While preparing for a busy Friday night dinner service, Alebrijes' Ruben Larrazolo snapped photos with his digital camera of ears of shucked corn, tomatoes, jalapenos and radishes and put them online. Hours before, he told his Facebook friends to get ready to offer their guesses on what the evening's special would be.
He gave hints throughout the process as the dish came together.
"We have a beautiful corn cream sauce, but what can we use it for?" he wrote.
By the time he announced the dish was pan-seared red snapper fillet over corn cream sauce, several customers had already made guesses on what the dish would be, with some announcing their plans to dine there.
Larrazolo's outreach on Facebook is an example of using social networking to market products and services. Merchants are using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other outlets to connect with customers, build relationships and cut costs. It's happening across the country, and Lodi business owners like Larrazolo are among those adapting to new technical and marketing options.
"The goal of social networking media is to keep in touch with people who are not here," Larrazolo said. "It's about keeping an interaction with them."
Facebook and Twitter have not only changed the way people stay in touch with each other, it's also altered the way businesses interact with clients. The online service enables merchants to announce events, sales and specials and get instant feedback from customers.
A 'two-way street'
A local educator also sees the growing importance of the sites for businesses.
"We're seeing businesses moving from using the Internet as venue of giving information on a product to now being able to interact with the consumer," said Sacha Joseph Mathews, assistant professor of marketing at the Eberhardt School of Business at University of the Pacific. "It's now a two-way street."
Larrazolo recently began a promotion in which he posted pictures of ingredients together and asked for guesses on what the dish would be.
The page received several postings from customers and Larrazolo said he enjoyed the feedback and virtually bringing patrons into his kitchen.
"I was playing with tomatoes one day and thought it would be fun if people try figure out what I am doing," he said.
Social networking sites also help cut costs and streamline the promotion of events, said Jaime Watts, executive director of the Downtown Lodi Business Partnership, a group that helps promote Downtown businesses.
"For a nonprofit like us with a limited budget, Twitter and Facebook provide us a wonderful way for marketing with no cost," she said.
However, there are drawbacks to the services Facebook and Twitter provide. Merchants must be careful not to overload their followers or friends with constant messages.
"Unless a lot is going on, we keep our posts to once a week so people don't feel bombarded," Watts said. The postings on the DLBP's Facebook page include photos from a recent farmers' market and "Stuck in Lodi" Car Show.
Just like with the dishes he produces, Larrazolo knows constancy is key when it comes to making postings on Facebook.
"I don't want to overwhelm them," he said. "I just want to make sure they get the same feeling they get here at the restaurant."
News-Sentinel advertising director Kimberly Anger said the newspaper is studying the best approach to help its advertisers with social networking.
"I think social networking services like Facebook and Twitter will form an increasingly important part of our online business strategy," Anger said. "And we recently introduced our new online Marketplace service that incorporates social networking features and provides local merchants with ways to promote their businesses beyond traditional advertising."
Unlike a traditional website, Facebook's internal settings make tracking page views less of an exact science. Users can view a page without becoming a friend, and the page's owner is never the wiser.
However, Watts believes the amount of friends or followers and links a page has can point to some measure of importance.
The DLBP's Facebook page has 650 friends and links to 27 businesses that are part of the partnership.
"Right now I think we are getting the most efficiency right now," Watts said. "We are going to keep doing what we are doing."
Making the Internet work for you
Other local companies are also finding inventive ways to use the Internet to market themselves. Beckman Optometry is courting potential LASIK clients through a YouTube contest. The competition the office is coordinating asks clients to submit a oneto three-minute YouTube video explaining how LASIK surgery would enhance their lives. The winner will be selected by a panel of judges and will earn a free LASIK operation, a $5,000 value.
The person who comes in second will earn free contact lenses for a year, and third place nets a pair of Maui Jim glasses.
The idea came from a colleague and the response has been impressive, Carol Dowler, office manager for Beckman Optometry said.
"The deadline was going to be Tuesday," she said. "But we pushed it back to Sept. 30 because people were asking for more time."
Promotions like Beckman Optometry's points to the shift in marketing techniques businesses are using to stay visible in the digital age, and business owners are careful to maintain a constant presence without being overly assertive.
Facebook's and Twitter's potential to help businesses during a dismal economy should be too enticing for many to pass up, Mathews said.
"Companies have to be aware these are opportunities passing them by," she said.
The trend hasn't escaped marketing experts in Lodi's growing industry either. Last year, the inaugural Treasure Island WineFest attracted thousands of people to taste Lodi wines in the Bay Area. Charlene Lange, who helped coordinate the event, said Facebook and Twitter were integral in reaching out to people and staying within the event's shoestring marketing budget.
For this year's Treasure Island WineFest, Lange said the approach would be similar when it came to promotion.
"We are following the same formula," Lange said. "It didn't cost us anything but energy."
At the Lodi Winegrape Commission's Facebook page, posts are made three to four times a week and include times and dates for upcoming events, pictures and questions designed to spur responses from friends.
"The key is have a conversation and be listening to the audience," said Shannon Harbert, marketing and communications coordinator for the Lodi Winegrape Commission. "We're trying to use it as a vehicle to promote to the consumer."
Social networking enables both Lange and Harbert to connect with wine enthusiasts from outside the region and expand Lodi's brand.
"We are looking beyond Lodi," Harbert said, "to the rest of California and beyond."
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.