By Joseph Mutidjo, Smallbiztechnology.com Reporter
Joe Sorge definitely knows a thing or two about the restaurant business. He started working in his family’s restaurant at age 11, studied restaurant operations at Cornell University, and owns a small group of restaurants in Milwaukee.
But he clearly remembers when he knew little about social media, and the moment that changed.
After a friend introduced him to Twitter in 2008, Sorge curiously typed the name of one of his establishments in Twitter’s search box. A tweet came up, from a lady who had dined the night before, praising the restaurant. Sorge immediately created an account, and sent her a thank you reply. In no time, she responded, heaping even more compliments.
“I was pretty blown away,” said Sorge. “I clicked on her name and seeing she had 400 followers at the time, thought, ‘Did she say this to all those people? Is this how it works?’”
Sorge realized his Twitter experience was a form of permission marketing, where a business engages with a person only after it has received the green light to be talked to.
Since people were tweeting about his businesses, he decided he needed to start engaging in two-way dialogue.
In the winter of 2008-2009, he poured himself into being a student of social media. During this time he opened AJ Bombers, a burger joint, and decided to rely solely on social media for advertising. Sorge consistently spent many hours interacting online with his customers, and responding to every blog, post, comment, tweet and review that mentioned his new burger place.
“A large part of AJ Bombers’ success is that our social media customers became brand owners, decision makers,” remarked Sorge. “They were the ones naming our menu items, telling us what hours in the week to be open, what specials they wanted on a particular night . . . they were involved in everything.”
Sorge’s commitment to his social media strategy met upon some good fortune in January 2010. While searching tweets, he noticed one from a guy named Chris Brogan that read, “Hey Milwaukee, I’m coming to see you. What’s going on?” Without much thought he replied and offered AJ Bombers as a place for a great burger. Brogan replied, and the two ended up meeting for lunch.
Turns out Brogan is a power blogger and best-selling author on social media marketing. The next day he posted on his blog about Sorge’s adoption of social media for a burger joint. Brogan’s article hurled AJ Bombers into the social media spotlight, which became a catalyst for features by Wall Street Journal, New York Times and even Travel Channel’s Food Wars—a challenge they actually won.
Sorge realizes many small businesses attempt to use social media, but eventually fall away for various reasons. Sorge’s key advice to business owners is they learn to listen to their customers through social media. Listening, then responding with one’s own voice, style and personality, develops a mutual relationship.
“You can’t just jump on these networks and start hammering away and blast one way messages and expect to make sales,” says Sorge. “Put in the time to make a relationship. It starts with one. Eventually you‘ll be able to utilize your network.”
When asked whether he believes social media can actually help a business’ bottom line, Sorge answers with a resounding “Absolutely!” He feels at a bare minimum, using social media to improve your relationship with existing customers, regardless of whether you own a pizza place or a dental clinic, increases your customers’ frequency of buying.
When Sorge opened AJ Bombers he dreamed one day his burger joint would be known as “the place” to go for a burger in Milwaukee. That day may have come, and just barely two years in.