Restaurateurs can use lots of technology and online resources to market and grow their businesses. Modern advertising ideas include traditional advertising, Internet advertising and advertising that targets your customers while they’re in the restaurant. Smart marketing strategies use elements of all these promotional options to build a restaurant brand and engage the restaurant’s core customers while keeping costs manageable.

Criteria for Choosing Marketing Ideas

You need to research any marketing idea and consider if there are any risks, or unexpected results could generate a customer backlash or make the idea counterproductive. For example, the Casa Sanchez taqueria in California offered free lunches for life to any customer who got the company’s logo tattooed on him- or herself. Not expecting that people would take the offer seriously, the company immediately got 40 fans who sported the tattoos. The math for providing free lunches for 40 people for 50 years (if they used the free-lunch option every day) totaled $5.8 million. The company quickly limited their offer to the first 50 people, once again proving that there’s no such things as a free lunch.

Savvy marketers consider all aspects of their promotions, including worst-case scenarios. Providing lunch every day for 50 or more years would certainly qualify as a big negative. Return on investment is always important. Consider the following questions before trying any marketing idea:

  • Can the staff handle the increased business?
  • Is there a better way to get the same result?
  • Does the idea match the restaurant’s concept and customers?
  • What are the risks?
  • Could competitors sabotage the plan?
  • Could the idea offend customers or the public?
  • Are there any legal considerations?
  • How can you analyze the results?

If you can’t measure the results and receive solid returns that exceed the cost of the marketing campaign, then it is usually not a good idea. The exception would be promotional ideas that are meant for public relations, generating publicity or responding to negative publicity or complaints.

Digital Advertising Ideas

The major keys to successful digital marketing are targeting your audience and interacting with them. That’s what drives the success of Internet marketing to such extraordinary levels that it has almost made traditional advertising methods obsolete.

Your Portal to the Universe

The prime directive for effective digital advertising is building a home base or website. Everything you do online ultimately connects to your site, so getting and maintaining an attractive, informative and responsive website should be your first priority. Your website can be your strongest marketing tool.

Use the Press

Most restaurants don’t fully capitalize on their positive press, but you can repost favorable reviews, mentions, awards and accolades. Sharing information with your fans about your staff, honors, awards and milestones boosts morale and enhances your online reputation. You can find local bloggers and offer them a free incentive if they mention your restaurant.
If an event has publicity value, issue a press release and distribute it to your customer base, local news outlets and social media.

Finding mentions of your restaurant can be a simple process. Just set up a Google alert to monitor issues and keywords that affect you and your business. Check to see that online directories list your restaurant and have the latest contact details correct.

You can also generate publicity while humanizing your restaurant by posting pictures and videos online. You can convert your customer’s mentions of your restaurant to marketing gold by offering customers who mention your name a special incentive or recognition.

Posting Authoritative Content

Post recipes or cooking tips from your chef, or promote culinary news online to build your restaurant’s reputation for posting authoritative content. You’ll get better links, free publicity and a reputation for expertise that convinces businesses and consumers to seek your advice about catering events, cooking, menu planning and other issues.

The key to success when posting material is using original content. That doesn’t mean that you have to a send a team of investigative journalists to interview CEOs and go undercover in local restaurant kitchens. Just research articles about current trends, paraphrase the information, add a soupçon of relevant real-time social media content and voila — original content that’s fresh, timely and relates to your restaurant, concept or upcoming events.

Another great marketing idea for restaurants is to make your customers, vendors and staff into media stars. You can publicize the accomplishments of your staff, customers and vendors on your website and share the stories with your contacts. This strategy builds customer loyalty and increases your network of followers.

Upload Videos for Marketing Benefits

Your advertising prospects can’t smell or taste food on the Internet, so give them the next best thing. Photos and videos can show what your foods look like and capture your customers while they’re enjoying the food and ambience. You can even post material in real-time during special events to attract customers. Consider hiring a comedian to host a short video and engage a wide audience. You can also offer cooking demonstrations, recipes, and behind-the-scenes looks to engage customers.

