Living with distancing regulations due to COVID-19 has become a new normal for many of us. While entrepreneurs and consumers alike, continue to adapt and navigate these new conditions, some business owners have been more affected than others. Specifically, those operating restaurants. 

If you own a restaurant and are either planning to reopen or have already done so there will likely be some necessity for different marketing strategies in order to appeal to the public

To make sure that cash continues to flow into your business during these times, we’ve put together a list of affordable marketing ideas to help attract more customers and ultimately fill your tables, booths, and even online delivery orders as the world opens back up for service!

1. Create and use social media pages

Social media is a powerful tool that can attract new customers. Most restaurants already have a social media presence, and even spending a little money on advertising can increase your fan base and engagement. Start with one platform (most restaurants leverage Instagram or Facebook) to make it easier to engage with customers and consistently keep your page up to date.

The important thing about leveraging social media is that you initially keep to some sort of posting schedule. It doesn’t have to be every day or even every week. But the more consistently you update potential customers with new photos, deals, and traditional posts, the more likely they are to stay engaged. 

Here are just a few ideas of what you can post.

Deals and promotions

Announcing exclusive deals or limited time promotions on your feed is a great way to build a following. It ensures that your customers are always staying connected so they don’t miss the next promo. You can also test out new deals to gauge interest and see if they’re successful before sending them to a wider audience.

Showcase your food

Arguably, the best way to promote your restaurant is with tantalizing photos of your food. Customers being able to visualize what they could be eating goes so much further than a wordy description. If you need to just pull out your phone and snap some pics, but if you’re able to it may be worth hiring a professional photographer. Just keep in mind that the use of these photos can go beyond social media, making the investment a bit easier to manage.

Feature your staff

If you’re a smaller local restaurant, people want to get to know you. They want to know why you started up, what inspired that special burger seasoning and who your employees are. Get their permission first, but find ways to showcase your staff and what makes them unique. Maybe even shoutout their favorite menu item or hobby to make it easier for customers to relate.

Community involvement

If you’re involved in your community, why not mention it. Talk about the causes you support, volunteering with your team, or fundraising efforts for nonprofits. Obviously you need to make sure that this type of support is part of your company mission, but if it is people want to know about it.

Run contests 

If you want to give back to your customers, while simultaneously promoting your restaurant, a social media contest is a great way to do it. By providing a gift card, merch, or other prizes, you can encourage your followers to reshare, post their own photos, and do it all under a hashtag that you designed. Just be sure that you follow contest guidelines for any given platform carefully, it can quickly turn into a legal headache for you and your business if you don’t.

2. Loyalty Programs

Giving back to your best customers should be something that you’re already doing. If not, establishing a loyalty program can go a long way. It not only encourages current customers to return on a regular basis but acts as a simple way to connect with new ones. 

If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few options to consider.

Punch cards and points

You can always go the traditional route and offer a tried and true punch card. Offer special deals after a certain amount of purchases or let them rack up points to spend on select items. This will make each visit to your restaurant more exciting to customers as it gets them closer to a free or reduced-cost meal.

Birthday items

Another fun way to excite your customers is by offering birthday desserts, meals, or other treats (even along with a song if you prefer). This will show them that you care, and will ultimately be something fun for both you and your customers. 

Online loyalty program

If you want a bit more control over your loyalty program, a digital membership is a modern and simple way to do so. Going digital not only makes it easier for customers to keep track of their progress, but it gives you greater insight into what they’re interested in. You don’t even need to start from scratch, and can instead leverage platforms such as Belly or LevelUp to create your program.

3. Leverage coupons and discounts

We already mentioned it, but coupons and discounts are a great way to bring in more customers. You can go traditional with newspaper ads or in-store promotions, or go directly where your customers are by using social media or partnering with sites like Groupon to make your deals available online. Whatever method you use, just be careful that what you offer doesn’t end up being more costly to you in the long run. 

If you’re offering something for free, be sure to pick items such as desserts, appetizers, or drinks that aren’t as profitable as your entrees. If it’s a discount, make sure that you don’t end up giving too much away to where you’re selling at a loss without making it up elsewhere. Be sure to check your cash flow, income statement, and forecasts to anticipate how any discounts will affect your business and the number of sales it will take to break even and hopefully turn a profit.

4. Upgrade or create a business website

If you don’t have a website, you need one. Without it, you have no place to send customers online and no control over your digital brand. And more than likely, all of your competitors already have one, making it that much more difficult to compete. 

Luckily, most of the work you’ve already done with social and traditional promotions can be replicated on your website. And as a restaurant, your food does the talking, meaning that you may only need a simple one-page site to feature pictures of your meals and any necessary information. If you have a website already but haven’t updated it in a while, it’s probably worth revisiting to make sure it accurately represents the branding and quality of your restaurant.

If you’re not sure what you need to include, check out our article on how to create an irresistible site for your restaurant for some tips.

5. Make your business searchable

A website gives customers a place to find you online, but often they’re searching with alternative methods where your site just won’t pop up first. Having a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter page typically solves that issue when customers are searching for recommendations on social media. But if they’re looking in Apple or Google maps, or even just online, having online business profiles is necessary. Here are the top two you should consider creating.

