Booked and busy: 9 restaurant marketing strategies to fill your seats

Managing a restaurant comes with a neverending list of responsibilities. So it’s completely valid that less-time-sensitive tasks like restaurant marketing get pushed to the side. However, if this goes on for too long, it can negatively affect your bottom line. 

Whether you’re starting a new restaurant or trying to attract more customers to an existing one, prospective customers need to know that you exist—and marketing is the key to achieving that.

Overwhelmed by the thought of developing your restaurant’s marketing strategy from scratch? We got you. We’re about to break the process down step-by-step, so you can create your own marketing strategy with the confidence of a seasoned marketing professional. 

Why market your restaurant?

Flashing neon signs may have been enough to entice customers to visit restaurants in the past, but modern consumers? They’re a bit more particular. Spoiled for choice, they want to ensure they’re spending their hard-earned dollars on a meal and experience they’re guaranteed to enjoy. Where do these savvy consumers go to get the social proof they need to walk through those front doors? These days, it usually starts with an online search. 

However, with more than 750,000 restaurants to compete with, staying afloat requires more than simply showing up on Google. And while mouth-watering food and a friendly and capable team are undoubtedly part of the equation, the long-term success of your restaurant relies on your ability to consistently attract and retain customers. The best way to do that? An effective restaurant marketing strategy.

So what exactly does restaurant marketing entail? Well, it can include anything from printed advertisements and limited-time offers, to how you interact with customers on social media, and everything in between. Like many other managerial responsibilities, marketing has traditionally been assigned to overworked managers (*cough* you) without any real thought to long-term strategy—and for some restaurants that’s still the case. But today, 34% of restaurants have a dedicated marketing employee, showing just how much the tides are changing. 

Why the shift? That’s easy. It’s because effective marketing helps businesses:

  • Boost their brand identity
  • Increase visibility
  • Engage with customers
  • Promote offers and events
  • Enhance online presence
  • Build community relationships
  • Stay competitive
  • Increase revenue

Yep, marketing really is that powerful. And today, we’re sharing the latest restaurant marketing ideas and trends, so you can create a restaurant marketing strategy that delivers all those juicy benefits.

Restaurant marketing trends in 2024.

While tried-and-true methods like email marketing and loyalty programs will always have their place, embracing new marketing trends can amplify your results. So, let’s take a look at what’s trending this year to help you prioritize your efforts.

TikTok: With a staggering 65 million monthly active users in the U.S. alone, TikTok has much more to offer than viral dance routines. The platform is also a potential goldmine for attracting new customers, where 36% of users visit or order from a restaurant after watching a video about it on the app.

User-Generated Content (UGC): While influencer marketing had its moment, UGC has replaced it as a more authentic form of social proof. What exactly is UGC? It’s essentially any form of media (photos, videos, and testimonials) created by your customers to promote your restaurant. Recent studies have shown that 79% of purchasing decisions are influenced by UGC, making it nearly 10x more impactful than influencer content. The best part? It comes at a fraction of the cost, offering some of the best value for your marketing efforts.

AI Chatbots: Another rising trend? Implementing AI chatbots to take customer orders, provide recommendations, and address customer inquiries. While it remains a significant investment, studies have shown that AI chatbots can save businesses up to 30% on customer support alone. And with customer preferences favoring immediate responses over human interaction, it could be a valuable addition to your marketing and customer service initiatives.

How to create a restaurant marketing plan.

Creating a restaurant marketing plan from scratch can feel as difficult as a team of amateur line cooks handling an unexpected rush. So, here’s a step-by-step guide to make the process a bit less chaotic.

Step 1: Define your marketing objectives.

Start by identifying your marketing objectives. This could include increasing foot traffic, boosting online orders, or improving brand awareness ahead of your grand opening. Set specific and measurable goals that will help you achieve those objectives. 

For instance, if your objective is to boost online orders, your goal could be to increase those orders by 15% every month. With specific goals in mind, it’s easier to come up with the strategies and promotions that will help you get there.

Step 2: Focus on what makes you unique.

Regardless of your restaurant’s location, there’s bound to be some competition. So, how do you stand out? By highlighting what makes you unique. Whether you’re a farm-to-table restaurant that sources local produce or a Mexican restaurant whipping up authentic recipes passed down through generations, lean into what makes your restaurant special. Because that’s what’s going to draw in customers and keep them coming back for more.

