Insights / Interviews / How Social Media Strategy is Changing for Restaurants
How Social Media Strategy is Changing for Restaurants

When Samantha Markiewicz first entered the digital marketing space, social media was far from top of mind for most restaurant operators. This was 2011, only a year into Instagram’s existence, and five years before anyone would ever hear the name “TikTok”.

“I remember a very successful restaurant owner looking at me and saying, ‘No one wants to look at pictures of food’,” says Markiewicz. “I was just like, ‘Hold my beer. I’ll show you.’”

Over the next decade, Markiewicz worked to build and shape the social media branch of Bread and Butter, a national hospitality communications company where Markiewicz is now vice president of digital. Markiewicz and her team work with about 50 restaurants, plus a little over a dozen hotels and consumer packaged goods clients. Markiewicz tells every single one of them – social media is now just as essential as having a website.

“The millennial and Gen Z audiences are using social media as a proof point for your product – people can understand your concept without ever visiting your website,” says Markiewicz. “Plus, integrations between platforms, like OpenTable with Instagram, have made it so I no longer have to click to a brand's URL to make reservations.”

Social media has grown year after year to become a crucial part of running a successful business. When the pandemic pushed people to spend even more time on their phones, it only solidified that reality even further.

Naturally, social media strategies have rapidly evolved throughout the years, too, creating what’s undeniably a confusing space that makes it hard to keep up. We sat down with Markiewicz to take a look at this evolution and gain insight into how operators should be using social media today. 

Is Instagram still the prime platform for restaurants? Is getting on TikTok essential? How important is video content versus photos? Is Facebook now a waste of restaurants’ time? Markiewicz helps answer all those questions and more in the interview below.

It’s a tough time for restaurants. Many are struggling to recoup sales from the past two years. And yet, the pandemic also shined a greater light on just how important social media is. I’m curious if you’ve seen your own client numbers increase, or if you've seen a shift among existing clients in how they’re allocating their marketing budget.

They’re definitely shifting to more spend on social media and a greater emphasis on building their own communities and audiences. The pandemic taught [operators] that the news cycle can really turn and make it so you really have to work to generate your own interest. It showed not only do you need a strategy to be able to reach people but also a strategy on what to say and maybe what to hold back.

A greater emphasis has also been put on making sure digital sales components are set up from the beginning – how are we going to do business when our four walls are closed, or how are we going to expand upon the business we have? A big focus of my team has been putting together a strategy to build an audience and convert them to those delivery channels. We’ve also built strategies to make sure we’re driving as much traffic as possible to platforms like OpenTable and Resy organically through operators’ social platforms rather than through the reservation systems because those sometimes take a larger cut than when you push people on your own.

What social platforms are you generally running for restaurants? Is Instagram still king?

It depends on the business and the end consumer, but Instagram is still really the number one for restaurants. TikTok is number two, and we’re putting a lot of our fast-casual restaurants onto it really early. Fast-casuals attract the audience using TikTok – that up-and-coming generation who’s just starting to have their first jobs and make their own purchasing decisions. They're spending most of their time on TikTok, whereas someone that's going to a $200 seated dinner might not be there yet. They're searching Instagram or looking at the Google business account, so we look at the audience type. But those really are the two power players – TikTok and Instagram.

One thing I tell restaurants who just don't have the budget to support TikTok content is to put up a TikTok landing page, so to speak, with a couple of videos that showcase their brand. We'll work with TikTok influencers to generate traffic to the account for brand awareness. The brand itself doesn't have to continue to sustain the lift of creating content constantly. 

What about Facebook?

A lot of my brands have had Facebook pages for a long time. People will come to me and say, “We just don't need Facebook anymore”. And yeah, we don't, but if you already have 100K people on your Facebook page, you should still do something with these people. So it's a secondary marketing tactic. You can do Facebook groups based on topics, especially if the brand has a niche audience built-in. For example, I worked with a leading vegan and vegetarian brand and their audience was super passionate, so we did activate them through Facebook.

Are there certain social media platforms that you think no longer make sense to upkeep an active presence on? 

I don't really push my clients to Twitter anymore unless, again, they've already built a huge audience. It’s taken its place in more political or news conversations, and most clients don’t want to be involved in those.

I actually have a lot of my clients participate in LinkedIn, but it's more because of trying to attract and retain staff. Having really great LinkedIn presences for not only the brand’s company parent page, but also for CEOs, GMs, and leaders is something I've been working on with my clients because LinkedIn has a lot of powerful networking reach opportunities that not all platforms have.

