FohBoh is a B2B niche social network for restaurant owners and their suppliers. Launched in late 2007 by veteran restaurateur and entrepreneur Michael Atkinson, it has built a base of 14,000 members, most of them restaurant owners. FohBoh’s core purpose is to help restaurant owners make more money during an economic period that has been dismal for their industry. That entails a core focus on operational excellence, but also on the art of social media promotion and online visibility. In fact, FohBoh’s novel monetization strategy is to sell conversation monitoring and consulting services, with advertising making up only a minority of the revenue.
It’s been a struggle in this business environment, but FohBoh is growing and appears to have running room. “Some people say the best time to start a company is in the middle of an economic downturn,” Atkinson says. “We are a survivor. We grow our revenues every day and we're way past the point of validating our model.”
Atkinson has learned a lot about business-to-business social communities from the experience. “Context and relevance sustains a community,” he says. “You have to understand the community before you figure out how to monetize. If you don’t have domain expertise, the membership will find out immediately.”
This interview is guest hosted by Paul Gillin of Paul Giilin Communications and was conducted as research for "Social Marketing to the Business Customer," the most comprehensive collection of best practices for B2B marketers ever assembled, to be published by Wiley in early 2011.
Where the idea for FohBoh came from.
The market for FohBoh. Restaurants are a highly fragmented and distributed business. Operators have few chances to connect with each other. The environment is ripe for a community.
“No vertical can be a pure advertising business and build a business that can scale.”
70% of the members are operators/owners and the rest are product/service providers. FohBoh doesn’t rigorously quality its members. Those who are interested will stay.
“A very interesting business model.” FohBoh has visitors from more than 100 countries and accumulates a wide range of content. It uses that knowledge about the audience to create products to sell to restaurant owners. The financial strategy is to help restaurants become more successful using social media tools. The company sells software for social media marketing and social marketing strategies for the business. Premier memberships are on tap.
Operating a bootstrapped b-to-b community in a market that isn’t conducive to advertising. “You can’t charge for content, so unless you can find another alternative, then you’re going to fail.” FohBoh is sustainable and “a good candidate for investment.”
Why the company started on the Ning platform and the challenges of scaling the business there. Drupal has been brought in to add utility and bridges built between the platforms.
How to drive engagement. “Social media isn’t a new thing; it’s what restaurant owners have been doing offline for years.” The challenge is attracting attention. “Old media is feeling very threatened and they’re not going to expose a direct competitor. We’ve had to resort to word of mouth.”
“We’re not building the community for today’s 15-year-old executive; we’re building it for tomorrow’s 35-year-old executive.”
“There is no rulebook on how to build a b-to-b community.”
Atkinson’s conversations with executives at Facebook and LinkedIn: “We have a lot of the same challenges. No one has cracked the code yet on how to manage a group and get beyond the 1:9:90 rule of engagement.”
“We’re very focused on quality content because it wins every time.”
Plans for a new service that invites contributions from professional journalists and rewards them for contributions.
What motivates the audience: It’s been a tough time for the food service industry. Understanding what the diner wants is critical.
The importance of social media and customer conversations to restaurant owners; value of understanding website activity
FohBoh’s membership statistics: About 14,000 members, average members visits twice monthly; about 70% are owner/operators
Advice for prospective b-to-b community organizers. “If you don’t have domain expertise, the membership will find out immediately.”
Importance of taking a disciplined approach to managing the community
How to monetize b-to-b sites: “You can’t monetize b-to-b from advertising.”
This episode was guest hosted by Paul Gillin (@pgillin) of Paul Gillin Communications. Paul was founding editor-in-chief of TechTarget, one of the most successful technology media entities to emerge on the Internet. Before that, he was editor-in-chief and executive editor of the technology weekly Computerworld for 15 years.
Paul writes a regular column for BtoB magazine and contributes to various blogs and online publications. He’s also a Research Fellow and a member of the advisory board of the Society for New Communications Research.