Online praise is a game-changer for hospitality industry

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland City Grill downtown, owned by Seattle's Restaurants Unlimited, is one of the first local eateries to make use of a reputation management firm to help it decipher and respond to internet posts on sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor.There came a point where Chris Ideson knew he had to jump on board or get left behind.

Ideson is vice president of operations for Restaurants Unlimited, which owns 18 Portland-area restaurants, including Stanford’s, Portland City Grill and Newport Bay. For years, his marketing included advertising, of course, and secret shoppers who were paid to eat at the company’s restaurants and report back about the experience.

But in the last few years, Ideson has seen social media take on a steadily increasing role in defining his restaurants to the public. Customers were posting reviews both positive and derogatory on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google and others. More important, potential new customers were increasingly depending on those postings before deciding where to eat.

According to one recent survey of smartphone owners, restaurants are the single most-often searched business. Three out of four phone owners choose a restaurant based on search results, and 84 percent look at more than one restaurant online before deciding where to go.

“We recognized this was blowing up,” Ideson says. “People are more likely to believe comments from Yelp or Facebook or any social media reviews than they would any ad vertising in a magazine or on a billboard.”

The impact of social media on marketing has been one of a steady progression. First came sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, which allowed visitors to post online reviews. Next came charges that some of the sites, most notably San Francisco-based Yelp, were using their ratings to extort advertising from restaurants.

In a story in The NW Examiner this fall, owners of Hala’s Lebanese Grill on Northwest 23rd Avenue claimed that once they refused to advertise on Yelp’s site, their ratings plummeted, with negative reviews pushed to the top and positive reviews filtered out. Yelp spokespeople have consistently denied that reviews and ratings on their site are tied to advertising.

And now comes the second wave, with consulting firms offering to help businesses manage their online reputations. Washington, D.C.-based newBrand Analytics is the reputation management firm engaged by Restaurants Unlimited. NewBrand has clients ranging from Hyatt hotels to Quiznos and their services have become as necessary as media advertising, according to newBrand’s Chief Executive Officer Kristin Muhlner. But unlike advertising, Muhlner says, reputation management requires a constantly evolving dialogue based on the principle that people who post about your store, restaurant or hotel need to get the right replies.

For a monthly fee, newBrand will monitor everything said about a client’s business, whether it be on a social networking site like TripAdvisor or posted on somebody’s Facebook or tweeted. They add in responses from questionnaires the company has put out to its customers, such as the email surveys hotels typically send out to guests after a stay.

NewBrand takes all that constantly shifting data, plugs it into its software and breaks the language down into what they call “individual insights.” Clients can access their insights online at any time to learn how they are trending and what changes they might want to consider making if a slew of similar complaints start coming in.

“The idea here isn’t to game the system, it’s to build a better business,” Muhlner says.

And speed, she says, matters. “One bad comment that you don’t diffuse or act on quickly can cost you thousands of dollars in business, because one bad comment can be read by 200 to 300 people,” she says.

Every morning Idelson gets a newBrand report on what is being said about each of the restaurants he oversees. When a number of similar complaints came in about the prime rib at a chain Restaurants Unlimited owns called Kincaid’s, the prime rib recipe was changed.

He says responding to negative reviews — a process he calls recovery — is among the most important marketing efforts a restaurant can undertake. “A lot of times we can make ambassadors for life when we can recover them properly,” Ideson says.

Encourage comments

NewBrand advises clients to at minimum respond to the key posters — those who post the most highly positive and negative reviews, and those who are frequent online posters. This last group, called elite reviewers by Muhlner and serial posters by those less enamored with them, are reportedly given more weight by the social networking sites. A post about a restaurant from someone who has never posted before, experts say, has less impact on the restaurant’s overall rating than a post by an elite poster.

NewBrand advises clients who respond to negative reviews to take the dialogue offline, and never to display anger or confront the poster. Rather, the challenge is to acknowledge the complaint, apologize and make an effort to fix the problem, Muhlner says. Done properly, customers often will change their original review online or delete and post something new, she says.

