Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beyond Marketing – How Social Media Can Improve Daily Business Operations

An Interview with Tanya Fox of Naples Tomato

Companies are flocking to social media for marketing purposes. However, beyond acquiring and keeping customers, social media can improve daily business operations – as Naples Tomato, a nationally recognized restaurant in Naples, Florida, is finding out.

The Fussy Marketer recently interviewed Tanya Fox (photo), who manages the social media program for Naples Tomato, to learn how. (Disclosure: Naples Tomato is a client.) Tanya’s experience and tips are valuable even if you’re not in the restaurant business.

Q. Tanya, what is Naples Tomato?

A. Naples Tomato is a restaurant in Naples, Florida, that specializes in something we call Vine Dining. Vine Dining is a uniquely American way to experience the Mediterranean lifestyle, where every meal is a celebration of life. We provide a flexible dining experience so you can match inventive food and wines to your mood, the moment and your budget. We are located in North Naples, Florida, and we serve 100,000 guests a year.

Q. Describe Naples Tomato’s social media program.

A. We have an active Twitter feed with nearly 3,500 followers, and we do between three and seven tweets a day. We tweet about daily specials and menu items, and about local events and attractions that our guests might enjoy. We also look for people who are coming to Naples and invite them to our restaurant. We offer a special treat to guests who mention Twitter.

We also have a Facebook fan page with about 130 fans – and growing. We also use OpenTable, a commercial Web 2.0 online reservations system with customer feedback and reviews, which is very important to our operations. And we track restaurant consumer ratings sites and respond to comments. These sites include Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat, and Chowhound. We started our social media program in March 2009.

Q. How have social media helped Naples Tomato’s business?

A. It’s been an inexpensive way to reach foodies and wine lovers internationally. We’ve acquired many dozens of new guests who found us online, mostly through Twitter and OpenTable. We’re also building a fan base of people who have joined our Facebook page and who regularly re-tweet us on Twitter. This is all great, but the biggest value has been in improving our operations.

Q. How so?

A. We now get immediate feedback, good and bad. It’s like having 200 mystery shoppers watching us every day. It keeps us all on notice to do a great job. The staff know a good experience or a bad experience can be all over the Internet instantly.

We've improved our customer service because we can take immediate action. We have let staff go based on social media feedback. We also give rewards to staff who have been recognized by guests on social media.

Social media also provides a more accurate picture of guest satisfaction. Guests now have an easy way to be vocal, both positive and negative. In the past, we only heard when people weren’t happy. Today, we have an ongoing online conversation with our guests, so we know what they are thinking – good and bad— and we can respond. It’s been tremendous in helping us build good will.

To maintain and continually improve our service, we recently established a new quality-control program: we formally investigate and respond within 24 hours to any guest who gives us less than a 4-star review on OpenTable. Every week, we also reward the top server and servers mentioned by our guests on OpenTable. [November 23, 2009 update]

So, you can see that we take social media very seriously.

Q. Which tools do you find most valuable?

A. Twitter and Facebook are great for instant feedback, and for reaching out to current fans and for finding new fans. People are very engaged and very responsive. People blog about us and re-tweet us. Many bloggers and members of the press are on Twitter and Facebook, so we can develop relationships with them here.

OpenTable provides a lot of data about our guests. Things like what they ate, who their server was, when they like to come in, and how many times they have come in. We now know our guests much better, so we can take a very personal approach to customer service, even with the large number of guests we have. We serve 100,000 guests a year, and one-third reserve through OpenTable.

For example, we might send a free dessert platter over to a repeat guest, or have the owner stop by the table to wish that person a happy anniversary. I’ve even picked up information on Twitter, and phoned in to the restaurant from home on a weekend to make special things happen.

Q. Any advice for restaurants considering social media?

A. My number-one tip is to be honest and open – when things are good and bad. Don’t post fake reviews. Do share good news. Do admit when you’ve made a mistake. Do talk with people, not at people. Do be a resource to people, don’t just push your products and services. For example, we promote Naples and Naples attractions on Twitter and Facebook. We follow lots of people on Twitter and participate as fans on other Facebook pages.

