Instagram Influencer Marketing for Restaurants [Startup Guide]

You’ve heard claims that anywhere from 60% to 90% of new restaurants fail within the first year, but that’s not necessarily true. The failure rate is much lower, closer to that of other types of businesses. And while smaller restaurants may struggle more than larger ones, the actual failure rate for both types of restaurants has been blown out of proportion. 

That said, if your restaurant is a failure instead of a success, you don’t care about the actual percentage – you’re part of it and you don’t want to be. 

If you put two almost identical restaurants next to each other, why would one fail and one succeed? The answer is word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing, which isn’t easy to come by. 

Possibly the most potent WOM marketing today is the social media referral, especially if it comes from an influencer.




Why Should Restaurants Choose Influencer Marketing?

Food is always ready for its closeup.




If your dishes could carry the #foodporn hashtag, then they’re worthy of their own Instagram feed. Bonus points if your restaurant’s aesthetics are equally appealing.

Influencer marketing for restaurants is sort of like having a strong CTA that you know a ton of people will follow. Influencer audiences are good at following directions – they want to take the advice of the influencer, which is why they’re following them in the first place. Plus, a lot of influencers engage with their audience – they’re not just passive content creators.




Also, it works. According to Social Pros, a post by @ny.foodie about the strawberry rhubarb ice cream at Springbone Kitchen in Manhattan brought in significant foot traffic.

Big Daddy’s and Duke’s, two NYC establishments, pay influencers. According to Julie Zucker, director of marketing and promotions for Brand Restaurants, which represents the establishments, their strategy is to purposely seek out influencers with “smaller” follower numbers (10,000-20,000) because they feel they have more influence on New York restaurant-goers. 

They have a number of strategies, but one of their strongest is letting the influencer host an Instagram account take-over.




They also offer an incentive for the influencer’s followers when they post to their account, like a percentage off if the customer mentions the post within two weeks.

Zucker says the most value they get from influencers is the ability to view their food through different eyes.

“An influencer will come in, take a picture of that sandwich that I never thought was photo-worthy, and oh my gosh, it’s now our new favorite photo.” – Julie Zucker, director of marketing and promotions for Brand Restaurants


Goals for Restaurants Using Influencer Marketing

There are two main goals you can strive for when using influencer marketing for restaurants: foot traffic and social growth.

If you’re a new business or you’re just now working on your social media presence, social growth should be your only goal. However, if you have a good-sized following, you can use influencer marketing to get more people in the door, and social growth will be the cherry on top. To lead to more reservations or walk-in business, help out their food influencer strategy with something to offer followers, like a discount code or gift card.




Stay on Top of Food Trends

To increase your chances of having an influencer take notice of your restaurant or post about their experience, jump on board a food trend. If your menu aligns (or could easily align) with a popular food trend, it’ll be easier to promote your eatery.

The good news is that there’s probably a niche or trend happening right now that you can get involved with. There are a ton of foodie communities on Instagram, some more specific than you’d expect. For example, there’s an Instagram community devoted to cheese boards.





There’s also a significant healthy food movement happening right now, and trending hashtags can be broad, like #paleo, or more targeted, like #paleoinnyc.




Diving into search results could bring you to an unexpected influencer. For example, within the #paleoinnyc posts was this one about Teaonic from plant-based and paleo food photographer and influencer





Also, check out Tastewise. You can see real-time culinary trends, like top diets, recipes and ingredients.




You can also search for something specific, like “sushi.” If you go to the results page and scroll down, you’ll see all sorts of related trends. 




This isn’t the easiest way to find influencers (you can click on Instagram accounts, but they won’t necessarily be influential), but it’s a way to tap into preferences. That’s what influencers are currently focusing on. Restaurants and influencers want audiences to be happy.

Lastly, if the influencer has something specific to their brand, like a color they often use, you can create a dish or specialty food just for them.




Finding Food and Restaurant Influencers to Work With

Your customers should match the audience of the influencer. That means you’ll want to create a customer persona if you haven’t already.

Who is your ideal customer? To start answering that question, look at your rave reviews and extract details from them. Look specifically for patterns. 

For example, if most people talk about having a great time when they were with a big group, you can market to large parties looking for family-style meals. 

You can also take a poll on Instagram to get an idea of who dines at your restaurant most and their demographics. Pay attention to age and gender, too, so that you can find an influencer who appeals to the same demographics.


Seeking Out Local Influencers

You can always work with a platform that will provide you with a list of influencers who match your demographic requirements, like our own Saas product, Shirley. That may provide too broad a reach, though, and it could cost you more than you’re willing to spend. 

If you have one restaurant instead of several that are spread around the state or country, you’ll need a local or travel influencer who frequents your area.




The influencer can have a feed dedicated to area food or restaurants, or one that covers all-things-local. Their audience will know they post specifically about your location, and they may also include you in local “things to do” guides. 




Chicago Food Authority has roundups of the best local spots in their Highlights, like these suggestions for date night: 





You should also consider joining a community to increase your reach. The @bestfoodfeed account has 45 communities, like @bestfoodphoenix





Popular cities will have more restaurant influencers to choose from, but in a smaller town, there may be less competition. Either way, you should still be able to get traction out of influencer marketing for restaurants.


Micro-Influencers and Relationship-Building

There’s nothing wrong with using micro-influencers. It’s the quality of followers that matters more than quantity. Plus, even small influencers can have content that goes viral.

Instagram can also be used for relationship-building. For example, Ariel Knutson is the editor of The Kitchn, a popular foodie website with a big Instagram following





Ariel doesn’t have a lot of followers herself, but it could still be worthwhile to start building a relationship with her because of her connection to The Kitchn. Something simple like, “Hey, let us know the next time you’re in and we’ll send out our specials,” could cost next to nothing and expand your reach. 