Step 3: Identify your target demographic.

Although restaurants typically welcome anyone willing to pay for a meal, most have a specific demographic they’re catering to (or at least they should). Get as specific as you can about your ideal customer. If you’re having trouble nailing down the details, grab a few members of your team and create a couple of customer personas with detailed backstories. It may seem unnecessary, but this information will make it much easier to create messaging that resonates with your audience. 

Step 4: Conduct a competitive analysis.

Next, you’ll want to conduct a comprehensive analysis of your restaurant and your biggest competitors. Start by identifying the top-performing restaurants in your area and answering the following questions:

  • What are they doing well? What are they not doing well?
  • How is your restaurant different? 
  • Could you adopt any of their strategies to be more successful? 

With your competition in mind, perform a SWOT analysis to determine your restaurant’s key strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Step 5: Develop your messaging.

Now comes the fun part. Coming up with the messaging that will convince your target demographic to walk through your front doors. A few tips? Focus on authenticity and consistency. That means your customers should be getting the same vibe, whether they’re perusing your lunch menu or scrolling through your socials. 

At this stage, it’s also helpful to identify where your target demographic is most active so you have a distribution game plan. For example, a casual and affordable tapas restaurant targeting millennials and Gen Z will have more success reaching their audience on Instagram or TikTok than advertising on a local radio station.  

Step 6: Establish your budget.

After the fun stuff, comes the hard part—budgeting. Start by reviewing your past marketing expenditures to understand where your money has been spent most effectively. Then, drawing on your goals, available resources, and expected ROI (which we’ll explain in a bit), allocate your funds across different channels and campaigns accordingly.

Step 7: Build out your marketing calendar.

Once you’ve established your strategy and budget, it’s time to build out your marketing calendar.

  • Create a detailed timeline of marketing activities, campaigns, promotions, and holidays.
  • Next, set aside several content creation days. This will allow you to pump out multiple campaigns in one go, which is much more efficient than producing content weekly.
  • Schedule publication dates for social media posts, email marketing, and any other channels that are part of your restaurant marketing strategy. 

Step 8: Implement your tactics.

With all the prep work out of the way, all that’s left to do is execute your marketing plan according to your marketing calendar. While following your content calendar is important, unexpected events are inevitable. So, allow yourself some flexibility and understanding if things don’t go exactly as you had planned. 

Step 8: Monitor, review, and revise:

The final step? Tracking key performance indicators (like sales and foot traffic) and adjusting your strategy based on what’s working and what’s not.

9 restaurant marketing strategies, tips, and ideas.

Looking for inspiration to kickstart your marketing efforts? Here are some of the latest restaurant marketing ideas and trends to spark your creativity.

1. Create mouthwatering social media content.

With younger generations flocking to social media apps like Instagram and TikTok for restaurant recommendations, creating mouthwatering video content has never been more important. In fact, 55% of users visited a restaurant because the food looked appetizing on TikTok, and another 20% traveled from another city for the same reason.

2. Encourage user-generated content.

Create branded hashtags, host photo contests, or feature customer posts on your restaurant’s social media accounts to encourage more customers to share their dining experiences. Not getting the Instagram buzz you’ve been craving? Offer incentives like discounts or freebies for customers who tag your restaurant in their posts.

3. Host exclusive events.

Create buzz and attract food enthusiasts by hosting exclusive events such as chef’s tasting menus, wine pairing dinners, or cooking classes. To amplify your reach and generate even more excitement, offer local food bloggers or influencers complimentary meals or exclusive experiences in exchange for social media coverage, reviews, or sponsored posts.

4. Partner with online ordering and delivery platforms.

Although you will have to sacrifice a portion of your profits, partnering with popular food delivery apps will help you reach more customers who prefer the convenience of dining at home. Not a fan of splitting your profits? Develop your own online ordering system and offer special discounts or free delivery promotions to incentivize customers to order directly from your website.

5. Implement a customer loyalty program.

Create a loyalty program that rewards your customers for their continued support. This can be as simple as a punch card that provides a free item after a certain number of purchases, or a points system that allows customers to save up for discounts, freebies, or exclusive perks. If you opt for the latter, you’ll have the added benefit of collecting more email addresses—which can support future email marketing initiatives.

6. Engage with the local community.

Become an integral part of your local community by partnering with neighboring businesses to cross-promote each other’s offerings and attract customers. Or sponsor a local kids’ sports team and offer a discount for all those post-game celebratory dinners.