Start a Blog

Starting a blog on your website allows you to promote your food, cuisine and reputation. More people are using the Internet to find restaurants, read reviews, order online and make reservations. A blog can dramatically strengthen your digital reputation, SEO ranking and ability to build your database for newsletters, digital marketing and email campaigns. The stronger the impression that your website makes, the more publicity you’ll get from media outlets and review sites. You can get even more mileage from your blog by publishing posts by guest authors.

Creative SEO Ideas

Creativity isn’t really an accepted way to optimize your site for generic searches. You want people to find your restaurant using common keywords and simple queries that usually focus on your cuisine, prices and concept. However, creative ideas can get you noticed by customers and help you get quality links to your website and social pages. Creative SEO strategies might include the following ideas for building links and connections:

  • Blogging about current events
  • Supporting community and charitable causes
  • Partnering with local bloggers
  • Getting listed on directories and review sites
  • Taking part on Foursquare

Offline or Traditional Restaurant Advertising

Even classic advertising strategies get better results when you cross-promote and use technology. Traditional restaurant advertising includes billboards, newspaper advertising, radio and television ads, word-of-mouth referrals, yellow pages listings and advertising, magazine ads and articles, bus benches and flyers. Restaurants also can issue press releases to media outlets for free publicity to promote events, support fundraising efforts, announce menu changes and promoting other restaurant marketing initiatives.

There are times when traditional advertising is appropriate, especially for reaching older customers who might not use computers. You also want to keep your name in front of local newspapers, radio stations and television affiliates because they can provide free publicity. Advertising occasionally makes a sound business practice, but most restaurants limit their traditional advertising to about 20 percent of their budgets.

Menu Marketing Crosses Platform Lines

Menu marketing is a powerful tool that provides marketing benefits online and in-house while satisfying the most basic goals of all traditional advertising. Your menu design has tremendous marketing importance, so don’t neglect this pillar of your marketing efforts. Ideas for better menu marketing include:

  • Keep your menu simple and easy to read with fonts bigger than 12 points.
  • Tell a story about your concept, sourcing strategy or preparation methods to ignite interest.
  • Current marketing trends favor using natural materials, nostalgic menu items and artisan aesthetics.
  • Provide information about your suppliers.
  • Use only the highest quality photos that depict your real food, and never use stock photos.
  • If using digital menus on tablets, you should still have physical menus available.
  • Get your physical menu posted where customers and passersby can view it, and post your menu online on your website, Facebook and third-party ordering sites.
  • Distribute copies of your menu with carryout and delivery orders.

Event Marketing

Something’s always happening in your community, and you can get a big promotional boost by taking part in community events and celebrations. Ideas range from selling food at fairs and festivals to sponsoring races, marathons and charity fundraisers. You might offer free meeting space to organizers for planning sessions.

You can also create your own special events such as holiday promotions and food, wine and beer tastings. Host a singles party or dance. You can run ads for these events in digital, traditional and in-house advertising.

Leveraging Business Clients

You can market to local business to book catering jobs, deliveries, private parties and meetings. Another great idea is to host a business lunch for business executives who meet people from the area at each session — like a blind date for making networking contacts. These lunches are becoming popular in many cities, and if you don’t have a local group hosting these events, you can start your own.


You can offer incentives on your cash register receipts or other restaurant materials to encourage repeat business and measure your response to advertising. Restaurant managers can offer special incentives to customers on a case-by-case basis, but a loyalty program is also an effective way to encourage repeat business. You can craft your own loyalty program, join with a third-party provider of rewards services or use the program that’s built into your POS system. However, some loyalty programs also promote your competitors, so you should consider the benefits and costs carefully.

Direct Marketing

There are many ways you can market directly to prospects, such as distributing flyers, sending direct mail, providing catering services or renting out your facilities for meetings, celebrations and parties. Some restaurants actually hire a coordinator to handle these alternative sales to boost bookings. You can target special groups to market food and services, such as promoting wedding rehearsal dinners, custom cakes for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries or box lunches to business groups and other organizations.

