Giving Small Restaurants a Digital Marketing Lifeline

Over the last couple of years, I and my colleagues have worked relentlessly to digitize and grow online business for over 500 restaurants in some of the most competitive markets like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. During this period, we have come across several restaurants, cafés and bars that struggle to flourish even if they are one of a kind and have something going for them. It’s clearly not enough for them to simply provide better food and service, they have to do a better job of promoting their brand, compete with hundreds of businesses to acquire their audience and convert them to loyal customers.

In this landscape, it’s not surprising that some of the biggest challenges in running a successful restaurant today relate to online marketing and social media where customers spend the bulk of their time today. Finding and engaging an audience online has never been tougher. Organic reach on Facebook & Instagram is not even a fraction of what it used to be and Google has been trying to keep the users to stay on its pages, rather than clicking to the sites.

To circumvent this, more and more solutions are being launched with the promise of helping businesses connect to their potential customers. But most small restaurant owners have their hands full simply focusing on the day-to-day operations and get truly overwhelmed trying to cut through the noise on what’s happening around them, what’s available or what their competitors are up to! Some of the enterprising ones amongst them who are able to conjure up resources to hire a small agency or freelancer, often find that the quality of work is neither inspiring nor impactful to their business.

To compete against bigger chains, their budgets and the knowledge of professionals working for them, small restaurant owners need a marketing partner that has access to top talent, acts with authenticity, shares responsibility for their goals & objectives and understands data to track them over time. The only way to make this affordable for a small business is to “productize” the offering using creative best practices, process automation and cutting edge technology to meet goals with less effort than traditional methods.

This product vision was at the core of what we set ourselves out to build and below I share some of the salient aspects of what’s driving us forward.

#1 Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity

In our interactions with small restaurant owners, we found they are often not aware of the scope of the market around them and even those that consider themselves successful have a very small business relative to the size of the opportunity. The first thing we want to do is to make it easy for the restaurant owners to see the size of market in their area, key demographics of the audience who live there, who their key competitors are and what they are currently doing. While all of this data is available somewhere and can be scraped through 3rd party APIs. we need to be able to package and present this in a manner that is easy to comprehend, lights a bulb and compels the businesses to take action!

#2 A marketing goal without a strategic plan is just a wish

Each restaurant can have a different marketing goal. A newly launched unit may benefit by having more and more people being aware of their brand. Other restaurants may be looking to grow an active fan base through social media platforms. And some may be looking to grow their online orders or events bookings through regular emails to existing customers. Once we know what their key objectives are, the platform should be able to provide a tailored marketing strategy around the key metrics important to them along with preferred channels, expected budget and timelines to get there. And if things don’t go to plan or competitors change the game suddenly, the platform is flexible to suggest and implement instant changes as all good marketers do. It is important for us to be completely authentic and transparent about whether objectives are feasible and what it will take to accomplish them. PS: Often, it turns out to be more than $100 spent on Facebook or Google :)

#3 “Everyone” is NOT your customer, so find your niche!

Targeting a broad group of people might sound logical, but the more people we try to appeal to, the more money we end up spending and the more diluted the value proposition becomes. Anyone and their uncle can turn on Facebook ads, but defining and building the right target audience that will want what the restaurant’s offering requires not only instinct based on past experience but also intensive testing and optimization. Only when we know what a brand’s target customers look like, what they do and where they spend time online, we can hope to build sustainable engagement and ROI for the marketing dollars spent on behalf of our clients.

#4 Content is the atom of an effective marketing plan

From social media to advertising, content remains the single most critical element of any online communication strategy. Posting on Facebook and Instagram is a great way to build engagement provided it is done consistently and content is diverse that the audience can engage with and share. However due to low penetration of organic social media, restaurants need to go beyond social media and look to adapt their messaging to build awareness using various paid channels, including but not limited to social media, to discover what each type of customer will respond best to. Even with their regular loyal customers, they cannot just kick back and watch them return. A proactive and personalized communication plan running on top of a central repository of customers’ data is a must to keep loyal customers engaged with new promotions and offers.

All of this work puts a lot of pressure on small restaurant owners to produce high-quality and unique content on-goingly across all the stages of a customer’s journey from awareness and engagement to purchase and retention for various channels like Search, Social Media, Email and more. The only way to make this affordable at scale is to use technology to automate a large part of the content creation process. Having managed thousands of campaigns for our clients, we are as well positioned as any one else in the industry to build the first-of-its-kind content ecosystem by leveraging best creative practices, templates and format.

#5 Analytics is pointless without meaning and accountability

First off let me dispel the myth that “measuring” ROI means simply viewing a Facebook report or a Google Analytics report. On one hand these reports are limiting and at best show performance of a campaign and behavior of website traffic respectively; on the other these two platforms comprising more than 60% of ad spend online have erected walled gardens around them making data flow between each other awkward and inconsistent. This leads to lack of transparency of what is truly happening with the audience exposed to the campaign and its messaging. For instance, someone may have seen an ad five times before they decided to call or order from a restaurant. That particular conversion is never tracked or captured by a basic analytics report.

Restaurant owners are not savvy marketers and do not extract much value in ogling at the detailed charts and graphs these platforms offer. What they really need is to quickly understand the wholesome impact marketing is having on the objective they specify at the time of setting up their plan, whether they are on track as measured through simple KPIs and get smart recommendations for altering budget, messaging or audience tactics to help them get back on track if they are falling behind.

#6 Knowing what customers are saying helps more than worrying about competitors

For any restaurant, its online reputation is critical to maintain! They have to have an ear on the ground at all times and constantly monitor reviews sites like Google, Yelp and Facebook for any incoming comment. As soon as they spot one, they must take time to respond to each new review, whether it’s a complaint or a compliment. Knowing all they have to squeeze in each day just to run their operations, restaurant owners will benefit immensely if there was a virtual “Inbox” that automatically consolidates all complaints, compliments and feedback in one place and helps them craft suitable responses using a series of pre-populated recommendations based on the tone of the message.

There’s a lot more to be said or done and the solutions above are nowhere close to being the “be-all and end-all” of what we’ll need to offer. We are just excited to undertake the challenge of developing this one-of-a-kind platform over the coming months and support local restaurants to grow in this new digital age they have been swept into during the pandemic!

Designer, Growth Marketer & Product Leader