When it comes to running a restaurant (or bar), it’s a challenge simply to stay afloat.

There are many things that can go wrong (at any time).

Customer complaints, defective product(s), safety evaluations, permit renewal delays, absentee employees, sudden rent increases, equipment breakdowns… the list goes on. On top of the usual challenges of running a business, restaurant owners and managers have to contend with razor thin margins and the competition from VC-backed food delivery services.

So how does one even find the time for marketing and promotion? And where to begin?

We recommend a simple strategy: stick to the basics, find out what seems to be working, and repeat every day (or at least once a week). In greater detail:

Step 0. Refine your offering until it’s best it can possibly be.

Would you take your mother to your own restaurant? If not, improve the product (and/or service) until you would be proud to serve anyone. This is a marketing plan, after all – there’s little point marketing a bad offer.

Of course, there are cases where product or service refinement might not even be necessary. Maybe your restaurant is the only place that serves Mexican food in the entire city. Or you own a bar that has exclusive access to out-of-state microbreweries. If there’s demand and no competition, you win by default.

In a competitive market, however, you will have to stand out – through a superior product, exemplary service, or both. Ideally, the experience of eating at your establishment is so enjoyable that patrons start raving about your business to their friends and family. Once the word starts getting out, it’s time to move on to Step 1: laying the groundwork for a full restaurant marketing strategy.

Step 1. Set up your local business listings on Google and Bing.

Forget the Yellow Pages – it’s all online now. People use search engines to look up just about everything, and it’s exactly how they would find your business (even if accidentally). Google and Bing together comprise almost 100% of the U.S. search market, so getting listed by those two should be done quickly.

Important things to remember as you’re doing this:

  • Make sure you fill out as many fields as possible (e.g. address, opening hours, telephone). Double check to make sure that the address is accurate, as this will show up as a pin on the Maps interface (regardless of search engine).
  • Include photos! This will make your listing stand out.

Step 2. If there’s a local listing directory site that’s popular in your area (e.g. Yelp), get on it!

In many markets (e.g. major cities), Yelp has become the default site/app that people check for local business recommendations.

When you get a chance, claim your business page and complete the listing profile (filling out all details).

Note: there have been many complaints about Yelp in the past, both from customers and business owners. Ultimately, it’s up to them as to how they decide to rank restaurants (in search results) or treat overly critical customer reviews. We still feel that it’s better to be on Yelp (or similar sites) than not – there’s just too much site traffic to pass up.

Bad reviews, by the way, do not have to spell the end of your business. On both Google and Yelp, a business owner has the ability to respond directly (and publicly) to all reviews. Even if there’s a particularly nasty comment, you can take the high road and simply thank the user for their input. Even showing up on the comments section is a great indicator to anyone reading that you’re aware of the situation, and actively try to improve on past mistakes. Don’t shy away from online customer interaction.

OPTIONAL: Set up a separate business website.

Given that so many online directory services already exist for local businesses, a separate website (e.g. your own .com) is not 100% required. With that said, it may make sense to spin one up anyway, as a way to keep all your links and social media profiles organized.

These days, we recommend going with one of the major “website builder” services – Wix, Weebly, or Squarespace. The first two offer free plans, and all three make it very easy to get a website live in minutes. Better yet, all of them feature a wide range of pre-made templates to use (make sure you select a “mobile responsive” theme – one that will scale well across all devices).

Our advice is to keep all the writing on your site as simple as possible. Less words, more pictures. Make sure the key information is visible at all times–your physical address, telephone number, and opening hours. If possible, include a picture of the menu.

If you set up a website, don’t forget to update all the previous profile pages (Google, Bing, Yelp, etc.) with your website URL.

So now you’ve got a great product, and a way for people to find you online. Now it’s time to give your customers the tools to talk about the business.

Step 3. Register social media profiles (Instagram, Twitter) and create a Facebook Page.

There are a hundred places where you could register a social media account – we recommend keeping it simple and sticking to these three. What to do with each one:

Instagram: this is all about photos. Use this account to post pictures of your offerings (dishes, cocktails) or document significant events at your business (party, milestone, etc.). Always post with the same hashtag, and encourage your customers to do the same.

Twitter: a great way to keep people informed of what’s new – whether it’s a promotion, seasonal special, or even a change of address.

Facebook Business Page: there are a lot of features to make use of here. You can upload pictures, post updates, and get customer feedback. In addition, you can even use Facebook Ads to promote your listing to particular groups of users. For many local businesses, this could even serve in place of a separate website.

On any of these services, don’t expect thousands of “followers” or “likes” overnight. A strong social media profile will come with time. The key, as we discuss in the next section, is being consistent and staying the course.

Step 4. Set up a regular social media posting routine.

At this point, you have probably registered half a dozen accounts on various sites and services. For now, there’s no need to sign up for anything else online. The goal is to make good use of all the tools you already have.

Your search engine listings (Google/Bing), directory profile (Yelp), and website serve as a solid foundation – while customer reviews will appear over time, the general information stays the same. Check in at least once every two weeks to make sure all the details are updated and consistent. Try to use just one phone number, one way of writing your address, opening hours, etc. If any particularly polarizing reviews appear (i.e. good or bad), take a few minutes to respond.

The social media profiles (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) are a way for your loyal customers to get the word out. Additionally, these services allow you to easily demonstrate that you’re still in business (based on the recency of updates), web savvy, and serious about customer service. Try to set up a routine. Just as with your directory pages, check in every 1-2 weeks on your social media accounts and post anything that your customers would genuinely find useful. You don’t have to post every day, or outsource this work to someone else. A personal touch once a month is better than repetitive clickbait daily.

Step 5. Experiment with other promotion strategies (both online and offline).

Once you have figured out a basic social media marketing strategy and have a gotten a better sense of your audience (e.g. what kind of people seem to be most attracted to your business), you can then experiment with other, one-off promotion strategies. These may include:

  • Daily deal sites (e.g. Groupon). The jury is still out on whether these one-off promotions are a net positive for the business or not. While many jump on the chance to try something out for 80% off, they may be the type of customer who is simply seeking cheap deals and may never actually return to eat or drink at full price. May be most effective as a quick burst of initial traffic, or as a supplement in low season.
  • Event catering (e.g. for a local community festival). This is a particularly effective strategy if your restaurant is especially popular with a particular demographic.
  • Partnering with businesses nearby. If there are any hotels near you that don’t have their own restaurant, this could be an easy deal to strike – they can offer a 10% discount coupon for your restaurant to all its guests. It makes them look good and brings you additional business. Alternatively, you could find out if there are any local walking tours in the area and partner up with the guides to include your restaurant as part of their itinerary. As cliché as it sounds, the possibilities here are endless.
  • Give an interview (to a local newspaper or blogger). While social media is great for many small updates, a full Q&A session is a great way for people to find out more about you, your story, and the history behind the business. Bloggers (e.g. self proclaimed foodies) can be highly influential, and may be just the thing you need to get your business name out to a much wider audience (this is how major publications are increasingly getting their news from anyway).

To sum it up, there’s no need to overcomplicate things when it comes to marketing your restaurant or bar online.

Take matters into your own hands, but keep things simple. Good luck!