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From the Blue Plate Special to Modern Digital Marketing

Digital marking has become the dominant method for businesses to attract and connect with potential consumers across all industry segments. It is economical, efficient, finely targetable, and can be a highly effective method to increase brand awareness and value. After a decade of uncertainty, the food service industry is utilizing digital marketing channels and collateral to revolutionize an industry once thought to be dominated by marketing focused on location and convenience.

At the turn of the 21st century, a restaurant’s success was often determined by three main factors. Location first, followed by location, and then there was the location factor. Surveys revealed that location was most often the reason 90 percent of diners selected an eatery. Often hungry patrons were reluctant to venture even a few blocks out of customary migration habits to find a meal. Restaurant managers were puzzled as to how to expand reach to neighborhoods beyond. If only there was a way to plant an enticing image, desirable flavor, or tasty thought in the mind’s eye of all those passing eaters at the right time to motivate them to change course. Enter digital marketing and social media.

Websites, email, text messaging (SMS), and internet apps are changing the way restaurants connect and interact with guests, expand service offerings and, in many cases, create an effect of multiplying the number of seats and tabletops in the dining area. Point of sale systems (POS) improved speed, accuracy and convenience to restaurant service and provided operators with valuable insights into customers’ personas and purchasing habits. Digital marketing’s ability to target, track, and capture a prospect’s attention through mobile devices encourages potential consumers to turn the corner to new discoveries. A majority of restaurant operators are now embracing digital strategies and tactics to achieve revenue growth and sustainability.

Today, more than 72 percent of restaurants have a functioning website and 81 percent utilize Facebook and other social media channels to promote the business. Loyalty programs, most often initiated and maintained through digital marketing channels, are favored by 67 percent of eateries where more than 50 percent of customers go to find deals and information about a restaurant’s offerings. So how are the best culinary establishments achieving success through digital marketing?

Begin the digital marketing journey by building a professional, attractive, and user-friendly website. Create a clear and easily navigable structure that is familiar to users and includes appropriate fonts and professional images. Remember, diners eat with their eyes first! Do not skimp on the quality and cleanness of the images. Are the website’s photos, graphics, and content relevant to the brand’s reputation? Develop a site that is easily modified to include changing operating hours and menu enhancements. A business’s web presence is its window to the world. Get it right the first time and continually upgrade the operating platform to reflect the most recent version.

With consumers, revolutionary gravitation to social media platforms for news, ecommerce, personal conversations and connections to favorite brands, social media marketing is essential to the success of any business. More than 4.2 billion people are active across multiple platforms, each spending an average of more than two hours each day. Many restaurateurs have become accustomed to using various social media platforms by understanding the unique characteristics of each platform. But optimizing the effectiveness of each channel remains a daunting task for even the most capable marketing professional.

Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Shopify, and Pinterest have each carved out a demographic niche and a stylistic specialty. Understanding who your best customers are and where they are listening is critical to reaching the best audience. Social media platforms are ideal for posting videos demonstrating food preparations and recipe sharing. TikTok, a short-form video hosting service, has become increasingly popular with 18- to 35-year-olds. Seventy-four percent of TikTok fans report that the platform’s video content has inspired them to learn more about a restaurant brand.

Instagram can be a bit tedious but useful to make a clean, clear, and consistent representation of the restaurant brand, its location, hours of operation, and brief biographical information. Instagram is short on written content and long on visual elements such as photographs and smart imagery. It is a social media platform where a picture may initiate the best conversations with customers and trigger the best user-generated content (UGC). “According to Social Media Today, 30% of millennial diners actively avoid restaurants with a weak Instagram presence” so focus efforts on creating a strong, consistent Instagram experience.

Facebook is a good platform for reaching older markets and is familiar to use and understand. It is an appropriate channel to partner alongside a website, to introduce online ordering links, publish blog articles, and repurpose other marketing content. Regardless of the channel selected, a consistent schedule of postings will generate the best results. Generally, two to three postings each week will be effective without overplaying the messaging.

Use Facebook and other social media outlets to feature and draw focus to the most important faces of your brand. Successful restaurants grow and are strengthened by personalized service. Employees in the front of the house create a welcoming and familiar environment and can often be a major reason customers return time after time. Featuring them in articles about personal interests and contributions to the community will humanize the brand’s reputation and strengthen customer loyalty.

Well-designed and meaningful loyalty programs are extremely popular with consumers and are a must-have method for retaining customers over the long haul. A digital online loyalty program enables a restaurant to generate data like email addresses, personal information and a loyal customer’s ordering history. With this data, personalized campaigns can be developed to focus on each customer’s likes and desires. It is important that a loyalty program is perceived to have value to the customer and is easy to understand and use. Text messages and emails are an effective way to advance conversations about the value of the program, notify each member of the level achieved and notify them as to the award that is awaiting on the next visit.

Digital technology is making it possible for restaurants to expand the brand’s presence in the marketplace. At many traditional eateries, websites and online ordering apps have created new income streams for takeaway, pick-up and delivery meal services.

Restaurant marketing has come a long way since the introduction of the “blue plate” specials in Fred Harvey’s chain of diners in 1892. The digital marketing space provides unparalleled opportunities for culinary hosts to attract customers and increase brand value through digital communication channels designed to engage consumers in personalized conversations.