It’s also important to proceed with confidence if your operations are good, but with caution if they aren’t. Our guest satisfaction rates are around 98% and our operations are strong. If your satisfaction rates or your operations aren’t good, your warts will show on social media.

Also, have a strategy for how you will handle negative feedback. We’re not perfect. At Naples Tomato, we want to hear if people have a negative experience. This helps us be better. On Twitter, we encourage people to DM [direct message] us if they have a bad experience, and let us respond personally. However, if they feel strongly about their experience, it’s their right to post to the Twitter community. You have to be ready for this – you can’t be wimpy. Our main goal is always to delight the guest and respond quickly when things aren’t right. Social media is really helping.

Finally, have fun. Social media is a great way to connect with more guests and prospective guests, and get to know them personally to serve them better. We’ve met some great people, from all over the world.

Q. Where can we find Naples Tomato on Twitter and Facebook?

A. On Twitter, we’re @naplestomato and on Facebook we’re at

October 14, 2009 Update: Naples Tomato today announced that it will offer franchises. More than 300,000 guests have dined at the flagship restaurant since it opened in 2005. According to Tanya Fox, social media marketing will play a prominent role in the new franchise business.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Customer Interview and How to Ace It – Part II

How to Interview a Customer

When writing a customer case study, you typically only have one chance to interview the customer, so it’s important to get the interview right. In my last post, I talked about how to structure an interview. In this post, I will talk about how to conduct an interview.

Tip #1 - Record and Transcribe, Always: You cannot effectively take notes, ask questions, and think of your next question simultaneously – at least I can’t, even after 20+ years of interviewing customers. That’s why I record every interview and pay for transcription. With audio and text, you will have every nuance of the conversation. This helps – a lot: in fact, it usually gets me very close to a strong first draft of the case study because I can boil down the transcript. Your draft will also be more accurate, which usually means fewer customer edits and shorter approval times. A hint: Run two tape recorders, and test your setup in advance of the interview.

It pays to be paranoid: I once got a new client because the previous writer’s batteries ran out in his tape recorder, requiring the interview to be repeated. This was an important customer – and the client was fortunate that the customer was willing to repeat the interview.

The transcript also has residual value. Sales and marketing people often go back to these transcripts and mine them for customer intelligence or marketing sound bites.

Tip #2 – Watch Out for the Pile-On: Getting a customer interview is a big deal, particularly if you work for a start-up company. And it’s an important marketing event, in all companies. So, it’s not surprising that many people want to “just listen in.” Here is my general rule: just say no.

Pile-ons often cause poor interviews. Here’s why: First, having multiple people in the room or on a call may make the customer nervous; he typically will feel compelled to “perform” (by parroting the company’s marketing messages) or he may clam up from nerves or fear of giving the “wrong” answer in front of “the audience.” Second, the interview ends up being a hodge-podge of opinion and rubber-stamped company messages, instead of a natural flow. Why pay for a customer story if it’s the same information that’s in your product literature?

Instead, try to limit the interview to the customer, the interviewer and potentially one other person: usually the sales rep or relationship owner. If the rep and the customer have a good relationship, having the rep involved can provide a comfort level for the customer. Exception: It’s okay if the customer wants an assistant or secretary in the interview (the fourth person in the interview). These people tend not to interfere but they often add value quietly, by looking up information or following up for their boss after the interview.

Ask, at a few pre-arranged places in the interview, if the sales rep has anything to add or ask. Usually he won’t, but when he does, it will be valuable. At the end of the interview, ask him if he has a final question or comment – this gives him a chance to thank the customer on behalf of the company.

Tip #3 – Listen: We live an interrupt-driven society, so it’s no wonder that many interviewers have to control themselves from interrupting during an interview. Ask your question, then get out of the way! Listen to what the customer is saying, until he stops talking. Take a deep breath – count to three slowly – then ask your next question and listen while he answers that. Then repeat. During pauses, resist the temptation to jump in, until you are sure that the customer is finished with his point and is not just thinking. I find it helpful at the end of a question to say “anything else?” The customer will either say no – or sometimes comes up with a great, tight sound bite summarizing what he took the last five minutes to say.

