Making social media work

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Now that operators are familiar with the concept of social media, how can they use these tools to better their operations? FSD spoke to five operators who have employed successful strategies to connect with customers.

FoodService Director, Making Social Media WorkNow that operators are familiar with the concept of social media, how can they use these tools to better their operations? FSD spoke to five operators who have employed successful strategies to connect with customers.

California State Polytechnic University Pomona
Pomona, Calif.

Darren Isomoto, social media consultant for Cal Poly Pomona Foundation, Inc., which manages foodservice and the bookstore for 22,100-student California State Polytechnic University Pomona, says the department’s Facebook page has the highest number of “likes,” compared to its student enrollment, of all 26 California State universities, with 10% of students “liking” the page.

The department’s Facebook page features photos and videos of various on-campus dining events, photos of new food items and other promotions. The page currently hosts the “Bronco Buzz,” a monthly video series where the department asks random students at campus dining locations trivia questions to win flex dollars. Isomoto says they also change the page’s profile picture every month to show a different student dining at one of the campus locations. The student is labeled as the month’s “Featured Foodie.” The department also has a Flickr and YouTube account to showcase the photos and videos they post on Facebook for those who are not on Facebook. Isomoto says the YouTube account allows for easy integration of the department’s videos onto other websites. Edwin Santiago, director of marketing for Cal Poly Foundation, says these initiatives came about after Isomoto and his partner, Lily Ly, were brought on board.

FoodService Director, Making Social Media Work, Cal Poly, Featured Foodie“They were two former students who used to work at our bookstore,” Santiago says. “They approached our director and said, ‘we want to work on your social media’ and the director said yes. They started working for me and they just took over. They are just very bright. They know what language the students speak.”

The department also uses Twitter to update followers on the various new food items and promotions happening at the dining locations.

“While attending various luncheon and dining events, we tweet photos and updates on what is happening,” Isomoto says. “Every so often we’ll go on Twitter and say ‘retweet this message’ and the first 10 people who do get a free item or a coupon. It’s a way for our followers to be rewarded for following us.”

Isomoto says the department’s success and approach to running each of the social media platforms for dining is rooted in the fact that he and the other social media consultant were familiar with the platforms as users long before they were brought to the business.

“It’s that strong user understanding that allows us to fully utilize the features of each of these platforms to their greatest potential,” Isomoto says. “Everything from when, what and how we share our content is planned with a specific strategy in mind to receive the appropriate results and feedback.”

Santiago says the strategy started with increasing the number of “likes” the page had.

“No matter how much programming we did, if we only had 500 likes it was a waste of time,” Santiago says. “So we really focused on how to increase our numbers. We did that through cross promoting with the bookstore and with other initiatives that made students tell their friends to ‘like’ dining on Facebook, such as a vote for a student model contest. Now that we have a really great number, our goal is to inform the students about issues that are concerning dining services. It can be anything from our ‘green’ initiatives to healthy eating to promoting other units.”

Isomoto says the department has been researching how other dining venues in the industry have utilized Foursquare. They plan to implement it this summer.

“Since our business is based around servicing students, expanding our strategy to social platforms allows us to better engage and cater to our customer base,” Isomoto says. “I think you should really take the time to understand a social media platform as a user before running it as a business or brand. In order to really understand it as a user, you should fully experience the full circle that social media platforms like Facebook have to offer. This may take some time but really understanding the playing field will make you a much better participant. It’s one thing to simply have your operation involved with social media, but it’s another thing when you’re achieving success based on how well your customer base responds to your initiatives.”


Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colo.

Despite inroads by Twitter and other social media, Facebook remains the go-to social network for many colleges and universities. At 26,500-student Colorado State University Deon Lategan, director of dining services, says his department created a Facebook page because the site is where students get much of their information now.

“[The students] don’t read the emails we send them, they don’t read our table cards and they don’t read our signs,” Lategan says. “We have found that when we invite folks to special events through our Facebook pages the word just passes like wildfire. It’s just amazing how they connect that way. It’s been a very effective tool for us.”
Each dining hall maintains its own Facebook page, which announces special events and posts photos, quizzes, polls, contests and facts such as informing students about sustainability initiatives on campus.

“Students have also used the messaging and chat features to contact us with questions,” Lategan says. “We have been able to keep them interested by using this platform that they are already using every day. We’ll ask questions to generate additional interest. We just want to get them talking on the page.”

The department’s special events have been a key feature in showcasing the success of using social media.

“New media have allowed students to be more connected to their friends and have allowed them to get the word out to others about events that are taking place,” Lategan says. “Students will arrive at one of our special events, then proceed to update their Facebook status, check in or text their friends to encourage them to attend as well. Students are checking the page after an event takes place to find their photos and tag them. Social media has allowed our programs to be more innovative by creating a means of publicizing to a wider audience, whether we are the ones doing the publicizing or the students are doing it for us.”

To manage the pages, Lategan says the department has a marketing person who has administrative rights to the Facebook pages. In addition to the marketing person, members of the student dining services advisory committee—one from each dining hall—maintain the Facebook page for their respective dining locations.

