Yes, another year has passed in the quickly evolving world of social network marketing.  In 2012 we saw the emergence of Instagram and Pinterest as the next stars in the social media firmament.  Both have been wildly successful in the realm of restaurant marketing as well, providing socially engaging photo sharing platforms for everyone from dedicated food bloggers to casual diners.  We’ve also seen Facebook continue to evolve, in ways that both amaze and confound – while Twitter has unexpectedly grown into an indispensable platform for brief, targeted, highly effective communications.  Now it’s time to turn our gaze onto the year ahead and see if we can get out in front of the next big wave.

1)      Mobile – Easily the most important trend in the coming year – it is also the one that offers the biggest opportunity. Here’s the skinny – mobile Internet use in the U.S. is set to overtake wired use by 2015 – and this shift is happening even faster for social media.   To quote Facebook in last September’s quarterly SEC filing: “[We] anticipate that the rate of growth in mobile usage will exceed the growth in usage through personal computers for the foreseeable future.”  What does this portend for the hospitality industry?  Think it’s an accident that Google lists restaurants and bars on their smartphone browser and not on their desktop version?  It is now estimated that 30% of all restaurant website traffic is mobile generated – and that number is not only growing, but also skews upward for a younger demographic with a relatively large discretionary income.

This means that if your site is not mobile ready at least three out of ten visitors will find it useless – and that’s not even the worst part.  If someone is browsing from their smartphone and cannot access your site they are going to go to the next option – which is guaranteed to be a review site, such as Yelp or Zagat.  Besides the fact that there is no surety that the info those sites provide will be correct or up to date, you are also subject to the whims of your restaurant’s latest reviewer.  Not an attractive scenario – but one that is, happily, easy to remedy.

There are many online services that can easily create a mobile version of your site.  With the addition of a few lines of code to your existing website it will then be automatically loaded when your site is displayed on a small screen device.  These services range in price from free (ad driven) to a monthly fee structure that can be scaled to a single store or restaurant group.  Consult with your IT provider to determine which service is best for you – it may even be included in your web hosting plan.   Minimally the mobile page should include: Hours of operation, contact info, map link, menu link, click-to-call button, Open Table link and social connectivity.

A small investment in time and money can leap-frog you ahead of the competition – especially the restaurant sites with the extensive Flash-based slideshow of Venice and the Tony Bennett soundtrack that takes ten minutes to load.

2)      Video – Content is still king – and video content can easily boast the most royal pedigree.   It still provokes the biggest response across the spectrum of social media sites.  High Definition video is a standard component on virtually all mid-range priced point-and-shoot cameras and is now an easily accessible visual medium.  A three minute video of your chef describing the components of his favorite dish, or an equally brief presentation on a new wine or dessert is simple to produce, provides valuable information to your customer base and is, no surprise, by far the most virally propagated form of social content.  In this case practice makes perfect – create a simple weekly shooting routine and you can compile a content rich Youtube channel in no time.  You will also be perfecting talents that will become indispensable in future marketing campaigns.

3)      GPS based Advertising – This summer Foursquare rolled out their free Local Updates feature which allows businesses to offer proximity based specials to current customers, as well as a pay-for-play option which can get your Happy Hour or Dinner Special viewed by all nearby Foursquare users searching for a place to eat.  Other social media platforms (watch for Yelp) are set to follow in 2013 with location-based digital interactions forming a growing percentage of overall online customer experience.  Ultimately this will give restaurant owners an increasingly affordable method of precisely targeting their advertising budgets – both demographically and geographically.

4)      Social Media Management Tools – One of the biggest challenges of social media use in the restaurant industry to date is the allocation resources.  Without a clear method of measuring how these platforms increase the bottom line it’s been difficult to determine exactly how a Facebook post directly affects business.  This year will see the increased availability of easy to understand analytics, as well as intuitive tools that not only enable you to manage all of your social media accounts from one dashboard, but also measure how effective your efforts are within the framework of your network.

Two services that we’ve had great success with are Hootsuite and Sprout Social.  Hootsuite provides a much more robust platform in terms of the number of platforms that it tracks and manages, while Sprout Social offers a simpler, more intuitive interface.  Both offer customizable reports that can track your efforts and provide valuable data on the number of people that have seen your posts and how they acted on them.   In the coming year watch for these tools to begin to incorporate reputation management modules that will enable you to also monitor your brand on review sites like Yelp and Citysearch from the same dashboard.

5)      Social CRM – For many years the most effective Customer Relationship Management technique in the hospitality industry was walking around the dining room and asking customers how they liked their soup.  Then, with the advent of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as review sites such as Zagat and Yelp, gauging and responding to customer feedback became a game of keeping as many plates spinning happily in the air as possible, while still answering the phone and seating people.  This year will see these efforts taken to another level as restaurants begin to monitor feedback on Twitter and other networks in real time.   For example:  a customer takes an exceptional Instagram picture of their entree, posts it on Facebook and Tweets about it, these actions are then automatically flagged by management and, if other selected criteria are met, the diner is then rewarded with a complimentary glass of dessert wine at meal’s end.  While this may sound like a complicated or even annoying procedure, it will enable restaurant professionals to respond to positive feedback proactively.  Which will not only be much more entertaining than simply responding to complaints, but will also create a very useful local response loop between online social interaction and in house engagement.

2013 will also see a seismic shift in focus as the industry wide emphasis on collecting fans and followers wanes and social media marketers concentrate on the act of engagement itself.  As these platforms and services evolve it will become increasingly clear that the only element that the restaurateur actually owns is the dialogue that they establish with their customers. (To that end it will be important to remember that email marketing is still a critical component of your network strategy – and one of the few that you control 100%.)  A creative and responsive program for customer engagement will be the goal, rather than the successful manipulation of artificial online aggregates – the message then is the medium.

Perhaps then this year’s biggest development will be the realization that restaurants need to use Facebook and Twitter to create an easily accessible and intuitive conduit between themselves and their customers – not just use them as vehicles to churn more page views.  While individual channels may come and go, combine and morph into still more platforms and networks, the online conversation is here to stay – and that’s where the value will remain.