The Take-Away: When conducting an interview, less is definitely more. By less, I mean less interruption (by you) and fewer distractions (in the form of unnecessary additional participants and intrusive technology). By following the three tips above, you can create a smooth, pleasurable and productive interview. And, in my experience, you will have come most of the way toward a strong finished first draft of your case study.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Customer Interview and How to Ace It

In my last post, I talked about modernizing the customer case study and bringing it into the Social Web.

Even in the Social Web, prose is prologue: a story doesn’t exist until you write it down. So, in this post, I talk about the first step in creating a customer case study: the interview.

This step is crucially important. When writing a case study, you typically have only one shot at the customer, so it’s important to get it right. The interview also has residual value: for example, you can forward it to the sales team or customer service reps, who often can get great insights from the interview transcript. (Sometimes a customer will share good – or bad – comments about the product with an “impartial” interviewer that he would never share directly his sales or service rep.)

I’ve interviewed hundreds of my clients’ customers over the last 20 years. In this post and the next, I will describe some techniques for structuring a great interview and conducting a great interview.

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but it isn’t once you get it down to a system. And the payoff – in interview quality and customer relations – is huge.

The end goal is a case study that sounds organic and authentic. You’ve probably noticed that some case studies sound natural and true, while others sound unnatural and contrived. Usually it’s the interview that made the difference. Remember: today you’re writing for direct-to-consumer publication and to encourage conversation. So, naturalness is important.

How to Prepare for a Customer Interview

Tip #1 - Limit Your Questions: I once had a client send me a list of 25 questions for a 45-minute interview! This is far too many. You would not only exhaust your interviewee, but also virtually guarantee that you would run overtime. I usually plan on one question for every 5-7 minutes – particularly for B2B and more technical products. This is a comfortable pace, and it allows for branching and clarification questions – where you often get great sound bites.

Tip #2 - Always Include a Summary or Wrap-Up Question: It’s often where you get the headline for the story. For example, my standard wrap-up question is: “Please summarize our conversation or make any final statements as you wish.” You will be surprised at the gems you get by asking this question.

Tip #3 - Ask Open-Ended Questions:
Never ask a question that can be answered simply “yes” or “no” or with a single word. In general, use questions that begin with “why,” “how” or “how much.” On your personal copy of the questions, jot down prompting questions in case you have a terse customer.

Tip #4 - Forward the Questions in Advance: This sounds like “Interviewing 101,” but I include it because many interviewers don’t do this. Send your questions a few days before the interview, to allow the customer time to prepare. The result is a more relaxed customer and a better interview. The customer may also be able to gather previously published materials to answer some questions. This gives you more time to spend on questions that are more complex or difficult. Also: many customers don’t get much interviewing practice, so don’t expect them to be as efficient or practiced as a CEO or a salesman. Your questions have to work hard.

Tip #5 - Draft Your Sales Guy: My main goal in the customer interview is to get colorful sound bites from the customer: how the client’s product improved his business, made his company more competitive, got him promoted and so on. So, don’t waste your questions on the nitty-gritty of the customer relationship – for example, the configuration of the products he is using, when he became a customer, etc. Instead, draft your sales guy in advance: he usually will know the answers to a lot of these nitty-gritty questions. You can then weave this information into one validating question (if necessary) for the interview, or just include the information in the first draft of the case study.

By following these five tips, you will get the kind of information that will help you create a customer case study that meets my three E’s: easy to love, easy to find and share, and easy to talk about. You will also usually provide a more positive (and memorable) experience for the customer – one that contributes to the relationship instead of detracts from it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Making the Customer Case Study Work Harder on the Social Web

Is the customer case study becoming obsolete in today’s Social Web? A world where every customer has an audible opinion and an instantaneous, inexpensive way to broadcast it?

No. The customer story is more important than ever. Here’s why.

The customer case study is the marketing intellectual property that gives people the detailed story as presented by your brand. But it’s also the source document for blog content, Tweets, and so on – and a jumping-off point for conversations with your market. There was an old saying in traditional PR: “If there is no conflict, there is no interest.” Today it’s: “If there is no conversation, there is no interest.”