The same thing goes for someone like Ben Leventhal. He’s the founder of Resy, and while he does sometimes post about food, his feed mainly focuses on his family. Attracting his attention would be great, but for the sake of being featured on Resy.





When You’re Struggling to Find an Influencer

If you’re having a hard time finding influencers in less-populated parts of the country, look at the local restaurants that are doing well. Go through their social media to figure out the influencer marketing tactics they’re using. If they work with influencers, they’ll likely have one of the posts re-posted on their account or a thank you post that calls out the influencer by name. You can then reach out to the influencer. 

Note that you don’t want to do this with a restaurant you’re in direct competition with. However, the influencer may very well take on campaigns from competing eateries. They care about their audience, not necessarily your business plan.

If you still can’t find any influencers, broaden your horizons. Work with an influencer with a broader reach to see if that makes a difference. Your audience won’t be as targeted as you hoped for, but it’s better than not trying influencer marketing for restaurants at all. Reach out to niche food influencers, like those who only blog about donuts or food trucks.

Nicole Cogan, @nobread, blogs about gluten-free eats. Even though a lot of her feed features what she preps at home, a gluten-free eatery or café would reach the right audience if she posted about a visit.




Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports, is one of the most powerful pizza influencers out there. 




Also, check out if anyone is already talking about your restaurant. You may already have an influencer posting about you, and connecting with them is a natural next step.





Contacting the Influencer with a Proposition

Now that you have an influencer (or a shortlist of influencers) you want to work with, it’s time to get in touch.

If the influencer’s Instagram account has contact info on their profile, like an email, that means they’re open to being contacted about a partnership. You may also be directed to their agent or PR rep.

If you don’t have much of a marketing budget right now, offer them a free meal (preferably for two – who wants to dine alone?). Odds are they’ll post about it on Instagram. 





Be careful about offering them a freebie and specifying that you want a positive review in return, though. This is unethical. Instead, set yourself up for the best review possible – give them a great experience and treat them to solid service. To encourage them to post about your restaurant, you can also let them know you’re a fan of their content and that you hope your restaurant is deserving of a feature.

There are more binding arrangements than this, like an actual influencer contract, but this is a casual way to go about it. If you’re working with a big budget and a major influencer, you will want a contract in place, and the influencer may even require one.

You don’t have to automatically enter into an agreement or contract with an influencer simply because you’ve opened the door for conversation. Do more research first. For example, ask to see a campaign they ran for a restaurant that’s similar to yours. 


Arranging the Influencer Marketing Campaign

Now it’s time to get the campaign rolling. Here’s what you need to know.




1) Be Ready for Extra Guests

The influencer may come with help – photographers, lighting, etc. You don’t have to feed all of them, but make sure you have enough space for them to spread out and work their magic.


2) Treat Them Well, But Not Too Well

Arrange a time for the influencer to dine at your restaurant. Make sure they have a phenomenal experience.

That said, don’t treat them like royalty to the point where they don’t get a real experience. Their time at your restaurant should be reflective of how most customers are treated. Otherwise, they could lose the trust of their followers, which would prevent them from partnering with you in the future.


3) They May Not Eat the Food Right Away

Don’t be shocked if the influencer doesn’t eat their meal at first. Some will even eat it cold. They have to stage and compose the shot to get it just right, which takes time. 

To impress the influencer, be prepared to reheat the dish – or, if you’re able, bring them out a fresh dish that’s hot for them to dig into.


4) Give Them Creative Freedom

Restaurant influencers are good at what they do – that’s why they’re influencers in the first place.




Give them as much creative control as possible. They know what works for their audience. 

However, it’s totally okay to ask them about their plan. You can then go over the plan with your marketing department.


5) Let Them Know What You Want or Expect

While you should leave creativity in their hands, you should clarify what you want mentioned – and if you have a contract, this will be included. A post that doesn’t include your location or an explanation of what’s pictured won’t help. Here’s an example of a post that gives people the right information so they can take the next step:




6) Ask for Details

You need to know the day and time they’ll be posting, especially if you’re featuring something that’s only available for a limited time.




You have to be prepared for an influx of traffic, whether that’s social media traffic, questions or actual foot traffic in your restaurant.


7) Track the Success of the Post

You should track as much as possible. Before and after the post goes up, pay attention to your follower and engagement numbers. Keep an eye on how well the post performs on the influencer’s page. Also, if they’re going to use your website link in their post, you’ll need a tracking link to monitor traffic.  


8) Don’t Worry if the Post Doesn’t Take Off

It’s not cause for concern if you don’t get a massive influx of business all at once following a campaign. Some campaigns can take longer to make an impact. If the post is staying up indefinitely, you could get traction out of it several months down the road if someone searches for information about your restaurant or restaurants in the area.


Influencer Marketing Can Have Tasty Benefits




Restaurants don’t have to get involved with influencer marketing. It’s not a must-have like being present on Facebook or having an email list. 

But influencer marketing lets you take the pulse of your customers. It helps you determine what they like and want more of. And if the influencer has a bad experience, at the very least you’ll uncover an aspect of your business that has to be fixed immediately.

Figure out your budget and nail down your customer persona, then seek out a local or niche influencer who’s a good match. Decide if you’re going to start the relationship casually or go in with the intent of spending a lot and getting a major contract out of it. Then sit back and watch as they make your restaurant and food look even more appealing than you imagined.


If you could work with any restaurant influencer you want, who would it be?

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