Be Elastic and Open-Minded

08/03/2016 10:57:38

Rachel Walker, food writer at The Sunday Times, food editor at Reader's Digest, and freelancer across various other national publications explores successful hospitality social media campaigns.

It wasn't long after I'd started secondary school that a careers adviser came in to give us the first of many motivational talks. It was the late nineties and, of course, we all harboured dreams of becoming doctors, writers, photographers. I remember her wagging her finger at us: "60% of the jobs which will exist when you start applying haven't even been invented yet," she said.

The thought stayed with me for quite some time. I wondered what was this new world would be like, a mere decade away, where everything would be shaken to the core.

Then the world wide web happened.

If I look at the group who sat alongside me in that classroom now, they're coding and developing apps, they're publishing ebooks and monitoring SEO. Of course, the careers adviser was right. Entire new industries have evolved, and having a 'social media strategy' or an 'online presence' is something which is pretty much expected now of even the smallest of companies.

The good news is, that when an area is developing and changing so rapidly, there's no hard and fast set of rules. Indeed, the companies who are leading the way, when it comes to social media in the hospitality industry, are generally the most elastic and open-minded. So, in the absence of a rulebook, let's look to them for inspiration, to explore what it is that makes their various strategies so successful. 

Frequency

Sticky Walnut chef, Gary Usher, has taken the 'kitchen sink drama' to a new level with the Twitter feed at his Chester-based restaurant. He usually posts a few comments each day, providing a compelling insight to the ongoing soap opera of running a restaurant.

Through it, he has built  a 12,000-strong following and no doubt lured more custom to his restaurant as a result. What's more, the frequency and honesty of his feed has earned column inches in its own right; Big Hospitality chuckled over his "Larkinesque rant about the fitting of a new air conditioning unit," and the "ongoing discourse about a table sited precariously near the toilet." 

Of course, Usher's strategy occasionally makes enemies as well as winning followers, and the high-risk approach isn't for everyone. 

What's worth noting though, is how the frequency of posts, snappy responses and constant interaction has certainly helped build a following. Social media managers needn't commit to twelve tweets a day, but a steady flow, rather than a sporadic flurry certainly helps build a presence. 

Photographs, in particular, have a way of lodging themselves in my mind, and recent launches like The Newman Arms Pub, Lake Road Kitchen and Inver have all caught my eye on social media, thanks to a steady stream of 'on brand' images. There's no need to hold out for a particularly profound tweet, or a photographic work of art, but – in the case of Lake Road Kitchen – the occasional snaps of forest foraging, wild strawberries and oyster mushrooms help reassert their presence, and reiterate their brand. 

Signature Serves

The momentum for visually strong signature serves really picked-up round the time that Shackfuyu put Kinako French Toast with Matcha Ice Cream on its menu. For weeks, my Instagram feed was inundated with the cut triangle dessert and bright green swirl on a distinctive blue and white plate. Each reappearance of the photograph, posted by a different account I followed, reasserted its popularity. Then it was The Clove Club's buttermilk fried chicken with pine salt nestled in a fir-lined dish, then it was Bao's 'pig blood cake' – black pudding with a soy cured egg.

Social media is geared to short attention spans. Often, there's no more than a fleeting glance before the thumb swipe downwards, and the page scrolls on. It's why strong images are so effective. Particularly strong images which can be instantly placed. Of course, the same applies to hotel and restaurant design. The stained-glass windows at The Ivy, the champagne bell at Bob Bob Ricard, the iconic monochrome floor at The Wolseley can all be instantly located – a teaser image which doesn't even require a caption. 

Image Credit: Shackfuyu's instagram

There's more to the trend than a photogenic dish or design helping cement an online presence though. It plays to the group mentality. If more and more people are 'collecting' an image of an iconic dish, then the temptation, for the self-proclaimed 'food lover' on social media, is to seek inclusion in the community by taking their own photograph and posting it to their own feed. Perhaps it's a cynical view – but sit in Bao, and take a poll of the people waiting in the snaking queue, who take a photograph before taking a bite, and maybe you'll be convinced too. 

Visibility

Great British Chefs are very slick with their social media, and their events are a text book example of an easy way to increase visibility. It's very simple, but they always have the WIFI login details of the venue (cooking school, cafe, cinema) written somewhere obvious (on a blackboard, mirror, menu), along with their Twitter and Instagram handle, and any specific hashtag that might relate to the event. (See: #CookSchoolGIC).

It creates clarity for their guests  – a way of stating that the use of all social media is encouraged, and as a result, people usually oblige. With a growing uncertainty of the etiquette surrounding photo-sharing, it's helpful to make things as straightforward as possible.

Of course, this relates to restaurants or hotels just as easily. A note in a menu asking people to refrain from taking photos at the table can hardly cause offence; equally, if you are trying to build online presence or momentum in an online campaign, then make it as easy as possible for everyone to join in – whether that's making clear a venue's WIFI login details so visitors don't have to ask, or making a Twitter or Instagram handle or hashtag visible, or even popping a sentence-long note at the bottom of a menu or welcome pack inviting guests to share their images online. 

One recent trend which takes this a step further (relevant to event companies, restaurants hosting a special night, or food brands hosting a launch) is employing a professional photographer. After the event, the guests are sent a follow-up email with a WeTransfer link to the photographs, and an invitation to post any of the images online, along with a particular hashtag. When guests are browsing beautiful photos the following morning, it's hard to resist, and is a clever way to get an extra flurry of online activity. 

Visit Rachel's website for more trend-led articles:
www.rachel-walker.co.uk

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