A long, long time ago, before social media existed, word of mouth used to sound something like this:
“You should check out this new ice cream shop in my neighborhood. They have the best ice cream I’ve ever had.”
Today, word of mouth looks a little different.
It’s 2017, and 71% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase based on a social media referral. But there’s a catch: the referral is more effective when it’s coming from a person, not a company.
Enter influencers: people who rock social media so hard that their follower count has reached 10,000+. Influencers, or “brand advocates”, have typically earned their following through gorgeous photos, personal engagement with their audience, and a commitment to authenticity. Companies from all sectors have recognized the value of saddling up to these social media rock stars and working with them to scale brand awareness.
But what about restaurants? Well, here’s one thing you can count on: people love to post pictures of their meals on social media. Another thing people love? Drooling over food porn on social media. Foodie culture is blowing up on social, and these follower counts prove it:
So how are restaurateurs hooking up with the #eatfamous elite?
Some Things to Keep in Mind
Before you begin to scour social media for your eats-obsessed soul mate, here are three considerations that will lead you to the right influencers for your restaurant.
1. Stay Local
Are you a locally sourced, health conscious, quick service restaurant based in Austin, TX? You’re definitely not going to want to partner with an influencer in LA, no matter how granola the community may be. Social media foodies love showing off their real lives, which means local comes first. If you own restaurants in multiple locations, you’ll need to choose influencers for each location you want to promote.
“What does it matter if the post is local?” you say. The answer: it matters because of authenticity. Unless an influencer is traveling to your location to show off their vacation meals, it’s best to tap into influencers who are livin’ their best life in your own backyard.
2. It’s Not About You – It’s About Their Love of Food
Social media should be, above all, about authenticity. Seasoned followers of any account can sniff out an inauthentic advocate from a mile away. Influencers are well aware of the importance of keeping their accounts authentic to who they are, and they’ll rarely post about a product, experience, or meal they didn’t like. Negative posts just aren’t on brand for many influencers, so make sure you find someone who’s already enthusiastic about what you’re offering your customers.
3. Get Comfortable with Compensation and Disclosure
The world of influencer marketing is in many ways the wild west, but many influencers are now represented by agencies. So, depending on who you choose to work with, you may need to negotiate on compensation. Most of the time, however, food influencers just expect a free meal with maybe a plus one in exchange for a post to their account.
Note that the FTC requires influencers who are receiving compensation to disclose that their sponsored posts are advertisements. Influencers will usually use the hashtags #sp, #sponsored, or #ad as sufficient disclosure to their audience.
How to Find Your Dream Influencer
Finding your dream influencer can seem like searching for a needle in a haystack. You might be thinking, How on earth do I find this magical unicorn amongst all the other magical Instagram unicorns? Don't worry: there's some method to the madness.
1. Monitor Social Media
Manhattan restaurant Springbone Kitchen knew its influencer marketing had worked when a lineup of customers all asked for their strawberry rhubarb ice cream. The previous day, a foodie Instagrammer had posted a picture of the specialty to their feed.
While Springbone’s own Instagram account boasts more than 3,600 followers, that’s nothing compared to New Fork City’s staggering 818,000 count. So how did Springbone cofounder Sam Eckstein reel in the influencers? He started creeping the Instagram follower lists of New York’s top-followed food accounts, betting that other influencers would be following the cream of the crop. “When Springbone has a new menu item, Eckstein direct-messages influencers on Instagram and invites them in for a tasting. The unspoken agreement is that the restaurant will provide the food for free, and the influencers will post pictures afterward.”
The good news is that you don’t need to sift through followers the hard way – there are apps for that. Platforms like Hootsuite or Sprout Social allow you to track hashtags (you’ll want to do some research on those to determine the most relevant ones for your area and food offering), view follower counts, and create lists so you can start to plan who you’ll approach with a pitch about your restaurant.
2. Host a Tasting
When you know whom you’d like to court as a possible influencer, invite them to a tasting at your restaurant. Keep it intimate: invite only a few possible influencers at a time and make it exclusive.
After you’ve built up a great relationship with an influencer, you also have the option of handing over the reigns for a “social media takeover” during a tasting. Social media takeovers are when influencers are trusted to run a company’s social media accounts as live-time content creators (either on Twitter, Instagram Stories, or Snapchat). While takeovers require a lot of trust – and most of the time, a contract – they can also increase your own account’s authenticity using your influencer’s clout.
3. Host a Contest and See Who Enters
Let the influencers come to you: host a contest on social media and monitor who participates. When someone has participated in a contest, whether it’s to win a free meal or free food for life, odds are they’re already enthusiastic about your food and would welcome the opportunity to talk it up. Follow up with those accounts that have a large follower base and ask if they’d be interested in extending the relationship beyond the contest.
4. Hire an Agency
If you have the resources and you’re looking for some professional matching, hiring an agency that specializes in influencers is now totally possible. Agencies have the knowledge and network to connect you with influencers who match your brand, location, and desired follower count. You may need to put on your negotiation hat for this level of investment, but you can also rest easy knowing your influencers have been vetted by a third party.
Nothing beats a recommendation from a friend – even if you haven’t met that friend IRL. Influencer marketing is the new word of mouth, and your restaurant can use the power of social media to scale up on the most effective marketing tactic of all time.
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