When the weather report first promised snow and then warned of a blizzard one Saturday last winter, the chef and owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge got busy.
Instead of grabbing a snow shovel, Tony Maws hit Twitter. Missing out on Saturday business because of a blizzard would put a dent in his week’s receipts, but he saw a chance to save the night. “We’re open tonight,” Maws tweeted. “Walk, snowshoe, sled or ski – come over and brave the storm with us.”
People crowded the restaurant, he said, and rescued a night that could have become a dud.
Restaurants have always counted on word of mouth as a crucial marketing element of their businesses. In the age of social media, that means an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
But social media can be a particular challenge for restaurants. Tell the hostess to do it, and she gets busy and never returns to Facebook. Point out that the bartender has free time to Twitter in the afternoon, and suddenly there’s a rush of early drinkers. Ask the youngest member of the wait staff to snap photos, and the Instagram feeds might be, well, inappropriate.
“Time is the biggest factor,” said Jeannie Hannigan, a cofounder of Front Burner Social, a Boston business that manages the brands and voices of its restaurant clients on social media platforms. The sometimes chaotic day-into-night schedule of restaurant life often leads to inconsistency. Posts, tweets, and photos are difficult for restaurant personnel to include in the nightly business bustle.
“We did it for the first couple of years,” said Esti Parsons, co-owner of Sam’s Restaurant in the South Boston Seaport. “We were good at it — when we thought of it.”
That’s not to say Parsons and her staff failed to see the value of posting. But even when Sam’s staff members remembered to post photos on Instagram or to tweet, they never stopped to analyze what resonated with viewers or potential customers.
So earlier this year, Parsons contacted Hannigan to not only manage Sam’s social media presence but also track what posts were liked and shared with others. She found the monthly analysis of Sam’s presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter a useful new tool.
Other restaurant owners need more basic help. Evan Deluty, chef and owner of Stella in the South End, had never used advertising or social media when he hired Front Burner Social last year.
“Everybody would make fun of me,” said Deluty, who doesn’t even have an e-mail account. “I knew I should probably get with the program” to promote Stella on social media.
The response from customers to photographs on Instagram of a special cocktail or a Twitter conversation about specials has been “phenomenal,” said Deluty.
But it is a financial stretch for most smaller and medium-size restaurants to pay a company to manage social media. Restaurant consultant Michael Staub said he has never seen the cost broken out in any client’s budget.
“When it comes down to it, they’re counting every penny,” he said.
Still, Staub said there was a risk to leaving that work to chance. If the postings aren’t done consistently or don’t have interesting content, they can reflect badly on the business.
Hannigan started Front Burner Social with Louis DiBiccari, the chef and owner of Tavern Road, after she worked as a social media intern preparing for the restaurant’s opening in 2013.
“Right before Tavern Road opened, we had a conversations about integrating social media,” said DiBiccari, who owns the Fort Point restaurant with his brother, Michael.
Louis DiBiccari had previously organized many social- media-driven events such as interactive Chef Louie Nights, which were publicized completely on social media and involved audience participation. “Really, Tavern Road was a test kitchen,” for Front Burner Social, he said.
For clients such as Sam’s, Stella, Wagamama, and Stone Hearth, Hannigan focuses not only on getting the restaurants on the various platforms but conveying personalities.
Analyzing the results of those media posts may be the most important part of the process.
The value of that step is echoed by Edward Boches, professor of advertising at Boston University.
“The big mistake that most inexperienced marketers make in social media is to blast messages out into a digital void where no one is paying attention and no one cares,” said Boches.
“They think it’s free advertising.’’ But, he added, “that is a formula for failure.”
Boches said effectiveness is measured by traffic from social media sites to the restaurant, followers who share e-mail addresses, response to offers, and posts that are shared.
“If you don’t get shared, you’re leaving an opportunity on the table,” he said.