Over the last four years, I have heard dozens of presentations on social media.

Most of had a common theme of: Social media is the hot new thing, its growing rapidly, and your company must be there. For lack of a better term, I have generally held the position of being an early adopting agnostic.

It was the same when the alarm sounded about the Y2K bug and the H1N1 flu a few years ago. I paid attention, did some research, and got myself involved personally and professionally in case all the hype was true. Over this time, I have reached a few conclusions.

First of all, in personal terms and as a national marketing tool for most restaurants, Twitter (so far) is over hyped. It’s also one of the most tremendous time sucks of modern times, rivaled only by Angry Birds and Sudoku.  

I personally enjoy watching my feed since I love information and ideas. However, there seems to be an increasing amount of noise there, so I have found myself ignoring it more and more, much like I started doing with e-mail marketing a few years ago and junk mail years before that.

That being said, I love Facebook as a marketing tool (more on that in a future column).

As far as marketing goes, don’t be misled by large numbers of followers or by companies or consultants who say they can get you large numbers of followers in a short period of time.

I see followers kind of like TV sets. While it is nice to know how many TV sets there are in the U.S., the only thing that really matters to an marketer is how many of those sets are on at a given time and what station they are watching.

Having 80,000 followers may sound very impressive, but who and where they are is more important. None of us would even consider sending out coupon mailers to customers who were hundreds or thousands of miles away form our locations, so why should we do so in cyberspace?

The general answer from the social media pros is, because social media is free. Of course, someone is paying these pros fees so that is a cost. More importantly, it takes resources and tools to post online and follow social media. Like everything else in marketing, ROI must be measured and evaluated with all costs tallied.  

Twitter and other social media sites should be viewed primarily as listening devices and local store marketing tools more than generic or national sales strategies. In the past, operators had a very hard time finding out how many customers really felt after they left our stores. Social media is another way of keeping that conversation going. For me, word of mouth and local store marketing have always been the keys to growing a particular location’s sales.

Before the Internet or social media, it took a lot of work for an individual to spread good word of mouth. Now, many thousands can find out almost instantly. Unfortunately, this is also true for bad word of mouth or bad news when a Nashville breakfast icon found itself a trending twitter topic after a low health inspection score.

“I see followers kind of like TV sets. The only thing that really matters is how many of those sets are on and what station they are watching.”

Similarly, Domino’s may talk about how many people viewed their video response after the You Tube fiasco a few years ago, but many more people saw the offending YouTube video that caused the crisis in the first place. Dominos also found out that you must be able to respond instantly to have any chance of stopping viral spread.  

This is, unfortunately, where social media really is cheap or free: There is no cost to a customer retweeting or reposting something bad about your store.

On a positive note: People are willing to post things on social media sites that they would never have told an operator in person, so you can get vital info about how your staff is really doing in taking care of your customers. More importantly, on Twitter, many others can see your response. Of course, everyone sees if you do not respond, also.

In terms of local store marketing, social media and even Twitter can be great. For example, it is pretty unlikely that the whole food truck phenomena would have been as big without truck operators being able to tweet their locations.  

Many franchisors are cramping down on individual franchisees using social media when they should be embracing it. While I understand the need to control the brand image, franchisors should want their franchisees to be heavily involved and integrated in their local communities. The local online community should be no different.

The local level is really where the interaction with customers should happen. Hopefully, some very smart entrepreneur will create an inexpensive and easy-to-use tool that allows franchisors and multiunit operators to quickly approve and put online postings from local operators and monitor online chatter about their locations.

Social media also allows for instant local specials on items that may not have been selling.

Operators must have a mobile (including tablet) strategy. Facebook and Four Square have taken this to heart. Tablets and handsets are accounting for an ever-increasing percentage of online traffic when compared to traditional PCs.  

Your website is virtually worthless if it uses flash and cannot be viewed on the iPhone or iPad. Of all the times you want people to find you, it is when they are mobile and already out looking for somewhere to eat.

I have lots of ideas on how to do well with social media, but I have reached the end of my space here.

Let me know if you want to hear more, and I will cover this subject more in a future column.

In the meantime follow fast casual operators Firehouse Subs (@FirehouseSubs), Genghis Grill (@GenghisGrill), and California Tortilla (@caltort) who do a great job.  

And I apologize for inadvertently leaving her off of my list of the most influential women in fast casual, but Stacey Kane of California Tortilla has done an amazing job of communicating with customers in a fun way about a unique brand.