In our digital age, marketing isn’t just about getting people to eat at your restaurant. It’s also important for restaurant operators to maintain an online presence, so guests will stumble across your website when they start thinking about their next meal. In order to draw guests in, you must have a strong enough presence to appear in search results across platforms. Social media, review sites, and your own website are invaluable ways of connecting with guests who have more dining options than they can count. Great food is important, but it isn’t enough on its own. Restaurants should make an effort to stand out with unique, creative marketing strategies that will catch the customer’s eye, whether they’re hungry right now, or planning a meal in the future.
The Time Is Now
Limited-time offers (or LTOs) have become increasingly popular in the last year. Arby’s venison sandwich, for instance, was sold at just 17 of the chain’s 3,2000 locations - but it made the news nationwide. This past April, Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino was only available for five days, and yet it took the internet by storm. These extremely limited offers build buzz and drive traffic to stores during a certain period of time. In these examples, nationwide chains like Arby’s and Starbucks had the resources to mobilize the whole internet on their behalf. So how can small businesses take advantage of this trend?
The success of an LTO depends on its publicity. If your restaurant sells a special item for one week out of the year, it’s just a seasonal special - delicious, but not designed to build buzz. However, if you sell an extremely specialized item for one week out of the year and your guests are clamoring to get it while they can - then you have an LTO on your hands. Use your online presence to build excitement and anticipation for a dish that defines your brand. Collaborate with your chefs to choose ingredients that look and taste amazing, in an exciting way your guests won’t see at any other restaurant.
Most - if not all - of your guests use at least one social media platform. You can find professionals on LinkedIn, and Millennials on Facebook and Instagram. Baby Boomers are often on Facebook or Twitter. Younger generations gravitate toward more visual platforms, like Instagram or even Tumblr. Whatever the age range and professional status of your fan base, it’s good know how they like to connect.
Choose a social media strategy that appeals to the people who like your food best. For example, if your catering business is ideal for office parties, you should have a presence on LinkedIn. If your ice cream shop is across the street from a high school, consider Instagram instead. Once you build a following, you can offer incentives for your fans to like and share your content. If you offer a free cupcake to the person who takes the best photo of your bakery, you’ll build buzz, encourage guests to take pictures, and gain several gorgeous images that you can share and re-share. Set yourself up for success online to build loyalty in-store.
As we spend more and more of our lives online, people value the precious time they together face-to-face even more highly. The foodservice industry is in a unique position to support this trend. Even if your guests are ordering their meals online, they’ll always eat in person! Food is an essential part of being human, and our industry reminds people of the simple joys that come with self-care and community building.
Consumers in every industry are excited to support businesses that they see working to make the world a better place - through charity, activism, or just in-person events that let them get out of the house and meet people. Restaurants have a unique opportunity to support their local communities through commerce. Consider sourcing some of your ingredients from local farmers, or simply selling products from other local businesses, such as bakeries or ice cream shops. The potential for cross-marketing is huge, and you’ll be sure to win the business of your fellow entrepreneurs.
Wherever your inventory comes from, you can always host community events, such as meetings, art shows, or even children’s birthday parties. If you have the infrastructure to cater parties in other locations, those events are a great way to connect with a large number of people all at once. The more your guests see your name out around town, the more likely they will be to think of you when they get hungry for their next meal.
Best of all, people are coming to value charity and generosity more than ever. Whether you donate leftover inventory to a local homeless shelter, serve free meals to those who can’t afford a Thanksgiving dinner, or follow Inside the Box Café’s example of employing those in need, the possibilities are endless. Your guests will admire your commitment to the community, and will be excited to support you with both their bellies and their wallets.
Big Data, Little Data
Everybody likes to feel special. In this era of big data, there are countless tools at your disposal to record your guests’ names and preferences. If Bob Smith orders a Turkey Club Sandwich on his lunch break every weekday, then your Point of Sale system can save him the trouble of asking for it; his server can enter the order as soon as he sits down.
As a restaurant operator, you can take personalization to the next level by remembering that it goes both ways. People love to feel special - and they love to feel as though they’re a part of a community. Depending on your restaurant concept, it may or may not be appropriate for your servers to connect with your guests as people. (Automated restaurants like Eatsa, for instance, have no human servers to begin with.) But no matter who serves the food, there’s a story behind your foodservice. Consider including your origin story in your menu, or on a sign in your restaurant. Remind your guests that no matter who sits with them during lunch, they aren’t alone - unless they want to be.
The internet is the first place a customer goes to learn about your business. It’s important to make a good impression on every new guest, even before they arrive on your official website. Your online presence extends beyond your official marketing strategy, to include the things people say about you on review sites.
It’s a good idea to know your standing on websites like Yelp and Google. Don’t be afraid of bad reviews; instead, create a strategy to handle them when they come up. It’s a good idea to respond to every customer, whether or not they enjoyed their meal. If they had a bad experience, offer to make it right - and take the conversation off the air. Invite them to come in for a free cup of coffee, or send them a gift card to your restaurant. If you can salvage a relationship with an unsatisfied customer, you gain their business, and also a brand ambassador. Loyal guests will tell their friends the story of how you made it right - improving your reputation, and encouraging new customers to try your restaurant.
The best restaurant marketing strategies integrate online and in-person initiatives. Whether you decide to offer an LTO, run a photo contest on Instagram, or check your rating on Yelp, make sure you’re connecting with guests across platforms, and still inviting them to come into your restaurant. A successful business plan includes long-term relationships with your guests - and, as in any long-term relationship, that means knowing what your customers want, and finding creative ways to meet their needs.