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How to Run Social Media for Restaurants

For a year, I was responsible for all of the imagery, social media and digital presence for 8 restaurants. It was a bit of a impossible job because it is incredibly difficult for one human to be in 8 places at once. Either way, I did it and did it decently well and so to this day I still get emails asking if I’d do the photography and social and digital for this restaurant or that bar. When I made the leap to working for myself, I committed to focusing on photography and so I always say no to the social part of the request but perhaps it might be helpful to share some of the strategies I used. 

You’re Gonna Have to Invest 

There are a couple of ways to go about running social for a restaurant. You can either hire someone internally, hire some sort of firm (pr, marketing or social specific) or do it yourself.  You might be tempted to think that running social yourself is the lowest in terms of investment but it isn’t just about cold hard cash. On your own, you’ll still have to spend the time coming up with ideas, planning photos, executing on your ideas and then posting. 

running restaurant social media programs
Restaurant Social Media

Sometimes a restauranteur will point to some Instagram account run by a 21 year old with 200,000 followers and say something along the lines of “how hard can it be?!” (one of the many reasons I no longer run digital accounts for restaurants). Yes, a lot of young people are successful on social media but no, that doesn’t make it easy. It’s like watching a gymnast do a perfect floor routine and thinking that you could also win an Olympic gold medal because a 16 year old did it. 

This isn’t to say that digital media isn’t fun. It’s just that of the billion active users on Instagram, 5.7% have over 10,000 follow. In essence, being part of the 10,000+ club is more exclusive than Harvard Business School which Google tells me admitted 9.9% of all applicants in 2017. Am I comparing two irrelevant things? Maybe, but you get the point. It’s damn hard.

Ready to get started? Audit first 

If you’ve decided to take social media seriously, I would highly recommend first doing an audit of what you’ve done thus far and what has done well and what hasn't. You can break this down a number of ways. I personally used to go through every single post from the last 3 months with a different tab on a spreadsheet for each platform. There are services that will do this analysis automatically but I think that doing it manually is more effective because it forces you to look at every single thing. Our brains love patterns and this is just a big game of pattern recognition. 

Anyway, I always tracked different things for each platform. For example, on Instagram, I would create categories for types of posts, track likes, comments, time and day of the post. Once I had everything for the last 3 months, I would sort it by the best and worst performing posts. 

The audit should then guide everything you do moving forward. Social platforms are built around algorithms. Trying to figure out the specifics of all the algorithms is not a good use of your time but you can figure out what is specifically working for your accounts. Take the bottom 25% posts and look for patterns. You don’t want to keep doing those things. Sometimes it’s content. Sometimes it’s a stylistic thing. With restaurants, I always found that graphics would preform horribly on Instagram (but perfectly well on Facebook). Then take the top 25% of posts and again, look for patterns. You want to recreate the successful patterns. 

Pick your style 

Social Media Style Guide

Once you have your audit and a sense of what works, create a style guide. This may seem frivolous but it’ll be essential as you move forward, especially if you have multiple people working on your social media accounts. 

I always tried to keep style guides down to a page and very clear so even if someone just glanced at it, they’d have a decent sense of the look and tone to aim towards. I usually structured these with notes on tone, a few accounts to look at for digital inspiration, 6 sample images and notes for visual direction. 

Included is slightly edited down guide that I made. When I was starting out as a creative, I always found brand and style guidelines incredibly helpful and tried to recreate that for social media. Below are 2 images I took for 2 different locations. They’re distinct and were created with the guidelines in mind.

How to run social media for restaurants
How to run social media for restaurants

Create content

Once you have a set style guide, you have to start thinking about the types of images you need to create and how they can work with the various platforms. Generally, I always thought about Instagram first because it required the most photography and then made sure that whatever photos I took could also work for Twitter, Facebook, email marketing and print promotions. 

One of the many reasons I left the restaurant group I worked at was because it was always extremely evident that photography and digital media were at the bottom of the priority list. If you’re going to tackle social media you have to commit time and resources to regularly create content. At a minimum, I would recommend scheduling 2 photoshoots per month. From there, map out 2 to 3 posts for at least 2 weeks out with some time slots left blank for last minute things. If you can’t commit to that, you probably won’t get much out of your social media.  

How to run social media for a restaurant
How to run social for a restaurant

Practice consistency

Try not to think of social media as a creative outlet. If you want a creative outlet, start a blog or start a personal Instagram account or have a bit of silliness on Instagram stories. For a business account, you need to think of it as a marketing channel first and resist the urge to post whatever you want.

During an audit, I would generally identify 3 to 4 different types of posts that would do particularly well (behind the scenes, ingredient spotlight, how to’s, new dishes, staff highlight, specials, etc.) and from there would recommend creating more of those types of posts. This is a very simplistic explanations of how most accounts grow beyond 1,000 followers. You figure out what works and repeat it. 

