Professionalquality photos are an effective way to attract wouldbe guests

Professional-quality photos are an effective way to attract would-be guests.

Google virtual tours offer powerful tool for restaurants

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We all know that social media and digital marketing are critically important to any effective restaurant promotional plan. Yet it remains incredibly difficult to quantify results—especially when trying to determine the resources devoted to them. Trying to prioritize these efforts can all too often seem like herding kittens.

While it can be hard to keep up with Google's SEO polices and listing practices, one online service you can—and definitely should—take advantage of is creating a Google Business View Virtual Tour.

The one thing you can be sure to count on in the ever-shifting landscape of online customer engagement and social media marketing is that most of your potential customers are going to "Google" you.  Before they get to review sites such as Yelp or Trip Advisor they're going to find you by searching—and that's where you get to engage with them first and make the best initial impression.

Google's Virtual tours allow businesses to "show off" their locations, and they're particularly effective for restaurants. The Virtual Tours are viewable from any device (desktop, tablet, mobile, etc.), and are housed on Google's servers (Search, Maps, Google My Business.) for free. The tours are a one-time photography service, and you own all the rights to the images. You can also embed the tours into all your digital marketing media, including your website and Facebook page. They show up directly in Google Search and Maps, so that a potential customer can actually take a virtual walk around your dining room or bar, while getting hours, directions, phone numbers and checking out the menu. The "See Inside" link to your tour is prominently displayed in your search results and invites potential diners to dive right in and take a look around. In fact Facebook has just introduced a feature that allows you to post a panorama shot directly to your business page.

Here's an example:

NYC & Company, the city's convention and visitors bureau, found that the tours work.

To drive a higher level of engagement with participating restaurants, NYC & Company embedded Google Maps Street View and Business View on its website. The organization also offered tours as a marketing tool to New York City restaurants participating in the very popular Restaurant Week promotion.

Just over half of all participating restaurants had Business View and results showed that diners were more likely to reserve a table at those restaurants. In New York City’s competitive food scene, this compelling visual imagery offered these restaurants a valuable edge:

• On average, restaurant listings that included Business View had a 30 percent higher click through to reservations.

• Visitors who viewed Business View for a given business clicked through to make a reservation 50 percent of the time (20 percent more than visitors who didn’t view Business View)

• 84 percent of 1,300 surveyed customers said Business View played a factor in their restaurant choice

• The magical 18-34 age group picked the restaurant that had a virtual tour available over a competitor that did not by over 3 to 1.

“For NYC Restaurant Week, we have seen that the more engaged consumers are, the more likely they are to book multiple reservations,” says Edward Hogikyan, senior v.p. of marketing for NYC & Company. “Being able to feature Google Maps Business View, along with menu previews, as part of our booking experience has had a direct impact on our visitors’ decision to make a reservation.”

Interested? Find a Google Trusted Photographer or Trusted Agency on the Business View website and set up a photo shoot. You should be able to find several for your city or area. Contact each one for a quote. Get references from other restaurants that have been shot in your area. Google Virtual Tours are produced by independent contractors, and while they are carefully screened and approved by Google, there are certainly differences in the quality of work being produced. Be sure to see samples of other restaurants that the Google Trusted Photographer has shot. They should also be able to assist you in embedding the tour on your website and Facebook page.

It's always a challenge for restaurant owners to decide how and where to expend time and money on digital marketing. The only way to accurately judge ROI on these efforts is to pay for social metric services that are themselves way too expensive to employ. Here is one solution that provides a clear path to customer conversion and only involves a one-time investment of time and money—and virtually no cat wrangling.

John Moore is a founder of SocialMediaRestaurant.com. His clients include restaurants owned by Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and others.

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