To make your customer story conversation-worthy, rethink the content. Stop thinking of it as an ad for your product or your expertise. Instead, think of it as a tutorial on how customers and prospects can improve their business and personal lives. This can be particularly challenging for companies that sell very technical products – for example, I work with a lot of companies that sell deep infrastructure information technology. But these are the vendors that tend to benefit most from this approach to customer case studies. Remember: the ultimate goal is to find more customers like the customer you are writing about.

To better exploit a customer case study on the Social Web, here are three ideas:

Make it easy to love. Tell a story – the customer’s story. People like to read about people and talk about people. Tell how you solved the customer’s problem and made his life better. Leave the feeds and speeds in your product literature. Go for natural quotes that capture the customer’s personality and enthusiasm, and don’t “PR-ize” the quotes. Use your biggest asset – an enthusiastic customer – to engage, enlighten, entertain. (And yes, even business customers can wax enthusiastic.) A bonus: I have found that the more the story is about the customer’s business, the more likely it will get through his corporate approval cycle. If you do a really good job, the customer may end up using your story to promote himself.

Make it easy to find and share. Put the content – or part of it, or a link to it, or a customer logo – on your home page. Don’t require registration to get the case study. Consider distributing a direct-to-consumer, SEO-ed news release about it, highlighting the business or life lessons learned by the customer by using your product.

Make it easy to talk about. Cross-promote, cross-promote, cross-promote. Blog about it, and encourage comments. Tweet it, including using appropriate hash tags. Create a customer corner on your Facebook fan page, or have an interactive discussion. Do a Tweet chat. Look for vertical industry Web sites or topical sites (for example, food or wine sites) where you can create and engage in conversations using the content. Conversation makes the case study a living, evolving thing.

Also, consider using video and podcasts to bring the print customer case study alive. This can create additional publishing and social networking opportunities. For example, I love podcasts of a peer-to-peer nature: where a vendor’s senior manager interviews the customer. A money-saving hint: if you do an annual customer conference, try to set up your video or podcast interview operation there. You can often capture multiple customers, and at their most enthusiastic.

There’s obviously a lot more you can do, and I am probably overlooking things, because I am not a “social media expert.” But by applying a few simple techniques, you can start to create more “sociable” customer stories and get much more mileage from them.

Customers: The Experts in Who’s An Expert

Peter Shankman (founder of the terrific “Help A Reporter Out” service) and his colleague Sarah Evans had a great blog article yesterday, entitled “Is Your Social Media Expert Really An Expert?”

Great reading and sage advice for companies seeking professional help in navigating Twitter, Facebook and other social media as part of corporate communications strategies.

A follow-up statement by Peter on Facebook caught my eye; “If you say you’re an expert, you aren’t.”

I am not sure I completely agree, aside from the current pig-pile of unqualified people trying to make a quick buck on social media. But it is always better to have other people say you’re an expert based on the value you have provided them. So the experts in who are the experts are customers, when you think of it.

This is a great segue into my next post. It’s about that time-tested marketing tool – the customer case study – and how to make it work harder for you on the social Web.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bringing Brand Image to Life through Social Media Marketing

The venerable Washington Post became the story itself last week. The occasion: a series of “salons” to be held at publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home that would bring together Beltway insiders and Post reporters with sponsors who paid anywhere from $25K to $250K for the privilege. The story, of course, went all over the Internet, and it’s not surprising why. The Post – with its long-standing reputation for high-integrity reporting in a town not known for integrity – appeared to be selling access to its reporters. The Post acted quickly: it cancelled the salon series, and a spokesperson blamed “overzealous marketing” by the parent company’s conference group. (New York Times reporter David Carr wrote an excellent post-mortem on this story.)

But that phrase “overzealous marketing” caught my eye. If the marketers couldn’t anticipate that the salon idea might damage The Post’s reputation, who was minding the brand image?

