Do You Need to Pay for Facebook Marketing?

Tips for helping your restaurant get ahead of the curve using Facebook for Business

Don’t take it personally if you’ve noticed that hardly anyone “likes” your restaurant’s Facebook page lately. It’s not you. Really.

Once seen as a free, easy way for restaurants to promote themselves, Facebook has changed so much over the past few years that the site is now considered “pay to play.” Because of the social media site’s algorithm changes, only 6 to 7 percent of people who like a business’ page see its updates in their news feed, experts say. 

That means chefs can update their Facebook pages as often as they turn on a burner, but if no one is getting those posts, it’s like shouting inside the walk-in: No one can hear you. 

Today, more restaurants have to rely on Facebook ads and boosted posts to get fans’ attention. But this doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and spending money shouldn’t be your only social media strategy. 

Chicago’s Latin fusion hot spot Carnivale doubled its Facebook likes from 7,000 to more than 14,000 in the past year. This online spike has translated into real-world traffic, too: Carnivale had more check-ins via Facebook on Mother’s Day 2014 than any other restaurant in the city.

But Carnivale hasn’t emptied its coffers to buy such social media success, says Dakota Shultz, principal at Agency 360, a Chicago marketing agency that works with Carnivale and other restaurants. And Jeff Ernst, chief operating officer and co-founder of Smync, a Nebraska-based social engagement and advocate platform, says it’s possible to attain as high as 30 percent organic reach. Try these tips for social media success:

Encourage interaction. The more people who interact on your page, the more your page will be shown to others. That means posts should encourage both comments (by asking a question or encouraging patrons to post photos of their meal) and sharing (by providing recipes, chef’s tips or quick videos of the kitchen). 

Don’t just promote yourself—be a member of your community, sharing neighbors’ successes and events. “It is called ‘social media,’ not ‘advertising media’ for a reason,” says Lindsey Myers, account manager for WordHampton Public Relations Inc., a New York-based firm that handles social media strategies. But be aware of the commitment that social media requires. “If people are tagging you and writing to you, you better be there to respond,” says Dave Delaney, author of “New Business Networking.” 

Use pictures. Experts agree that the algorithms favor posts with photos and videos. The quality of photos matters, too. At Beverly Hills, California’s Ice Cream Lab, co-owner Joseph Lifschutz says the liquid nitrogen-fueled dessert shop’s posts weren’t getting much engagement. “In the beginning, Tommy (Ngan, co-founder) and I would post a picture of writing on the (menu) board of what the new flavor was. Now we post high-res photos of the ice cream itself, and that gets a lot more engagement.” 

Keep perspective. If content isn’t getting traffic, don’t despair. Yes, 6 percent organic reach is low. But there’s no medium that reaches all your prospective customers, so keep expectations realistic.

Spread the word. A small tabletop or menu plug encouraging diners to engage with the restaurant on Facebook is the first step. “If patrons don’t know to look for your deals and specials on Facebook, how do you expect to grow that follower community?” asks Vincent Ferrer, content marketing strategist at Graphic D-Signs Inc.

Build a budget. When organic reach isn’t doing what you need, it’s time to pay to play. Some experts spend as little as $2 a day to get results. Myers suggests new clients spend at least $15 a day for a two-pronged approach that includes ads to encourage page likes and a weekly targeted promoted post. Remember, though, your objective is to get diners, not likes, says Bill Sipper, managing partner of Cascadia Managing Brands in Ramsey, New Jersey. 

Target ads at a specific demographic or more broadly, depending on your marketing objectives. More important, measure your success. If a discount is offered on Facebook, make sure it’s coded so you accurately track and measure its effectiveness. 

Margaret Littman is a Nashville, Tennessee-based food, business and travel writer.

Digital Exclusive 

Why Facebook? 

Yes, other social media networks exist. Some have more transparent formulas for connecting you with their users and are more popular with younger diners. But Facebook is the biggest network by far: 1.32 billion users compared with Twitter’s 271 million. So even a sliver of Facebook users is worth supersizing. 

Don’t ignore Twitter, Instagram (now owned by Facebook) and even Pinterest and Snapchat. Food enthusiasts like photos, which means photo-centric networks are good fits for restaurants, says Dakota Shultz, principal at Agency 360, a Chicago-based marketing agency.

It’s generally not considered best practice to present the same content on multiple networks, says Shultz. But if limited resources make it necessary, featuring the same content across the board is easy to arrange with automated systems that link Facebook content to Twitter. Jeff Ernst, chief operating officer and co-founder of social media marketing firm Smync, recommends apps like Hootsuite that allow you to manage multiple networks in one place. 

But even making small tweaks—with shorter 140-character posts with the same message on Twitter or photos with fancy filters on Instagram—can help you reach different audiences.