Preaching to the Choir: In-House Restaurant Marketing

You have a choice of digital marketing tools that connect your restaurant to its customers like never before. Restaurants can also gain benefits by advertising on radio, cable networks, billboards, newspapers and magazines. However, nothing works better than marketing to your customers in-house.

Your customers are the classic captive audience, so don’t waste the opportunity. In-house advertising options include signage, table tents, menus, suggestive selling and providing attentive customer service. Getting customers to spend more money and come back is easier than finding new customers, and your efforts to market your restaurant in-house produce better results for the following reasons:

  • You can sell suggestively to increase guest checks in real-time.
  • The people in your restaurant are more favorably disposed to your restaurant than generic audiences — after all, they’ve already visited at least once.
  • People might not realize some of the other products and services that you sell.
  • Expert handling of customer service issues can turn complaints into sales.
  • Most in-house marketing costs little or no money.
  • Offering in-house customers coupons and bouncebacks for their next visit encourages them to return.

Digital Signs and Menu Boards

Classic menu boards are still effective for promoting daily specials. You can use a sandwich board outside the restaurant and a chalk or dry-erase board inside. An even more effective way to market in-house is by using a digital sign. You can send customized advertising messages to your customers, promote specials, advertise events and cross-promote your website and digital advertising.

Communicating with Your Customers

Communicating with your customers has always been important for any kind of marketing success. When your customers are in your dining room, you have an opportunity to find about their likes and dislikes, families and other information that you can use in marketing. Of course, you can’t remember every detail, and you never know which server will wait on each customer. That’s why it’s important to record your business intelligence where others can access and use it when customers are in the house.

You can list seating preferences, favorite foods and specials, birthdays, anniversaries, hobbies, favored beverages and the sports teams that customers like. Building a database of information proves invaluable for in-house sales and digital promotions.

Communications also involve your staff members who are your greatest marketing resource. Chatty servers can discover valuable information, and servers affect sales by selling suggestively, informing customers about upcoming events and pushing items that the kitchen needs to move.

Reinforcing Your Staff

No matter how good your servers are, they can’t always mention everything to every customer. That’s why you need to reinforce your messages on the menu and through signage, flyers and posters. Advertising your specials and promotions on multiple channels reduces the risk that customers won’t hear about an advertising campaign, special or event.

Mashup Ideas for Cross-Promotions

You can reinforce you Internet and traditional advertising by cross-promoting your campaigns in real-time in the restaurant. Your digital signs can encourage customers to check out your website, Facebook Page or follow the restaurant on Twitter. You can even display your social media pages on digital monitors.

If you produce a commercial for television, you can also post in on YouTube, your website or as a podcast. Mention the ad on your digital sign, table tents or menu board to further cross-promote the video. One innovative approach involves using a portable Wi-Fi on an LCD stand to display your restaurant’s digital marketing in lobbies or high-traffic areas.

Simple hybrid ideas might include promoting a photo contest digitally or advertising a drawing for a free meal from business cards that are left at the restaurant. Both Internet and in-house audiences can submit materials to win, but this is essentially an in-house promotion. Other ideas for cross-promotions include:

  • Pooling mailing lists with complementary and noncompetitive local businesses
  • Selling branded products at the restaurant for other companies and promoting the products on the restaurant’s website and social media pages
  • Using flyers, postcards, door hangers and posters to promote the restaurant’s digital presence
  • Organizing joint social media contests and promotions that involve physical actions at the restaurant
  • Inviting bloggers, reporters, radio personalities and others to the restaurant to review the food or serve as a guest bartender or server
  • Hosting live radio or television broadcasts

Hold a Multichannel Tasting Event

You could generate a lot of publicity by hosting a multichannel tasting event where customers could photograph the food and send Tweets and texts over the Internet. You might even involve local radio or television stations to broadcast or cover the event.

Fresh Marketing Ideas Become Increasingly Crucial

Marketing ideas aren’t just ways to increase sales; they’re crucial to business success in today’s competitive food industry. Marketing isn’t the same as it was for past generations — customers want to know more details, regardless of where you’re advertising. And no matter where you advertise, you can use digital marketing insights and technology to fine-tune your promotions, target your audience, analyze your results and cross-promote every campaign in multiple forums.