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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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Many of this year's winners leveraged their social media fans to get out and vote.
Many of this year's winners leveraged their social media fans to get out and vote.

The "best of" popularity contest

For the sixth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Concordia University. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2012."

I see just about every piece of feedback to our annual "best of dining" poll, and not surprisingly, a lot of it is negative.

That's not because people don't enjoy voting and reading the results. In fact, this is some of our most-read content all year long. Rather, more people tend to comment critically, instead of supporting. That's just how it works, and we're fine with that.

The biggest complaint? We hear from many readers who don't agree with a restaurant that wins, that "it's just a popularity contest."

Well, yes. Yes, it is.

Obviously, of the thousands of votes cast in poll, the most popular restaurant wins. Sometimes it's the best one. Sometimes it's the one the most people have heard of. Clearly, deciding who's the "best," is very subjective, which is why we also weigh in with our own editors' picks. Sometimes we agree with our readers, as was the case when we both selected The Odd Duck as best new restaurant. Sometimes, we don't, like when our readers chose The Cheesecake Factory for best restaurant in the northern suburbs, but we chose Three Lions Pubs.

In many cases, we know full well who will win a category before the voting even starts. Some candidates win by such a huge margin every year that we wish we could take them off, just so another place could have a chance. But that's not really fair, is it?

"Popularity," it seems, comes from a number of factors. Who advertises the most seems to be the most logical one, but speaking as the owner of a company that derives most of its revenue through advertising, we don't actually have a ton of restaurant clients (most of our advertisers are larger regional and national clients). In fact, the restaurants that spend the most in TV, radio, outdoor, print and online are not usually the big winners in our polls.

Most of the name recognition comes from longevity, I think, especially from voters who've never even tried a type of cuisine listed in the poll. For example, we look at the number of total votes cast in each question, and frequently the ones with the most skipped votes have the biggest winners.

And, of course, longevity leads one to believe that a restaurant must be pretty good if it's survived so long. This isn't always the case, of course, but it's a good indicator that it's doing something right.

More recently, restaurants with a strong social media presence have performed much better than ones that don't. Restaurants have used Twitter and Facebook and e-mail blasts to get the word out to their loyal fans, and that approach has hurt the old-school places that are oblivious to new media. Fortunately, our system does a good job at restricting readers to one vote per poll, but of course, it's not perfect ... though it's much better than other polls that allow unlimited voting.

Where am I going with this? Restaurants (and fans of restaurants) that care about winning don't necessarily have to spend the most to win. Rather, they have to rally their customers, use the free tools out there to get the word out, and most importantly, be good.

And, while it's fine to rip on your fellow Milwaukeeans for making the wrong choice, do remember that it's an honor just to be nominated. To be considered in the top 15 sports bars or bugger joints or pizza places already shows that a restaurant has to be good.

Who comes in first or second place only really matters if you let it.

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