The names of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and My Space have become recognisable for the apparent ease they can connect users to each other, but it's only within the last couple of years that they've been considered a useful tool for business.
Attracted by the fact they are free and relatively easy to use, many hospitality businesses are now building Facebook pages and setting up Twitter accounts in their droves in a bid to reach customers.
Why use social networks?
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of social networks to increase bookings. As Anna Adamovics, online marketing executive at West London's K West Hotel & Spa says there is currently no way of equating the number of followers or fans to booking figures.
"We are able to track how many bookings we get through links in newsletters but it's hard to track how many come through Twitter or Facebook," she says.
Calum Russell, commercial director of budget hotel chain easyHotel, agrees: "The feedback hasn't been written down yet. This is definitely an evolving medium."
However, what dedicated social networkers will agree on is that using social networks is a great way to build your brand.
Adamovics has set up K West accounts on Twitter where the hotel has about 700 followers, Facebook (currently 409 fans) and Flickr. She says the idea behind this is to build up a presence online and ensure the company is part of the online community.
"More and more companies are using it and it's a really good way to interact with guests in a more informal way all year round," she says.
A presence on numerous networks will also help boost the ranking of your business and its website through search engines.
"The more places you are the better for your ranking, so make sure you are everywhere," she says.
How to make the most of social networks
Once you have set yourself up with accounts, it is no good leaving them to look after themselves. The best-known restaurants, hotels and pubs on Twitter and Facebook and those with the largest number of followers or fans are those who post regular updates about their own business and news from other areas.
Adamovics and Russell both agree that it is a good idea to think about what is going on in the area around your business and not be afraid to communicate that too, rather than simply bombarding people with details about deals.
"We are following some great Twitter accounts for London events, so we see what is going on in the area and then highlight that," says Adamovics.
If you want to grow your business but still maintain that personal contact with your customers social networking could be a way to do so without becoming too 'corporate'.
Nick Jeffreys, chief executive and co-founder of Tampopo, the seven-strong pan-Asian restaurant chain with plans for expansion over the next few years , believes social media is the best way for his company to build new business yet maintain a relationship with existing loyal customers.
”We're looking to start a strategy where a member of staff from each restaurant becomes responsible for our social media presence on Twitter and Facebook,” he says. “I think it provides a more personal kind of communication with customers, and that way we can tailor-make offers and promotions to our individual sites, and market them effectively.”
EasyHotel's Russell agrees: "We went to our hotels and found people already on Twitter and then asked them to send out updates for us.
"People at the hotels can bring a local view and talk in the right language, so it's more personal for those markets."
He does advise big companies to control what is being sent out via individual sites under the brand, however, to avoid any potential damage to the brand image.
"Everything about easyHotel as a brand comes to the central office before it goes out and we say how they might want to tweak it. You need to ensure what's being published keeps in line with your company image," he warns.
Top tips for using social networks
Be part of the community: Don’t just use your Twitter account to promote deals or advertise your business or the list of followers you’ve diligently built up may click the ‘unfollow’ button. “We always see what’s going on in our area and Tweet about that too,” says Adamovics. “If you just use Twitter to broadcast your own news it can have an adverse affect. You need to be part of the community,” she adds.
Keep control: Don’t give all staff free reign to Tweet from your account or it could damage your brand. EasyHotel.com gives managers of hotels the go-ahead to send out messages about events local to their hotels, but all brand-related news is sent out by, or with the approval of the company’s commercial director Calum Russell.
Keep an eye on the competition: As social networking is still evolving and is different to quantify so far Nic Ray of online brand management company BrandsEye suggests watching what others are doing and adapting it for your own business if you're stuck on how to make it work best.
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