New York City is known for many things: Broadway, art, crowds, music, fashion, tourism, etc. But, the core passion of every New Yorker is our dedication and passion for food. Delicious food.
It was of great interest then for Karen Seiger (Author/ Founder of Markets of New York City) to moderate a panel discussion with local, food entrepreneurs on their use of social media to cultivate an audience – Local to Global: Social Media in the Markets of New York City. The five food artisans in attendance were:
Fany Gerson, chef and owner of La Newyorkina
Liz Gutman, co-founder of Liddabit Sweets
Simon Tung, co-owner of Macaron Parlour
Susan Povich, co-founder of Red Hook Lobster Pound
Allison Robicelli, chef/author/blogger/co-founder of Robicelli’s
Developing an Online Voice and Personality. While each purveyor differed in their preferences for a social media platform, the general consensus was the need to 1) develop the right tone that best reflected the personality of their brand as well as 2) the right interaction to engage their online audience. Social media has greatly hastened and cultivated our current need for transparency. Now, customers want to know the full 360 who is behind the product, what is the owner’s personality and background, what happens on a daily or weekly basis, etc. Fany Gerson, whose paletas (Mexican ice pops) are highly popular in Manhattan, noted that she tweets in both Spanish and English as a nod to her cultural roots and diverse clientele. Allison Robicelli recounted she began with the oft-started professional tone. But when she finally let her true personality/voice take over, posting comedic and entertaining accounts of her life via stream-of-consciousness thinking, her online audience increased dramatically not only locally, but internationally as well.
More Content Than Advertising. A beginner’s faux-pas that each panelist stressed should be avoided was the assumption that every post and tweet focus on advertising the product. You want to be a conversationalist, not a commercial. A majority of online actions should be focused on interacting with your customers (answering questions, commenting on their posts/tweets) and providing content (industry-related topics or news, photos, events, personal opinions).
Crowdsourcing Ideas and Feedback. Social media is instantaneous and real-time, so business owners can immediately receive feedback on their customer needs, preferences, and requests. It’s the improved, straight-from-the-source, focus group model. Simon Tung relayed an experience when he received customer comments regarding an issue with one of his baked goods. He quickly examined the product, confirmed the validity of his customer critiques, and immediately removed the product from the shelves. Allison Robicelli continually asks her customers for cupcake flavors as well as recommendations for past cupcake flavors that should be reintroduced.
Crowdfunding for Business Growth. Not only does social media provide audience engagement and communication, but it can also be used as a vehicle for raising capital. Both La Newyorkina and Red Hook Lobster Pound suffered great loss during Hurricane Sandy as their kitchens were located in Red Hook. Fany Gerson, of La Newyorkina, created a Kickstarter campaign to raise capital ($20,000) in order to rebuild her entire kitchen. Gerson’s strong community of fans and peers mobilized as fundraising ambassadors on her behalf via social media networks, resulting in La Newyorkina over-exceeding the initial $20,000 goal within one week.
Handling Customer Complaints. Most of the panelists handle customer complaints through Facebook and Twitter, but mention Yelp and everyone lets out an exasperated sigh. Yelp seems to be the bane of any food-related business owner. While there are valid criticisms, a majority of the negative reviews are from privilege-minded individuals who expected special treatment during their visit or from individuals who leave negative reviews to receive future special treatment. Business owners must learn to ascertain and identify which reviews are legitimate in order to conduct follow-up. Susan Povich of Red Hook Lobster Pound reviews Yelp for dissatisfied customers and sends them a specially coded gift certificate. When someone shows up with said coded certificate at any of the locations, employees ensure that specific customer has an exemplary second experience. Additionally, this allows Povich to track conversion rates for customer service.
Your Peers Are Also Your Community. It’s a small world and in the food entrepreneurship industry, it’s even smaller. Each of the panelists stressed the importance of authenticity and relationship building not only with customers, but also with fellow peers within the field. Working in silos was never an option to them, nor was it a mentality they wanted. The panelists and their peers became secondary family, helping one another during various markets, providing advice on business matters, brain-storming ideas on culinary initiatives, and sharing kitchen space and resources when needed. This community spirit, carried over on to social media platforms, indirectly helped increase customer engagement and followers. Customers would read online interactions between the business owners; begin following the companies they were previously unaware of; involve themselves within said business conversations; visit the recently-followed food establishments to taste the products; and most importantly, the customers would then provide reviews and endorsement of the products/companies through their own personal social networks of friends.
For the burgeoning food entrepreneur, the major takeaways to heed are: find the right platform; create your online voice/persona; interact with your audience AUTHENTICALLY (talk with them, respond to them, ask for feedback); don’t be a commercial and hard-sell your products; always provide content through your social media platforms; and create a community with your peers.
Success takes time, but community support is what carries you to the finish line.
Lisa Hoang is an arts administrator who is now immersed in all things digital media, tech, and healthy eating. She is currently the Assistant Director for NYU-SCPS overseeing academic programs in Digital Media Marketing, Digital Publishing, and Leadership/Human Capital Management. Lisa has a B.S. in Fine Art/Illustration from Towson University as well as an M.P.S. in Arts and Cultural Management from Pratt Institute. She spends a majority of her time testing the limits of her metabolism. You can find more about her at: www.vizify.com/lisa-c-hoang.