When Karen Staeheli opened The Naked Fish, her aptly named raw bar, sushi restaurant and lounge, in Lake Tahoe in 1999, social media was far from mainstream.
“Back then, it was just word of mouth,” said Staeheli, who also owns The Naked Fish in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Now, the restaurateur can’t imagine operating without a presence on Instagram and Facebook, word of mouth in the digital age.
“When we hit social media hard, the awareness of our restaurant changed,” she said. “I had employees who go to Cal Poly, and a lot of their friends had never heard about us, until we started to put ourselves out there.”
For many San Luis Obispo County businesses and organizations, not having an outlet to advertise, promote goods, services and events on social media websites is almost unthinkable. Facebook and Instagram appear, for now, to be the favored sites locally, with Twitter slowly gaining in popularity among the younger crowd, according to local social media experts.
Some, like Staeheli, hire employees with social media expertise. She tasked her general manager, Daniel Cardinale, more than two months ago with increasing The Naked Fish’s social media exposure.
Cardinale is responsible for posting photos of food, bands playing at the restaurant, videos of customers having a good time and upcoming events. He always has an iPhone and iPod at the restaurant, so he can take advantage of a good shot. Cardinale recently painted hashtag “If it’s not naked, don’t eat it” on the restaurant wall, with the hope that customers would see it and send it to other people.
When he started, The Naked Fish had 26 followers on Instagram; now it has more than 1,400.
“I started targeting every SLO niche or person or area of business and started following them and liking their photos,” he said. “It became a numbers game as the more people you follow, the more they follow you back.”
Nearby, at Coverings, a downtown San Luis Obispo clothing store, owner Susan Kozuschek also recognized the power of social media and hired sales manager Kylie Bittle to oversee it. The shop posts photographs, thoughts of the day, and shout-outs to other local businesses, almost daily, Kozuschek said.
“We are using all of it Twitter, Instagram and Facebook,” she said. “It’s immediate gratification for everyone. People are constantly on their phone, and it’s the easiest way to advertise to get a product and image out there for free.”
“It’s also an easy way for people to see what you’ve got in, and once they see what you’ve got in and see how cute it is, they come in and want to buy it.”
A little help
While some businesses and nonprofits are navigating the social media world in-house, others have taken the additional step of asking an outside firm to help them manage social media, promote their brand, and navigate the challenges that can arise.
Karen Borges, executive director of Jack’s Helping Hand, a local nonprofit group that gives financial assistance to parents of children who are sick or disabled, has used Verdin, a San Luis Obispo-based marketing firm, to help its families. The nonprofit is assisting about 150 families each month through all of its programs.
“We’ve been seeing great results in the last couple of years,” said Borges, noting that the nonprofit has more likes on its Facebook page and that family posts are up 200 percent.
“One of the things that we see, with our cancer families or our heart babies, is that a lot of them are reaching out to social media,” she said. “That’s how they’re supported, either financially or emotionally. They’re saying this is what’s happening with our family.”
Verdin provides the organization with a monthly calendar that helps it stay on top of local community events and focus on topics of interest for its families, such as Childhood Cancer Awareness month.
“We have articles on childhood cancer, the symptoms, the resources, statistics and how we can help,” Borges said. “We’re not only supporting our families that are already going through this fight, but informing the public as well.”
The San Luis Obispo County Farmers Market Association works closely with another San Luis Obispo marketing and public relations firm, Barnett Cox & Associates, to develop and maintain a Facebook program to specifically target the community demographic in Morro Bay, Cambria, Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo, Peter Jankay, administrator of the association, said.
“For example, photos and commentaries BCA has taken from patrons and farmers at the Arroyo Grande farmers markets are promoted specifically to the Arroyo Grande audience, and we can reach them whether they’ve followed the page or not.”
Social media makes sense because farmers markets are “an inherently social event and so social media is a perfect platform to engage in,” Jankay said.
Since the association started its social media campaign several weeks ago, posts have been reaching an average of 1,500 local people every few days.
“The inexpensive use of Facebook is effective and powerful,” he said. “Information about a community event immediately piques the interest of people in that community. The community begins to identify the farmers market as their farmers market.”
Whether it’s a brick-and-mortar business or an organization driving home an idea, there’s “really been this shift in providing valuable content to your customer base,” said Courtney Meznarich, an account manager with BCA, who manages social media for the firm and a number of its clients.
“The algorithm on Facebook has changed, and it’s harder than ever to get posts out,” she said, referring to modifications the social media site made in an effort to feature more high-quality content. “It’s really important to create something people will engage with, even if they’re not following your page.”
The businesses and organizations that are most successful with social media are those that identify their audience early, create relevant content, and take the time to engage and respond to people, she said.
“People underestimate the power of social media and what can happen if you’re not there,” Meznarich said. “People are at the kitchen table and everyone there is talking about you. You could have a voice or you could be absent. Either way, the conversation will go on. It’s about taking your place, being ahead of your brand image and controlling the conversation.”
The desire for mass customization is one of the biggest ways that social media has evolved, said Mary Verdin, president and chief strategy officer for Verdin, which has several staff focusing on social media tasks.
“Particularly, when you’re talking about millennials, they have grown up with technology, and they want what they want,” Verdin said. “They want to go in their news feed, and there’s an algorithm that knows what they want and that’s what’s there.”
Being strategic and authentic with a message is also important, Verdin said. When the firm worked with UC Santa Barbara in October to tell students not to go to Isla Vista for Deltopia, it met students where they were, telling them they should BYOB (bring your own bail) if they showed up.
“It’s about telling stories, like any marketing should be,” Verdin said.
One of the biggest misconceptions businesses have is that social media is just a regurgitation of advertising, Verdin said. While consistency is important, businesses and organizations need a strategy to ensure that whatever they post connects to what they’re trying to accomplish, she said.
The good with the bad
Even when businesses and organizations have a plan in place, social media is not worry free.
“Businesses work so hard and try so hard, but sometimes they get negative comments, and it hurts your feelings,” Verdin said. “It’s unfortunate, and you don’t have any control over it, but at least you can manage it.”
There are strategies for responding to the negativity, she said.
“Take a deep breath and walk away from it,” she said. “Don’t respond immediately, but stop and think about it.”
Verdin has guidelines on how clients should respond to such posts and alerts a client when anything alarming is posted.
Not all businesses can have someone monitoring full time, but it’s increasingly important that it is regularly overseeing dialogue, Meznarich said.
“People expect great service, and this is the fastest way for them to get that,” she said. “People have come to expect to be the company’s priority, and a company knows if they don’t respond, it could go viral and be really bad.”
At The Naked Fish, Staeheli is not thrilled about a lot of the negativity swirling around online. But she loves getting feedback, “good or bad from all of our customers.”
“There are some restaurants that wouldn’t consider other people’s opinions,” she said. “But that’s why we’re doing it, to make our customers happy.”