Marketing Your Restaurant Online – It’s More Than Instagram Photos of Food!

When looking at marketing your restaurant, you might consider social media a vital aspect of your outreach - and you'd be right. But most eateries stop at adding photos of food. Here's how to take your game to the next level.



Restaurant profit margins have grown in recent years, but they’re still tight—full-service restaurants had an average profit margin of 6.1% in 2017. This means that most restaurants are self-starters when it comes to marketing. But while Instagram and other popular Internet marketing platforms have made it easier and cheaper to get the word out, competition is fierce. Here’s how to get the most out of your social media marketing efforts.

Okay, despite the title, showing off your food is still important.

Your food is your product. It’s the core of the restaurant experience, and it’s important to show off your food in your ads. But you need to make sure to that the photos you share flatter your food, while showcasing the personality and flair of your business.

But Instagram is veritable buffet of food. How do you stand out from the crowd? One way is to use a theme, such as an existing trend like ‘Taco Tuesday,’ which allows you to take advantage of all the usual hashtags. Themes are a great way of highlighting parts of your menu that aren’t often in the spotlight.

For instance, one of our marketing clients is Uncle Vito’s, a Sacramento-area pizza chain. We used ‘Wing Wednesday’ posts on Instagram to bring awareness to the fact that they don’t just serve pizza. Everyone expects pictures of pizza from a pizza joint. Defying expectations by showing off the ‘other’ dishes you serve is a great way to attract clientele with a greater variety of palates!

Wing Wednesdays - Not the Typical Food Shot

Stretch your imagination beyond what you send out on the plate. If you’re a farm-to-fork restaurant, then you have a great opportunity to show where your food is coming from. Who’s growing it? What’s the journey? If you can show people who is growing their food, where it’s coming from, how it makes its way into your kitchen, that’s a great story to tell.

You don’t have to be a fancy restaurant to have a story to tell. If you own a pizzeria, show off how the pizza is made. Dough being tossed, toppings being artfully applied, piping hot pizzas being pulled out of a brick oven—these are all compelling images. People naturally engage with and are drawn to these visuals.

You can tell the story of your food with imagery, but there’s more to marketing your restaurant than just food!

Don’t forget to tell the stories of the people who make the food, and those who love to eat it!

Too often, restaurants get stuck on posting photo after photo of their food sitting on a plate. These can be great for a menu but do nothing to tell customers about the people who bring your restaurant to life—those who make the dishes you’re known for, and the customers who are the lifeblood of your business.

Photos of the people in your restaurant

People define the atmosphere and life of a restaurant. Mix up your feed a bit with photos or ads showing people like the folks in this ad, having an awesome happy hour experience.

The importance of people serves to highlight another important truth about marketing a restaurant—people don’t go out to eat just for the food. They’re there for the experience.

The atmosphere of a restaurant defines the dining experience. Is your restaurant a feast for all the senses, or just a place to grab a bite?

Do you have games or a great bar or an awesome drink mixologist? Photos of people playing a corner pinball game, or laughing while playing cornhole on your back patio, or eagerly inquiring as to what exciting new drinks the bar has to offer are huge draws.

Have you ever had a dining experience where everyone is stuck on their phones? If your restaurant has points of interest that can serve as conversation starters and get people engaged and having fun, you definitely want to draw attention to those opportunities.

Highlight what’s unique about your venue. Is there rooftop seating that offers a breathtaking view of the city at sunset? Does your brewpub have an old-school Nintendo set up in a lounge area where patrons can laugh at how rusty their Super Mario 3 skills have become? Showcase what motivates patrons to choose your restaurant as their designated hangout spot.

But while it’s important to show what makes your restaurant a fun destination, marketing it isn’t all fun and games.

When running social media ads, you need to understand who your restaurant’s audience is and what they like.

When we talk about marketing audiences, it’s easy to immediately gravitate to talking about demographics. But it’s more than just determining whether males age 25 to 34 are your ideal clients.

