Surfing the steep learning curve of
social media can be a white knuckle ride.

Matt Mullins is a partner in Sand Hill Road hospitality group

Confession: I know very little about Facebook. Sure, I know I’ve Friended way too many people I barely know, without understanding I’d have to wade through reams of posts about their favourite cereal before I’d get to anything from anyone I actually wanted to know about. Likewise, I know very little about Twitter. I know Charlie Sheen used it to wonderful effect during his implosion last year, to further the causes of drug-taking, polygamy and porn stars. But that’s about it.

So I’m in no position to offer advice on the brave new world of social media marketing. And yet, I’m about to. But ain’t that the funny thing about the brave new world of social media? Everyone’s an expert.

At Sand Hill Road we’ve been using Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare to monitor and market our venues for about a year. We began by having one of our young barmen set up profiles for each of our pubs, and send out the occasional message. When we started, it was purely promotional; advertising — social media at its lamest. We’d plug a special, a deal, a promo. Remember, 12–18 months ago Foursquare had only just arrived here, Twitter had just taken off in Australia, and Facebook pages were only a few years old (the ‘Like’ button was only introduced in 2010). Like the rest of Australia, we were on a very steep learning curve. Whether it was the quality of our content, or just the timing, we had very slow uptake in the first six months. Our Facebook pages gathered Likes at one or two a week. Twitter followers came onboard at a similar rate.

But on the off chance this whole social media thing was going to take off, we called in the experts. We had a consultant rebuild our profiles and take responsibility for sending out content. Messages shifted from advertising to advertising interspersed with messages about our staff, photos of renovations, and recipes of a dish on the menu that day. We personalised our content, and found a big improvement in uptake. Now for those of you saying: “What?! You paid a consultant to ‘personalise’ your content?!”, you’re absolutely right. It was a step in the right direction, but paying someone else to speak with your voice is never going to be truly authentic, no matter how good they are. Authentic content must be generated by stakeholders who have a pioneering relationship with the product and to its market.

But what’s authentic?

Just like the real world, the internet only engages people if the conversation is good. We only read tweets that interest us. We only Like pages whose content means something to us. We only Friend people we like (actually, we all know that isn’t true, but how do you keep ignoring that friend of a friend who now wants to be… a Friend?). More accurately, we only take the time to read the posts of people we like, or people who engage us.

So the focus of our efforts now, is to engage people. We’ve taken over our social media ourselves. We generate our own content. We are the personality behind the Richmond Club, the Prahran Hotel and the Bridge Hotel, behind Holliava and the Post Office. When someone gets a message from one of our venues, it comes from the guys who own it. And surprise surprise, punters know the difference; our uptake has jumped sharply.

If you’re a venue operator and you’re wondering whether this stuff’s for you, consider this: in just 6 months, our venues have gathered 4348 new Friends on Facebook. We know their gender and age range. We know what areas they live in. We know the vast majority of them attend our venues. In short, we know they’re our market. We can talk directly to them any time we want, and they’ll keep listening to what we have to say, so long as what we have to say interests them. Can you imagine what it would cost to score a direct hit to 4348 customers with a traditional media ad?

Consider this also: your venue is already online, whether you know it or not. People are messaging, blogging, updating and tweeting about your pub, bar, hotel or restaurant right now. If you’re giving bad service, or serving bad food, or your security are hitting people, or your bathrooms are dirty, someone’s telling someone else about it online… only you don’t know about it. Owning your online presence won’t intercept every message, and it won’t stop the bad ones, but it gives you a degree of control. You get to respond. You get to deal with the complainant one on one.

One of the biggest complaints we get on our pages, for instance, are from people waiting in line out the front of our venues. They’re often frustrated, cold and angry, and they’ve got plenty of time to pull out their iPhone, jump on our Facebook page and bag us for not letting them in. All their friends get their rant, as do all ours. But then we get to respond, politely and nicely, to apologise for the line, to promise we’re doing our best, to point out that we have a legal limit on the premises and that it’s a bit rough to complain when you’ve chosen to stand in our line rather than walk down the road to any one of a number of venues without lines. And guess what happens next? Others online (and in line) take the time to agree with us.

But you can’t appease everyone. The online world can be anonymous. It provides unbounded opportunities for every sad, lonely, angry, f**ked-up idiot to say whatever they like, behind a veil of anonymity, happily trashing the business you’ve spent years building and probably have a third or fourth mortgage on. It’s no different to the guy who throws an empty glass over a second floor balcony then runs off before it hits the people below (remember Trainspotting? Remember Begby?). Next time you see a horrible post on your venue’s Facebook page, click on the person who wrote it – chances are it’ll be a made-up name with no photo, no profile info, no friends and no other activity whatsoever. Is it your competitor? Is it a disgruntled staff member? You’ll never know. Likewise, Urbanspoon, while handy at times, is all too often a repository for bile and vitriol from mostly anonymous identities who can say and do whatever they like online, then run off before the glass hits the floor. Bloody Begby. What a nut.

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