Create a Google My Business profile

Setting up a Google My Business profile will allow people to search your restaurant, see your hours of operation, open reservation times, etc. Filling out all of the necessary information will ultimately make your business more accessible to the public and help to promote it. You can now even directly edit that info from the viewpoint of what a customer will see, making it that much easier to get your listing just right.

Create a Yelp account

Similar to Google My Business, creating a Yelp account is just as important to get your business’ name out there. You can share your menu to allow for greater transparency with the public as well as engage with both positive and negative reviews. Yelp allows you to engage with the public in a way that is important to uphold the image and representation of your business while informing them about hours, menu items, and pricing.

New call-to-action

6. Focus on local digital ads

When investing in digital advertising, local is often better for restaurants. You want to attract customers that are ready to eat and, especially for new customers, you’re one of the closest options available. The best way to do this? Using geo-targeted ads.

Geo-targeting allows you to set specific cities or a radius around your restaurant, where ads will be shown. It helps you save money by removing anyone from your ad targeting that would be more unlikely to visit your restaurant due to location alone. Any online advertising platform you use, from Facebook and Instagram to Google search, will have this option available. 

You can either operate these ads manually or set them to automatically adjust and bid within a specific price range. It’ll likely take some practice to master, but if you have a small advertising budget, digital ads are an inexpensive but effective marketing tactic to leverage. 

7. Use email marketing

Don’t underestimate the power of email. You could quickly turn a prospective customer into a paying customer with the right message. But before you can start sending out emails, you need to build a contact list first. 

How to build an email list

Collect email addresses wherever you can. When you’re at a local tasting event, business meeting, or trade show, make sure you have an email sign up sheet. 

You should also collect email addresses on your business website. You can create a signup form with no help from a web designer using third party sites like Opt in Monster or even Google Forms. It can be a pop-up or embedded form that quickly and easily collects user emails. 

The benefit of having this on your website is that you can then promote it on business cards, on receipts, in-store advertising and anywhere else you can stick your web address.  

What to send to your customers

Once you have that email list created, it’s time to start sending out emails. You can send special offers, like 50 percent off two drinks or half-off appetizers, to entice new customers to come in. When you’re hosting an event, send invitations via email. Email marketing is great for attracting new customers, but it’s also helpful in retaining customers.

If you’re sending bulk emails, you’ll want to look into using an email service provider like MailChimp or VerticalResponse. These give you insight into valuable data such as the open rate, actions on in-email links, and even if you ended up in the spam folder. By optimizing this process, you can quickly make email an efficient but effective process for bringing in more customers.

8. Offer additional services

If your restaurant has stayed open during the current crisis, you’ve likely had to adjust operations to include pick-up and even delivery. If you’re just now opening up and struggling to get customers back in the door, offering these services may be necessary. And while it’s a difficult process to start serving customers outside the walls of your restaurant, there are some benefits.

Advertise on delivery apps

One benefit of delivery and pick-up today is that you don’t have to design your own system. Instead, you can join apps like DoorDash and PostMates to handle online ordering for you. Additionally, you can collaborate to create exclusive in-app promotions and deals that pop-up front and center when customers are searching for food.

A great call to action

You can even embed these ordering systems on your website, which can make your ads and web presence that much more effective. There’s no hiccup or middle step to get food, instead, any ads or content on your site can push potential customers to order right then and there. As you get more comfortable with operating a website, you can even set up triggers to know exactly when your ads lead to an online sale, making your return on investment clear and easy to track.

9. Partner up

Partnering is a great way to reach an established audience. They already trust the brand, influencer, or product that you’re connected with, making it that much easier to connect. The tricky part about any partnership is that it needs to feel natural and provide value for that new customer base. 

You can’t just arbitrarily partner up and expect customers to immediately accept it. There needs to be a connection that bridges the mental gap as to why their favorite company would work with you. Be clear and transparent with the announcement to be sure that your customers, and their customers, understand why a partnership is occurring.

Once you overcome that hurdle, partnering up with an influencer or business can quickly become a recipe for success. 

10. Develop content

Starting a blog or video series may seem like the last thing you’d consider when operating your restaurant. But it’s a great way to develop an online following and consistently promote your restaurant. You can share recipes, customer testimonials, stories about your business, or the food industry as a whole.

Additionally, any content you create can be used on your social channels, in your email campaigns, and even as material for digital advertisements. There’s a reason we saved this one for the end, as it can help build every other initiative you’ve established. It will take a lot of work and consistent releases to become relevant, but if you have a goal and are willing to give it a shot, developing content can go a long way for your business.

Plan, test, repeat

Any new marketing initiatives will take some time to refine before they become effective. The best thing you can do is revisit your business plan and goals before implementing any new marketing practices. They’ll act as your guiding light through this process and ensure that you aren’t overspending or following arbitrary metrics for success. 

Starting with a plan makes it easier to identify when something isn’t working and makes restarting far less painful. If it’s been a while since you’ve worked through your business plan and financials, you can download our lean planning template to kickstart the process. Or, if you want something a bit more intuitive, check out LivePlan to create a business plan that grows with you and your restaurant.

Editors’ Note: This article was originally published in 2015 and updated for 2020.

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AvatarMakenna Crocker

Makenna Crocker is a content marketing specialist at Palo Alto Software. Her recent work involves editorial, video, and social optimization with a focus on strategically presenting information in ways that are both captivating and insightful to the viewer. She is currently a graduate student in the Advertising and Brand Responsibility Master's program at the University of Oregon.