Operators are making better use of Web-based technology to reach customers.
Whether you call them Millennials or Generation Y, the young people born between 1977 and 1994 are revolutionizing the way foodservice operators at schools, colleges and universities across the country are marketing their programs.
Impatient, technologically savvy and highly educated, they’re a generation unlike any before them in the way they process information. As a result, foodservice directors are tapping into the power of the Internet, offering more interactive Web sites where students can buy meal plans, order catering services, access nutritional information, offer feedback and more.
Promotional tools: In addition, some operators are creating podcasts and using interactive kiosks, both inside and outside cafeterias, to promote their dining facilities, provide nutrition information, inform students about specials and even offer discount coupons.
At Penn State University, Assistant Director of Dining Services Greg Minner is working on “how to advertise to people who go to Myspace.com. We’re looking at ways we might be able to advertise, and we’re working on podcasts. We want to do iPod coupons to get people to come in.”
Adds Associate Director Lisa Wandel: “We’re just trying to figure out what to do. We’ll be doing student videos about ‘why I like to eat in this dining hall’ and show them to parents and new students. We know we have to get into doing podcasting. This is the first semester we’ll advertise on Facebook for student employees.”
At the 6,000-student Ponca City, Okla., School District, Director Jeff Denton describes the process of podcasting and using the Web for nutrition education as “one step forward, three back. It’s a challenge,” he says, “but we think it will really work out.”
Denton does “Chef Jeff” videos on nutrition education, and plans to post menus for podcasting to secondary school students who can download them to their computers. “We tell them what’s served in our different dining facilities, and about specials. We’re just right at the beginning of getting into this, but we’re not trapped in the past. We’re going where the students are and it’s a good tool for letting parents see menus.”
Denton also sends a digital sign through the school’s Intranet to public areas in schools across town where they promote specials on LCD screens.
Keeping kids informed: “We lose kids when they don’t know what’s offered and they don’t eat,” he notes. “We’re trying to keep them well informed.”
Similarly, Cindy Hormel, director of food services for the Liberty, MO, School District, which has 10,000 students, did an “infomercial” to get information to students and parents about how to pay online, what is the district’s wellness program, and how to fill out the free and reduced price meal form.
The infomercial was scheduled to be upgraded this fall. “The next phase is to gear it more to students,” says Hormel. “We’ll use it the first day of school and play it on the school’s television channel. It walks them through how to use the cafeteria, nutrition information, and it’s a way to advertise what’s new in the cafeteria.”
On Hormel’s radar for next year are flat screen TVs to replace menu boards. She also wants to use cell phones to text message food and nutrition trivia questions.
The dining program at the University of Connecticut offers menus on its Web site for downloading to an iPod, providing information on meals at all eight residence halls, each with a different daily menu, says Director of Dining Services Dennis Pierce. He’s thinking about putting short how-to videos on how to cook on the site for downloading, citing interest from students in an introductory culinary course his staff offers each semester.
“Students want to learn how to cook and they’re asking for the basics,” Pierce says.
Customizing information: Meanwhile, AVI Food Systems in Warren, OH, is testing one-on-one customized messaging with real-time communication of targeted messages to student laptops, PDAs and computers, says Dawn Perry, vice president of marketing. “We’re working on integration with Windows Vista software based on live feeds,” says Perry. “This generation is about customization or personalization just for them.”
At Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, AVI is tailoring food items to individual students’ tastes, and Perry says the operation has seen “a significant increase in sales.”
This fall at the University of California at Berkeley, Kim LaPean, marketing coordinator for CalDining, will be putting LCD screens at main retail locations “for quick marketing blurbs, similar to the Jet Blue mini-advertising before takeoff.” The screens will be placed where students wait in line and will have “short, relevant, fun, frequently updated” messages. “We’ll be working on some podcasting later this year,” LaPean adds.
At Virginia Tech University, Marketing & Communications Manager Katie Younger Gehrt implemented an interactive kiosk in a dining center as a way to give students nutrition information. It connects to the department’s Web site so users can access daily menus and calculate caloric intake. A Web page on the site will be updated to include both podcasts and video clips “as a way to quickly convey information in an engaging way.”
Turning an eye toward podcasting? Industry consultant has thoughts and tips.
Operators seeking to market to Millennials in a way that resonates with that generation face a baffling array of information as they begin to start communicating in new media such as podcasting.
