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Foodstagram (or '4 Ways Restaurants Can Harness Consumer-Generated Social Media')

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When the New York Times reported that New York City restaurants are banning customers from taking photos of their food, a debate erupted about proper social etiquette and consumers' use of social media.

Consumers have embraced the experiential restaurant concept with open arms, and they now approach trendy dining experiences as culinary events. In growing numbers, diners are Instagramming and snapping TwitPics of their meals, leading some restaurant owners to crack down on a practice they see as invasive and a breach of common courtesy.

On the surface, the debate over customer-driven "food porn" focuses on restaurant policies and diner behaviors. But on a deeper level, "foodstagramming" raises serious questions about how businesses can harness consumer-generated social media as a catalyst for positive mentions and increased brand advocacy.

The Foodstagramming Debate

In general, restaurant owners who object to "foodstagramming" claim that it violates the dining experiences of other patrons. It's a valid point—after all, who wants their meal to be interrupted by the glare of a neighbor's flash? In extreme cases, diners have even gone so far as to stand on tables or set up tripods to capture the perfect shot of a savory dish.

To combat foodstagramming, many restaurateurs are prohibiting diners from taking photos of food. Instead of snapping pics of the dishes they've anticipated eating, customers are now being approached by restaurant staff and told that photography is simply not allowed.

The ban on foodstagramming may also provide a convenient cover story for other concerns. The advanced camera features of today's mobile devices combined with instant access to vast social networks can be intimidating to food service providers and other businesses. If a single dish or product is deemed inferior, customers can distribute negative messages to hundreds or even thousands of followers.

But in an attempt to maintain a tighter grip on brand messaging, restaurants are missing out on a powerful promotional resource. Rather than banning foodstagramming, restaurants---and other businesses---should learn how to use social media to their advantage and work with (not against) social technology trends.

How to Make Social Engagement Work for Your Business

No matter what industry you're in, the foodstagramming concept has the potential to benefit your business. By properly managing customer experiences and encouraging customers to share them via their social networks, you can achieve higher levels of customer satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy for your brand.

1. Create Exceptional Customer Experiences

Exceptional customer experiences are the foundation of brand advocacy. If you're concerned about customers sharing their experiences with social networks, you need to evaluate your brand's customer experience and make customer experience management a top priority.

Customer feedback can play a pivotal role in highlighting possible shortcomings in the customer experience. With the right tools, you can empower customers to offer insights that will guide improvements and create closer connections with target audiences.

2. Emphasize Consistency

The foodstagramming concept is scary for businesses that lack food or product consistency. But instead of companies turning their backs on social engagement, they should redouble their efforts to provide customers with the same high-quality experience every time they connect with the brand.

Multisite restaurants and retailers face additional hurdles because they have to maintain consistent customer experiences across all geographical locations. To address the problem, consider implementing technologies that enable managers and employees to share learnings and deliver the same customer experience across the brand.

3. Monitor Social Media Feedback

Social engagement and social media monitoring go hand in hand. Regardless of the quality of your customer experience, some customers inevitably will post negative mentions of your brand online. So, having visibility about brand mentions on popular social media networks is important.

Although you can't prevent negative brand mentions, you can leverage them to repair customer relationships and improve customer experiences. By following up with dissatisfied customers, you may convert a negative mention into a positive experience and maybe even recruit a new brand advocate.

4. Amplify Customer-Generated Messages

Customers who take the time to photograph and post images of food or other products are usually satisfied customers who are eager to promote the quality of their experience to social audiences. Because consumers trust customer-generated messages more than messages that have been generated by brands, it's in your best interest to amplify---not stifle---positive customer-generated messages.

In addition to soliciting positive feedback through customer surveys and other mechanisms, listening and monitoring solutions can help promote positive customer-generated messages. The best solutions take amplification a step further by enabling your company to embed real-time advocacy feeds into your homepage, Facebook page, or other online asset.

Most restaurant owners admit that bans on foodstagramming are largely unenforceable. Like it or not, consumers are going to find a way to photograph their favorite dishes and products, and then quickly disseminate comments about the brand to their social networks.

So, the key takeaway for brands is that while social engagement may be impossible to control, it can be effectively managed. By equipping your customers with the tools to successfully promote your brand and products socially, you can achieve higher rates of brand advocacy and a more satisfied customer base.

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Bruce Warren, VP of marketing at InMoment (formerly Empathica), is responsible for driving all aspects of the company’s global marketing activities, including corporate communications, events, product marketing, and online marketing initiatives.

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  • by Michael Tue Apr 23, 2013 via blog

    After viewing a couple of different restaurant websites, I'm starting to be swayed by food photography. That's why I think it's perfectly OK for customers to whip out their phone during lunch and snap a picture of their sandwich. It gets their followers interesting, hungry, and possibly willing to try out the restaurant.

  • by Carolyn McMaster Thu Apr 25, 2013 via blog

    Speaking to #3, way back in the days before smart phones and Facebook and Instagram, the San Francisco restaurant Delfina faced a barrage of bad online reviews (I think it was in Yelp's early days). The reviews were ridiculous and mostly unfounded; it was clearly an organized hate campaign. Delifina's owners simply turned the spite on its head by printing up tee shirts for the waitstaff with the most outrageous phrases from the "reviews" (one might be, "The food here is terrible"). The tee shirts got the restaurant a lot of great press, diners loved it, and the unfounded criticism stopped.

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