New York burger joint goes social, mobile

An organic burger restaurant in midtown Manhattan is using social networking for menu development, marketing, entertainment and even social change. Its delicious plans suggest ways that businesses of all kinds can transform themselves by “crowdsourcing” not only marketing, but product development as well.


When the 4food eatery opens its doors at the corner of 40th and Madison on July 6, it just might usher in a new era in the integration of social networking with the real world.


A 240-square-foot monitor in the restaurant will constantly stream Foursquare check-ins, tweets from Twitter, and restaurant information. In other words, the restaurant itself will be a social networking application. Customers will be able to see tweets and status updates, and they’ll be able to reply to them or add their own with their cell phones or whatever mobile devices they have, using the restaurant’s free Wi-Fi connection.


Some of 4food’s technology use is just window dressing. For example, you can order online and schedule the pickup, or you can place your order in the restaurant with an employee using an iPad. Nothing new there. And it’s using social networking in some clever but fairly ordinary ways. 4food has a Facebook community, which it’s already using for social marketing. If you tag its Facebook wall, you’re eligible to win an iPad. It offered $20 worth of food to those who were the first to tweet a picture of themselves in front of the restaurant’s “tag wall” — an under-construction wall in front of the store where people can write “tweets” with a Magic Marker. It’s also using social networks for hiring and as part of its “De-Junk NYC” social movement promoting innovative ideas for improving the city.


The real genius is in how 4food is crowdsourcing both menu development and marketing. Crowdsourcing is the process by which companies outsource jobs formerly assigned to departments, consultants or employees to the general public.


Here’s how it works at 4food. Customers can invent their own dishes or sandwiches using an online, do-it-yourself application, and even give their dish a clever name. The restaurant’s list of ingredients can result in literally millions of combinations. Every time someone orders an item invented by another customer, 4food gives the creator a 25-cent in-store credit. See the genius there?


First of all, 4food has provided at very low cost an incentive for a large number of customers to actively promote the restaurant. Some enterprising customers will be using their extensive social networking followers to promote the burger they invented, almost guaranteeing enormous mind share on social networking sites. Social networking gurus with hundreds of thousands of followers could earn free burgers for the rest of their lives by constantly promoting 4food.


Second, this crowdsourcing of menu development is likely to result in better menu items than any chef or restaurant consultant could come up with. The reason is that thousands of different combinations will be tried and then voted upon by customers, with the best items rising to the top in popularity. It’s the Digg model being applied to hamburgers rather than to news stories.


What else could use the 4food model?


The secret sauce here is the restaurant’s willingness to reward customers for social media engagement. They use a discount, but other businesses could offer free products or even payment.


By giving customers a stake in the success of products and rewarding them for those products’ success, 4food has figured out how to generate coveted word of mouth very inexpensively.


The ripest ideas for extending this concept to other companies involve taking promotions that are normally done with employees and roll them out to customers. For example, it’s fairly common for companies to offer incentives to employees — come up with the best name for a new product and win dinner for two; bring in the most customers and win an iPod. That sort of thing. By establishing a solid presence on the social networks and then rolling such promotions out to the public, just about any company can get social networks buzzing for a while about its products.


Another idea is 4food’s product development plan. Any product that includes multiple “ingredients” is ripe for the 4food treatment. By enabling customers to create their own products using Web-based software and to then name and “own” that product and get rewarded for its success, a lot of companies can inexpensively create social chatter. Travel agencies could let customers design walking tours or vacation packages. Food companies could invite customers to write recipes that include their products.


Social networking for businesses is all about customer engagement. Inviting customers to be so engaged that they actually design products — and get paid for the success of those products — is the next logical step.


Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at [email protected], follow him on Twitter, or read his blog, The Raw Feed.

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