Tripadvisor recently stated that 87% of travelers read reviews when planning their next trip, and a growing number of people are using online reviews and social media sites to determine where they choose to dine, even locally. Is your restaurant taking advantage of social media marketing? newspaper and yellowpage ads are not only expensive, but increasingly ineffective at reaching your potential patron base. Fortunately, social media marketing primarily requires no money investment at all, and minimal time investment if pursued with a focused approach. The following strategy is my recommendation for restaurant owners to increase business by use of social media in three online segments; branding, proactive response, and promotion.

Branding

To often I see fantastic restaurants depending solely on word of mouth from their loyal patron base to spread the news about how beautiful their establishment is and how incredible their cuisine and service. Word of mouth is obviously important, but without a proper website there is little legitimacy for potential customers curious about your restaurant, especially travelers. Unfortunately, when times get tough the first thing that tends to be neglected is the website- don’t do it. The website is what really captures a curious potential patron, what assures them their money will be well spent on an enjoyable experience. If you absolutely cannot afford a few thousand dollars for a professionally designed website, you can easily create a basic site at no cost using WordPress or Microsoft Office Live. Websites need only to have a few things, but make sure you don’t neglect them: make sure you have up to date contact numbers and directions, photos of the restaurant, menus if possible, and an email signup. These are the absolute necessities. Also make sure that people can find your restaurant, update your business information on Google Maps Local Business Center or add your business if it’s not already listed.

Capturing customer emails is extremely important, make a point to encourage customers to give up their email addresses wherever you can, a comment card with the check is a smart idea. With these email addresses you can use a basic newsletter service such as Constant Contact to send out simple and cost effective monthly reminders, menu updates, and most importantly coupons. Nothing brings back a customer like freebies, even a 10% discount or free appetizer with purchase of a meal will do wonders. Along with encouraging email signups, also point customers to your other social media pages to write reviews of their experience, which brings us to the next section of social media strategy for restaurant owners.

Proactive Response

Restaurants can live or die by a few online reviews now that the majority of food connoisseurs are taking to the internet before they decide where to dine. With so many different places to write reviews online, it can be a nightmare to try and keep up with even half of them. That is, without the help of Google Alerts, a free Google service that will send you daily emails of any and all websites that mention your suggested keywords. Just enter the name of your restaurant into the ‘search terms’ box and you’ll have no trouble staying informed about what people are saying after dining at your establishment. Naturally, as a busy restaurant owner you probably won’t have time to respond to every single review because they are posted to countless places on the internet, I’m going to recommend you stick to three: yelp, tripadvisor, and insiderpages.

These three services are some of the most popular places people will leave reviews of your restaurants, and it costs nothing for you to claim your restaurant from these sites. Once claimed, you can update contact information, add pictures, and most importantly- respond to negative reviews. Asking your customers to write reviews of their experience at your restaurant can be nerve-racking, but with a proactive approach you can both learn a great deal about what needs to be fixed and earn the respect of reviewers through honest responses and apologies. There is of course a strong temptation to write fake reviews or ask your friends and family to write fake reviews for you- DO NOT DO THIS. It is easy for regular users of that particular reviewing website to notice which reviews are fake and this will severely degrade your credibility.

Promotion

The third and final part of a strong social media strategy is promotion, and thankfully this can be done effectively without any financial investment, unlike costly newspaper advertisements. It’s important for a successful social media marketing campaign to have focus, try not to be spread yourself out over too many different platforms and websites. I recommend maintaining a facebook page, flickr account, and for those with a little extra time a twitter account. I DO NOT recommend restaurants keep a blog, simply because it’s too time intensive and not focused enough on potential customers.

A facebook page, however, is simple to create and provides a popular place for customers to interact with each other and show support for your establishment. If you’re unfamiliar with facebook you can read through a previous post I’ve written here. The best strategy when creating social media profiles is to copy other successful users, check out what other restaurant pages on facebook look like and repeat. The goal with the facebook page is to get as many ‘fans’ as possible, all fans of your page will act as free advertising and you can use the page to communicate with them as well. Don’t forget to encourage people to your website and newsletter list through facebook and vice versa. It’s also important to check your facebook page semi-regularly to respond to any questions you might receive and keep the page fresh.

Once you’ve got the facebook page mastered, open a flickr account and upload some photos of your restaurant. You don’t have to spend much time on this but by simply uploading some pictures and ‘tagging’ them with both general and specific keywords you can really show off that beautiful restaurant with minimal effort and time. Video tours and interviews are nice as well, but pictures are much easier and just as effective in showing off your restaurant.

Another strategy for those who have time is the use of a twitter account. I’ll call this a bonus promotion investment as it can take some time to build up a fan base. If you’re unfamiliar with twitter, check out my review of the application for a better understanding. The trick to twitter is to be personable, it’s a great way to interact with others in your area or around the world. I recommend using twitter to blast out quick reminders, menu changes and specials.

As mentioned previously, blogging is not the most effective use of your time to promote your restaurant. However, it behooves you to take advantage of local bloggers that already have a successful blog and regular reader base. Do a little poking around and find those local bloggers that have interest in food or local business and invite them to a free dinner for two in exchange for an honest review of your restaurant. Obviously you’ll want to make a good impression, but more likely than not you’ll have created a new loyal customer that maintains a strong web presence by investing only $100 or so. Local reviews can do wonders for your business.

To wrap it up, restaurant owners can no longer afford to advertise their business through traditional means, they must take advantage of social media to outperform their competitors. We all know how competitive and time consuming the restaurant business is, but with a focused approach to social media marketing business will boom regardless of economic conditions.