Last reviewed 19 April 2017

Lou Willcock explores the latest opportunities and pitfalls surrounding the effective use of social media as a marketing tool.

Social media (more commonly referred to these days as simply “Social”) has been rapidly overtaking, and in many cases replacing, traditional methods of marketing. Where once marketing campaigns relied heavily on print, this is being eroded by the immediacy and targeted focus that digital media can bring. The impact of social media has been particularly felt in the world of restaurants, cafés, pubs, clubs, hotels and hospitality, with businesses now able to communicate directly with their customers and target audience in real time and, in many cases, for free!

What do the statistics tell us?

There is powerful statistical evidence supporting engagement with social media. Research published by communications specialists We Are Flint (September 2016) looked at social media in the UK and found that 43.6 million adults aged 18+ are actively engaged across the various social media networks, including 34.4 million on a daily basis. These are compelling numbers, especially for hospitality businesses looking for ways to attract, engage and retain a loyal customer base.

Adults engaging with social networks have plenty of choice available to them, but this is a constantly changing landscape with the popularity of networks shifting on a regular basis as new networks appear and old ones close. Statistics published by We Are Flint (2016) identified where adults in the UK are spending most of their social media time:

YouTube

85%

Facebook

78%

Google+

50%

WhatsApp

48%

Twitter

45%

LinkedIn

30%

Instagram

29%

Pinterest

29%

Snapchat

20%

Periscope

6%

While there is a plethora of social media networks from which to choose, including the vibrant and very influential world of bloggers, it is simply not necessary or appropriate to engage with them all! Some social networks will present opportunities to build business and customer relationships, such as LinkedIn and Instagram; some will focus on less useful business objectives including WhatsApp and Snapchat; while others offer a combination of the two such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

Developing a plan

With any successful marketing initiative, getting the most out of social media will need a well-thought-out plan.

The following five steps provide an indication of the key areas that need considering to kick-start a plan.

  1. Identify where customers are likely to spend most of their social media time. There are lots of ways to do this and combining different methods is usually the best approach.

    1. You will have your own profile of the type of customer who visits your establishment — age, sex, social grouping, income, etc. Social media networks publish user profile data that you can match against your own customer profile. As an example, if your target audience is adults over 65 then Twitter and Pinterest might not be for you, with only 20% and 12% respectively of active social media adults engaged with these networks.

    2. Conduct a survey of your existing customer base and ask them what social media networks they use on a regular basis.

    3. Spend time looking at network postings, you will quickly get a sense of the target market for your customer profile.

    4. Look at your competitors’ websites and see which social media networks they use.

  2. Interrogate which networks offer viable two-way opportunities to connect and communicate with the customer. For example, if you work with Twitter or Instagram, customers can follow you, you can follow them and you can share topical information or special promotions that might subsequently be sent on to an even wider audience. Some networks will offer sponsorship or advertising opportunities which can be specifically aimed at your target audience, but you need to be clear on your budget for this and the anticipated returns you are looking for.

  3. Agree on how many networks to engage with. You are unlikely to have unlimited resources available for social media interaction, so select a sensible number that matches the time you have available. You need to establish what success using social media might look like — perhaps it is reflected in increased sales, the number of followers you have, or the number of positive references made about your business across the networks.

  4. Ensure that the social media networks you work with have good measurement and analytic tools, many of which are free to use. If you are investing time, energy and finances in this area, you will want to understand your reach and engagement. The statistics that the networks provide will guide you on how successful you are and indicate any changes you need to make. In addition, there are several tools available on the internet that will bring together data provided by your various networks such as Brandwatch and Hootesuite.

  5. Bloggers attract huge audiences and receive significant traffic to both their blogs and their interconnected social media channels. Developing a relationship with bloggers offers a unique opportunity to reach a much wider audience and should not be overlooked. To start your search for suitable bloggers, use, for example, #foodblogs.

Social media pitfalls

It sounds easy, doesn’t it? There is no doubt that engaging with social media can be great fun and, when done correctly, can generate significant rewards for your operation. However, there are pitfalls to look out for which can make or break your social media plan.

  • Ensure your social media networks are continually updated, static networks give out the wrong signals.

  • Avoid social media engagements that are of a political, sexual or religious nature.

  • Ensure your communications are posted when your target audience is likely to be on stream.

  • Never swear.

  • Don’t be dull, social media is at its best when it’s lively, informative and animated.

Summary

Engaging with social media offers small business a unique opportunity to communicate directly with their target audience — driving sales and loyalty. The winners will be those who focus their time and resources on the most appropriate networks and stick to a successful plan. But if social media isn’t meeting your expectations, don’t be afraid to review your plan and try a new one.

Lou Willcock is Visiting Fellow at Oxford Brookes University and a co-founder of back-office management software specialist IndiCater.