“Our marketing person has administrative rights to the sites so if the students post something that has an error we can fix it quickly,” Lategan says. “But for the most part we talk about the Facebook pages during our weekly student advisory committee meetings. That’s where we can suggest things that we think need to go on the page. The students are very creative and are much better at [Facebook] than we are. We also hired a grad student to track and consult for the Facebook pages. We want to make sure it’s student friendly, which means something different for me and you. The grad student will come in and give us advice on how to talk to a particular group. He will recommend that we name an event a little differently. He encourages us to use different language to be more relatable to students.”

Lategan says what really helped the department in the beginning was defining a clear purpose for the social media accounts. Lategan says the purpose they identified early on was one of exploring innovative ways to connect with customers.

“[It] was the most crucial part of the process,” Lategan says. “Rather than trying to target all of our customers at once, we have specific accounts geared toward residence hall students. This has allowed us to get targeted messages out to the appropriate audiences. Another strategy has been to seek feedback from our students on a regular basis. We try to use the medium for two-way dialogue, not just as a way to push information out to our audiences.”

As a marketing tool, the department’s Facebook page has become invaluable, Lategan says.

“The social media accounts have allowed us to get messages out to students through a medium that they are paying attention to and using on a regular basis,” Lategan says. “It allows us to have a more informal voice on the same level as the students. If we have a special event coming up, we can create traditional marketing materials such as posters and table tents and then follow up with an announcement through the Facebook page. Using a combination of strategies has allowed us to successfully engage our student population.”

Lategan says the most important thing to remember with social media is to have fun.

“Use it in a way that is relatable and personable,” Lategan says. “Our student audience sees so many messages from various advertisers on campus on a daily basis, so using a medium that is more informal and personalized to them has worked well. Have fun by launching contests, posting photos and videos, and creating quizzes and polls to ask for feedback from your audiences. [If you aren’t using social media] I think you are missing a very important segment of your customer base. These kids are technologically savvy and traditional marketing just doesn’t cut it anymore.”


FoodService Director, Making Social Media Work, Douglas County School District, salad barDouglas County School District
Castle Rock, Colo.

“In the absence of communication, people assume the worst,” says Brent Craig, director of nutrition services at this 57,000-student school district. “[School nutrition programs] have not really been communicating the healthy and cool things that we are doing. We did a survey last fall, and people said we had too many fried foods. It’s really disheartening to me. We haven’t had fryers in our kitchens for four years. People said we don’t have enough fruits or vegetables; we have fresh fruits and vegetables on our menu every day. In the fall, we serve $10,000 a day in fresh produce.”

To help communicate the department’s efforts, Craig started a Facebook page last spring. The district, however, asked the department to take the page offline until a social media policy was developed. “They were afraid that someone might say something [on the page] that would get us in legal trouble,” Craig says.

So Craig and his team developed a policy for using social media, which increased individual accountability for those people who use the Facebook page within the district. “People have to sign the policy that states that if they say things outside district policy or inappropriate things that are outside district policy that they are acting on their own and the district is not liable,” he says.

The department also created a flowchart to spell out how to deal with different situations. “When you are in the public, you are getting comments that are good, bad and ugly,” Craig says. “Sometimes people have a tendency to get defensive, so we have a chart for our social media team that outlines how to deal with things.”

After setting up the policy and procedures, the department was given the go-ahead to use its Facebook page again. The site went live in December 2010.

The next challenge was getting people to the site. In the department’s monthly newsletter, Craig featured the Facebook page and asked for feedback. From the newsletter, 600 people “liked” or became fans of the page. Craig says that number remained stagnant until a couple of months later when a new salad bar concept was rolled out at an elementary school. Through the Chefs Move to Schools program, an area chef visited a school to unveil the harvest bar and talk to students and parents. Craig says the department’s Facebook page came up at the event, and it “blossomed.” “We got 400 people to like us overnight.” Photos from the event were posted on the Facebook page.

Currently the Facebook page has around 1,020 likes. Craig says each post on the page’s wall receives between 600 and 700 impressions, and of those impressions 40% are kids between the ages of 12 and 18. Craig adds that most of the people commenting on the Facebook page are parents and not students. Since launching the Facebook page, Craig says participation in the child nutrition program has increased. “The Facebook page is probably the most effective thing we’ve ever done,” Craig says.

The Facebook team consists of Craig, two assistant directors, a dietitian, technology worker and a chef. Craig’s secretary checks the Facebook page at least four times a day, and alerts the team if someone has posted something on the wall that needs to be responded to. The team then decides who should respond to the comment. For example, two parents recently said their children had a gluten intolerance, but they wanted the students to eat school meals. The parents asked what foods the students could eat. The district’s dietitian got in touch with the parents to talk about food options the students could eat. In addition to a phone conversation, the dietitian posted a response on the Facebook page. Craig says that by doing this other parents with similar concerns can see the answer, and it also shows parents that the department responds to comments.

“Time management is the most challenging thing about the Facebook page,” Craig says. “Facebook is not something that you can say, ‘I’ll get to that tonight.’ You have a short window because people don’t just sit on Facebook. We have a two- to four-hour window to respond.”

