Dining in a Digital World


In this world of Internet immediacy and hyper-location, it’s important for small businesses to make their online mark. This article in the New York Times last week struck me as a great example of how one business owner is taking on the challenge of standing out among the masses.

 

Online research is the way du jour that most consumers find a business and decide to purchase. Whether they are searching for electronics on CNET, clothing on Zappos, hotels on TripAdvisor or restaurants on OpenTable, your online presence is a critical part of your brand. Add in the mixture of daily deals like Groupon and LivingSocial, and you have a real opportunity in your hands to expose yourself (in a good way) to thousands of potential customers in your immediate vicinity. Consumers in this day and age are more aware than ever. They have a choice. They have information at their disposal as fast as their mobile carrier will take them. They have an app for that. 

What restaurant owners need to do is make their business known. You can only secure so many top-tier food reviews (how many places can a food critic eat in a year), and you now need to rely on food bloggers and online review sites like Yelp and Chowhound to carry some additional marketing weight.

Bruce Buschel owns Southfork Kitchen and with a little help, came up with this list of tips (the “Digital Dozen”) for restaurateurs who want to get in on the online scene.

  • Register with Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter and Yelp. Now.
  • Tweet something clever or informative at least twice a day.
  • Take advantage of Yelp announcements.
  • Use OpenTable’s e-mail blast every holiday.
  • Keep the dialogue alive. Listen and respond.
  • Scrape the blogosphere with HootSuite.
  • Avoid advertising, now considered “a contrarian indicator.”
  • Understand that an older audience is a different audience.
  • Put your e-mail signature and Web link on every communication.
  • Sign up Google Analytics to assay progress.
  • Engage a marketing strategist for a finite amount of time; then ween yourself from said marketing strategist.
  • Find someone in-house to monitor the daily cycles, communiqués, correspondences, and crises.

I would add a few additional tips to that list.

  1. Have a website that works. A crucial element for restaurant owners to take notice of – design a website that is FUNCTIONAL and INFORMATIVE. Optimize it for mobile use if you can. The Oatmeal has a great example of what can go wrong with a restaurant website, and how to make it right.
  2. Offer special deals for your fans and followers. People may follow you on Twitter or Facebook because they really like your restaurant, but most do it to get the inside scoop. Offer a popular recipe online, showcase a Q&A with your chef, and offer dining recommendations on your new menu offerings, share special discounts only for your followers.
  3. Strength in numbers. The benefit of all of the big coupon groups is that they have millions of eyeballs on their daily deal. Get in on it if you can. I found my hair salon of choice by first taking advantage of a Yelp deal. It was a salon I had heard about but was unsure if I wanted to pay the price. I went on a discount and liked it so much, I continue to go back. There are certainly drawbacks and stories of small businesses and restaurants not being able to meet the demand of the masses that ebb and flow from discount deals, but at the very least it serves as good brand awareness and you may be lucky to get a few new regulars.

 

Restaurants in particular can use the popularity of online reviews to their advantage. Take negative reviews and use them to improve your quality of service. Take positive reviews and thank the reviewer, then share them with your social networks. Navigating the online world can be scary, especially for a restaurant owner. But with a little finesse, it’s a great way to make your brand shine and grow.