Many restaurants are using social media to enhance an age-old marketing technique: Making customers and their experiences the face of their brand.

Let’s YO Yogurt, which launched its first franchise location in Marlboro, N.J., and has about 30 more units sold and preparing to open in New Jersey, New York and Florida, is using social media as a main driver to grow the business. Owner Eric Casaburi, who also founded the RetroFitness franchise, said social media is the best way for a brand to truly connect with customers.  The Let’s YO logo is in the form of a text message, while a 48-foot billboard in Monmouth County, N.J., reads, “Like Us on Facebook,” and “Make ur own ;-)”

“You know that smiley face, you’ve typed it a thousand times. I’ve now connected with you on a social level,” Casaburi said. “I feel I have to make sure people have the most creative way to hear about our brand. In today’s world, the most creative way to talk about branding and getting your customers engaged ... is social media.”

Let’s Yo holds “Let’s YO Fan of the Week” contests on Facebook that involves customers taking pictures of themselves with their favorite yogurt flavor, posting it, and having people vote on their favorite picture. The winner gets a free week’s worth of yogurt, or a similar prize, if they get the most votes.

Customers also get hit with social once as they walk through the doors—stores have 70-inch TV screens that show live Facebook and Twitter feeds of what people are saying about the company. Customers can immediately post their own reviews or show off their new flavor concoction with the iPads installed in each table or their own mobile devices. Afterwards, dad can read the Wall Street Journal on the iPad, while his kids play Angry Birds. Kids beg parents to bring them into the store, said Casaburi, and parents willingly oblige, since there’s entertainment for the whole family.

“You talk about the social media promoting your brick and mortar--we promote social media with our brick-and-mortar,” Casaburi said.

Let’s YO also features the “Let’s YO! Name Fame” game on Facebook, that picks out a name every day and customers with the same name get 50% off a cup of yogurt that day. When people with the name of the day come in to redeem their discount, they often bring non-qualifying customers with them—increasing foot traffic.  Casaburi said this promotion is very popular with the younger crowd.

“This customer for Let’s YO yogurt is just a huge demographic and the way we communicate with them ... we’re just going to market so many different ways, talking to people who we know are customers because we’ve identified them,” he said. “We know how to speak to them - that’s key. We have the message in the right place.”

Having that message in the right place is key to successful social marketing strategies for any business.

A Pew Research Center study released earlier this month found that about 55% of adults seek out information about restaurants, bars and clubs, and that those adults are more likely to be women, young adults, and technology adopters. Of that number, 51% look to the Internet for that information; 38% rely on search engines, 17% on specialty web sites, and 3% on social media sites or Twitter. That means that restaurants have to be very strategic with how they utilize social platforms - just trying to amass fans, “likes” or followers won’t cut it.

“People don’t fan your page or like your page because you’ve convinced them to do it, they’ve done it because they’re already convinced,” said Kathryn Rose, founder of Kathryn Rose Consulting, author and social media strategist. She added that while the old marketing mantra was “convince and convert,” today’s is “converse and convert.”

The Houlihan’s restaurant chain is capitalizing on that conversation element. It’s now finishing up an ad campaign in Pittsburgh, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Chicago that included customer testimonials from Twitter, raving about the restaurant’s happy hours or other offerings, plastered across huge highway billboards.
“The whole idea really started because we wanted to promote our happy hour and word-of-mouth recommendations from others are the greatest driver of our business--as with any business--compared to advertising messages,” explained Jen Gulvik, vice president of marketing and creative director for Houlihan’s.  

  
Like many restaurants, Houlihan’s restaurants rely heavily on positive recommendations and reviews on websites like Yelp, UrbanSpoon and TripAdviser. The casual-dining chain leveraged great testimonials on those sites and integrated those comments, along with positive Tweets, into a media campaign.

Although Houlihan’s previously had a Twitter handle, it primarily used it for customer relationship management, according to Gulvik. But the short, 140-character limit and simplicity of it enticed Houlihan’s to more actively use it as a marketing channel, particularly since so many customers were Tweeting positive things about the restaurant’s happy hour.  Seizing the opportunity, Houlihan’s reached out to those positive Twitter writers and asked if they could include their messages in a marketing campaign. The marketing material also includes customers’ real Twitter handles and profile pictures, Gulvik said. “It just lends greater authenticity and credibility to the message because it’s truly a customer testimonial.”

Houlihan’s also makes the customer feel integral to its success by giving them glimpses of new items from the kitchen before the general public to get feedback from loyal fans, or to invite them to tastings.

“They kind of went to work for us,” Gulvik said of the customers who would taste new drinks or products, then tell their friends about it. Houlihan’s did this on its own social network platform called “HQ,” which may soon migrate altogether to Facebook.

Both Gulvik and Casaburi agree that putting customers front and center of their social media marketing efforts is paying off.

“Today I just think it’s even more powerful because we know from all the media research that consumers just don’t trust ads, they don’t trust companies, they trust other consumers,” said Gulvik. “That’s why review sites are so popular ... that makes them feel like there’s less risk in their purchase decision.”