Here we name our top marketing tools of 2012. They may not be surprises, but to some restaurant owners, they may be wakeup calls. Each present opportunities for restaurant owners to increase their business. This year it is Foursquare, Facebook and OpenTable If we are to look at the trajectory of the three: Foursquare and Facebook are growing in importance. OpenTable is hovering or even slightly declining, but is still powerful. Although they are helpful, a good website is the central piece of a restaurant’s online marketing strategy. Start there and then incorporate other platforms.

1. Foursquare

Foursquare is a geolocation application for smartphones where users “check-in” at venues such as a restaurant, bar or arena. Foursquare has 15 million users worldwide; half are in the US. The average user makes about 50 check-ins a year (but that average is including the chunk that signed up and do not use it). After users check-in at a venue, Foursquare notifies their Foursquare friends and other users at the same location. Customers can post tips on a venue’s Foursquare site that gives visitors suggestions about the venue.

Restaurant Opportunities Foursquare enables restaurant owners to offer deals on Foursquare. This is part of the appeal of Foursqaure to users. There are several different varieties of deals but they all involve checking-in. A member of your staff makes sure the customers has checked-in. Some of the deals work to encourage loyalty while others focus on drawing new customers in.

Benefits Foursquare is our first choice because restaurant owners can run a deal over Foursquare for free. After a restaurant owner claims their venue, it is easy to set up a deal (you are allowed two at a time). Foursquare users in your area will see the deal and this will drive traffic to your restaurant. It’s free and if you have any interest in appealing to customers under 35 (the Foursquare demographic), you should a post a deal on Foursquare.

2. Facebook

Facebook is the center of the social media universe. Half of your customers are on it if not more. There is a lot to Facebook, but there are two aspects central to a restaurant marketing. The first is a restaurant’s Facebook Page, a kind of website for businesses on Facebook. You need to create your Facebook Page. If your restaurant has a Facebook Place already, you should claim it and merge it with the Facebook Page. There is no use in making your life difficult. A restaurant owner also should understand the tools that help customers share your restaurant. One of these are the LIKE buttons that appear on websites.

Customer Engagement Your Facebook Page is a place to convey information, represent your brand, and most importantly, engage with customers. If managed correctly, your Facebook Fans can become like a second email list. The difference is that it will be interactive. The interactive component allows for deeper engagement with your current customers. This takes dedication but it pays off as you can access your customers 365 days a year with less risk of irritating them (Facebook News Feeds algorithms are good at anticipating the users interests).

Sharing to Acquire New Customers Another required part of Facebook is sharing. You want customers to share info about your restaurant with their friends, whether it is by a customer liking your restaurant or commenting on it. This is the primary way that you can gain new customers on Facebook (much more challenging than engagement). There are many strategies for doing this. After installing the appropriate tools, it comes down to creating value. Generally, customers find this value in your brand, promotions or online content. People will always share what they find to be interesting or useful.

Facebook Ads Facebook Ads are getting better to, so if you need an extra push, you should look into if they will benefit you. Facebook is good at targeting the right customer and mixing the ad into the user experience.

3. OpenTable

You need an online restaurant reservation tool and OpenTable is the biggest. OpenTable costs money (and can be expensive), but it has become the main online broker for restaurant reservations in the US. Some customers, especially in major markets, have skipped making a phone call or going to a restaurant’s website and go instead directly to OpenTable’s website. This is good and bad.

With more than 20,000 restaurants worldwide, not being on OpenTable could put you at a competitive disadvantage. You miss the customers that go to OpenTable’s website or use their mobile app without doing a general search through Google or Yelp. It’s more of being left out than getting a head start. But the consequences of being left out varies widely for different restaurants. We aren’t opposed to other online reservation tools (in fact, some are better values like Livebookings), but they aren’t nearly as powerful a marketing tool because the reservations primarily go through the restaurant’s website. Also choosing OpenTable is reliant on your website. If you really invested in online marketing, OpenTable becomes less significant.

A Future With More Competition This recommendation comes even though we hope that OpenTable’s competitors will be able to capture part of the market, creating real competition. With more competition, customers will be more likely then to visit the restaurant’s website. Restaurants would therefore gain more control over their marketing destiny. I advocate normally going with OpenTable Connect first where you don’t pay the monthly fee, but pay $2.50 a head when it goes through OpenTable’s website ($.25 from your own).

All About Your Restaurant OpenTable’s marketing importance is related to region, customer demographics and what your competitors are doing. Having online reservation tool is becoming almost obligatory, but there are other restaurant reservation tools that will do this just fine. For example, OpenTable may have different value for a restaurant in Harlem (traditional African American cultural heart of NYC) and a restaurant in the Upper East Side (the priciest residential area of NYC), although they are only a couple miles away from each other. In Brooklyn, there is only 76 restaurants with OpenTable, a small percentage. That’s different than the 1300 in Manhattan. Check out if your competition is using OpenTable (check if they are completely booked and compare that to your restaurant) and see if restaurants on OpenTable are taking business away from you.

The Big Picture

The general trend in online marketing is not an increased emphasis on the tools, but how they are used. A set-it-and-forget-it attitude will be more damaging in the future. More of your competitors are learning the value of online marketing, so just being present won’t do the trick anymore. You will have to invest either your time or money into online marketing to not be left behind.