Restaurant Marketing Ideas: 11 Tips to Build a Lasting Business

Restaurant Marketing Ideas from Scott Stratten

Scott Stratten is an expert in viral, social and authentic marketing — or “UnMarketing,” as he calls it. He believes that the best way to sell your brand is to position yourself as an expert and put yourself directly in front of your target customers, so that when they have the need they’ll choose you over a competitor. (For proof that his strategies are working, just see his 177,000 Twitter followers.)

“I firmly believe that the best marketing we can do is give great customer experiences,” he told us. “When a guest is at a restaurant, we’re actually making future sales and not just in-the-moment sales. How we treat a customer from start to finish — from people reading up on restaurant reviews to booking a table to the actual dining experience and even afterwards, how we handle a review — that is the long sales process.”

Scott has covered his best “UnMarketing” practices for restaurants frequently in his regular speaking events and in his books, including UnMarketing and UnSelling. To learn more, we asked him all about how restaurants can grow their audiences, optimize their online presence, and reach their customers on a new, truly effective level. Here are 11 things we learned about restaurant marketing.

Strangers’ referrals are more powerful than ever.

People have always trusted recommendations from friends and family, but now even strangers’ words and opinions matter. “Strangers have come into the party when it comes to trusted referrals — that has got to be one of the biggest impacts on the industry,” says Scott.

These days people book restaurant reservations based on proximity and based on feedback posted online from people they have never met. Often, that feedback carries more weight that a restaurant’s own description of its food and service. The impact of reviews is exponential, so it’s critical to stay on top of them.

You should respond to positive AND negative reviews.

Restaurants tend to respond only to negative reviews, but Scott says that’s a mistake. Yes, negative reviews can be heartbreaking, but that’s no excuse to lash out. He told us a story of an owner who actually called a guest who left a negative review. The owner left an angry voicemail saying the guest was never allowed back in the restaurant, and Scott played the recording on his podcast as an example of what NOT to do.

“We’re actually training our guests that we’ll only pay attention to you if you’re mad — I don’t think that’s the right approach. We can’t ignore our fans, the ones who leave us good reviews, the ones who tweet about us, who say, I really love this. They’re holding their hands up for the high five, and we always say, don’t leave a high five hanging.”

If a guest leaves you a negative review, use it as an opportunity to turn it around by inviting them back in for a meal on you. If a guest leaves a positive review, thank them! It lends weight to their review and, as Scott says, “it’s just common courtesy.” He adds: “That acknowledgment is actually exponential; it has a scalable impact.”

Don’t be a Jack Russell terrier.

Don’t try too hard to stand out from the competitive crowd by jumping on random trends that are irrelevant to your business, such as a trending hashtag.

“There’s a great Twitter account called @BrandsSayingBae, which is just a collection of brands trying terribly to pretend they’re cool,” says Scott. “It doesn’t make any sense. Every conversation is not an opportunity.”

And don’t even get Scott started on QR codes, which he says are used by such a small percent of the general public that they don’t even matter. “We’re focusing on the bright and shiny object versus our core business. Don’t be distracted.”

Reviews aren’t always the problem.

“If you’re getting bad tweets and bad reviews, you don’t have a review problem. You have a food problem. You have a service problem. You don’t have an online issue, you have a business issue.”

It may be tough to hear, but that’s the truth. Try to stand out with great food and service because at the end of the day, guests won’t forgive an underwhelming and overpriced steak because of a great Facebook campaign. Use Facebook to respond to guests and answer questions, not to insert your brand name where it shouldn’t be. (Scott adds: “I think the entire goal of a restaurant is to stay out of our book, stay out of my talks, and stay out of the show.”)

How quickly you say something matters just as much as what you say.

When it comes to social media, you need to decide if you’re in or out. Restaurant owners have limited hours in the day, and it will always be more important to deliver excellent food and service rather than focusing on social media and spreading yourself too thin.

“Twitter is a real-time game, and it cannot be played by part-time players,” says Scott. “Immediacy, how quickly we say it, is almost paramount to what we say. If I complain about meals and you reply back in three weeks, it’s already set in my brain now. The time to get in the conversation is when the conversation is happening.”

