Beginner’s guide to restaurant marketing

By the time you open a restaurant, your hospitality skills are on point. You understand food trends, how to hone a concept, and the finer details of exceptional service. But there’s another skill set that’s just as important: restaurant marketing. Without a strong understanding of how to market a restaurant, it can be a struggle to attract new diners and returning guests regardless of how great the food and service are.

No one got into the restaurant business because they dreamed of nonstop restaurant promotion, but the truth is, getting the word out about your restaurant isn’t as difficult as it may seem. You already have everything it takes to do a stellar job. You have some understanding of how to market a restaurant, and you probably already have plenty of restaurant marketing ideas. But there’s always room to grow your skills and make marketing tasks easier and more impactful for your business.

Before launching any new marketing, it’s a good idea to think through your goals. For example, if the goal is to raise brand awareness, you’ll approach marketing differently than a restaurant targeting specific demographics or one aimed at increasing bookings.

Once you’ve established clear goals, you are ready to dive in regardless of budget. You’ll see there are plenty of easy things you can try whether you’re working with a $0 marketing budget and limited time or have some cash and hours to invest. In this guide, you’ll learn the most important steps you can take to create an actionable restaurant marketing plan that works for you. Once you see how doable and effective marketing can be, it just might become one of your favorite parts of the job.

Start with zero-cost options

It’s true that restaurant marketing can become expensive, but it doesn’t have to cost much. The idea that you must sink big money into a slick restaurant promotion to see any benefits is simply not true. There’s a lot you can do to move the needle that’s absolutely free.

You likely already own several channels to market your restaurant, ones that you have total control over. Making the most of these channels requires a time and resource investment, but it costs very little compared to paid media. Even if you have a budget, starting with these low- and no-cost options can be the foundation of an effective restaurant marketing strategy. Don’t overlook them—they’ve got more juice than you may think.

First and foremost on the list of channels you own: your website. This corner of the internet is your digital home. It’s the place online to roll out the welcome mat for potential diners and get them excited about a visit. Here, they’ll explore your menus, read your story, and find basic information about you, like hours of operation and directions. Building a website that attracts online and eventually real-life traffic is a restaurant marketing must. (Get more tips on building a website in our quick guide.)

Part of the process of building or refreshing a website includes a working knowledge of search engine optimization (SEO). Upgrading your site with basic SEO in mind is a completely free way to increase the likelihood that people searching online will find you. Keep in mind that improving SEO is as simple as providing answers to the questions people type into Google. You already know what those are. You don’t need to be an expert to improve this aspect of your website. There are plenty of free resources online to get you up to speed on the basics of SEO.

Email marketing and newsletters are often underused communication channels, but reaching people right in their inboxes is one of the best restaurant marketing ways to get on and stay on their radar. And though email, like most of these strategies, is online, don’t neglect real-life, in-person options. Bringing the local community together in your physical space through imaginative Experiences can spark good old word-of-mouth marketing.

Tap into your own database

Overall, when it comes to staying connected with guests, the more data you can marshal, the stronger the relationship you can build with guests. That’s why integrations like point of sale (POS) systems, email marketing, and reputation management tools are so valuable. Connecting all this siloed data together creates a full picture of guest behavior that you can then use to segment and target your marketing. People tend to engage happily with content that’s personalized to them and relevant to their interests. That’s how occasional diners convert to loyal superfans that can’t get enough.

And don’t forget to tap into loyalty programs offered by partners, such as OpenTable’s loyalty and Bonus Points programs, especially when those partners handle the heavy lifting of administration so you don’t have to.

Bonus Points have proven an especially valuable restaurant marketing strategy. Truluck’s, a seafood restaurant group with 12 US locations, made Bonus Points a key part of the pandemic era restaurant marketing plan that enabled them to hit ambitious revenue goals while getting a 32X ROI. “The eye-opening moment for us was when sales exceeded our weekly targets and cover counts jumped up by one-third from week to week. When we looked at the results the campaigns drove for our business, the actual cost-per-acquisition of the campaigns were much lower than they looked on the surface,” says managing partner Todd Perry.

Maximize your partner relationships

It’s likely several of your partners offer something in the way of marketing resources or support. OpenTable has prioritized restaurant marketing needs for the past 25 years. In fact, along the way, OpenTable has created an impressive marketing engine that can handle a lot of marketing tasks for you.

But reservation platform partners aren’t the only possible sources of restaurant promotion help. Take a look at all your vendors and delivery partners. There are likely creative and relatively easy ways to execute co-marketing and promotional actions you could tackle together at no additional cost. These kinds of win-win restaurant marketing strategies benefit you and your partners alike.

