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Hospitality Marketing

8 Free, Long-Term Marketing Ideas for Restaurants

Here in Austin, Texas, there are a lot of highways and therefore, a lot of billboards. One particular billboard company fills their empty highway-side spaces with this phrase in huge, multi-colored letters: 

Does Advertising Work? JUST DID!

And then there’s a big phone number at the bottom so you can call — while you’re driving, I guess? — to start your own billboard advertisements.

Whenever we’re in the car and see one of these, either my husband or I will turn to the other and say, “Hey. Does advertising work?” And the other will chortle good-naturedly.

No offense to this unnamed billboard company, but I’d argue that just getting someone to look at your billboard because they happen to be driving by is not, in fact, proof that it “works.” That visual connection has to translate into a sale to prove that an advertising method is effective. 

Print advertising is pricey and outside of the budget of many small businesses — especially restaurants. Instead, a slow-and-steady campaign of social media marketing and SEO is probably the best strategy for most restaurants. 

So I’ve put together a list of 8 long-term marketing ideas that may get more results in the long run than a splashy billboard. No cheesy promotions or expensive ad campaigns — these 8 techniques are 100% free and can be used long term for increased visibility and engagement on your website and social media feeds. 

8 FREE restaurant marketing ideas that you can start using right now.

1. Manage your online reputation

Google, Yelp, Facebook, and all the rest — reviews are a painful part of doing business. Anyone having a bad day can take it out on your restaurant for all the world to see. 

While it may be tempting to ignore them, doing so would be a mistake. Over half — 53% — of consumers report that they expect brands to respond to critical reviews. Silence is seen as indifference at best and confirmation of the review at worst. 

And responding to bad reviews isn’t all about minimizing the damage. You can actually gain ground by providing a thoughtful and sensitive response. 78% of consumers said responses to online reviews makes them feel that the business cares about them. 

There’s also an unexpected upside to having a few bad reviews — they show that your online feedback is genuine. Customers are often skeptical about the veracity of reviews, and 100 5-star reviews will only make them more so. A handful of 2 or 3-star reviews, while painful, will at least prove to readers that you haven’t bought them.

Schedule an appointment with yourself twice per week to respond to reviews. Unless you’re getting dozens of reviews each week, it shouldn’t take long to respond as long as you keep up with it.

Don’t get defensive and don’t make excuses. Apologize for the bad experience and try to make it right.

What if the review is a total lie? I say if you can prove it with a receipt or video clip, go for it. The only thing that people hate more than a bad restaurant experience is someone lying about one in an attempt to damage a small business.

2. Add your Instagram feed to your website

Your restaurant’s Instagram feed is probably the single best source of images of your space and food. But the nature of the platform means potential customers have to seek out your profile in order to see all that good stuff. 

By embedding your Instagram feed to your website, you’ll share your recent photos with website visitors, even if they don’t check your social media. As long as you’re posting high-quality photos to Instagram, you’ll have a steady stream of appetizing imagery to sell your restaurant. 

Uchi Austin's Instagram plugin

There may be an SEO benefit too — the longer website visitors stay on your page, the better. If site visitors spend a few extra seconds on your page as they look through your Instagram images, that can be an indicator to search engines that your website is more valuable than others. And it can improve your search results on Google. 

The way to do this will vary depending on your website platform. On WordPress, for example, you’ll need a plugin like Smash Balloon Social Photo Feed. On Squarespace, you can use the included Instagram Block to always show your latest posts on your website.

For a walkthrough on how to do this, check out Easy and Free Ways to Add Your Instagram Feed to Your Website.

3. Make sure your citations are consistent

You’d be amazed how often there is outdated information on the internet for brick-and-mortar businesses. Most businesses owners only check the info on their websites, Google My Business, Facebook, Yelp, and maaaybe TripAdvisor for accuracy. They ignore the fact that there are dozens of other sites that crawl those sites for contact info — and then don’t take the trouble to update it periodically. 

The result is that important information is inconsistent across the internet. This information is often called NAP-LOP, which refers to 

  • Name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Logo
  • Open hours
  • Profiles on social media

This may not seem like a big deal. But it can be. As many as 73% of internet users report losing trust in a brand if the business listing is inaccurate.

Plus, inaccurate NAP-LOP can hurt your rankings in Google search. And it can hurt your chances of appearing in the Google Local Pack.

The more sites have identical information, the greater confidence Google has in that information. So it’s important to check and confirm this info periodically. The easiest way to do it is to use a service like Yext. Type in your business name, phone number, and address, and Yext will return a list of all citations and show whether they’re a match or have conflicting information. 

You can then go through the process of fixing the citations manually, or you can pay Yext to manage citations for you.

4. Respond to social media comments

Social media experts have been harping on this for years, but many companies aren’t listening. Responding to comments on social media is how you build connections with people and turn them into regulars. It’s a free restaurant marketing tactic that everyone knows they should do, but few act on. 

Transparency is huge. As many as 86% of Americans say social media transparency is more important than ever. 

All it means to be transparent is that you respond to questions, engage in friendly banter, and apologize for mistakes — quickly. 42% of customers say they expect a response within one hour. 

Within the hour may not be realistic if you don’t have a social media manager, but within the day should be. Take a few minutes each day to hop on your social media feeds to respond. Unless you’re Taco Bell with their 1.4 million followers and hundreds of comments on each post, you should have the five minutes necessary to engage with your online fans. 

Pro tip: If you’re like me and hate typing on a phone, use the desktop versions of social media sites instead. It’s much faster to type on a keyboard than a phone. Instagram has recently added messaging to their desktop version, so you can respond to comments and DMs from your computer.

5. Sign up for HARO

Ever wonder how other restaurateurs get quotes in major (and minor) new outlets? It may not be that they just “know people” — although that can certainly help. 