7. Build out your email list for email marketing campaigns.

Whether your customers use their email to book reservations online or to sign up for your loyalty program, you probably have a larger audience than you think. Make the most of it by sending out regular newsletters with menu updates, promotions, and exclusive offers to drive repeat business.

Bonus points for segmenting your email list based on customer preferences and behavior to deliver targeted content that resonates with each audience segment.

8. Create a buzz with limited-time offers.

Not only have limited-time offers (LTOs) been shown to boost sales by as much as 20%, but customers are 81% more likely to visit a restaurant during a limited-time offer, making it one of the best marketing strategies to attract new customers. Promote these offers through email marketing, social media posts, and targeted advertising to maximize visibility and drive foot traffic.

Don’t forget to track which specials do well as this can provide valuable insights into customer preferences for future LTOs.

9. Track your online reviews.

Our last tip? Stay on top of your online reviews—the good ones and the bad ones. Positive reviews are a great source of social proof that can be used in your marketing. And those negative ones? A polite response can minimize damage and prevent potential customers from being dissuaded from visiting your restaurant.

6 restaurant marketing tools to leverage.

Whether you’re running marketing solo or have a dedicated team, these restaurant marketing tools will streamline your efforts:

  • Google My Business: Connected to Google Maps, optimizing your Google My Business Profile makes it easy for customers to find accurate info (like your location and hours of operation), enticing photos, and positive reviews. 
  • Hootsuite: This social media management tool makes managing and scheduling posts across platforms easier and more efficient. With features like content calendars and analytics, you can stay on top of your posts, track engagement, and ensure your next campaigns are even more successful than the last. 
  • OpenTable: This online reservation platform simplifies the booking process, reduces no-shows, optimizes table availability, and eases the pressure on your front-of-house staff.
  • Mailchimp: With Mailchimp, you can automate messaging, segment your email list, and optimize your email marketing strategy with real-time reporting. 
  • Toast: This platform seamlessly merges POS and CRM functionalities to help you track customer preferences, personalize marketing efforts, manage loyalty programs, and generate detailed reports. 
  • Google Analytics: This tool provides real-time data on website traffic, user behavior, and online marketing effectiveness, making it easier to stay on top of your goals.

Restaurant marketing examples from successful businesses. 

Your restaurant’s marketing budget may never match up to McDonald’s or Chipotle’s, but learning from the best in the business? That’s always free. So, let’s use their success stories as inspiration for your next marketing initiative. 

Social media superstar: McDonald’s

What they did: McDonald’s “Raise Your Arches” campaign ingeniously captured the enthusiasm customers feel when thinking about enjoying a Big Mac or a McFlurry. By playing off the similarity between their iconic golden arches and an enthusiastic eyebrow raise, they encouraged customers to share their own eyebrow-raising videos in appreciation of their favorite McDonald’s items.

The results: With more than 5 million views on TikTok and over 1,000 posts on Instagram, this campaign was a hit—and showed why McDonald’s continues to be one of the best in the business. 

Email marketing expert: Chipotle

What they did: Knowing that many of their loyal members take pride in their unique orders, Chipotle introduced the Chipotle Doppelgänger campaign. The goal? To show that no matter how unique customers think their orders are, others are ordering the exact same thing.

The results: Within the first month, Chipotle sent out 466,000 Doppelgänger emails, achieving a click rate 176% higher than usual. The results? An impressive $4.8 million in revenue and the Gold award in Creative Data at the 2023 Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity.

How to measure the ROI of your marketing efforts. 

To determine whether your restaurant marketing plan was successful, it’s important to understand how to calculate return on investment (ROI). Here’s how:

  1. Calculate total sales during the promotion period
  2. Deduct the cost of goods sold (COGS) to find the gross profit
  3. Add up all marketing costs, including email marketing, paid ads, and physical materials
  4. Divide the gross profit by total marketing expenses to get the ROI percentage. 

What does your ROI percentage actually mean? Well, if your ROI percentage is 500%, that means for every $1.00 you spent on marketing, you made $5 in profit—showing you exactly how successful your marketing campaign was.

Mastering your restaurant marketing plan could be the difference between empty seats and a mile-long waitlist. Don’t have the time to focus on marketing with all your other duties? Let Homebase handle scheduling and time tracking, so you can spend more time growing your business—and less time sweating the small stuff.

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