“It’s a pretty confusing market, and many find it hard to make a decision,” says Erik Thoresen, senior manager of product innovation at the Chicago consulting firm, Technomic Inc.
Finding the right format: Yet, as Thoresen and others are quick to point out, the popular digital media files that recipients listen to on their iPods or MP3 players represent an increasingly popular and effective way to reach younger customers in all segments of the foodservice industry.
This summer, for example, a Technomic survey of 1,000 consumers asked respondents if they had received an online video from a restaurant in the past month. Some 28% in all age groups had—and 45% of all respondents ages 18 to 24.
“If you’re targeting younger people, you definitely should be playing around with this kind of media,” Thoresen says.
“Today’s consumers are more likely to receive information over a cell phone, personal digital assistant or iPod.”
Additionally, he sees podcasts as a training mechanism for foodservice. “You can give an employee an iPod with consistent training information.”
Because information such as menus and schedules can quickly become stale, he emphasizes the importance of keeping everything up to date. “Promote things that change daily.”
Thoresen expects that “whatever promotions and outreach foodservice operators are using today will look a lot different five years from now.”
“Surprisingly,” he observes, “in our high definition-loving world today, people still love YouTube videos, which tells you it’s really all about the content. People are redefining what quality is in videos.”
Podcast videos made by other students and designed to be marketing tools for campus dining services are extremely likely to resonate with their peers, he says. “When it’s coming from other students, it seems a lot more authentic. Big corporate attempts to play in the YouTube arena don’t come across as well.”
For operators thinking about such programs, he advises making sure online information is optimized for search engines. He urges operators to look at other programs that are successful. “That’s got to be the key,” he explains. “There are so many aspects to looking for technical providers and knowing which to go with. There is confusion about what works and what doesn’t. Technology changes so quickly, we need to understand how it works.”
TAPPING YOUNG TALENT
Want to know what customers think? Let young employees be your guide.
Not so long ago, Dean Samuels, marketing director for dining services at Chartwell’s at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., was an FAU student himself. Perhaps because the student experience is still fresh in his mind, he’s in a unique position to communicate with his market. Samuels, who graduated less than a year ago with his second B.A., is helping to change the way dining services, which serves around 7,000 meals a day, reaches its clientele. His goal is to change the typical perception of campus foodservice from ‘boring’ to ‘cool’ by providing information that can be accessed on iPods, PDAs, the Web and the popular YouTube.
“The process of demolishing the ‘cafeteria’ idea has sped up tremendously over the past year with the multiple renovations to dining facilities and also through what I’d like to think of as positive peer pressure through the podcasts. What would normally need to be said multiple times with print signs, with a 50% chance of getting attention or even less of retention, now sticks the first time around with the AV medium and our student hosts. The podcasts inform their peers in their language that we’re listening and evolving with them to meet their dining needs.
Traditionally, the way we communicated information before was not how the students like to receive it. Today, many schools use podcasting for course information. We partnered with Chartwells’ Dineoncampus.com to host podcasts and use video to let them upload menu information. We’re using a talk show/infomercial type of format and did the first one late last year. These are 15-minute episodes and they are doing extremely well. The students gravitated to them. We’re putting them on YouTube.
The individual podcasts cover a variety of topics. One featured a band that plays at one of our dining locations. We did some with information and updates on two major dining facilities renovations. One of those, on the Breezeway Café food court, has two students walking through the construction site, talking about what will go where—Quiznos, Salsarita’s, our Chick-n-Grill concept, etc.
We also did one on The Hub, our kosher deli, which is new, and interviewed the director about what kosher means. When Einstein Bros. Bagels opened, we interviewed them. We have a lot of feedback because it’s students speaking to students. They’re using a camcorder and a mic. We’ll take it as far as we can go. We have lots of ideas.
The hits have increased by 42% since the first podcast. We’re very pleased with the response. The podcasts have changed the students’ approach to us and their image of foodservice. We’d like to improve the quality and make the videos more high definition, and improve the audio, too. Last fall we installed 40-inch plasma televisions within and at the entrance of the Central Marketplace. And this fall, I plan to use the screen at the entrance to podcast episodes as well as create an interactive campus dining map on our Web site. We’ll also begin taping our Iron Chef-styled ‘Gumbo’ and monthly theme meal events for podcasting and broadcasting on our campus TV station.”