NewBrand also advises clients to encourage as much posting as possible from their guests. On average, Muhlner says, two out of three online reviews are positive, so more commentary is better than less. And more reviews will make it more likely that business is among the first listed when someone uses a search engine such as Google when looking for a hotel or restaurant.

Online responders for hire

Not every restaurant or hotel has the resources to have someone constantly monitoring social media sites and replying to online reviewers. That’s where the next wave comes in, in the form of online consultants such as Parsippany, N.J.-based CoMMingle, which will not only monitor but respond to posts for its clients.

According to CoMMingle, more than half of consumers expect a store or brand to respond to a tweet within an hour, and 47 percent of people say they are more likely to recommend a brand or place through social media if they receive a quick response.

CoMMingle runs online reviews and shows the responses it writes for its clients to them so clients know what is being said about and by them. At the very least, positive reviewers get a nice thank you, says Rosella Virdo, CoMMingle’s director of social media marketing. Negative reviewers get a bit more than that.

“What I tell my team is, find the story in their narrative,” Virdo says. “You find the story, and you know what their complaint is about ... then address the issue. Either apologize or explain the misunderstanding.”

Most of CoMMingle’s customers are hotel chains. Virdo says she’s aware of the criticisms of sites such as Yelp, and thinks the people behind the sites know they have to clean up their business models and make them more transparent if they’re going to keep the trust of visitors to their sites. But for now, she says, businesses simply have to deal with the sites, imperfections and all.

“It’s their playground,” Virdo says. “You have to play by their rules. There’s no gaming the system. Keep it authentic. The cleanup is going to be the next phase.”

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - Escape From New Yorks Phil Geffner says he never looks at online reviews of his restaurant and puts more faith in what customers tell him face to face.

Social network not for everyone

Gaming the system is about the last thing that Phil Geffner, owner of Escape From New York Pizza on Northwest 23rd Avenue, wants to do. Geffner says he pays the social networking sites no mind, and his business hasn’t suffered a bit. He says he has looked at a review site only once, and assumes people who have a complaint but only deal with it online are posting out of insecurity.

“Who has the time?” Geffner says. “People I listen to are people who come by, they make a human contact, and I’ll respond in a human way.”

Geffner says he simply doesn’t trust online reviews, despite the claims by the sites that they have developed sophisticated algorithms to detect and delete posts that aren’t genuine.

“How do you know what’s real and what isn’t?” he says. “There’s no way to filter. The good ones could be from (shop owners’) friends and the bad ones from their competitors. It’s not a healthy empowerment.”

Hot Lips Pizza co-owner Jeana Edelman has taken a different approach. She says Hot Lips responds to most posts about its operation, up to a point.

“We answer the ones that have content,” Edelman says. “When a little bit of explaining will help fill out the conversation.”

Edelman says she gets about five calls a day from sites such as Yelp, Google and TripAdvisor soliciting advertising to run on their review pages. She always declines.

“I feel like it’s extortion, it’s very manipulative,” she says. On the other hand, she notes it is impossible to keep up with her online reputation without the benefit of a reputation management firm. “I do wish I had someone in my pocket who was watching everything.”

Lisa Schroeder, chef and owner of Mother’s Bistro & Bar, isn’t sold on the idea of hiring online reputation managers. Mother’s has been successfully operating for 14 years and its online reputation, without being managed, has always been positive.

Schroeder, who says she is constantly approached to advertise on the review sites, suspects there may be a hidden marketing imperative driving the reputation consulting business.

“A lot of public relations people are freaking out because they’re losing their toe hold on their business and looking for ways to stay in business, so they’re looking for angles,” Schroeder says.

Schroeder says she prefers to handle all customer contact, even online contact, personally. Yet, she says, reading a negative posting about her restaurant can be “very painful.”

Schroeder expresses amusement at learning of the latest attack on Yelp, a lawsuit filed in October by frequent posters who claim they are actually unpaid writers who should be paid by Yelp.

“Just desserts, don’t you think?” she says.

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