Merchants are minding their digital critiques
Greg Dodge, owner of Zavino at 13th and Sansom Streets, likes to say that there is no marketing like word of mouth, and once a week, a report arrives on his cellphone that lets him measure just what those words are worth.
The sender is a Washington company called newBrandAnalytics, and it offers a service that scrapes and analyzes social media and consumer-review sites to produce a sort of buzz report card created by data scientists that allows the hospitality industry to act on what in the past had just been talk.
This week, Dodge learned that Melka442 of Parsippany, N.J., told the world on TripAdvisor that Zavino's food was "FRESH," the Brussels sprouts were likable, and the pizza was irresistible.
That day on Yelp, Lindsay W of Philadelphia fired off 514 words about her dinner at Zavino, a stew of impressions that newBrandAnalytics highlighted with most-useful phrases, like drool (in the best way), helpful, outgoing, and slightly charred around the edges.
The reports that Dodge devours also break comments into categories, like speed of service, friendliness, attentive, knowledge, assigning numerical values to each and allowing him to measure his restaurant's progress and compare its performance with its peers.
He scours these reports like the night's receipts. They're just as important.
Dodge fired a greeter after a negative online comment reinforced his impression that the staffer wasn't welcoming enough to those who walked through his door.
Social-media criticism made him 86 his gluten-free-pizza experiment last winter. And about a week later, social media made him bring back the alternative pizzas.
"People didn't like the crust. They thought it was the worst gluten-free pizza ever," Dodge said. "When I took it off the menu, I got such a response from those who loved that we'd made the effort. It was a no-win pizza. I don't know anyone who makes gluten-free pizza taste good."
At the Independent Hotel at 13th and Locust Street, complaints about television reception and programing reached enough of a critical mass that management switched from satellite to cable. Social-media carping also prompted an upgrade to the breakfast baskets delivered to rooms.
"Over the past couple of years, social media has taken off to the point we no longer have an option," said Javier Egipciaco, an operations lead with the Independent Collection, a boutique group managed by Hersha Hospitality Management, which includes the Independent Hotel. "The hospitality industry is forced to listen."
At Amada, near Third and Chestnut Streets, Jose Garces' team listened to diners who thought the tables were too close and the noise too clamorous. At his Village Whiskey, on 20th Street south of Chestnut, managers noticed that enough people were beefing about the price of the burgers that they cut the cost for the basic patty and started charging more for add-ons.
In Philadelphia, the Garces and Stephen Starr restaurants are among newBrandAnalytics' clients - a roster that has doubled over the last year to more than 10,000 retailers and restaurants. The company starts customers off at $99 a month, with prices rising for those with more than one location.
"Businesses have picked up on the whole idea that they are profoundly impacted by what's being said about them online," said Kristin Muhlner, newBrandAnalytics' CEO. Whether restaurant owners hire an expert to monitor social media, rely on a Web-savvy twenty-something, or scour the Web themselves, ignoring opinion comes at real peril.
Muhlner tells clients that while they might be tempted to fight back a flamer online, going off-line to talk to an unhappy critic makes sense. Every correspondence online, she said, "is going to be read potentially by hundreds of thousands of people. Be conscious of the voice you're using and have it consistent of the personality itself. If you want to be viewed as highly abrasive, you can use that voice."
The Vetri family of restaurants uses a more down-home approach online. The chefs manage their own full-flavored Twitter handles, and it isn't unusual to see them answer a complaint themselves - in full flavor.
Jeff Benjamin, a partner in the company, said that when they opened their eponymous restaurant in 1998, "we actually had a conversation about whether we needed e-mail addresses or if this Internet thing was going to catch on. Jury's still out."
Columnist Daniel Rubin writes each weekday at the Talk, a news-of-the-moment page.