Creativity, and not a big budget, is proving to be what matters most when it comes to marketing your restaurant. Social media has replaced traditional paid advertising as the preferred route to driving traffic for many full-service restaurants, especially smaller chains and independents.
In the NRA’s 2012 Restaurant Trends Survey, 84 percent of fine-dining operators said they planned to devote more resources to social media marketing. Forty-five percent said they would spend less on traditional marketing. Why? Because 39 percent of all adults said they are receptive to hearing about specials and events through social media sites, and that number climbs to 50 percent for those ages 18 to 44.
If you’re not sure of the difference between friends, fans and followers, and hash is something you’d rather cook than #tag, we’re here to help. Here are five general paths to social media success, with specific examples from savvy restaurants across the country.
At its core, social media allows you to speak directly to your guests and fans. Sites like Twitter and Facebook, and visually through Pinterest and Instagram, provide forums to connect with customers before, during and after their visits to a restaurant.
“When someone talks, there is always a response,” says Kara Lichtenstein, the social media director for the Element Collective and three of its restaurants in Chicago. “It’s not only a dining experience, but a live dialogue.”
If that dialogue feels forced, or worse, like an advertisement, you’ve already lost. “It has to be conversational,” says Jason Dady, the chef and multiconcept owner of four acclaimed restaurants in San Antonio. “I don’t have a set plan; I just naturally let it evolve.”
His marketing manager, Emily Stringer, compares Dady’s social media strategies to his food: “attainable, real and approachable.” Dady mixes comments and images of his restaurants and food with those about his family, travels and other interests. As a result, Dady has approximately 1,100 Facebook fans and 3,500 Twitter followers, and his restaurants have more than 6,000 combined fans on both sites.
Eric Ziegenhagen, the social media manager for Trenchermen in Chicago, has found a way to harness the conversation and use it indirectly for promotion. He searches his restaurant’s social media feeds at its busiest times for any mentions of the restaurant or its handle (@Trenchermen, for example). He responds, and if done in real time, he says, those customers are more apt to share photos and compliments. “That is something you can retweet, and it’s not you saying how great you are,” Ziegenhagen explains. “It’s stoking the fire and building a complimentary conversation in an authentic, organic way.”
Be warned, though. Not every comment will be flattering, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jeffrey Zurofsky, c.e.o. of ’wichcraft, says with 17 locations and 400 employees, “We’re bound to make a bad sandwich every once in a while.” A complaint on Twitter isn’t ideal, but Zurofsky says if it can be addressed right away, it can become a positive by demonstrating to the public that you take those things seriously. “We use it as real-time customer-service relations,” he says.
Engaging your community
2. Keep your community engaged.
James Markham describes the concept of social media as the “Cheers effect.” In the classic TV sitcom, Norm would walk into the bar, and everyone would yell his name. “That’s what social media is,” explains the c.e.o. and founder of Project Pie, an emerging fast-casual pizza concept. “People want to know you care about them. It’s that sense of belonging, and there’s no quicker or faster way than social media.”
If cultivated, your fans can become an extension of your real network of friends. Beyond knowing their names, show them you care about things other than your restaurant.
In Baltimore, during a March blizzard that closed many businesses, several restaurants took to social media to let the community know they were open. Gino’s Burgers & Chicken in Towson used Twitter and Facebook to offer 50-percent discounts to all emergency workers and road crews. Not only was the restaurant driving business on a slow day, it was also lending a hand to some of the city’s most important members.
Zurofsky’s ’wichcraft takes an active role in its New York City neighborhoods through numerous charitable efforts, but it also recently used social media to help promote A Place at the Table, a documentary about the hunger problem in America. A cofounder of ’wichcraft and the chef/owner of Craft Restaurants, Tom Colicchio starred in the movie directed and produced in part by his wife. ’wichcraft offered guests a free cream’wich cookie when they brought in a ticket stub from the movie. It really wasn’t intended to drive people from the movie to the restaurant, but instead give them incentive to support the movie and the cause. Colicchio also promoted the movie on his personal and restaurant social media accounts and through direct emails.
Such efforts may not drive traffic to the restaurant, but they can help build an online community of friends that will later pay dividends.
3. Tell your story visually.
Although most restaurateurs believe Facebook and Twitter are the most important social media sites, the growth of Instagram and Pinterest have put an emphasis on photography. In fact, check almost any restaurant’s Twitter feed, and you’re bound to see pictures of the day’s prettiest dishes. Inside the restaurant, you’ll see diners snapping photos of their plates before digging in.
“Restaurants have to remove the stigma that taking a phone out for a picture is a bad thing,” says Tim Baker, v.p. of digital strategy for MWW, a leading public relations firm, and a speaker on a social media panel at the upcoming NRA Show. Those images are shared to sites like Instagram, where diners proudly show off where and what they’re eating. It may not directly drive revenue, says Baker, but it’s generating brand awareness.
“Instagram is about the picture and nothing else. If you can grab someone’s attention with that picture, that’s all you need,” says Amelia Zatik Sawyer, the wife of current Beard Award finalist Chef Jonathon Sawyer, and the brand manager for his growing businesses that include The Greenhouse Tavern and Noodlecat in Cleveland. They have 36 social media accounts between them, and approximately 13,000 Facebook fans and 8,000 Twitter followers for the two restaurants. Pictures of daily specials are posted on Instagram and get 50 likes on average.
David Lee King, a noted speaker on social media trends, says restaurants don’t need a fancy camera to take professional-looking photos. Your iPhone or Android device will do the trick, but get as much light as possible and get as close to the dish you’re photographing to fill the frame with the image. Most people will view the pictures on their phone and first see a thumbnail-sized image.
