By Matt Lindner
For Sun-Times Media
If you pay Steve Green thousands of dollars, he says he’ll get people talking about your restaurant on the Internet.
Sounds crazy, but #Foodiechats, his Twitter chat about food, has grown into a bit of a marketing machine. The veteran social media entrepreneur has hired four community managers and is looking for office space in Chicago. He’s also attracted a private investor in the form of Taki Kastanis, owner of breakfast chain Yolk, who was a client of Green’s original social media consultancy, NetUpNow.
The foundation of #Foodiechats is a Monday night Twitter chat moderated by Green that runs from 7 to 8:30 and draws around 400 participants. Green asks 10 questions and tweeters use the hashtag to chime in with answers. Tonight’s theme is “Vegan Tastes Better.”
Green encourages people to retweet questions as a means of building an audience.
“Social media people are superheroes,” he says. “We don’t let two or three people know what we’re up to. We let all of our communities know what we’re up to.”
Green has more than three dozen #Foodiechats Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers in markets like Chicago, New York and Miami, where he and his community managers tweet about local food topics.
“The Twitter chat is just the vehicle for all the other channels,” he says.
Here’s where the money comes in: For $3,000, a company gets to pick the chat topic and questions. The package also includes a number of social media plays including direct messages to a targeted audience, Facebook posts and mentions in a weekly #Foodiechats newsletter. This week’s sponsor is Chop’t Creative Salad Co., a fast-casual chain with restaurants in New York and D.C. Other brands that have bought in: Calphalon, Norwegian Cruise Line, Krispy Kreme, Negra Modelo and Blendtec.
Industry experts say Green may be onto something – particularly when it comes to marketing to restaurants.
“Restaurants have more opportunity to be a participant in creating their own success if they work to connect with diners directly, instead of hoping a costly PR campaign directed at media nets in a story that reaches enough diners in a compelling enough way to drive them in the door,” says Ellen Malloy, founder of Chicago-based PR firm Restaurant Intelligence Agency.
Green’s growth plan is predicated upon word of mouth at the local level — by this time next year, he’s hoping to have a community manager in every major American city — and a less expensive advertising package aimed at smaller businesses.
For $1,200 and an evening’s worth of free food, Green says he’ll send five to 15 foodies to live-tweet four #Foodiechats from a restaurant. Local takers have included Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar, Big Bowl, Rockit, Mother Hubbard’s Sports Pub and Bountiful Eatery.
“When we invite foodies in each town to show up, we’re going to ask them to share that you’re eating and tweeting from this restaurant,” says Green, who started #Foodiechats in 2011. “They’re getting complimentary food so they get to take pictures of the food, they’re going to check in on Foursquare — that’s just what they do.”
Though he admits he can’t guarantee anyone will show up.
“In life you can’t guarantee a lot of things but I find that in the social foodie space, it’s a very generous group of people,” he says. “I don’t feel like you have to pull a social foodie’s arm to do that.”
Experts warn that Twitter chatter isn’t a magic bullet when it comes to driving revenue — and that any return on a restaurant’s investment requires a follow-up plan.
“The exposure of #Foodiechats on that Monday night might be great, but what really determines if it is a worthwhile investment is what is done Tuesday morning, so to speak,” Malloy says. “The real issue restaurants face when thinking about this kind of endeavor is, ‘Do you have the means and wherewithal to leverage that sponsorship beyond that one Monday night?’”