Now, if you do have the resources, there’s actually an opportunity to deal with complaints in real time. Set up an alert so you can see when someone leaves a bad review or tweet — they may still be sitting at the table, and it’s not too late to turn their experience around.

Restaurant Marketing Ideas

Don’t be blinded by vanity metrics.

The old adage is true, even with social media: quality over quantity. “I can get you 10,000 followers in a week,” says Scott. “They’re not going to be good, they’re not going to be targeted, but I can get you that vanity metric.”

He recommends two strategies: find out where your customers are, and decide what you want from them. If you want them to share your content, gauge that metric and have a benchmark for it. If your goal is be part of the community, share something that’s going on (a fundraiser, or other relevant happening) that has no objective for your business and shows you’re truly part of the community. Your followers and fans will see that.

And don’t underestimate the value of a targeted audience: the people who have already liked or followed your business. “I do think there’s something to be said about a community who’s already raised their hand,” says Scott.”To shoot something back out directly to those people, that’s big.”

Even with paid advertising, the cost is still relatively low compared to other avenues. Just make sure you have the right expectations: being served up on someone’s timeline isn’t worth the same as someone clicking and making a reservation. “I would still take a thousand email sign-ups for my restaurant over 10,000 likes on Facebook.”

Build relationships and trust over time.

We asked Scott about restaurants that do particularly well on social media, and he immediately mentioned Joe Sorge, the owner of a restaurant group in Milwaukee. They connected on Twitter not over food or restaurants, but over a common love of heavy metal music. Slowly, Scott started seeing news about the restaurants coming into his feed.

“I got to know him so well that I literally wanted to fly to Milwaukee just to get one of his burgers,” says Scott. He’s now eaten there three times.

“It’s a long game. It’s a frequency thing. You have to be willing to invest the time, and things like social take time. Relationships take time; it’s never been any other way.”

Let people find you where they want to find you.

Most people — including Scott — will choose the path of least resistance when booking a reservation. That means people generally don’t want to call to make a reservation, and it should be easy for them to book on the go (read: get your mobile-friendly website!) The point is, if you don’t make it easy for guests to find you and to book, you’re losing customers.

“It’s not what you want as a restaurant, it’s what the customer wants,” he says. “Restaurants will never know how many reservations they didn’t get because they’re not easily available in the method that a customer wants to book. Making the user experience easier and more accessible is a smart idea.”

Ask guests to leave reviews.

One way to optimize your mobile presence is to build up your review database. Tell guests you’re on TripAdvisor, OpenTable and other review sites, and ask them for a review — or better yet, ask them for a five-star review.

“What I would say to people is, we’d love a five-star review, and if your experience is less than five stars, tell us. Tell us while you’re here and we will make it right. We only see reviews usually after the fact, and then we can’t fix it.”

Measure your ROI.

One big marketing mistake that many restaurants make is that they don’t analyze their data. They may be spending ad dollars on a promotion simply just because that’s the way it’s always been done. Track the ROI so you know what’s really successful.

Scott also recommends asking guests at the end of a meal: how did you find out about us? Track the answers and see where your expenditure is versus where your guest count is actually coming from. “If you’re saying, we’ve gotten a good chunk of reservations through OpenTable, then that’s a good choice,” says Scott. “If you’re saying, we’re spending $100,000 on Yellow Pages, then how many people are looking it up? Almost everything should be trackable.”

Everyone’s an influencer.

Scott believes it can be valuable for restaurants to engage with influencers, inviting them into the restaurant in the hopes that they will promote the brand. But be smart about it and do your homework. Scott says for every well-written, thoughtful, targeted message he receives, he gets about 20 spam ones.

“Target your person, do your research, and know something about them first,” he says. “One great influencer who you’ve already targeted is much more worthy than 100 who you do a blanket thing to.”

And in reality, he adds, everyone has the potential to be an influencer. He tells one story of a customer who posted a photo of her restaurant receipt on social media. She had written something like: “Thanks for the eating-for-two comment, but I’m not pregnant.” She had about 30 followers when she posted it, but the image went viral and has now been seen millions of times.

“If you do something bad at a restaurant, that one person with 20 followers still gets a reach of millions of people if it blows up. Always remember: everybody’s an influencer.”

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