The Melting Pot is currently using Pinterest to help spread the word about the debut of its first new menu with a “Pin it to Win it” sweepstakes running through May 6. Fans who “repin” (or share) a promotional image from the menu on the fondue chain’s Pinterest page to one of their own boards are entered in weekly contests to win cash and prizes.
For National Cheese Fondue Day on April 11, the brand created a quirky YouTube video highlighting the top 10 things cheese can do for you (for example: use bags of shredded cheese instead of sand to stop flooding). The hope is the inexpensive and unconventional videos go viral. Last year, the brand drove a 16.9-percent increase in sales for the cheese fondue program through similar social media efforts, says Sandy D’Elosua, the national director of marketing and communications for Front Burner Brands, which franchises the Melting Pot brand.
Vine is another video site growing in popularity. The mobile application was recently bought by Twitter and allows users to create short six-second clips. Chefs can create a time-lapse movie to show the creation of a dish from start to finish, says Zatik Sawyer.
Promote events, specials
4. Drive revenue by promoting events and specials.
Once you’ve built an engaged audience of followers, the challenge is to find a way to get those virtual fans spending money inside the real walls of your restaurant. Don’t shout, says Trenchermen’s Ziegenhagen. “Unless there’s a fire, you can’t tell your customers what to do,” he says. ‘Don’t say ‘Eat this. Try this.’ It’s rude.” He uses a far more subtle approach to woo customers. For a recent dinner featuring three famed pastry chefs—Chef Dana Cree of Blackbird in Chicago, Rosio Sanchez of Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark and Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar in New York—Ziegenhagen searched Twitter for and then followed other pastry chefs, graduates and students of the French Pastry School in Chicago and anyone else with an interest in pastry.
“I was thinking emphatically about who would be excited about this, and coming up with terms in the search box specific enough to find them,” he explains. He didn’t directly message them, but knew many would investigate why Trenchermen was suddenly following them. They’d then see details in past tweets about the specifics of the “Killing Me Sweetly” dinner. Ziegenhagen has no idea how well his tactics worked, but the event sold out and received plenty of local media attention.
In San Antonio, Dady, a 2004 Restaurant Hospitality Rising Star, recently used Twitter to reward his followers with first crack at a special dinner featuring a five-course pairing menu with extremely rare Pappy Van Winkle and Old Rip Van Winkle Reserve Bourbon. After announcing the menu and date, 19 of the 22 available seats for the dinner at his Bin 555 restaurant were booked in under 30 minutes.
Timing is everything. Use Twitter for promotions in the morning and around 5 p.m., because even if you have thousands of followers, Dady says only those looking “right now” will see your tweets. Zatik Sawyer and The Greenhouse Tavern use the event tool on Facebook to promote and invite guests to special dinners, connecting to the website Eventbrite for the actual sale of the tickets.
With 95-percent occupancy at Babbo in New York City, special promotions aren’t really necessary. But the famed Italian restaurant from Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich has found an interesting use for Twitter. At 3 p.m. every day, a tweet is sent with what times and tables remain open, usually only available because of cancellations.
The benefit is two-fold: Babbo easily fills its rare open seats, but it also rewards fans with a late chance to snag a table at one of the country’s premier restaurants.
“There’s a perception you can’t eat there if you don’t reserve a month ahead,” says John Moore, social media administrator for B&B Hospitality Group. “There’s always a chance you can catch a table and we’ve doubled our followers in the past six months.”
5. Use contests to drive more than web traffic.
When Milwaukee’s Stack’d Burger Bar turned to Company B for help naming its new house beer, the marketing and PR firm instead used the opportunity to engage the restaurant’s Facebook fanbase. The “Name That Beer” contest asked Facebook users to submit name ideas in hopes of winning a complimentary tap of beer a day all summer. The prize was more than the beer, but also “bragging rights,” customer recognition and being a part of something bigger, says Brigette Breitenbach, the principal at Company B.
“Stack’d Blonde” was the contest winner, but the restaurant was the real victor. It saw a 61-percent increase in new fans and a 75-percent boost in fan impressions for the month. Cross-promotion on the website and on property led to greater web and foot traffic, and a 16-percent increase in sales.
Social media isn’t just a tool for independents. The 470-plus-unit Red Robin recently wrapped up its “Bring My Burger Back” campaign, which asked fans to vote for their favorite burger no longer on the menu. Promotions across all the brand’s social channels linked back to a microsite for voting. From there, each burger candidate had its own Twitter and Facebook icon so fans could easily share news of their vote to their followers for a chance at additional prizes, ultimately spreading Red Robin’s message to an even larger audience. Red Robin received almost 250,000 votes and this spring the “5 Alarm Burger” returned to the menu.
Although FourSquare may be losing its luster, some restaurants still use the location-based social-networking site. The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland offers a 40-percent employee discount to its “mayor,” the person who checks in via FourSquare the most. Zatik Sawyer, the brand manager, says the competition “got crazy” a couple years ago when several contenders were eating at the restaurant four times a week.
Think about that: Customers vying with other customers to see who can spend the most time (and likely money) at a restaurant. The discount was a big reason, but becoming “mayor” meant something more, Zatik Sawyer says. Those customers had become friends with the Sawyers and others within the Greenhouse community. “All our social media has been about letting people know who we are and what we’re about,” she says. “It’s had a huge impact on our business. It gets people into the restaurant who normally wouldn’t go.”
And if done right, social media keeps them coming back for more.