By Tracy Samantha Schmidt

Wow Bao, a fast-casual Asian restaurant with three locations in downtown Chicago, has received quite a bit of press already this week. On Monday both Crains Chicago Business and QSR Magazine, a trade publication for the restaurant industry, discussed how Wow Bao is using social media to get customers in the doors.

The press is well-deserved. Yesterday I also spoke with Geoff Alexander, managing partner of Wow Bao and vice-president of its parent company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc.

Wow Bao launched in 2003 with a location at Chicago’s Water Tower Place, a Michigan Avenue shopping mall and a magnet for tourists. Two more locations in downtown Chicago followed in 2007. Alexander, who has been with Lettuce since 1993, saw major potential in Wow Bao and asked to take over operations. He did so in January 2009 and started innovating right away.

During 2009, Alexander launched a bicycle delivery service and set up electronic ordering kiosks at two of Wow Bao’s three locations.  The kiosks, which accept credit cards for instant payment, remember a customer’s previous four orders.  In 2010, Alexander launched an iPhone app for Wow Bao–allowing users to place and pay for orders right from their phones. The iPhone app also allows customers nationwide to place orders, which are then shipped to them.

In the past two years, Alexander has also experimented with different social media strategies.  Wow Bao first joined Twitter in April 2009, and Alexander admits his team floundered a bit at first.

“We just told people to do this or do that, and nobody talked to us,” Alexander said. “So I started meeting with people who knew social media and learned that Twitter is about a conversation. They equated it to being at a cocktail party. Are you the guy with a beer who stands against the wall and doesn’t talk to anybody for two hours? Or do you walk around the room and join the conversation? Once we did that, we really started engaging people.”

Of Wow Bao’s many social media strategies, the following five strategies are the most successful and ones businesses should consider when crafting their own online marketing campaigns.

Establish a Twitter avatar for your business.

Wow Bao could have gone the corporate route and set up a standard Twitter handle that tweets the basics–deals, @replies to upset customers and retweets of loyal customers or power Twitter users. Instead @BaoMouth has become the face of Wow Bao on Twitter.

“@BaoMouth has a little more sass, enthusiasm and personality than a corporate Twitter account or even myself could have,” Alexander says.

That’s why you’ll find @BaoMouth talking about everything from breaking political news to last night’s episode of the Bachelor to Chicago’s ever-changing weather. If someone happens to mention Wow Bao, @BaoMouth will jump right in.

That’s exactly what happened yesterday morning when I was working on this post.I tweeted that I was getting hungry preparing for my interview with Alexander. A few minutes later, @BrianYarvaul tweeted that he was also getting hungry and planned to check out Wow Bow for first time.

@BaoMouth jumped into the conversation and tweeted to @BrianYarvual to tell the cashiers that @BaoMouth left something for him. That something turned out to be a free lunch at Wow Bao.

“@BaoMouth has full carte blanche to do what it takes to make the customer happy,” Alexander says. “If a customer has any needs, @BaoMouth will handle it.”

Let customers submit an order through your Facebook Fan page.

Wow Bao's Facebook PageNot only is there a Wow Bao Facebook fan page, customers can place their orders right on its fan page.  “For us to have online ordering directly from our Facebook page is forward thinking, and I think that’s where the Internet is moving to,” Alexander told QSR for its article, 500 Million Reasons To Launch Online Ordering.

What’s especially smart is that when a customer places an order on Wow Bao’s fan page, he can automatically share it with all of his Facebook friends. “Then a friend of theirs might ask, what’s Wow Bao?” Alexander says. “They might then go look it up on their own and check us out.”

Give product away when they check in.

“If I were to spend $10,000 on a billboard, radio ad or magazine ad, I have no idea what’s the return on investment is ,” Alexander says. “For the same amount of money, I can give away 7,500 bao. I can touch 7,500 people and hopefully 100 percent of them are going to like the product and become hooked. ”

That’s why Alexander has no problem giving away bao to every customer who checks in using location-based social networks like FourSquare, Facebook Places and Scvngr.

Every time a customer checks in on FourSquare or Facebook Places, he gets a deal for a buy-one-get one bao free. The first time a customer checks in using Scvngr, a newer social network, he gets a bao completely free. And on “Secret Word Wednesdays” fans of Wow Bao’s Facebook page can learn a secret word to tell the cashier for a free bao.

Giving away product to customers who check in is key.

As Alexander told Crains, “Most of the people on Foursquare have their accounts tied to their Twitter accounts, and their Twitter accounts are tied to their Facebook accounts, which are tied to their blogs. When somebody checks in, it goes viral on these different (platforms), and you start a conversation. First, it’s ‘Hey, I’m at Wow Bao’; then, ‘What’s that?’ Then, ‘I love it—have you tried it?”

Cultivate your brand ambassadors.

Borrowing an idea from American Express, Alexander created the Bao Mouth card–a black card to go in the wallets of Bao Mouth’s most loyal customers.

“Bao Mouth’s job is to search twitter for people who are really promoting Wow Bao, people who love Wow Bao and are sharing Wow Bao with other people,” Alexander says. “These people are given a Bao Mouth card which they’ll need to register online. Every now and then, we’ll post offers that are exclusive to Bao Mouth card holders.”

During the week before Christmas, for example, Bao Mouth card holders were given free meals at Wow Bao. “Could they abuse it by coming back again and again for breakfast, lunch and dinner?” Alexander asks. “Sure, but I don’t get the sense they are doing it. These are people who really care about Wow Bao and won’t abuse the privilege.”

What’s especially smart is that Bao Mouth card holders have to first register for Bao Mouth’s website. When doing so, they are asked for personal information including their names, email address, cell phone numbers, birth dates and Twitter handles. The disclaimer on the Bao Mouth registration page notes that their personal information will never be shared or sold. However, Bao Mouth does reserve the right to contact the card holder with information about special Wow Bao deals and news.

At once, the Bao Mouth cards are encouraging brand loyalty and giving Alexander several ways to contact his best brand ambassadors. The kicker? If a customer returns the small black envelope his card arrived in, he’ll receive a free bao–and Alexander can recycle the envelope.

Connect with other local online communities

Wow Bao Party with RedEye

Scott Kleinberg, the social media director of the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye edition, reached out to Wow Bao this past summer to organize a contest using social media.  Alexander was on board for it with one caveat. He did not want contestants to have to follow @BaoMouth or like Wow Bao’s Fan Page.

“We have under 2,000 people on Twitter, under 2,500 people on Facebook, and 1,500 people on text messaging–we are not the biggest online by any means,” Alexander says. “I only want to be followed by people who actually want to hear from us.”

The contest, titled Put the Wow in Bao, asked RedEye readers to explain on RedEye’s blog or via Twitter how they would put the WOW in Bao.  The contestants competed for several prizes, including a grand prize of a party for 50 at Wow Bao. Dozens of people participated in the contest. In the end, two contestants both won the grand prize. A photo of one of the two parties, taken by then RedEye intern Jen Healy, is at left.

Both Alexander and Kleinberg were pleased with the results of the contest. Says Kleinberg, “RedEye’s Put the Wow in Bao contest was an awesome opportunity to give RedEye readers and Wow Bao’s biggest fans the chance to be creative, have fun and win amazing prizes. Months later, people are still talking about it and wondering if we’ll do it again.”

Every week, we feature small and medium-sized businesses who “get” the web. Recent features include “Bright Pink’s 10 tips for growing your Facebook fan page” and “How Foiled Cupcakes opened for business withTwitter.” Know of a business we should profile? Let us know via Twitter at 435Digital.