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Restaurants are no different than any other business. They typically fail to ask the #1 marketing question:

“How did you find out about us?”

This is the most important piece of information for making informed decisions about how and where to advertise.  You need to know from where your customers are coming so, 1) You can exploit those sources even more so, and 2) So you can be aware of those places you are overlooking in your promotional efforts.

Here’s a prediction of what you will find: Seven or eight out of every ten people will tell you they heard about your restaurant by a referral from someone else, more commonly known as word-of-mouth. Someone telling someone else about what a great place your restaurant is. This is why you need to make sure that every customer leaves satisfied, ready to tell everyone about this great restaurant they just ate at.

If a customer has a bad experience, bend over backwards to make it right. People are much more likely to relate a bad experience that a positive one, which is made all the more hazardous for your reputation because now they can tell everyone about it online.

But what about those other 20% or 30% that come from someplace other than word of mouth. Where do they hear about your restaurant? Let’s take a look at some of the traditional advertising outlets, as well as some of the not so traditional.

Before evaluating any advertising opportunities, it is important to know who your customer is. Do you cater to the baby boomer crowd, those born before 1964? They get their information much differently than other demographics. Baby boomers still read newspapers, whereas younger people look at them far less, if at all. Most of their information comes from the internet.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. Small-town weekly newspapers, especially from cities that have an identity (a college town, or the city has a reputation as a home to artists, or a tourist destination) get a more loyal readership. These towns are more close-knit. People look at the newspaper for local gossip and other news.

If your customers are younger than the baby boomers, Gen-X or Gen-Y, and you don’t live in one of these towns, you need to look in other places. If your traffic includes commuters on their way to work in the morning or looking for lunch, then signage is important. People need to see you. Sidewalk signs, window signage that is noticeable, all this is important.

Your name is secondary. The sign should advertise your restaurant’s offerings – PIZZA or SANDWICHES!!

Moving on from signage, we come to outdoor advertising. This ranges from billboards to bus stop signage, to whatever is available that will attract the eye of a potential customer. Are you a few doors down on a side street from the local commuter train depot? Check out what advertising opportunities are in that depot. Maybe it’s just a matter of parking your restaurant van in a conspicuous spot. Be creative in how you can make commuters aware of you?

Billboards on freeways and highways can be expensive, but surface street billboards around town are often more reasonable. Technology has also brought us electronic billboards where your ad rotates with several others. Again, these can sometimes be more reasonably priced.

Keep in mind the internet has drastically changed advertising business models. Virtually all newspapers have an online component. If running print ads in the newspaper makes sense for your restaurant, ask your sales rep to throw in some internet presence as part of the deal. Media sales people are well-acquainted with the term “value -added,” and chances are they have a program that will get you extra online exposure. Sometimes you just have to ask for it.

Also know that competition from the internet has put pressure on these venues to be more flexible in their pricing. Their rates may be printed in black and white, but they will often discount those rates. You only have to ask.

Look for special opportunities. Many suburban towns now boast minor league athletic teams. Baseball and ice hockey are very popular, but there are others. The promotional opportunities are endless, from billboards in the outfield to special announcements. It’s a captive audience. If you cater to the sports bar crowd, this could be a good venue for you.

The internet brings with it a host of opportunities. It is important to make sure that your restaurant comes up in local search when someone types in their ZIP code for an internet search, or is looking for a specific cuisine. Using an SEO expert can help you achieve this. Ask around and get referrals before you retain someone. Use word of mouth, the same way most people will find you.

Routinely log on to Google and other search engines and type in “local restaurants.” You want your restaurant to come up as high as possible. One way you can do this is by registering on as many restaurant directory sites as you can find. If your competitors are ranked higher, Google their name and see where they show up. Perhaps it is someplace you want to be. Many restaurant sites have a basic listing that is free. In addition to the restaurant sites, also search for local business registries. Is there a convention center in your town? Chances are they have a registry on restaurants. See what it takes to get on it.

You should also routinely Google your own restaurant to see what comes up in the search results. Did you get a less than stellar reviews? It happens. Try reaching out to that reviewer. Ask them about their experience and what you can do to make it right. Sometimes all that person wants is someone to listen to their complaint. If a complimentary meal gets rid of a negative complaint, then it’s worth it.

The other benefit of asking patrons how they found out about you is that it allows you to see what is working and what’s not. Track the answers you receive so you can spot trends.

Additional tips:

  1. Constantly monitor the results you are getting from each source. Many advertising and promotional platforms have a life span. They work great for a while, but then the law of diminishing returns kicks in. People become immune to your message. You either need to change something about your campaign (new visuals, a different offer, etc.) or you need to move on to the next thing. If a billboard or newspaper sales rep is pushing for a one-year contract, ask about a six-month option.
  2. When doing display ads – keep in mind that pictures say more than words. Photos of sumptuous dishes attract attention and motivate people to act.
  3. Everybody is a photographer today with cellphones and tablets, but seriously consider a food photographer. Good photos as opposed to mediocre ones can make all the difference in the world.
  4. Offering online ordering is another way to attract customers, both making good customers better ones, and reaching out to new customers. Multi-restaurant portals may allow you to reach more people, but the real gold is in a branded online ordering system that you can control. The best ones can be customized to your website.
  5. You might consider special offers to attract customers, but don’t fall into the trap of discounting too much. You’ll only train your customers to come when the specials are offered. Using Groupon and similar tactics attract diners, but in the end it’s a bad deal for your restaurant.

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