Even as restaurants around the country reopen their dining rooms, the experience of sitting down and enjoying a meal with someone – nevermind as a group – likely won’t be quite the same for a while. But at a time when people are sorely missing the restaurant experience – and operators are straining to make the numbers work – can you assess the best parts of your pre-pandemic service and brand and virtualize them somehow? The chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch told Food & Wine that she has been developing virtual cooking classes and demonstrations, and is thinking about creating a virtual restaurant concept as a partner business. Virtual reality (VR) dining experiences are even happening – and while they’re currently offered at a high price point, costs are likely to fall as adoption of VR and 5G technology expands. Even if you’re not ready for that, it’s time to assess the elements that make your brand memorable – from your music selection to your servers’ quirky personalities to the art on your walls – and determine how to deliver those things to guests online and in their homes.
Retooling your marketing strategy for 2020? Try thinking less like your competition and more like your ideal guests. That’s a key piece of advice from Erik Shellenberger, hospitality marketing expert and author of the book Restaurant & Bar Marketing. Shellenberger, who was interviewed recently on the Restaurant Rockstars podcast, says in his consulting work with restaurants it’s common for even large, established businesses to conduct marketing efforts based on what competitors are doing, whether that’s posting a video series on Facebook, a contest on Instagram, or even just feeling the need to make some kind of social media post every day. But he said that’s akin to copying off of someone else’s test when you aren’t sure they have the right answer – or being a sheep following the herd. A successful strategy should be based on measurable conversions and social media often falls shorter than other marketing channels in this area, he said – particularly for restaurants that generate business from tourists. Before pouring time and money into your social media, make sure you’re getting some basics right: Imagine you’re a consumer in need of a good meal and you’re scrolling through Google, Yelp or Tripadvisor, looking for well-reviewed restaurants. If your restaurant makes that first cut, does it follow through with an up-to-date address and phone number? Are your operating hours listed correctly? If potential guests click on a link to your website, will it bring them to a page that includes information consistent with what they saw on Google? From there, tracking clicks on the “get directions” link can give you measurable data on the web visitors you are converting to customers. Once you have a strong foundation in that area, you can then fine tune your overall profile – by enhancing your images, creating memorable food and drink presentations and conceiving of clever promotions suited to your specific brand.
Word-of-mouth marketing is any restaurant operator’s goal: According to Nielsen, 92 percent of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family over all other forms of marketing. If you can create the conditions at your restaurant that inspire user-generated social media content, you’re a big step closer to getting that user’s friends and family in the door too. NextRestaurants offers some tactics to help. First, boost your visual appeal. Fresh flowers, unusual interior/exterior design, stand-out artwork, special holiday décor and artful plating of menu items can all inspire the taking (and posting) of photos. You can also try the carrot approach: Offer a free coffee to anyone who posts a photo with your hashtag and geotag. Or, create a contest that challenges guests to submit photos and anecdotes of experiences with your brand, select your favorite entry and reward the winner with a gift certificate. Make it easy for guests to post content. Your brand name, logo and hashtag should be visible on such places as your menu, dishware, tables, decorations and the mirrors in your restroom (a favorite place for selfies, believe it or not). Once guests post content, mention and tag them when you repost it – not only does it help you avoid copyright infringement, but it will also help you forge a stronger connection with your guest.
What kind of return on investment do you get from your restaurant’s social media marketing? If it’s low, you’re not alone. In a recent release of the CMO Survey, a biannual marketing survey of marketers at for-profit brands that is sponsored by the American Marketing Association, Deloitte and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, there was a clear disconnect between social media investment and performance. According to Christine Moorman, director of the survey, people who have responded to the survey since 2016 have rated social media marketing between 3.1-3.3 on a scale between 1 (not at all contributing to performance) and 7 (very highly contributing to performance.) Nonetheless, spending on social media marketing persists – and many brands are doubling down on it. Why? In a Forbes report, Moorman points to several primary reasons why marketers should keep the faith: First, it is a tool companies can control and operate at a low cost. This is opposed to digital marketing, which is costly and not always effective at grabbing a person’s attention and maintaining engagement. Social media is also made for mobile, with its visual content and brief updates, which consumers can digest in bits and pieces whenever they pick up their phone (which may be dozens of times per day). Next, social media can be a valuable tool to tell brands what to change and when: It can measure a consumer’s online behavior and engagement with your brand, help you connect with employees and improve their performance on the job, and enable you to move forward with product or service enhancements. Yes, there is still a challenge in connecting likes and engagement with sales, but if you’re struggling to make the connection at your restaurant, it can help to use a social media marketing strategy that seeks to analyse customer behavior across their entire experience with you – not just at the beginning and end. Further, all of the data you collect automatically, whether via social media or other channels, needs to be integrated so you can see the full picture of how your customers are engaging with and supporting your brand.