Are hashtags still as important as they once were for building an audience?

For TikTok, right now I’m finding that hashtags are a categorizer. I have my team use a couple of strategic hashtags on each post so that TikTok can start serving up the content to an audience that I think will be interested in it. [To determine the hashtags], we take a look at what’s associated with the brand and then what's going to help serve content out to people so that it catches viral engagement. 

For Instagram, we test back and forth the numbers of hashtags. Right now, my team uses anywhere from three hashtags, for a more high-end client that already has a built-in audience, to 10 hashtags that are relevant to the conversation. I see a bigger lift on the content with hashtags, but it's less even about that and more about the kinds of posts. Carousels with multiple images or short video reel clips perform way better than just a singular photo. We don’t really ever post singular images for our clients anymore unless we really have to. 

Just how important it is to use videos now on Instagram vs. photos?

Instagram has kind of forced it upon people with their push of reels. It’s essential. And I don’t think video’s going to go away because of this arms race between TikTok and Instagram, especially since people started to spend more time on TikTok during the pandemic. 

But there are tricks and tips to using reels without having video assets. With clients, especially if they're in the pre-opening phase, we’ll create interim reel templates that use static images that flash through in tandem with music. We'll also add text over an image so that the text piece becomes the video component. 

I also tell restaurant operators quite frequently, document don’t create. Something that might feel really simple to you, like shopping at a farmer’s market, is great visual content. Hold your phone over those tomatoes baby. 

That helps put a lot of my clients at ease because I just set them up with a shared photo drive, they dump in tiny, three-second clips, and then I turn that into content with my visual team, editing the colors, tones, and all of that. 

You mentioned posting photo carousels. Do those perform anywhere as well as videos?

They do significantly better than a static image. They don't usually do as well as reels just because Instagram prioritizes reels, and people are spending so much more time on them. But what is really essential about the carousels is they give a sense of place for the restaurant. In a video, sometimes it's really hard to capture what interiors actually look like. Or if you’re trying to tell a story about your amazing sommelier and the wines they pick from a certain region of Mexico – we’re working on this now – it's going to be impossible to get video content that shows that story. Instead, I can use five images from that region and a couple images of wine bottles, and tell a story with more robust information. It might not be my top-performer, but it still educates my audience about what I'm offering, and that adds value.

You mentioned that with TikTok, at minimal, operators should set up a landing page populated with a few videos. Is this something every restaurant operator, from casual to fine-dining, should be doing?

If you can claim any digital space for your restaurant, you should. That’s just best practice. It doesn't cost anything to have it. Do I think that the most high-end restaurants in the world need a TikTok? Maybe not. But a lot of people are probably posting about their experiences [at those restaurants], so it's nice to have a place to transfer back to.

Watching the industry and what's happening with data protection, TikTok may change in the coming years, and months even, and start having more regulations in place where it can't serve content in the way that it’s been. I don’t know if TikTok necessarily is going to be the basket to put all our eggs in, but I think for every brand, they should look at the new emerging spaces, claim their spot, and have something there if they need it. 

Half my job though is like being a therapist sometimes, hearing out owners, and if they very strongly hate TikTok, I'm not going to push them to be there. There are other ways to market your business right now. 

When your clients are on TikTok, are you cross-promoting the TikTok videos on Instagram?

Yes, because most of the time there’s just such a need for content, but I have separate content strategies for both platforms. My most successful clients on TikTok are posting seven to 10 times a week, sometimes more. Then for Instagram, the reels live so much longer in the newsfeed. I can get engagement for anywhere from two to four days, and then even more if the reel picks up again as a trend. I’m posting two or three reels per week.

Do you also share TikTok videos to Instagram stories?

It’s something we test from time to time, but sometimes I’ve found Instagram will penalize the reach of that post and not share it with as many people because they prioritize their own reel content [for stories].

How else have you seen the social landscape change over the past few years?

From March [of 2020] until the end of the year, people became very interested in what each brand is doing, and there became a greater importance placed on transparency on social. Many brands didn't think that they needed a community or social media manager, and then things came out about their brand that they weren't prepared to handle. Having a plan in place for a crisis communication issue is so important. 

Authenticity has always been something that people crave but even more now. People want to see what restaurants are really like. And because this new generation is so technologically savvy, you can't really hide anything. If you have a restaurant where your food is terrible, but you have, let’s say, a beautiful Instagram wall, people are going to call you on it. People have lost fear of putting their real thoughts online, and you need to be prepared to handle that.