Go after press coverage

When it comes to marketing, the dream is you open the newspaper or click on a well-read website to find a favorable article brimming with glowing praise about your restaurant. And it’s true that press coverage, known as “earned” media coverage, is great for raising your profile and building awareness. But it doesn’t happen by magic. There are invisible and sometimes expensive resources as work behind the scenes making media coverage happen. Getting covered in the press takes a combination of time, commitment, resources, and luck.

There are things you can do to maximize your chances. If you have a signature or other special event happening, it’s a good idea to pitch your local media outlets well in advance. That can be as simple as sending an email with information about it and why it would make a good story to the editor or even the “info@” email address. If you have the resources, hiring a PR agency, even on a short-term project basis, can help you get media placements and find your way onto those ubiquitous “top 10” lists. If you are going to make that kind of investment, be sure to get clear about your goals upfront (for example, are you trying to increase brand awareness?) so you get the most bang for your buck and know how to gauge success.

Make your own media

It’s important to remember today that the dominant form of media is actually social media. Spend time creating and maintaining profiles on the most important platforms for restaurant promotion. There are many platforms out there these days and only you know which are the right fit for your business. Conventional wisdom holds that if restaurants have the bandwidth for only one channel, it should be Instagram, which is especially food-friendly. (Get more tips on improving your restaurant’s social media presence in our quick guide.)

Social media is a changing landscape and there’s a case to be made for choosing TikTok as your go-to channel, especially if your target market is Gen Z. A recent survey of TikTok users by MGH marketing agency found that 36% of them actually visited a restaurant after viewing their videos on the platform. And 51% of survey respondents said they went to a restaurant after seeing a video showing off a new menu item. Because of its massive audience and potential reach, it’s also a good idea to consider paid social media in the form of ads and boosted posts if your budget allows.

Another potential restaurant marketing idea to expand your reach on social media is to partner with influencers. These are people with large followings who will post favorably about your restaurant—sometimes for a hefty fee, sometimes in exchange for a gratis meal, sometimes simply because they really love your restaurant. There are no hard and fast rules about how these partnerships work. Ultimately, you’ll decide whether working with influencers is the right choice for you. Generally, if you choose to work with them, it’s better to partner with an influencer who already is a fan of your restaurant rather than approach someone with a large following whose post about you may not feel trustworthy or authentic.

Focus on conversion

At the end of the day, the answer to one question can establish the hard dollar-and-cents value of any restaurant marketing initiative: does it convert? Do people who read the article, see the ad, click through the email, or engage with the post actually make a reservation at your restaurant? When you’re seeing a high number of conversions resulting from some form of marketing, you know it’s doing its job. This is a good sign you should do more of that type of marketing. When your goal is to attract and convert diners, it’s time to get laser-focused on platforms and restaurant marketing ideas that convert.

OpenTable is the world’s largest dining network. People come to the platform already intending to make a reservation. In 2019, roughly 805 million searches were made on OpenTable by people looking for restaurants. More than half (51%) of people don’t know exactly where they want to go to eat when they show up.

A detailed, descriptive OpenTable profile is an example of restaurant marketing that converts. It helps you climb search results on OpenTable and Google search alike. Doing everything you can to get more people clicking on and reading your profile is a great way to drive up reservations and ultimately revenue. An effective profile is more likely to pop up when diners are searching for a reservation.

You can polish up your profile so it gets in front of more diners for no additional charge. But if you do have the resources to invest, a boost campaign, which gives your restaurant premium placement in OpenTable search results, is a low-cost way to get in front of even more potential guests. Boost campaigns can help you fill seats during off-peak times, and you only pay for people who actually dine with you.

Boost campaigns are a simple restaurant marketing strategy that’s paid off for many restaurants on OpenTable. Casa Sensei, in Fort Lauderdale, actually doubled revenue with a combination of boost campaigns and Bonus Points. “When I see the results, the number of actual reservations coming from the campaigns, and more people coming in during hours when we previously had less traffic, I know the campaigns are paying for themselves,” says co-owner Patricia Lara.

Boost campaigns have also converted well for Chop Steakhouse & Bar, a restaurant group with 16 locations across Canada. “[Boost campaigns] gave us so many new guests and incremental sales that we wouldn’t have otherwise had,” says Marcel Blais, President of Chop Steakhouse & Bar. “It was worth the acquisition cost. We couldn’t believe the positive results. It’s been the single most successful campaign at getting our seats filled,” he adds.

Relax! You’ve got this

Regardless of where you are on the spectrum on restaurant marketing skills, OpenTable is here for you. We have decades of restaurant marketing expertise to share with you. If you’re new to OpenTable, talk to your account rep to discover how we can help. Even if you’ve been a customer for a while, you can always schedule a free marketing consultation.

Restaurant marketing can feel overwhelming but remember: you’re not alone. We have your back. With the right help and some practice, you won’t feel like a beginner very long.

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