Social Media Marketing for Restaurants and Content: Interview with Sahil Khan of the Tossed Salad

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We recently met up with Sahil Khan, whose online lifestyle magazine, the Tossed Salad, has a dedicated following. Sahil is also very active on Twitter, and he has been successful in helping restaurants use social media effectively. But hold on — you can listen to the details in his own words in the video below.

And if you’d rather read than watch, the transcript is below. My questions and comments are in bold.

Today we’re talking to Sahil Khan, who founded the Tossed Salad, an online magazine that tells us where to go and where to eat in Pune. Sahil, tell us a little bit about what you do and how you started Tossed Salad.

The last few years, I’ve been doing a bunch of things, you know. Let’s stick to the Tossed Salad…

Um, I… There was no college magazine and that was something that we were trying to get out. And since I was in a computer institute my friends in the development cell were like, “It’s a computer institute, we shouldn’t be doing a print magazine. We should do it you know, on the intranet.”

I was like, “Okay, fine. Let’s do it on the intranet.” And I had no clue how to run a… how to make a website. So they’re like, haan, you know, we’ll make a CMS and all that, which never ended up happening.

I’m like, “Okay, so I found out there’s this really nice CMS, let’s use that.” “No, no, we should build our own CMS,” which, like I said, never happened. So I’m like, okay, I’m gonna do it on my own.

And um, yeah, that was like the basic starting of it. I sort of went and saw what’s being done online. There was stuff regarding politics and society and all of that was being covered regularly online. But something in terms of lifestyle wasn’t really being covered. Lot of nice print magazines covering lifestyle but their websites are quite shoddy.

NDTV Good Times is such a nice channel but really bad website. And there was nothing that I could say that you know, haan, these guys are my benchmark, and these guys are something that I would say, the Indian version of the lifestyle section of the Guardian or the New York Times. There was no one doing it to that extent.

So I thought you know, lifestyle seems like an interesting area and touchwood, last four years we’ve been doing it fairly well.

So in four years, looking back, what were the biggest surprises?

Biggest surprises? Um, we were nine months old and you know, got our first PR call: so why don’t you come down and review this restaurant in a five-star property? And I’m like, are you sure you’ve got the right person?

So… I think that was like a really nice surprise. And that was quite early on… we were just nine months old, not even a year old.

Okay, and the biggest challenge that you had?

Biggest challenge? Since it’s a volunteer run thing, stuff like the server and all I pay out of my own pocket, I don’t make any money off it. Getting a team of six people working without pay is really difficult. But I’ve sort of in the last four years, I’ve seen people trying to do a similar model where they’re getting volunteers or interns to write for them the entire time, and not surprisingly, they’ve shut down in a year or even less than that.

So, quite a challenge to you know, try to find people every now and then to write and people who write quality content. Some of them have stuck with us for a while. Some people have been with us for two years, a year. And for those people I’ve always made sure that you know, since they’re not getting money out of working here with me, I make sure that you know, one way or the other, they get something else.

So, because of Tossed Salad, I got an offer from a publisher to write a short story. I said, hey, I’ve got an editor who also writes. So the first year, me and one of my editors, both of us submitted stories. Now, I think they’re out with four anthologies and he’s been writing for each one of them; I wrote for the first two. My second editor also started writing for them.

Yeah, I do try to pay them back in one way or the other, if not money.

So, what’s been your biggest accomplishment to date?

I think running four years is accomplishment enough.

How has the readership grown in these years?

Um, readership… We used to have probably 3,000 – 5,000 people right at the beginning, 3,000 – 5,000 people a month. We do 15,000 people a month and even though we’re not even posting regular content we manage to do about 12,000 people a month.

And I think that’s a good enough thing, you know, it’s not a full-time thing that I do, so I think that’s fair enough. We’ve got about 1,300 – 1,500 odd followers on Twitter, we’ve got about 2,600 people on Facebook as well, and about 650-700 subscribers on the newsletter that goes out every weekend.

