

Contrary to popular belief, online review sites are not just a space for displeased customers to gripe. 85 percent of Yelp reviews are considered positive, earning three out of five possible stars on the site’s rating service.

A business page with all positive reviews actually makes consumers suspicious. Consumers are savvy, and are more likely to trust a business with the occasional bad review, Lowe said.

“No business is perfect and you can’t freak out about the occasional one-star review. What you can do is engage,” Lowe said.

By Carolyn Surh

Menu Innovations, News, NRA Show 2010