In addition to responding to questions about the program and posting photos, Craig and his team ask questions on the Facebook page to start a discussion. For example, Craig has asked how parents model healthy eating behaviors to their students or what people ate for breakfast that morning. “People respond and as we talk to them we feed information out [about our program], so it’s not like information overload,” Craig says. “Social media is something that helps start a conversation.”

Craig adds that Facebook is a great way to get a positive message out about the program and change people’s negative opinions. “People want to reinforce the positive and they don’t have the opportunity to see the positive unless we are putting it out there. One lady was taking pictures of our food and she wanted to post that to our page saying it was gross and nobody would eat it. When she posted that to our Facebook page I met with her at her child’s school. In two hours she became our biggest fan and she really promotes us. When people learn about the good things we’re doing they have a different attitude about us.”


FoodService Director, Making Social Media Work, Oracle, Bon AppetitOracle, Bon Appétit
Redwood Shores, Calif.

Part of a bakery’s charm is the experience of peering through the window and seeing what kind of delicious-looking treats the baker has made. That’s the idea behind Ian Farrell’s 300 Sweet Tweets Twitter and Facebook accounts. As executive pastry chef for Bon Appétit at Oracle, Farrell says he created the Facebook page because he wanted a place to post photos of his work.

“I do so many different cakes that I wanted to upload pictures of them to a website, which would have required someone to upload them for me,” Farrell says. “With Facebook I can just upload all the pictures myself. Plus, it’s advertising. Whenever I do a cake I upload it. It’s a great way to showcase my work.”

As a pastry chef, Farrell creates cakes, cookies and other treats for the approximately 7,000 employees at Oracle. The bakery also is open to the public,
but he says advertising—for the bakery and  Facebook/Twitter—is mostly word of mouth. Farrell says he prefers to post everything on Facebook, which is linked to his Twitter account. As soon as he posts something on Facebook, a tweet is sent out to his Twitter followers.

“The first thing I did to get the Facebook platform set up was to create photo folders of wedding, specialty and standard cakes and also chocolate confections,” Farrell says. “I am a pastry chef so the kind of work I do is very visual. I use Facebook as a kind of website that I can update constantly with ease. When customers ask me if my work is online I refer them to my Facebook page.”

Farrell says he updates his Facebook wall on a daily basis and uploads pictures of interesting things he is doing at the bakery as often as possible. He also promotes baking classes such as cake decorating on the Facebook page. Customers can order a cake or sign up for a class on the page. He also uses it to advertise promotions. For example, at Easter, he kept customers updated with photos of what kind of Easter treats were being created in the bakery.

“Time permitting, I also send out hot-from-the-oven updates, aka ‘hot cookie blasts,’” Farrell says. “I’ll also post the specials and artisan breads of the day. I often see people coming down from their offices when something hot is coming out [of the oven] after seeing a post or tweet. [Social media is] the most important part of my marketing as the bakery doesn’t have a dedicated website.”


FoodService Director, Making Social Media Work, Orange County Public SchoolsOrange County Public Schools
Orlando, Fla.

This 172,000-student school district had concerns with Facebook similar to those Douglas County had. According to Javier Vazquez, area manager of technology for foodservice, because district administrators had concerns about inappropriate comments, the department’s management didn’t feel they could create a Facebook page. But they were still looking for ways to use social media and gain valuable student feedback.
At one high school, the global technology team is in charge of a student-run social media pilot. Through Ning, a website that creates customizable social networking sites, the students created a page called My Food Face. The page has an internal and external component. On the My Food Face website, all of the department’s promotional videos for topics such as breakfast are housed for students to watch. There are discussion boards for students to talk to each other about nutrition services and social media in general. The students in the social media pilot team also post links they think other students would be interested in, including a link to vote for the department’s semifinal entrant into the Recipes for Healthy Meals contest run by the USDA and the Let’s Move Campaign.

The external component is where the nutrition services department is gathering student feedback. The students in the global technology team develop polls asking other students about topics such as what was the best item on this week’s menu. The polls are uploaded to the Ning site, and the students  then send the link to the poll on My Food Face to their friends on their personal Facebook pages. As students fill out the polls, the nutrition services team uses that information to adjust menus.

Vazquez says that since starting the My Food Face page, participation has increased at the high school because students are more aware of choices and like being involved in the discussion about what’s served in the cafeteria. Breakfast participation has increased from 4% to 17%, and lunch participation has increased from 35% to 44%.

“We have students driving our [social media efforts,]” Vazquez says. “So it’s by the students for the students. [These polls] give me the true data right now instead of waiting for the end of the year. This helps out our menu writers because when they are ordering or planning the menus they can see what is really selling and what the kids don’t like. The biggest thing with social networking is that it gives us the ability to set the topic of how we want to communicate to our customers.”

The My Food Face page is being expanded. The global technology team partnered with the district’s safety officers to post anti-bullying and cyber bullying videos on the site. “We are trying to get the page out to everybody and make them feel comfortable with the page,” Vazquez says. “They are not only going to this page to learn about nutrition and foodservice but there are also other options this technology can be used for.”

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