Restaurants thrive by reaching out to the local community via social media
By Jeffrey Kingman

Recently I read a statistic that 75% of a restaurant’s customers come from the ten square block neighborhood the restaurant is in. Successful restaurateurs and chefs instinctively know the local core is their bread and butter. They work hard to develop and nurture this village constantly.

Do you know how to nurture this village and identify which of your customers are from your local neighborhood? How can you search out and invite locals who have never been to your business? What methods do you use to grow your village or local customer base?

Those who provide marketing services to today’s restaurants often hawk solutions geared at generating the broadest and most dispersed messaging, basically promoting the concept that shouting from the rooftop with a bullhorn will drive traffic to you. There are many bulk-text-messaging, bulk-email and “social media experts” pitching their tactics to operators.

While there is value to savvy deployment of these tactics, better results may be derived by networking to your immediate neighborhood. The old adage says the most effective method is all about “word of mouth.” Many operators participate in local events and non-profit activities to network themselves into the community. They promote farmers’ markets, walk-a-thons and neighborhood fairs. They advertise in local print publications (spending hard cash with questionable return). Many operators join local clubs and organizations, such as Rotary chapters, and host their meetings.

These methods are just several tools in the restaurant’s marketing toolbox demanding consistent attention and resourcing. Finding new customers from within your local community is much easier today using the social web than using phone books of thirty years ago, searching the local listings for certain prefixes or neighborhoods after a person’s listing. The process is basically the same; it is the tool that has changed. Social web based, these applications are fairly easy to adopt and mostly just take a little time to use.

Again, the goal is to identify and invite consumers from your immediate neighborhood to stop in – new customers who have never visited, as well as using these same methods to deepen connections with existing customers.

Very briefly, here are some of the free tools you can use to build connections to your village.

In Twitter, you can search for users by zip code or city. Simply type either into the search box and a list will return organized top-down by each user’s number of followers (ranking them by their social graph). You can message them, inviting them to visit. You might also invite them by offering a small discount if they follow you. Following those makes for reciprocity in relationship.

Facebook is a little bit limited in this area. If you choose to spend a few dollars a day, you can set up targeted Facebook advertising, setting demographic parameters such as zip code and age group. Simply click “Ads and Pages” on the left column, choose how much you wish to spend each day, set the demographics, create an ad and roll. A more involved method is to search the Facebook users in your area and invite them to become fans or friends. To do this, search for users in your community. It is advisable to copy a short welcoming message into your invitation to connect; something that isn’t spammy.

Geo-Location Services
There are several Geo-Location services on the web, such as Foursquare or Gowalla. These applications are mobile-driven, encouraging people to visit a restaurant or business as much as possible in a gaming format. Monitoring these services, searching for people checking into your local competitors and inviting them to try you, could easily help grow your business. Rewarding the top “players” or visitors to your business is a fun and creative vehicle for building business, but why not provide something to the top visitors to your competition to lure them to visit you?

Specialized Applications
With all the applications coming into the mobile marketplace, there are fun and interesting ways to connect with local customers. You might consider participating with an app like Beer2Buds, which lets people buy their friends drinks, appetizers or desserts for their friends via cell phones. If your restaurant is signed up with Beer2Buds, anyone in the world can send a coupon to someone in your community, redeemable at your restaurant. The local gets a text message or email alerting them to the gift and “biff, bam, boom”, they are in your store spending money. You could also send these coupons to those local potential customers you’ve identified, as a way to ask them to visit.

Here’s the future for restaurants and the opportunity is right now. After Google, YouTube is the second most popular search engine in the world. How can you use the power of YouTube to connect with local customers? YouTube offers branded and targeted outreach to customers. You can be as specific as you like in demographic specificity. The best part is local customers can subscribe to your channel, receiving notifications when you’ve published new content. You could also upload video content from every local event your restaurant participates in, making sure to ‘tag’ the videos with the event titles, key people and localities, so that when people do use search engines for your neighborhood (Google, Bing, YouTube), your videos come up in those results, based on your local community.

These are just a few of the village building tools available on the web. But you’ll only find great success by remembering that the most compelling communication will offer great content. Simply listing the special of the day by text doesn’t get you the return on time investment that publishing content about local community issues and events will. Show you are committed to your local community — just as you do with sponsoring the local softball league — by communicating through the web, and the community will engage and embrace you online. And come in for a meal.