Today, everyone must mind the brand. Much of a company’s marketing takes place – either by design or by default – on the Internet and in social media: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, consumer rating sites. This means that “minding the brand image” must be the responsibility of everyone in the company: not just the Chief Marketing Officer who creates the brand messages, but the employees who deliver the brand messages with every customer interaction, online and offline. We’re in the era of behavioral branding: we must live the brand 24x7.

Social media marketing campaigns can not only build the business, but also strengthen the brand image. Effectively planned and executed with the brand image in mind, campaigns can bring the brand to life and engage a broader spectrum of customers. And this doesn’t have to be expensive.

Here is one example. My company created a simple, “starter” social media program for a small business (it sells food & wine to consumers). Our Phase-One program consists of a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page. In the three months since we started the program, it has been very successful. It has brought in new customers, generated new revenue, and created more than a dozen ardent new fans who blog and Tweet about the business on a regular basis. Free marketing help – what could be better?

To run the program, we selected a young employee – a digital native who is very familiar with the business and its products. She is also enthusiastic, and she aspires to run her own business some day. She has fairly wide discretion in what she posts – such as making special offers, handling customer situations, or running small contests. Our brand messages – 5 simple attributes that could fit on an index card – are her guidelines. The business owner just asks that anything she posts support one or more of the brand messages.

By using this tactic, we’ve created an authentic, organic presence in social media that accurately reflects the brand image. The business owner periodically participates, but otherwise our young ambassador keeps the conversations going. Sure, once in a while we have a misfire or glitch, but overall, the online brand image tracks the business neatly.

If you want to try this tactic yourself, here’s my advice:

Keep your brand messages simple and memorable – use 3 to 5 messages, and use words (“flexibility”) or short phrases (“award-winning wines”) instead of the long sentences you might typically use in a marketing plan

Ask your online ambassadors to sanity-check their posts or comments against the brand messages before they post (this will become second nature after a while)

Don’t hover! Let your ambassadors “own” what they do and take pride in it.

This one powerful tactic can help you create a program that’s not only effective but also cost-effective.

We will be expanding the social media marketing program for this business in the coming months. I will be writing more about the campaign in the future.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Does Social Media Marketing Work for B2B Companies?

You betcha. This new style of marketing is as relevant to clients selling high-ticket B2B products as it is to clients selling B2C. I’ve seen it in my own work: for example, the power of social news sites and bloggers to reach database architects.

In early 2007, I helped launch Vertica Systems, a company with an ultra-fast, low-maintenance relational database management system (RDBMS). This database lets companies store huge amounts of data for a fraction of the cost of other databases. It also enables non-technical people to query the database anywhere from 10X to 2000X times faster than competitive products. Therefore, the product is of huge interest to database architects, the people responsible for building corporate data warehouses and business intelligence/analytics applications.

We used social media (database-savvy bloggers, one very sharp blogger in particular), social news sites ( and Wikipedia to get the word out. The engineering staff commented on social news sites and blogs, creating a dialog with their counterparts in corporations. Our technical advisors wrote technical articles and papers, which we promoted on social media. We also used traditional technology trade media, with an emphasis on reporters who were social-media-savvy: for example, reporters who routinely cross-promoted their own stories to or other social media.

Pre-launch, we talked about the business need for a new kind of database and for speedy access to huge amounts of data. We talked about the limitations of current databases and the new technical requirements. We talked about everything except the product details.

This story and the combination of communications techniques positioned the company as a thought leader. It also created a critical mass of interest in the company and published opinion about the company in advance of its formal launch.

As a result, the launch generated 10 times the anticipated traffic to the Web site and 10 times the anticipated signups/downloads for the company’s Early Adopter program.

The company went on to start its own (successful) blog, and today its executives and senior technical people are active on Twitter (director of field engineering Omer Trajman, VP of marketing Dave Menninger, director of marketing Andy Ellicott, director of business development Colin Mahony, and CEO Ralph Breslauer).

Two big reasons for the success of this launch were:

(1) a marketing and sales strategy that truly leveraged the Web, instead of the traditional enterprise sales model (expensive advertising and bag-carrying sales reps) and

(2) a visionary management team and marketing director who really “got” the new marketing and weren’t afraid of losing control.