Social Networking for Campus Dining

Is social networking valuable to campus dining? For today's high school and college students, social networking is a very important facet of everyday life. This instantaneous connection with friends new and old provides a lifeline of existence. But it can also have an impact on how labor is deployed and the operation's ability to drive some last-minute foot traffic.

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Envision Strategies contacted a cross section of colleges and universities across the country and it was determined that approximately 88 percent of these campus dining departments are participating in social networking. These participating campuses range in population from 1,000 to 43,000 students and there is no variance between public versus private colleges and universities. From those contacted, the most popular form of social networking reported was Facebook, but many had both Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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About half of those institutions contacted have dedicated Facebook and Twitter pages for dining. The other participating institutions have more comprehensive sites that include dining in addition to other departments on campus. This group uses social networking sites to post events and promotions in dining as well as monitor customer satisfaction relative to: residential life, student union and/or general university news and information. Approximately 25 percent of those institutions contacted have more than one Facebook and/or Twitter page for different restaurants and venues on campus. By having multiple pages, these dining programs place a high priority on connecting with their target market by providing daily promotions or features. Specific examples of daily postings include featured menu items or last minute promotion of events.

It is common practice for campus dining departments to use email and/or text notifications in addition to having a website that notes static information. A few of the colleges and universities contacted are evaluating the use or increased use of text messaging in promoting events and menus. But it is the use of social networking sites by campus dining that focus on more immediate news and information. To grab their customers' attention and to increase awareness, a couple of dining departments are beginning to use Facebook ads to promote venues on campus. This may represent a next step in integrating the use of social networking into a school's marketing efforts to increase market share. Most of the dining programs contacted currently use social networking sites to promote events, as well as provide a forum for customer comments about food or services. About a third have successfully used their social networking sites to promote events at the last minute to drive volume and attendance.

In addition to Facebook and Twitter, other social networking sites being used by campus dining departments include: My Space, Red Rover (a college and university-focused social networking site), Metacafe (a community-based video sharing web site) and YouTube. Of these, YouTube was used the most, providing the ability to post video clips of events that were hosted on campus. Approximately 25 percent of the dining departments contacted are considering the use of Foursquare, a site that allows you to let others know what businesses and places you have visited. You can then collect points, prize "badges," and eventually, coupons, for dining venues that you frequent. While this site is still in its infancy, it already has more than five million users and is quickly becoming popular with colleges, universities and businesses to promote their goods and services.

Like most other social networking sites, all of the sites mentioned above have apps that allow users to access their social networking sites on a mobile smart phone. Neilson reported that 28 percent of wireless users in the United States have smart phones.

Results of Social Networking Unclear
Almost all of the campus dining departments contacted felt that utilizing social networking sites had been a benefit to driving an awareness and promotion of their dining venues on campus. However, they also all felt it was difficult to measure exactly how much traffic was generated by the use of social networking sites. While one can measure the number of followers or fans, there is still a population that uses email communication as the primary means to communicate with their school. Also, several participants have only recently implemented social networking sites so the general consensus between those with new vs. established sites is that the success of their sites is still being evaluated.

Another conclusion is that the sites have to be updated on a very consistent basis in order for them to be successful. Basically, this does not require as much time as one would expect but the exact amount of time varies based on the amount of promotion. The average is two hours per week but participants reported up to 40 hours per week for a full-time person. The majority of campus dining departments are utilizing students or part-time employees to maintain the sites. As a result, it is important to understand how labor is allocated and the impact maintaining these sites will have on customer service.

The success of a social networking site is directly related to the number of participants. Thus, to promote a campus dining department, the consensus is that one must first promote the use of social networking to the target customer base so they can become fans or followers of your department. Since those who follow a site do so because there is a benefit for them, promotion was key and examples included posting available discounts at favorite campus eateries during specific times.

In addition, all of those contacted that promoted an event or special on the day of the event recognized an immediate increase in volume and revenue. There appears to be a clear and measurable return on investment with regard to last minute promotions through social networking.
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