For normies like us who don’t have Bob Woodward on speed dial, we can use Help a Reporter Out (HARO). This free website connects journalists and bloggers with sources for quotes. 

When writers are looking for a restaurant owner for their perspective, you can provide yours. If they select your quote, you’ll get your name out there and get a link back to your website. 

Once you sign up for an account as a source, you’ll be able to pick what topics apply to you. There’s no “restaurant” topic option, so you’ll probably want to subscribe to “Lifestyle and Fitness.” If you’re in a tourist area, you may opt to subscribe to “Travel” as well. 

HARO for restaurant owners

Then, you’ll receive an email three times per day with quote requests from reporters in those categories. The emails can be long, so just search for “restaurant” or “food” to find the quote requests that apply to you. 

Make sure to provide your response quickly, as reporters can get inundated with quotes and you want to make sure they see yours ASAP. 

This method can get your name, your restaurant name, and a link back to your site on articles from smaller regional bloggers as well as major national outlets.

6. Set up Google alerts

Online reviews usually live on Facebook, Yelp, Google, and similar sites. But what about the independent blogger reviews or the occasional news mention? How will you monitor this kind of chatter about your restaurant?

The more sophisticated bloggers out there will often reach out to you so you can share their blog to your followers. 

But some bloggers — and some news outlets — won’t. 

To make sure you don’t miss these mentions, set up Google Alerts for your business so you’ll know what’s being said. To do it, go to google.com/alerts and type in your restaurant name in the alert field. 

Create a google alert

You can control the region for your alerts, which is helpful if your local restaurant shares a name with a restaurant in another state. 

If you get an alert and find a mention of your restaurant, but the outlet doesn’t include a link back to your website, reach out to them by email and ask them to include one. In general, the more links you can get back to your site, the better for your Google ranking. 

You can also set up alerts specifically for reviews. To do, type [restaurant name] + intitle:review into the alert field. This will give you alerts whenever your restaurant name and the word “review” show up together. 

Share these mentions across your social media to give your restaurant a little added authority. 

You can also set up alerts for your competitors to see what mentions they’re getting. For example, if a popular blogger does a restaurant roundup that includes a competitor but omits you, you can invite that blogger in for a meal to make sure they’ve tried your food, too. If they have a good experience, they may be willing to update their blog post to include your restaurant.

Google Alerts isn’t perfect, and some mentions do get missed. There are other, more robust tools that catch more mentions than Google Alerts. But as a free option, it’s still a good choice.

7. Try email marketing

Email marketing isn’t free for big companies with huge mailing lists. But for many smaller restaurants — especially if they haven’t been actively seeking more email addresses — email marketing can be started for free. 

With an average ROI of $38 to every $1 spent, it can be a good idea even if it isn’t free. 

Email lets you stay top of mind by sending weekly or monthly reminders to past customers. Share new hours, the state of your dining room (Open? Closed? Limited capacity?), menu changes, specials, and discounts. 

Some restaurants do a great job of this. I’m on mailing lists for quite a few local restaurants that have been sending out regular updates during COVID-19 as they adjust their hours, curbside offerings, and slowly reopen their dining rooms.

Email Marketing from Austin restaurant Contigo

But an amazing number of restaurants don’t do email marketing at all. And it’s crazy! Email marketing lets you: 

  • Contact people who have already shown interest by signing up for your mailing list
  • Reach them wherever they are without requiring that they check your social media, AND
  • Do this at no cost. 

There are tons of email services out there, and most of them offer a free plan for a small number of subscribers. MailChimp, for example, lets you send 10,000 emails per month to up to 2,000 subscribers. 

And Sender allows 15,000 emails per month to up to 2,500 subscribers. Dip your toes into the email waters without a financial investment. If you find it’s working, you can graduate to a paid plan. 

And since nearly 60% of marketers report email as their biggest source of ROI, you’ll probably want to. 

8. Take great photos from your phone

Most of us are highly visual people. So every picture you post should be an advertisement for your restaurant.

Dark, blurry photos are bad advertisements. Well lit, vibrant pictures that show your food at its best are good advertisements. 

All you need to take lovely pictures is a recent generation smartphone, and possibly an app or two for some light editing. Will this be able to compete with a professional photographer using top end camera equipment? No. But for social media, a DIY approach can work just fine.

To start, always use natural light for your photography. If it’s too bright, use white poster board or foam board to diffuse the light and reduce harsh shadows. 

When plating, make sure there is some color in the dish. A garnish of parsley, chopped red onion, or slice of lemon can add visual interest to a mostly beige entrée. Add elements of contrasting color and texture to each plate.

Also, use a simple background for your food shots.  A wooden or marble table can work very well. You could also use a cutting board, a clean linen, or even a distressed sheet pan for a rustic look. You can also buy a simple photography background. These are lightweight and portable, so you can chase the light all over the restaurant. And you’ll have a consistent surface for all of your images.

And never use the zoom function on your phone. You’ll lose photo quality. Just move closer instead. 

Finally, once you’ve taken your photos, use a simple app like Snapseed or Over to enhance the colors. Make sure not to over-saturate the image, or it will look unnatural. 

There is certainly a time and place for paid marketing, and only you can say when it’s appropriate for your restaurant. But make sure you have a method in place to track those advertising dollars. Only then will you be able to say:

Does Advertising Work?

Just Did.

But spending a dime on restaurant marketing before you’ve implemented these free strategies is doing things backwards. Work these tasks into your schedule first, and then you can start spending some dough.

If you need help with your website content or email marketing, I’m your girl. Fill out my online form and let me know what you’re looking for!

Header photo by destiawan nur agustra from Pexels

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