Tweeting for Your Supper

New Orleans, LA – It wasn't that long ago that having a mere Web page put restaurateurs on the forefront of online marketing and tech-savvy self-promotion. More recently, a few have added official restaurant blogs where regular customers and curious others can keep abreast of specials and kitchen doings.

Just as these were gaining momentum, however, a newer, faster online trend seems to have leapfrogged ahead - or perhaps fluttered ahead. The online medium du jour is Twitter, and many in the local restaurant business have embraced its marketing potential with gusto.

The same service that keeps groups of friends hyper-connected, that helped disseminate information about Iranian civil protests this summer, and that is used by celebrities, politicians and charitable causes alike is making a big splash in the New Orleans restaurant world.

Twitter is the online service that lets users send very short notes, called tweets, to networks of fellow Twitter users who have signed up to receive them. Tweets are aptly named, since at a maximum of 140 letters, or characters, they aren't much longer than your average bird chirp. But, in the context of a message read on your smart phone screen, they prove quite versatile.

If you're new to this and take a gander around the Twittersphere, you might feel awfully behind. Everyone seems to be busy tweeting away, and there is a lively exchange of messages between restaurateurs and chefs, caterers, restaurant critics, bloggers and home cooks with a yen for self-documentation. Some restaurant PR reps now explicitly ask journalists to tweet about their clients in an effort to build online buzz.

Chefs themselves prove avid participants, and some tweet so frequently it's hard to believe they drop their phones long enough to cook. They'll tweet when they're headed to the farmers market, again when they spot something appealing at the farmers market and once more when they decide what dish to prepare using it. Others tweet only sporadically, and then there are some who seem to be merely staking out Twitter turf with dormant accounts they never actually use.

For the most part, the Twittersphere for local restaurants resembles a polite, mutual admiration society, with people passing along kudos, responding to such praise and sharing recommendations.

Still, there are barbs out there, and if some Twitter user had a bad meal or was unhappy with the service at a particular restaurant, everyone in her network is likely to get a message about it before the bill is even presented. In dining rooms across the city it seems, guests are tweeting under the tables.

But on the marketing front, the value for restaurants is obvious and enormous. The immediacy and intimacy of these pint-sized messages can help build customer relationships and brand identities, give an instant channel to hear and even resolve customer service issues, and, with just a few jabs at a keyboard or phone pad, spread the word about special offers and events to a self-selected target audience. Those are potential benefits for any business, but the interactive nature of Twitter has special appeal for local restaurants. After all, when a business is talking food, New Orleans people are a lot more likely to join the conversation.