I’m glad you brought up social media, because that’s something I wanted to ask you about. Especially, you’ve got some experience working with other restaurants, helping them figure out how to use social media better. Tell us a little about that.

So, um, I was a partner at Yolkshire – it’s an egg specialty restaurant in Kothrud. So apart from the whole bunch of things I was doing, I was also doing social media, I mean the whole online and offline PR. Since we didn’t want to spend – I don’t think we ever spent on advertising. We did, you know, print some posters and you know, put it up here, and did some leafleting in newspapers. But the most timely effort we did was put into Facebook and Twitter and on Foursquare as well.

I think we were the second venue in the entire country to have a Foursquare special. We wanted to be the first one, but then Doolally… and they’re good friends, so Suketu was like hey, yeah, we’re the first ones!

So yeah, I think we were the second place in the country doing a Foursquare special. That was… Someone from Bangalore who was covering the whole growth of Foursquare etc. and Foursquare in India, also wrote about us.

So we tried to go a different way. You see a lot of restaurants on Facebook saying discounts and this promotion and that promotion and stuff. We went a different way of you know, telling our story, rather, through Twitter and Facebook. So right from our hassles with government authorities in getting licenses and how we’re pricing and how menus are also designed – there’s a whole science, you know, behind designing menus. And right from hey, this is the first customer – photo. This is the youngest customer – photo.

And instead of just saying haan, there’s a chicken-stuffed omelet that’s on the menu, we always sort of gave it a nice touch and always gave importance to visuals. It’s food at the end of the day, and if the photo of the food is not appetizing enough, you’re not getting mouths watering just from the photo, no one’s going to come to your place and pay you that kind of money to eat it. We made sure that our photos are good always, and the copy that we put along with our photos are also important.

And we always kept in touch with people. We kept track of the Pune keyword on Twitter, to see what’s happening and replying. Someone asking “lunch options?” so we’d be like, “why don’t you drop by?” And there were people from Bombay who’d come down because Doolally being the only microbrewery in the entire state, a lot of people used to come down from Bombay. So we made sure that we kept track of that also, those people who were coming down. So a lot of times happened you know, like hey guys, on Twitter they’d say to Yolkshire we’re coming to Poona and would like to drop by. Lot of people used to drop by in the morning and have breakfast and go to Doolally for the beer.

So we did that. Because of how were doing the whole social media presence for Yolkshire, Jaydeep from Faaso’s became really interested. He came to me one day and said, “Hey Sahil, I like what you guys are doing with that. So you know, why don’t you guys help me out?”

So we sort of gave him some rough idea of how to go about it. They’re doing fairly well on social media. And then one random day, the lazy person that I am… I used to order from Faaso’s a lot, and since I knew Jaydeep now I was like, “Can we like sort of figure out how to take orders on Twitter online so I don’t have to pick up my phone?”

It’s too much effort to pick up – haan, my phone is there – and dialing and telling them my address again and again. Because at that time they didn’t have a CRM installed. Right now I think Tasty Khana handles their entire back end so I call them and they have my number and they know my address. But at that time I had to give my address everytime.

So we built this back-end for them where the first time you register and you just give your contact details, your address and phone number. And it will… place order on Twitter and they’ll just check their database and send you… they send you a confirmation tweet saying we got your order, this is amount and the time it’ll take, and it’s there.

So because of that other people start seeing ki okay, he’s ordering. And whenever you say, haan, yeh kha raha hoon main. Doosre bande ko bhi hota hai, haan, mujhe bhi mann kar raha hai khane ka.

And the day we launch Twitter delivery for Faaso’s, same day TedxPune was happening. And Faaso’s – now the hashtag that Faaso’s uses for Twitter delivery – trended above TedxPune. I think they got some 15 orders on Twitter the very first hour.

And that’s what happened. I think that was the first case in the entire world that anyone was using Twitter to accept orders. So this case study was also presented at TwitterCon San Francisco. A lot of publications in the country like Timeout and HT (Hindustan Times) and DNA – all of these guys covered it saying okay, there are restaurants using Twitter for you know, taking orders.