I've also seen a decrease in UGC [user generated content]. People will post [about a restaurant] on Instagram stories, and that’ll go away within 24 hours, whereas before, people would do a whole Instagram post. It’s changed the way that restaurant owners need to think about the amount of content they produce.

As transparency increases, we've seen countless restaurants open up on social about everything from COVID to their operation struggles. But we've also seen some vocally take stands on divisive issues unfolding in the news cycle beyond COVID. How do you decide what strategy to take with clients when it comes to topics that aren’t centered on the restaurant?

That's one of the hardest things to tackle. It goes back to when you’re writing your restaurant’s mission and also your staff handbook. It’s important to have a plan in place that says, “We stand for X, Y, and Z”, and talk about that and your expectations internally with your team. The biggest missteps happen when one person, maybe a leader on the team, decides to step up and say something that hasn't been discussed.

I also always say to my clients, if you're not 100% sure of the facts or about the way something reflects on your business, it's probably best to not say it. Once you say it online, you can't really take it back. It's there forever. 

But it depends on the brand. If you’re a bar that supports tons of philanthropies, it may make sense to talk about certain issues. If you’re a restaurant that’s never talked about any issue before but somehow feel pressured to do so, it's probably not the right time. It goes back to that concept of authenticity.

Are you seeing any other new trends in the style of content that’s being pushed out on restaurant brands’ pages? 

Have you seen that show The Bear on Hulu? That inside grittiness – I think we’re going to see more of that on restaurant pages. I just moved back to northwest Oregon, and one of my favorite restaurants here is called Eem, and I love their social media because it’s kind of chaotic, and you can feel just a slight bit of frenzy, in the best way. Their posts super outperform.

That “here’s what’s happening behind the scenes, we’re real people too” is intriguing. People have always had a fascination with the Anthony Bourdain’s of the industry. Taking the polish off is where I think social media is going to go.

I also think that the posed Instagram moment – the Instagram wall, the angel wings outside of a bar – is on its way out. And as a result, maybe people will take more pictures of the food instead, which is great.

How important is it for restaurants to actually be engaging with guests on their platforms?

It's super important – not just for the guest that’s posting about their experience, but even more so for the guest who's deciding if they want to have that experience. It’s why I always tell my restaurants we need to respond to negative and positive Google reviews. The next person who’s looking wants to see if the restaurant cares. If the restaurant can say something like, “Yeah, we messed up on your order. I'm sorry about that. We're going to give you a free one.”, that’s super powerful.

Do you have any other top tips for growing a dedicated following?

Use your own audience to build your audience. Find a way to market your social media, whether it's on the check presenter, or if you're doing takeout, include a slip that gets people to follow you. You can use a QR code, or create your own hashtag that you put on packaging.

Use your mailing list – which usually comes from your reservation system – to offer exclusives, and use that to get people to follow you on social. You can say, “Hey, we're going to do a first taste for all our Instagram followers for this new ‘X’ we’re launching.”

Then the other thing that’s super powerful is brand collaborations, like if Sweetgreen teams up with Lululemon. I work with a hotel, but they have a restaurant in Napa, and we do wine dinners, which sounds so 2015, but every single time we market a wine dinner, it sells out, and we get a huge influx of followers just from that winery’s audience. People love a brand collaboration.

High quality photos used to be pivotal for Instagram, but with the push to video, do you recommend clients act more in the moment with their phones, or do you still recommend hiring a professional photographer?

Videos need to be in the moment – from the restaurant owner’s point of view, the sommelier’s point of view. But I do have all of our clients get professional photos. There are going to be PR opportunities where they’re necessary. We do a base photo shoot when you launch, and then my team will go to our clients about once a month with a shot list and take casual content, often from a phone. The latest version of the iPhone is more powerful than most cameras.

What do you expect to become a bigger part of the social media landscape in the next five years?

This is a hard one for most operators, but I think it’s going to be an individual from the brand showing up on social. It’s tough because maybe you have a bartender with more showmanship, but most people who are great chefs, it’s tough for them to talk into the camera. “Are you wild, you want me to get on video?” But right now, having a human face speaking to the camera performs so well. People like to see that because it brings a human connection, and I see it getting a lot more emphasis in the future.

To learn more about Bread and Butter’s social media, digital, and public relations services, email wellhello@wearebreadandbutter.com. 

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.

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