Take some time to explore your region and identify the events and attractions that draw people. For our pizzeria client, we took special note of a concert venue nearby, and started targeting the age group(s) that attended shows there. We ran ads on Facebook and Instagram targeting that demo in a narrow radius around the venue, during the hours immediately before and after a show. We’ve even run ads offering discounts to customers who bring in a ticket from that night’s concert. Ads like this really helped to pack our client’s restaurant around show times!

Our Sacramento clients are fortunate to live and work in a community that constantly has things going on. We love to piggyback off recurring local events like Second Saturday, as well as one-offs like Chalk-It-Up, which draws huge crowds every Labor Day weekend. You can even target people who simply like a specific area on Facebook, such as your city’s downtown area or historic district.

Even if you don’t have the benefit of nearby concerts or city events, you can take advantage of large-scale happenings. If you happen to have TVs in your restaurant, it’s a great idea to run ads around sporting events or other major televised showings. These ads, targeted at men before and during football games, is a great example. Notice that the food isn’t the highlight of these ads—the food is incidental to the experience.

Target your social ads to events

A quick note on targeting events—make sure not to get into any legal trouble by using copyrighted images, logos, or names. For instance, the term ‘Super Bowl’ is trademarked by the NFL. Using that phrase, team names, or other trademarked terms for advertising is a good way to get into trouble. It may sound silly, but the NFL, UFC, and other organizations which produce entertainment often shown on restaurant and bar TVs have teams of lawyers that will go after even the smallest venues.

Facebook and Instagram beer-related ad targeting
As you can see, there’s no shortage of suggested options for targeting social media users with specific interests.

But you don’t need to rely on outside events to build interest. If you’ve got a special beer you’re going to be putting on tap, or hosting a tap-takeover, this is a great way to capture the interest of specific audiences. Facebook allows you to target ads to people specifically interested in beer in your local area, even if they’re just passing through. Create a Facebook event and start running organic posts. Then, 5 to 7 days before to event, create ads retargeting anyone who has expressed interest by liking your event posts.

However, it’s not enough to find your audience and appeal to their interests. You’ve got to get them engaged.

Encouraging engagement with your restaurant’s social media posts and ads is critical, but requires a deft touch.

Whenever we sit down with a new client, we almost always have to adjust their expectations. Social media marketing is a patience game, especially for restaurants. You’re not going to triple your follower count overnight. You can’t game the system. Just having your employees like all your Instagram posts isn’t going to do anything but ensure your posts show up in their feeds more frequently.

A great way to create organic engagement is by showing that you value the experiences of your customers, and that you’re paying attention. We love to take images shared by customers and re-share them on our own channels. People like being recognized, and to see themselves ‘re-grammed’ by their favorite businesses. Look for opportunities to organically leverage the positive experiences of your customers.

However, old standbys like contests that encourage people to comment or re-share posts are starting to run into pushback from Facebook and Instagram. Their algorithms are dialed in to look for words indicative of clickbait content, which they artificially suppress to ensure that users aren’t inundated with heavy-handed marketing. We’ve been adjusting by encouraging the use more verbal engagement in face-to-face interactions with customers. The can get them to check out and share these contests and other posts on their own, which motivates further customer engagement. But this requires the buy-in of employees. If your staff isn’t willing to ask customers, “Hey, we hope you had a good time, and would love it if you checked out our Instagram contest,” then it’s not going to work.

It should also be pointed out that engagement marketing is a double-edged sword. When you engage with your customers over social media, you are inviting them to engage with you in return. You’re activating them. This means that if you provide poor service or have other issues, those same people you drew into your restaurant using social media are far more likely to be vocal online about their experience. Always keep that in mind when marketing your restaurant on social media—online reviews are likely the single most important type of free advertising for your business. Do everything you can to make sure those reviews are positive.

Marketing a business online requires diligence and constant effort. But by communicating what your restaurant has to offer—beyond just the food—by taking advantage of local events and effectively communicating with your audience, you can harness social media to boost the success of your restaurant and make it a preferred destination in your community.

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