Social Media Marketing for Restaurants 101

As a restaurant operator you’re constantly tinkering with social media to attract new customers and to keep touch with your regulars. So you know some things in that space are constantly evolving as the tech changes. For instance, it used to be that you’d flood the zone with hashtags on every Insta post, whereas nowadays less is more. New platforms also emerge and change — as when Yelp went from being a review site to being much more, or when TikTok crossed over from tween novelty app to a billion-person party where restaurants are one of the low-key stars of the show.

But a few reliable principles endure in social media marketing. Take excellent photos if you’re going to take photos. Interact with your customers when they reply to your posts, and re-share the stuff they create when they give your restaurant a shout-out on their own accounts. Most importantly, make it fun! If your social media looks like a chore, people won’t want to spend their leisure time in your establishment.

Ultimately, your social media should help you set up your brand — that is, what your restaurant does better than others in your area, and what makes you unique. To help guide you as you set up your social media, we hit up two marketing executives who swim in content marketing: Eric Brandt, the founder and CEO of 5th Gear Marketing, a marketing firm in San Diego; and Kyle Golding, CEO of The Golding Group, a firm with offices in Oklahoma City and Philadelphia.

One starter tip on how to approach your social media marketing is to start in business the same way you did as an individual: For free. That is, don't pay to play. "It’s more helpful to think in terms of time invested rather than money,” says Brandt. In other words, save your money but set aside time to get it right. Here's how to do that.

Know what you do differently, and own it

What sets your restaurant apart from the others in your area? Are you a Greek-Italian hybrid because that’s where your heritage lies? Do you know the name of the farmers and ranchers and brewers who supply your every morsel of food and drink? When you post, remind your audience of what you specifically can offer them. Think about what you want people to picture when they think of you, and then make that brand clear across your social media channels.

“The number one key for the food industry is front of mind,” Golding says. The steps to being thought of are to be consistent, and to be different.

Be on a variety of platforms, but don’t repeat yourself

Instagram. Facebook. Snapchat. Tiktok. Heck, LinkedIn and Bumble, why not. You want your restaurant to be visible on as many platforms as possible. “But you also need to have a strategy for each of those platforms,” Golding says, “and not have the same post for each.” 

Juggling so many posts in so many dimensions calls for machines to help. This is where scheduling software can be helpful. Map out a whole month of posts for each of your pages and ride on cruise control for a few weeks.

One thing to make precisely alike on every platform: Your phone number, your website, your hours, and your address. While it may seem like a small thing, someone who can’t immediately find your address is likely to go somewhere else. Hungry people aren’t known for their patience.

Everything you post should become a two-way street

Brandt suggests that you reply to all reviews, both good and bad. It may not seem like you should dignify some of them with a response, but adding something to the conversation will increase engagement and visibility on all of your pages, and it won’t give the last word to someone who had a terrible experience. You just have to remain calm, professional, and humble. Handling negative reviews well can win back a disgruntled customer and impress other would-be customers as well.

On Instagram your competitors are actually your allies

This one sounds strange if you’re used to a zero-sum style of competition. But when you switch to an abundance mindset, you can see how huge the market is for people to eat at your restaurant as well as many others. Alliances, not rivalries, will win the day.

“If you are a tapas restaurant and there’s another tapas restaurant down the street, they are not your competition, they are your partner,” Brandt says. He suggests you engage with similar restaurants’ social media channels as much as possible. It gets you in front of their audience and gives you an opportunity to create brand recognition with a shared client base. 

Facebook is powerful, huge — and tricky to get right

The ubiquitous social platform is a favorite for many restaurants because it allows them to reach not only their known customers, but also people whose demographic traits mirror those existing customers. Great, right? But Facebook marketing can be trickier than it sounds. Though Facebook does offer free courses on how to advertise on their platforms, mastering Facebook Business Manager amounts to a significant time investment, and might be worth hiring a marketing professional to handle. In Brandt’s words: “There is a steep learning curve.”

Brandt has started a Facebook group for restaurant owners looking for marketing ideas. It’s free and can help make these strategies more accessible. For instance, he suggests using your loyalty program to inform your advertising strategy on the platform. “You can create a lookalike audience through Facebook and advertise to those people,” Brandt says. “It’s a difficult methodology, but it is very effective once you learn how to use it.”

One more tip to the wise: Brandt says you should refrain from “boosting” campaigns on Facebook, as counterintuitive as that sounds. “If you have a restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina, and your grandmother lives in New York City and comments on your posts a lot,” Brandt says, “the boost button will only make your post more visible to people like your grandma.”

While we love Grandma, she isn’t our target audience. So let’s add this to our list of social media bedrock principles: Don't bother trying to game the algorithm.

[Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels]