Screen to Plate: Can Restaurants Afford to be Anti-Social?

by Molly Folse

“What do you want to eat?”

“I don’t know, what do you want?”

Deciding where to eat – once one of the most dreaded conversations in many households – is a little bit easier in our world of constant connectivity. Choosing a restaurant has become just as calculated as making a major purchase, and people do their research – not only because they’re invested in the decision, but also just because they can.

Looking for coupons, hours or entertainment lineups? Check the restaurant’s Facebook page. Still can’t decide where to go? Guess what – there’s an app for that.

In a 2011 Harris Interactive poll, more than half of adults under 35 reported checking out more than two websites before patronizing a local business; 63 percent of them first go to Google.com and 24 percent check Facebook. A recent National Restaurant Association study suggests that adults who identify themselves as technologically connected and social media-savvy dine out more than other adults.

Still, not all restaurants are aboard the social media gravy train. But that doesn’t mean a Google search will come up empty.

In this day and age, a restaurant has an online presence whether it wants one or not, thanks to sites like Urbanspoon and Yelp, which serve up user-generated content like an all-you-can-eat buffet. While these sites offer seemingly unbiased customer reviews that can be of great use to consumers, they can also present misinformation and the review system can be abused.

A restaurant owner in Birmingham, Ala., recently experienced the effects of such abuse after making public his opinion about a highly controversial political issue. Online ratings and reviews suffered due to an alleged campaign to damage the eatery’s reputation, with ratings on Google going from a consistent four stars to one-and-a-half stars. (Many of the new negative reviews eventually tripped filters that alert the site to first-time reviewers, reviewers from geographic locations other than where the restaurant is located, and reviews that never mention an actual interaction with the business.)

Luckily, the restaurant owner has long been proactive when it comes to online interactions and managing social media. He “claimed” his business page on yelp.com, which allowed him to see when new reviews are posted and gave him the chance to respond. He also claimed the restaurant on urbanspoon.com, which gave him similar privileges.

But the restaurant’s saving grace was likely its active Facebook page, which is updated daily and sees frequent activity from its fans. They clamored to share their experiences on the review sites, bringing the restaurant’s Google rating back to four stars out of five.

Had the restaurant owner not taken charge of his business’s social media, the online conversation could have been heavily one-sided. And it seems other restaurateurs are realizing just what social media brings to the table.

The National Restaurant Association predicts that by 2013, at least three-fourths of all restaurants will be using Facebook, and more than half will make use of online review sites. Of restaurant operators surveyed by the association in 2010, 87 percent said the use of Facebook and other social media tools is important in their industry and agree it will only become more crucial in coming years.

Molly Folse is Digital Content Coordinator at Luckie & Company. You can contact her by email or follow her on Twitter.

Photo credit: Ann Althouse via Flickr

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