Social media has become a fundamental marketing tool for restaurants. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok serve as affordable outlets for engaging customers, attracting new business, and general restaurant promotion. And in recent years, restaurants are increasingly including influencers as part of their social media strategy.
The concept of working with people who have a large following can prove both simple and effective. Influencers who match your brand can often help you reach new audiences, with the goal of drawing in new customers. Generally, restaurant influencers are exceptionally skilled at making food look good in photos, too. This supplies you with attractive content to populate your own social media platforms at an economical price. Influencers actually encourage restaurants to share their posts.
But how do you develop a relationship with the right influencers for your brand? Often the process starts by simply doing a little research – i.e., browsing Instagram accounts and looking for people with sizable followings who frequently post about restaurants. Identify those local to your area. If there are plenty, narrow it down to individuals whose voice and style resonates with your brand. Most influencers share an email (or direct message instructions) in their profile. From there, it’s about creating a relationship between you and the influencer that’ll effectively benefit both parties.
“It’s an equal exchange – restaurants want the marketing, and we want the content,” says full-time influencer Christina Riley of NC Tripping, noting that 99-percent of her income is driven by ads on her website, and social media is a funnel to that.
We chatted with Riley, along with Washington D.C.-based food influencer Albert Ting, to learn some of the “dos” and “don’ts” of working with influencers. Below are some of their top tips for navigating the process and maximizing your investment.
Don’t: Wait on influencers to come to you.
You may get an occasional email from an influencer asking to work with your restaurant, and that’s 100-percent OK. But with most established influencers, it’s on you to reach out.
“I rarely reach out to restaurants unless the restaurant is really on brand for me – fine dining and Chinese and Southeast Asian food,” says Ting. “Restaurants generally reach out by Instagram DM or via email through their PR teams.”
In your message, include an invitation to a hosted meal and that you’d like to get more information about their general process.
Don’t: Assume providing free food and drink is always a replacement for payment.
You’re responsible for providing complimentary food and drinks, and generally that entails allowing influencers to select the menu items of their choice. But many influencers also charge a set fee. “Influencing is not a hobby, it's a job,” says Ting, noting that his standard rate is $275 for a sponsored post.
Some influencers do work solely in exchange for a free meal, but make sure to address the details upfront.
Do: Discuss posting expectations upfront.
“All too often, I hear about restaurants that ask an influencer to come by and afterwards the restaurant is disappointed that the influencer only posts a story or doesn't post about the food at all, [but] just a selfie in the restaurant,” says Ting. “That comes down to setting expectations.”
Make sure your expectations align on details like how many posts are included, which platforms posts will appear on, and how soon after the meal they’ll be posted. Most influencers don’t include negative criticism within posts, even if the experience had some hiccups. But discuss their policy upfront to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
“I don’t genuinely think it’s fair to blast someone on social media, especially a small business, so if the experience was negative, I’ll talk directly to the restaurant about why and give them the opportunity to fix it for the future,” says Riley.
Do: Be prepared to provide or receive a contract.
Plenty of influencers work without contracts. But it’s a good idea to draft one of your own if an influencer doesn’t already have a standard contract. This puts the details of your agreement in writing for both parties to reference. Have both parties sign before carrying out the meal.
Do: Provide suggestions on what to order.
Want to highlight certain dishes or features of your restaurant? Simply ask. Suggestions help guide influencers in capturing the story of your restaurant.
“To get an idea of what to order, I usually ask three questions, ‘What’s the most popular dish?’, ‘What’s the prettiest dish’, and ‘What’s their favorite dish’, and then from there, I’ll stalk the restaurant’s Instagram feed to see what’s pretty,” says Riley.
Do: Be mindful about where you seat the influencer.
Even the best photographers will tell you, food is a challenging subject, especially in dim settings. Most influencers rely on natural light to capture dishes, so plan ahead by reserving a table near windows, when possible, so that they can make your food shine.
Don’t: Expect waitstaff to be tipped, unless explicitly addressed in advance.
There isn’t a universal rule on tipping with influencers, so make sure to explicitly discuss it upfront. If writing a contract, include the final tipping agreement. If an influencer isn’t open to tipping, alert waitstaff ahead of time.
Don’t: Hire influencers solely based on follower counts.
A follower count doesn’t matter as much as an authentic following.
There are plenty of services that allow you to pay money to gain social media followers, which can make it challenging to identify genuine “influencers”. When doing research, look for those who have an engaged following of active commenters. And try to identify if the commenters are local residents or past visitors to your area.
“You want to reach real people,” says Riley. “When I look at an influencer and just see a whole bunch of other influencers commenting in their comments, that’s a red flag. If you’re based in Asheville, for example, you want to reach people in Asheville, not some random blogger in California.”
Do: Repost influencers posts when tagged.
Relationships between influencers and restaurants are mutually beneficial. Once an influencer posts to social media, share it. This will give you fresh content, while casting a wider audience for both you and the influencer. If you have a press section on your website, you can also consider featuring the posts. “We love linkbacks,” says Riley.
Do: Share any restaurant background information or relevant press releases with the influencer.
Before hosting an influencer, share details about your restaurant that’ll help paint the story of your brand, whether it’s history, accolades, the vibe you’re going for, or design details to note.
“I want to be as helpful and informative to my followers, so I love it when a restaurant gives me a press release that I can use to supplement my own dining summary,” says Ting.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to email@example.com.
[Photo courtesy Victoria Yuen]