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The Boba Guys Market to the Unmarketable

Blowback from PR gaffes or praise from customers is broadcast for all to see.

Last week, Boba Guys served up drink number one thousand. That’s more than 100 gallons of tea and homemade syrup in just one and a half months! We’ve been amazed at how quickly it’s taken off, and today we’ll attempt to break down what we think contributed to our early success: open dialogue.

Traditionally, a restaurant’s success was intrinsically linked to how well the food was received. Michelin stars, recommendations from your peers and restaurant reviews in the local newspaper were roadmaps to success: Let the food speak for itself. In today’s world, that’s only half of the equation. With the proliferation of social media and review sites, the other half of the equation is connecting with customers.

To understand why Boba Guys has been received so well, you have to look at the other ingredients. While we're not the best at it by any means, both of us are deeply committed to connecting with our customers. We are downright obsessive about checking Facebook and Twitter. To date, we currently have 678 likes on Facebook and 541 followers on Twitter. More than half were obtained before we even sold our first drink. These metrics are important. Why? Because recommendations from real people are the kind of marketing you can’t pay for, and the customers we want don't necessarily respond to traditional marketing.

Companies much larger than us have been trying to crack social networking and what it means to business, but many are misguided in their approach. You could lure people with promises of discounts or free gear, but ultimately you are training customers to behave positively only when there are incentives. For us, especially as retailers of a premium product, these shortcuts are out of the question both from an economic and marketing standpoint.

What we can offer, though, is an open dialogue with our customers. Twitter opened up the floodgates and ushered in unprecedented access to businesses. In the old days, you’d send a self-addressed stamp envelope and if you were lucky, someone in a dusty office somewhere would write you back a canned letter and send you a few coupons for your time. Nowadays, social media is a two-way street and it's folded into a company whether they like it or not. Blowback from PR gaffes or praise from customers is broadcast for all to see.

Since the beginning, we've often enlisted our customers through social media to tell us what drinks they'd like to see us try next, what neighborhood they'd like to see us pop up at and even what we should do with the profits. This push-pull strategy affords us the final say but properly informs us of our customers' needs and wishes. Our naiveté in the restaurant business is more easily forgiven when you combine it with transparency and the willingness to listen.

The best businesses are using social media to listen to their customers. Through Facebook and Twitter, our doors are figuratively open all the time. Both of us check it instinctively throughout the day, not out of duty, but because it’s what comes naturally to our generation.

As a pop-up business that moves around and morphs from month to month, follows on Facebook or Twitter becomes almost a necessity, serving primarily as a functional tool for tasks like finding the location, hours,and menu. But it creates a loyal following over time, grown organically through word of mouth. Before long, you have the history of a relationship: every tweet, every like, every reply, and what you do with that history is crucial.

The beauty of social media is that you can reach a huge audience in a relatively short amount of time, but that same crowd can easily turn cold if you rub them the wrong way. Businesses are now held accountable more than ever for their actions: The only thing we can do is to keep an open dialogue and let the chips fall where they may.

The Boba Guys share their adventures in food enterprise every Monday.

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