In my opinion, consistency is the hardest aspect of attaining any sort of social media “success”. Anything you have to do consistently becomes work. It requires diligence and follow through. This is why I spent a whole bunch of paragraphs at the beginning on a soap box hollering about investing because if you don’t, you won’t follow through when practicing consistency starts to feel boring.

Track and develop goal metrics

To grow, you have to know what’s working and what isn’t and the only way to do that is to track things analytically. With social media, you have tons of data available and it constantly refreshes. It is a treasure trove of constant feedback.

One of the things I always did when I ran restaurant accounts is I would find the average number of likes for a typical post on Instagram and compare everything against that. Let’s say that 250 likes was average for the account. If I posted something that got 180 likes, then I would consider that an “unsuccessful” post. If something got 330 likes, then I would consider that “successful”. 

Every 6 months, I would redo the audit and tweak the style guides. 

How to run social media for a restaurant

Tracking is almost as hard as consistency. Most people hate hearing that something isn’t working. I get it. My Instagram account is a strange mix of personal and business and I sometimes feel that I should track what’s working and what isn’t but I don’t. My account started out as a personal project of sorts so I want to hold onto that but if you’re a business you need to emotionally separate. Think of your social media not as a creative extension of yourself but as another marketing channel. If you can admit that something isn’t working, you can course correct. If you do that, then you’re just doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again. 

So I worked on these 8 accounts for a year. During that year, 5 of the 8 accounts crossed 10,000 followers and the other 3 crossed right after I left. This strategy works and it is replicable.

Bonus Round: giveaways, influencers, contests and new social features and platforms

All of the above steps are the slow and steady path towards growth. It works but can at times feel tedious. There are strategies that can help accelerate your social media growth (that won’t have you looking up the exact definition of fraud) but they’re not guaranteed and come with their own hassle. 

Giveaways 

People respond to what you consistently share. If you’re consistently doing giveaways, you’ll definitely build an audience but they’ll be there for giveaways and that audience probably won’t help your restaurant business. An occasional giveaway seems fine but I wouldn’t do it more than once or twice a year. 

A lot of bloggers and influencers do giveaways and you might be tempted to mimic their strategies but you should consider the gap in your ultimate goals first. Their goal is to grow their audience as quickly as possible and as large as they can in order to leverage that into more paid sponsorship work. It doesn’t matter if their new followers are only around because they want a $500 gift card, they can still be counted as an impression. As a restaurant, you want your social media audience to translate into folks that will stop in and have a meal. If you have followers that only engage to get free things, you aren’t really helping yourself. 

Influencers

My only advice for working with influencers is to do your research. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a well intentioned, legit influencer from a Fyre Festival style hot mess. 

Ask for recommendations from other restaurants. Follow folks you think might be good to work with. If you have a PR agency or social agency, they can help navigate this sort of thing. 

I’ve been on both sides of the “influencer” equation. When I worked at a restaurant group, I was involved in a few influencer dinners and events. Some people were great. They came, they posted, and they were totally gracious. Some influencers weren’t great, no horror stories just a few meh moments. I didn’t do enough of these sorts of things to track the overall impact so I don’t have a firm conclusion here. 

On the flip side, since I have over 40,000 followers on Instagram, I get hit up for influencer style posts by restaurants somewhat regularly (I’d say up to 4 to 5 times a week). These days, unless I know the people involved and/or like the place, I pass. One, I never want to recommend something I don’t love. Two, sometimes the behind the scenes is a hot mess and that’s not fun. Three, for me, photography is my main focus and it can be difficult to draw the line between my photography work and taking photos as an influencer. 

Contests

Personally, I was a huge fan of running contests and trivia style posts that encouraged enthusiasm but didn’t rely on a tangible giveaway. For example, contests for people to suggest new flavors or dish ideas. The reward was often structured so that the winning idea would go on the menu for some specified amount of time.  These were always really fun to run and people would get super competitive about their ideas.

How to run social media for restaurants

New Social Platform Features

Being an early adopter can be a huge boon. When Instagram introduced video, it promoted accounts that did videos. When they introduced IGTV, they promoted accounts that did IGTV posts. Quickly trying out new features and finding ways to use them is one way that you can combine creative and social media growth goals. 

Decide whether to Fake it till you make it or not

There are a lot of shenanigans on social media. You can buy followers and likes and interactions. If you’re running your own social media account and you decide to buy engagement, that’s up to you. I personally think it’s a waste of time.

If you decide to hire someone, I would recommend being very upfront if you do or don’t want purchased engagement and keep all of your accounts linked to emails that only you have access to.