If you can raise your restaurant’s Yelp score by one star, it can lead to a revenue boost between 5 and 9 percent, according to a Harvard Business School study. At a time when reviews have that kind of power, it’s critical to stay on top if them. But when reviews can appear anywhere from Yelp to Google to Facebook to TripAdvisor and beyond, tracking and responding to all of your reviews can become a full-time job. Review management software platforms such as Yext can help operators centralize reviews from multiple platforms. As AdAge reported recently, operators using such systems can quickly identify (and fix) problems at a location and also respond quickly to reviews, which can influence how consumers feel about your brand.
When you log on to Facebook, it typically takes just a moment to see advertisements for items you are likely to buy. These ads aren’t merely tailored to people in your demographic or posted based on the weather or what other consumers happen to be buying that day. They are tailored to you, specifically. Yet somehow, in the current era of personalization, restaurant menus are lagging. At a time when an estimated 32 million American consumers have a food allergy, and many others have a food intolerance or follow some specific eating regimen, be it paleo or plant-based or Whole 30 diets, even the most forward-thinking of restaurants don’t yet provide menus that are designed for an individual consumer. Expect that to change, particularly in light of McDonald’s recent purchase of the menu personalization startup Dynamic Yield. At the moment, restaurant menu personalization is more about adjusting menus based upon broader environmental conditions as opposed to individual consumer tastes. And as The Spoon reports, a number of barriers still remain when it comes to gaining consumers’ trust with personal data. But it’s not difficult to see a time when a person with a nut allergy might be able to log in at a restaurant and bring up a variety of nut-free food choices based on items he or she has ordered at that restaurant and elsewhere, or reviewed on Yelp, posted on Instagram, or even “liked” on Facebook. How do you accommodate personalization at your restaurant? Does your tech currently help you in this effort?
Need another reason to fine-tune your restaurant’s presence on Google? Google Maps has now made it possible for consumers looking for their next meal to pull up photos of a restaurant’s most popular dishes. (And in the meantime, other companies are angling to help restaurants make the most of that exposure). When Google Maps users post reviews and photos of their restaurant meals, machine learning will be able to identify and promote the most popular dishes at that business so they are front and center when consumers search for information about that restaurant. The feature is available on Android now, with iOS devices to follow. This news comes on the heels of Google’s announcement that users of Google Maps, Search and Assistant can now order food delivery directly from those apps. Locl is one player looking to disrupt this space: It partners with restaurants to jazz up their listing on Google (and in the process, might end up making restaurant websites obsolete).
Last year, more than 52 percent of all web traffic around the world came from mobile devices, according to Statista. Do your website’s visuals and text come across well regardless of whether a person is visiting your site on a phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer? As Next Restaurants reports, if you have a traditional fixed website as opposed to a responsive one, your site’s images may be distorted or other content may get cut off altogether when people visit your site on a mobile device. What’s more, Google gives priority to responsive sites. You need one to ensure you’re appearing near the top of web searches. Once you convert your existing site to a responsive one or build a new one, ask an objective source to scroll through your site to ensure your graphics or other visuals don’t make navigation more difficult. Next Restaurants advises you give any important call-to-action items prime position on your homepage — email or loyalty program sign-ups, events or other key promotions should be easily viewable on a mobile device. While you’re at it, make sure your site is optimized for key words and SEO. Thanks to Google, consumers can make very specific searches on the Internet and get accurate results (research from the Hubspot indicates that 50 percent of web searches are four words in length or longer). That means your keywords should reflect that specificity. Instead of keywords as simple as “Italian food,” think “best Italian food in West Village.” For help, The Rail suggests using Google’s AdWords’ Keyword Planner to find popular search terms and to identify words and phrases that your competitors are using.
About 40 percent of people discover food and restaurants through websites, blogs or social media, according to research from Valpak. Tapping into social media influencers can help you get some business from local consumers — but how can you get the right kind of attention from those gatekeepers? An Entrepreneur report suggests avoiding the big fish in favor of smaller, more local influencers who have enough followers to deliver an impact but not so many that they won’t notice you. Take a look at their engagement rates and make sure each one of their posts garners sufficient engagement (e.g. Valpak advises that if only 2 percent of their 100,000 followers comment on or like a post, it may not be worth your while to connect with them). Make an effort to do some background research on the person’s values and overall brand to make sure your business aligns accordingly, and take note of what the person likes and dislikes so you’ll have a sense of who they are before you ask for any favors. On that note, always give before taking. That could mean doing something as simple as sharing the person’s post, or making pertinent comments on their blog posts that help further the conversation in a productive way. If you make a request, respect their time and if you don’t get the kind of response you’d like, be patient and move on until you find the right match.
There is a new way for Google to help you connect with your guests. The company just announced some enhancements to Google Lens, its image recognition software, that may change the consumer experience of eating at restaurants, according to a report from The Verge. Consumers who either have Google Pixel phones or a Google Lens app can point their phone’s camera at your menu, and the Lens will highlight your most popular dishes and be able to call up photos and reviews of individual dishes via Google Maps.