News Column

Business Owners Beware of Online Reputation

June 3, 2013
Cafe owner

Many disgruntled diners took to social media to share their stories of poor service during the opening weeks of the new Irish Bred Pub in downtown Montgomery. Some on a Montgomery dining-themed Facebook group got something unexpected in return: individual replies from the chain's vice president, Joe Garofalo.

But Garofalo said it just makes sense considering the power of word of mouth on social media.

"Everyone has unique ideas, and needs, and concerns," he said Wednesday while shuttling between management duties. "I find that in most cases you can turn people around and win them back. And then also the people who may be following that thread or conversation think, 'OK, here is a caring business owner.' "

Still, he admits there were issues that affected service at a time when the restaurant was "overwhelmed" by demand and working to find better employees.

Customers who are faced with those kinds of experiences are the ones most likely to talk about them, one expert said.

"People have always complained about service and products," Birmingham social media consultant Wade Kwon said. "It happens, but it usually only happens in the extremes. We don't usually speak out if we think things are so-so or mediocre."

When they do speak out, they have a potential audience of more than 1 billion people on Facebook alone. Among that audience, the ones most likely to listen are the ones who are the most likely to be swayed by the comments.

Experts said people simply trust acquaintances on social media more than they trust official reviews.

"People will believe what they hear from their peers before they believe what they hear from you," Ashley Brandle said.

Brandle has handled social media for Central/129 Coosa restaurant in downtown Montgomery's Alley development since December. With a new chef and a new menu, she said she's had a chance to "rebrand the restaurant" through social media.

While she hasn't run across negative comments yet, she said responding to them can create new respect for the company.

"It brings more of a human feel instead of just seeing you as a business," she said.

Still, experts said it's rare.

Alabama State University's Associate Vice President of Information Technology Academic Computing Dr. Kenley Obas spoke Thursday at a workshop on social media and mobile technology, sponsored by the school's Small Business Development Center. Obas estimated that less than half of all business owners properly use social media.

He said it has huge potential as a business tool, but it's best used to resolve problems and build a brand identity.

"It's not an instant money maker," Obas said. "It's about providing answers for people. Your product is almost secondary in a sense. They come for the information."

Foshee Management used its Facebook page to promote a countdown to the unveiling of a new downtown development project last week. But Regional Property Manager Beau Daniel said that was a planned campaign, much of their social media interaction is "spur of the moment," and start with suggestions from its apartment residents.

Daniel said a resident may suggest a park bench in a certain spot, and the company will post pictures of them buying the bench, putting it together and placing it in that spot.

Tiffany Bell of Matter Creative Studio, which handles social media efforts for True Montgomery in Cloverdale, said restaurants also incorporate suggestions from guests on social media.

"In fact, when we have a question about what new dish to add or what hours to open on a holiday weekend, Facebook is the first place we go," Bell said.

Business remains strong at the Irish Bred Pub, but Garofalo said it's easier to handle now and that there have been more positive responses from customers.

He'd still like to find more quality entertainment and is considering ideas ranging from comedy shows to poker nights.

"So if anybody wants to go to my Facebook and tell me some good ideas, listen, I'm wide open," he said.

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Source: (c)2013 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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