How to Maximize the Returns From Your Restaurant Marketing Budget

Ahh, marketing budgets. They’re so much fun to create, said no restaurant operator ever. They require a notorious deep-dive into your business, dredging up dizzying questions. How much should my marketing budget be? Are we seeing results from our current marketing strategy? Are we going to have to get on more apps? Is it even worth it?

Beneath all of these questions sits familiar anxieties around time and money. A useful first step, then, is to reframe your marketing budget not as some sort of breakage, but as an investment in your restaurant. Marketing does work, and if you believe in your restaurant, you’ve got to believe that you’d make more money if more people were walking in the door. So don’t imagine that a marketing spend is at odds with earning profits. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Once you’re at peace with the idea of funding your marketing, it’s time to build what’s called a marketing plan. You can, in fact, think of a budget and a plan as twin projects. Without a plan, there’s no point in having a budget. Without a budget, there’s little point to a plan. They’re both there to build your brand, attract new clientele, and remain top-of-mind with existing customers.

“Operators will have the plan in their head, but that’s a horrible place to store formal execution plans, plus it’s not viewable by staff,” said Law Smith, fractional Chief Marketing Officer at Tocobaga Consulting, a marketing agency in Tampa, Florida. “Or, worse, they may claim they are too busy to figure out a marketing budget.”

Thing is, you are too busy, so we’re here to help you sort through the thorny questions. We’ll get you through the hows of banging out a budget, measuring results, and maximizing the return on your investment. 

How much should you spend on your marketing budget? 

To make your overall marketing strategy successful, you’re going to have to put some heft behind it. Of course, you also have finite money to spend. But before you commit to spending some fixed amount, sketch out what you want to do with that money.

“Budgeting is just one aspect of the total marketing and sales funnel,” Smith said. Essentially, you want a model that lets you ramp up or dial down your marketing tactics (and spending) as needed. And if you ever plan to expand, you want to be able to duplicate what you’re doing — and take advantage of having those multiple locations. “Marketing budgets should be dynamic to performance,” Smith said. “Think percentages over guesstimate. A decent rule of thumb to create a starting budget is 10% of gross revenue.”

Ten percent of revenue is a huge slab of change. So set yourself up for success by taking the low- and no-cost steps to help you cast your net as wide as possible. Attend community events, bone up on your social media marketing, create a Google Business Profile, and talk up your restaurant to everyone you meet — word of mouth is still the undefeated champ of this sport.

Then get ready to make mistakes. Marketing is about trial and error; the key is to learn from the errors. Create a budget, put it to work, and see what it returns. You can adjust as you go, weeding out what’s not working (more on that later). In those early stages it’s in your best interest to try a breadth of tactics. It’ll feel expensive, but you want to test out a mix of methods. If your marketing efforts are too narrow, you risk leaving customers undiscovered. So get creative, pay attention to the returns, and be prepared to adjust as you learn. As you advance, you may actually decide to decrease your marketing spend. Stay fluid.

Lean into your digital marketing tools 

Now here’s where you may not want to cast a wide net: marketing tools. You should try to use just one system to analyze, schedule and track your marketing. You’ll save money on subscription fees, for one, and your data will be in one place.

Size up your content marketing tech stack. Are any of your tools redundant? Are you using all the features available to you? How much does each one set you back every month? How often are you using them, and how much easier do they make your life? If you can merge any of the tools into one product or platform, excellent. You’ll save money and enjoy seamless communication between all your messaging and marketing functions, as well as between your front of house and back of house operations teams. 

Let data drive your marketing budget decisions

Now that you have your budget and the tools to back it up, it’s time to take some shots. Whatever you try, you’re going to want to track your results to ensure you’re getting the best returns. That starts with collecting and examining data. You may geek out over the analytics from your Google Ad Words, Facebook, and Instagram Insights, as well as any ad or email marketing campaign. But you can also go low-tech, as simple as soliciting customer feedback and asking them how they heard about you. Was it from a direct mailer? A friend? Social media? Keeping track of how people are finding you, plus staying on top of your Google Analytics to track how people find your website, can tell you a lot. From there, you can adjust your marketing and tweak your budget accordingly.

When you do these tune-ups, ditch what isn’t working. Keeping campaigns that aren’t serving you is ultimately a money suck, and one that many restaurant operators may not be aware of, since so much marketing is set on autopilot. That’s why it’s imperative to test campaigns against one other to see which perform best. For instance: Pin posts against each other (like an Instagram Reel versus a series of feed photos) to see which generates better results. If after a set amount of time one is clearly outperforming the other, ditch the one that’s lagging. If you’re constantly seeing less-than-stellar results on a campaign performer, it’s a waste of time and money to keep it alive. Go by the numbers.

“Our marketing budget is based on expertise, reach, and return,” said Stephanie Swanz, who owns the Tampa fast-casual concepts Empamamas and Muchachas. “Since we have added a marketing budget we have seen an increase in sales each year of roughly 20%.”

When you think you’ve tested enough, keep testing. With digital marketing, there’s always another strategy, another audience, another platform. Play with different tactics and different content. Be ruthless about cutting what isn’t working. These results will ultimately drive your marketing and boost your bottom line. Swanz, for instance, tried posting on TikTok and soon found that a mini viral hit video spiked business by 40% in the following week.

"I absolutely see a direct response from utilizing and investing in social media and marketing, as well as mixing up which platforms we use," Swanz said. "We had hundreds of people tell us they specifically saw us on TikTok and had to try us out."

Don’t be afraid to hire marketing pros

We know, you hear “hiring professionals” and instinctively pat your pocket to make sure your wallet is still there. But the best, most rigorous marketers have wide access to advanced resources. Bringing aboard a pro to run your budget can actually save you money, especially if your DIY efforts are at all haphazard.

Even if you feel too busy to run your own marketing, someone ought to be, because otherwise you’re going to waste money. Restaurant operators simply may not have time to make a marketing budget, let alone oversee every component of its effectiveness. Plus, it pays to have someone else accountable for results. But this will take some research on your part, as similar to marketing tools, it takes trial and error before you find someone who fits the bill (literally).

It may be that a dedicated social media person or public relations pro is just not in your budget. (Thanks, pandemic!) Whether you opt for a better tracking system or you hand the whole project over to a professional shop, just plan to keep an eye on your results. The marketing budget, like any other person or tool you have in your employ, will keep your business on track, so long as you manage it.

[Photo by RODNAE Productions via Pexels]