It’s no secret that Americans are in love–no, obsessed–with their Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets. No matter where you go, you can’t escape the tapping fingers on iPhones and Blackberrys and the beep of incoming messages. But, instead of regarding them as an unavoidable irritation, a growing number of bakery operators are learning to harness the tremendous power of social media to fuel sales. And for them, the tapping and beeping are music to their ears.
Months before they even opened their doors, Jodi Whalen, owner of August First Bakery and Café in Burlington, Vt., and Emily Harris, owner of Cake Eater Bakery and Café in Minneapolis began cultivating groups of followers when they took to Facebook and Twitter. Both Whalen and Harris knew that the beauty of social media is that it allows owners to make a personal connection with customers.
To forge that connection, each one posted chatty messages about what she was doing, thinking and feeling as opening day approached; asked for comments and suggestions regarding product line and posted informal snapshots of freshly baked items. By the time August First opened, “we came out blazing because of the incredible energy and substantial, committed customer base we had been able to build up through social media,” Whalen says.
Harris had a similar experience. “We’re a teeny neighborhood bakery, and we would never have had the resources to reach out to so many people so quickly,” she says. “Even before customers met us, they felt that they were part of our family and did some wonderful things to help us get off the ground.”
For example, customers took cell phone pictures of themselves eating a cookie, and then posted them directly on Facebook or provided a photo link on Twitter along with their rave reviews such as, “This cookie is incredible! You have to come and taste one!”
Since Cake Eater opened in spring of 2010, the bakery has collected more than 1,600 Twitter “followers,” who regularly log on to read its short and sweet posts (the limit for each message is 140 characters) and 3,000 Facebook friends. Since its opening in summer of 2009, August First’s Facebook family has surpassed 1,400 members.
According to its internally generated statistics, Facebook has more than 500 million active users. Half of them log on at least once in any given day and, in total, users spend more than 700 billion minutes per month reading and writing posts. Even more important, from a marketing perspective, is that the average user has 130 “friends” (i.e. people they communicate with on a regular basis). It’s no wonder that Facebook bills itself as “word-of-mouth on steroids.”
Proof it works
Recent research by Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business in Houston suggests that Facebook’s claims are more fact than fluff. In a 2010 case study, researchers measured customer visits, sales and loyalty for a local retail business, Dessert Gallery Bakery & Café, before and after establishing a presence on Facebook.
After creating a Dessert Gallery Facebook page, the researchers sent out emails to the bakery’s customer mailing list requesting that they sign up on a special “fan page,” explains Utpal Dholakiar, an associate professor of management at the school and director of the project. After three months, the researchers discovered that, compared with the typical Dessert Gallery customers, the Facebook fans made 36 percent more visits to its two retail stores each month and spent 45 percent more of their eating-out dollars and 33 percent more money there. Facebook fans also had a 41 percent “greater psychological loyalty” and 14 percent “higher emotional attachment” to the Dessert Gallery brand than other customers, the study showed.
One of the best things about all of the major social media platforms is the no-cost usage. Josh Whitford, co-founder of Fargo, N.D. social media consulting firm Echelon Media, describes the set-up of your own Facebook, Twitter (or preferably both) sites as quick and painless, even for people who are not particularly computer savvy.
“People love to talk–they always have and always will,” Whitford says. “You’re really just joining in a conversation that’s already happening.”
One of the hottest topics among today’s consumers is the daily deal, says Erik Thoresen, director of product innovation at Chicago-based business strategy firm Technomic. Although the concept of using a promotion to get people in the door is anything but new, “social media makes the people who have joined your network feel that they are privy to insider information or special perk,” he adds. “You don’t have to give anything away or discount your products; just let them know about any limited-time-only or special edition products. Just be sure to avoid polluting the media with too many or heavy-handed promotions.”
Your communications shouldn’t always focus on deals. If a two-for-one cookie offer is all you’re ever offering, people will learn to ignore you really quickly, Whitford says. “Sometimes you just want to get people talking–for instance, you could ask them to describe their favorite baking memories.”
For limited-time-only offers, one of the best platforms to use is Twitter because it of its immediacy and appeal to people on the go, say Whalen and Harris. “For example, if at the end of the day we find that we have overbaked and have a dozen or so baguettes left, we can quickly tweet a limited buy-one-get-one-free offer to our followers,” Whalen says.