So that’s it with the restaurant bit I’ve done using social media.

So, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare…each of them can be used in different ways, at least for restaurants. Which do you think is the most effective in your experience?

Facebook is the most effective. Though we used to do all of this nice storytelling thing on Facebook –  the engagement levels were pretty fairly decent – it’s sad, but you know, that’s the truth –people love discounts. But instead of us putting a – like a 10% discount, we said we’ll announce a Facebook fan of the day.

And engagement levels shot through the roof! We’re like oh my god, what is this happening?

And that person gets a discount?

Yeah, you know, that person… every morning, we’d inbox one person saying you know, you have a 10% discount. We used to put it on Facebook as well. Today, this is the person who gets a 10% discount.

And – people ask what’s the ROI, right, we’re doing all of this. So there was this one day when this guy – and weekdays are generally slightly slower for restaurants, specially the first half of the week, Monday and Tuesday. I think it was a Monday or a Tuesday when this guy we gave a 10% discount turns up with three-four friends, they stay for a couple of hours. The bill they ran up that day was 25% share of the entire day.

So I was like, brilliant! 10% discount and 25% sale of the day! So yeah, my partner’s like huh, that’s perfect! Let’s keep on doing this.

I think Facebook is most effective in the way there’s a lot of people there.

Twitter is slightly an elitist crowd than what Facebook is. You have to be way more careful with how you talk to them and stuff. Lot of brands are doing these giveaways and quizzes and hashtags, and people have gotten irritated of it now. Like there was a time when it was a novelty. Now everyone’s doing it, so please stop doing it. People just block those hashtags.

So personally, which is your favorite social media?

I prefer Twitter.

 I guessed that! Any tips you want to share?

Just be yourself. At least for me, it’s being yourself. There are people who like to show their other side on Twitter… Fine.

Going back to using social media for business, how do you keep track of data, and what’s the important metrics that you keep track of?

Most brands are generally happy with the number of followers, the number of fans that they have. But I think the engagement level is the most basic thing that… Understanding social media is still a very nascent stage for all of these brands, especially with smaller places like restaurants and stuff. Just making them understand that engagement level is important enough for you to know should be good enough.

Obviously, in comparison to the numbers – the number of fans and all should also increase – but in proportion your engagement level should also be there. Otherwise it’s just pointless.

Then there’s a lot of other stuff like Crowdbooster and tons of other services which help you keep track of data. Some of the social media agencies have built their own back ends to keep track of data and stuff.

But yeah, that’s only for bigger campaigns. Nationwide campaigns like Volkswagen or Audi or Coke or something like that.

Otherwise, it’s about – I’d say at least for smaller brands it’s more about building relationships rather than tracking all these metrics, at least for smaller brands.

If you’re a restaurant, or even if you’re an online lifestyle magazine, what’s the most important marketing activity you should be doing?

Actually, it keeps changing. I don’t know – if today it’s something, tomorrow it will be something else. I don’t know, honestly.

You need to keep brainstorming and saying, okay, let’s do something different.

So I mean, not talking about the tactics or the channels that you’re going to use, but do you think doing something different and finding new ways to engage your customers would be the important activity?

Yeah, I mean, people do tend to get bored of something, right? So you have to find some new sort of activity.

But yeah, the most basic brief to any brand would be share, listen, and engage. But it’s a really difficult thing for a lot of them to do. You getting your bandwidth right is very important.

A lot of people can do that conversation offline, say at a restaurant. A customer comes, hey, what’s up, and all of that. But the same people who’re doing this offline and interacting with customers on the ground are not able to sort of replicate that online. So it’s a very difficult thing to do it online.

But then, that’s the simplest brief that any brand can give to the guy is like, share, listen, and engage. Then the rest just follows, in terms of activities.

Okay. I think we’ve got a lot of advice on marketing and social media. Thanks very much, Sahil!

Thank you.

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