This past fall, Colorado State University introduced a program which resulted in a higher number of students choosing to dine onsite. The school used social media “teasers” to let students know something special was cooking in the kitchen — 50 gourmet meals on a first come first serve basis. Marzetti® Foodservice caught up with the program’s developer, Christian Hermann, the Assistant Director of Multimedia, Housing & Dining Services for Colorado State University. Hermann says any foodservice director can learn from this example.
MFS: How did you come up with the social media teaser idea for the 50 gourmet meals?
Hermann: We’ve been moving away from traditional print media to responsive digital platforms that resonate better with our primarily student audience. This digital strategy has increased flexibility and allowed for the individualization of messaging by opening two-way communications channels that serve as a constant feedback loop letting us both react in real-time and adapt our long-term communications strategies based on engagement. The integration of social media into our Secret Supper program is a natural extension of the digital strategy we’ve been trying to adopt with all of our initiatives. Students will be discussing our program via social media regardless of what we do so why not be a part of the conversation?
MFS: Do you see an upsurge in students engaged with the cafeteria online?
Hermann: Yes – the response to our Secret Supper social media has been positive. Our Facebook reach has increased dramatically and engagement on our Instagram channels have also increased. Additionally, by restricting meal and location information to students visiting our social channels and online calendar we’ve been able to reward engagement with advance knowledge of where these gourmet meals will be served. Interestingly, once the event starts, information spreads really quickly as students Snapchat their friends and post locations on YikYak.
MFS: Do you see an upsurge of students choosing on campus dining options vs. off campus due to this engagement?
Hermann: I don’t have complete statistics to make a definitive statement about this – although I can confirm that the number of students attending our special dining events during the fall semester of 2014 increased significantly in comparison to attendance during fall semester 2013 – even after adjusting for the slight increase in the number of students living on-campus. This increase has come about despite decreasing our print advertising drastically over the past year.
MFS: What’s the next creative collaboration to come out of the foodservice and communication departments at CSU?
Hermann: CSU Housing & Dining Services has an in-house integrated Sustainability & Communications team so collaboration with Dining Services is constant and on-going.
One recent initiative has been migrating our student employee training to an online platform that breaks down important information into engaging, easy-to-digest sub-sections like Customer Service, Cross-Contamination, Hand Washing and Knife Safety and illustrates them with infographics and short videos before testing new employees online.
Another recent initiative that integrated social media effectively was a moving photo booth during our annual winter dinner event that allowed students to pose for winter-themed cinemagraphs. We were inspired by the living portraits at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and created video compilation of these moving student portraits from the winter dinner that we uploaded to the digital screens in all of our residence halls as a fun way to say goodbye to our students before they left campus for winter break.
This event also featured an ugly sweater contest so we created a micro video featuring the finalists from our moving photo booth that we posted to Facebook and Instagram so students could vote for the winner. We also took stills from this moving photo booth to create a seasonal Facebook album that had a reach of over 7,500 with dozens of students sharing their photos with friends and family and using our photos for their personal profile pictures.
MFS: What else would you like for University Foodservice professionals to know when it comes to using social media to attract students to the cafeteria?
Hermann: Diversify your social media platforms and don’t rely solely on Facebook. Since Facebook has been so co-opted by brands and the establishment (i.e. students’ parents and professional marketers!) meaningful engagement with a student demographic is easier to come across on platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and Vine. Especially on a college campus, I’d recommend keeping tabs on YikYak, campus-specific subreddits and confessions pages to gauge the mood of the student population.
Hermann also notes that the program inspired the kitchen staffers, who were inspired to use their creativity in developing the special recipes. Sounds like a win-win for all involved!