Say it with video
Bakery products tend to be attractive and photogenic, and the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” plays very well in today’s media-centric world. And, if a picture works well, a video is even better.
Most newer smartphones are capable of shooting video and handheld camcorders now cost as little as $100 to $200, so producing a short snippet (about one to two minutes) about your bakery or a particular bakery product is very inexpensive. Then, posting it to a video hosting site, such as YouTube, makes your bakery visible to a wider world of consumers.
“Video is perfect for creating some really cool foodie experiences, such as one- to two-minute baking demos or informal sharing of ‘baker’s secret tips’ to keep customers engaged,” Whitford suggests.
Thoresen points out that wit often equals exposure. “Viewers are likely to pass on to their friends videos that are humorous or otherwise particularly entertaining,” he says. “That’s how things go viral and get seen by countless viewers around the world.”
Finding your place
Taking social media to a whole new place–literally–are location-based platforms, such as Foursquare and Gowalla, both of which require the download of a free app onto the user’s smartphone. Working with the phone’s GPS receiver, the app can home into the user’s location and suggest places of interest (including eateries) in the area.
Users digitally “check in” when they visit one of these places to let friends who might be nearby know where to find them. Both platforms link with the user’s Facebook, Twitter and address book for maximum communication capabilities. Many users also like to post comments and recommendations as they go from place to place.
Foursquare reports that it has more than eight million users worldwide, with more than 35,000 new users coming on board every day. Part mobile tool, part game, both Foursquare and Gowalla enable frequent users to earn virtual rewards, such as badges, passport stamps and the coveted designation of mayor for the individual who logs in the most visits to a location over any given period of time. For business owners, this is the perfect opportunity to acknowledge these regular customers by turning the virtual rewards into real ones.
“Loyal customers such as these are like unpaid ambassadors for your business,” Whitford says. “A special surprise such as a free loaf of bread or some pastries can make these customers feel special and appreciated.”
Crumbs Bake Shop, which is based in New York and has a total of 34 locations nationwide, “has a strong presence across Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare,” says company co-founder Jason Bauer. “Since 2010, Foursquare has also served as a successful platform to drive customer loyalty by offering enticing weekly specials to Crumbs fans. Foursquare specials include a free medium coffee for Friday check-ins and a free cupcake for all mayor check-ins.”
Recently Crumbs became the first national bakery to introduce its own iPhone app. The app allows customers to locate the closest Crumbs store, and view and save their favorite cupcake varieties and share them with members of their email, Facebook and Twitter networks. Other unique features give the user the ability to design and send cupcake-themed greeting cards and purchase Crumbs’ gift certificates.
App users also receive live news updates that include current in-store promotions and exclusive discounts. Bauer reports that within the first five weeks of its debut, the app had 6,200 downloads.
Keep expectations in check
Whalen credits the inclusion of social media as one of her marketing strategies with helping her bakery “hit our year three projections for sales only eight months after opening the business.” But, she cautions, operators shouldn’t expect to achieve overnight success with just a couple of Facebook posts and Twitter tweets.
“If I put out a tweet today, I can’t expect 40 customers to come rushing into the bakery,” she says.
Running effective social media campaigns requires commitment. After all, she says, there’s nothing sadder than someone clicking on to a Facebook page and finding that the last post was six months ago. Rather than do a half-hearted job, she explains, it’s better not to do it at all.
“The real pay-off comes when they’re trying to decide on a place to go for a loaf of bread, coffee and pastry or a meal and remember all of the warm and fuzzy feelings they get from your posts and tweets,” she says.
Using social media platforms isn’t an either or proposition. In fact, John Graf, co-owner of Priory Fine Pastry in Pittsburgh, found that using all of the different platforms and making sure they are integrated with one another really gives him a big bang for no bucks.
“We send messages to our email database and invite them to join our Facebook and Twitter groups,” he explains. “We also post our social media links on our primary web site.”
In addition to your customers finding out all kinds of great and valuable things about you on social media, the learning experience should work both ways, says Stephen Wayhart, whose Brandmill marketing consulting company in Carnegie, Pa., works with Priory to strengthen its social media presence and power.
“Be careful not to talk so much that you forget to listen to your customers; you’ll definitely learn a great deal about them,” he explains. “And you just might learn something about yourself as well.”