Features

The social media rules for restaurateurs

If your business isn’t making waves on social media, then what are you doing?

Photos by Elijah O'Donell, Raw Pixel, Kevin Curtis, and Christian Wiediger/Unsplash

It’s hard to remember what it was like to eat out before the rise of social media. All people had whenever a friend or a loved one would ask them where they wanted to eat was sheer reputation, word of mouth, blogs, magazines, newspapers, and perhaps, the occasional commercial spot for bigger establishments.

With all due respect to those veritable institutions, they were still too slow. Even though the internet was faster than everything we knew, going viral wasn’t a thing yet. If your ordinary person—that is to say, someone who wasn’t an outright foodie, someone who just wanted to eat—wasn’t very adventurous about where they would go to eat, then they could be forgiven. More often than not, the favorites people knew were based on what they had heard. They would stick to the mainstays, food they knew they could trust (because that’s just how they were branded) because why risk wasting your time and money on a place nobody could (or had yet to) vouch for?

But now, thanks to social media, it seems as though people around the world no longer know how to not try new things. Everything new is all we live for because it’s all we see every day. People just have to go online and stumble on a food blog or a magazine’s Instagram account, or even just check their news feed, and someone somewhere is going to post some pretty-looking food on their stream. It’s easy to quickly figure out where in the city one could score some heavenly churros or a huge, mouthwatering burger that’ll shorten life expectancy. Or whatever else have you—we’ll find it.

PHONE FRENZY

“A restaurant not being on social media is suicide,” says Bernice Tenchavez, who handles the online accounts of Refinery in Rockwell and Greenhills Promenade. “I would say that social media is the best way to get the word out that you have a restaurant.”

While suicide might be a bit too much as a consequence (although there still are chances for it to happen), it really is hard to deny social media’s importance. It’s not only an effective vehicle for brand awareness, but it also becomes a hub for the place’s identity. Although official websites are still pretty useful, we’re seeing Facebook slowly become the official homepage, with almost everything you need to know on it.“It’s changed everything. All ad agencies now have digital departments. But a smart restaurateur can do social media on his or her own, and that’s the beauty of it,” adds Spanky Hizon-Enriquez, who has done multiple talks on the matter. “It’s very democratic. Everyone has a voice.”

“It’s changed everything. All ad agencies now have digital departments. But a smart restaurateur can do social media on his or her own, and that’s the beauty of it,” adds Spanky Hizon-Enriquez, who has done multiple talks on the matter. “It’s very democratic. Everyone has a voice.”

On some days, that everything-you-need-to-know-is-here notion is more literal. Just ask Monica Violago, who does social media for Japanese/Peruvian fusion restaurant Nikkei. “Apparently newcomers [go] on their phones to check out the dishes [on the Nikkei Instagram and Facebook accounts] before ordering,” she says. “On a daily basis [our branch manager] notices around five to 10 people check their phones before ordering, and in some cases (maybe two customers a week) actually show the image on their phone to tell the server what they want.”

It’d certainly be mind-boggling for a restaurateur to not have a social media presence because it really isn’t that hard to do. If you don’t have one, you’re not trying hard enough. “It is cheap, accessible anywhere, no strict rules/deadlines; you can post when you want, what you feel,” explains Violago, who believes that there aren’t that many downsides to being online. “I imagine a disadvantage would be a really bad review for the world to see but luckily we haven’t experienced a bad case of cyberbullying.”

LET’S GET REAL

Of course, even in a free sphere like the internet, some people still have to fight for relevance, especially if they’re either new or unremarkable (sometimes both). The hard part is figuring out the exact science of making everything work on the internet—and it’s a science that’s as soft as marshmallows. When to post, what posts do people like, what voice will they listen to more; those are all considerations most people don’t really think about because they don’t have to think about branding themselves. But knowing what you’re all about can spell the difference between success and failure.

The good (or bad, depending on how it’s utilized) thing about information being open and free on the internet is that brands can study what others are doing. Of course, if you don’t prepare and do your homework, you’ll be left behind.

“I don’t regularly check competitors’ social media accounts (since I think we have no direct competitor also), but I think the few times I checked out restaurants of the same concept in other countries, it was to give me some inspiration on what I can say other than that of the food itself,” Violago shares. “If anything, I try to learn from other social media posts in general. And I noticed posts don’t have to be long at all or to sound formal. It’s making your posts relatable and exciting to viewers.”

“Campaigns are planned well in advance. Graphics, memes, pictures, copy are usually discussed and programmed on a monthly basis for the more forward-thinking restaurants. There is no best time to post. Everyone’s online all the time. What matters is the post gets shared and liked.”

“The risk is the ‘boy who cried wolf’ syndrome. Post too often, and no one will care anymore,” adds Enriquez. “Campaigns are planned well in advance. Graphics, memes, pictures, copy are usually discussed and programmed on a monthly basis for the more forward-thinking restaurants. There is no best time to post. Everyone’s online all the time. What matters is the post gets shared and liked.”

And a lot of the time, unless you’re really popular, online relevance is hard to achieve. Social media is already bad enough in the private citizen sector where everyone tries to show off and be the best, or the most interesting online—and here you are, with a thousand brands competing for your attention span that’s growing shorter and shorter. So because of that, all social media platforms, from Facebook to Instagram, have set up advertising systems that mirror those in traditional media. Some pay to appear first, and wherever you introduce payment, you end up stratifying the playing field.

BUILDING A BRAND

“I wish Facebook would stop requiring brands to pay them for visibility,” says Ben Wintle, founder of Booky, the one-stop directory app for restaurants in Manila (at the moment). Booky—which, according to Wintle, is responsible for at least 30 percent of overall restaurant discovery in Manila and sees around 750,000 people using the app every month to find a place to eat—helps market restaurants by giving them customer relationship management tools that help analyze data gleaned from customer behavior. “I think that both brands and Facebook would perform much better if they moved away from the traditional media model that relies on advertising revenue.”

With all the rules to memorize in this game, it’s definitely easy to feel overwhelmed. Although social media helps your business, it also ends up unintentionally making all the establishments people post about feel like passing trends. People find one thing to love, drown in it, and move on to the next one until yesterday’s flavor of the day manages to get itself buzzing again. Just ask J. Co or the Halal Guys—and they’re not going to be the last.

The vicious and quick life cycle of a trend is magnified by social media’s ability to make feedback instantaneous. That’s both a good and a bad thing because the benefit—or backlash—is just as immediate. “The disadvantage is that when a customer complains, and they post on social media, their network would hear about it. The complaint becomes public,” says Tenchavez. “On the other hand, the advantage is that you can also respond to the complaint in public, too. The negative publicity can be worse if you don’t respond. Other than poor service or bad food, negative publicity is usually minor.”

“The disadvantage is that when a customer complains, and they post on social media, their network would hear about it. The complaint becomes public,” says Tenchavez.

In theory, it wouldn’t make much of a difference if you, the business owner, didn’t promote actively on social media. As long as you can easily be found somewhere, all it takes is one person to come across your place and spread the word. According to Wintle, word of mouth still accounts for half of all recommendations, while social media accounts for only 20 percent.

Still, you’re going to need that single spark that sets the tinder on fire. “Everyone is on social media, so why not go where the people are?” says Wintle, who believes only a few special places transcend the need for viral publicity. “I’m sure there are examples of successful businesses which don’t heavily rely on social media, but these businesses probably have an exceptional quality to them and represent the minority of cases.”

In short, not every place can be a Katz’s Delicatessen or a Krispy Kreme. You’re going to have to start influencing sooner or later. And the easiest way to do that is online.

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