For those of us looking to bolster legitimate business, Instagram is now a monster of a social platform. The advent of business profiles, insights, advanced metrics, bulk schedulers—these, combined with the platform’s original, unique value proposition (highly visual, immediate and widescale brand exposure) make Instagram a powerful asset for small and local businesses.
There’s perhaps no industry for which Instagram is better geared than the restaurant industry. Research has shown that people 18-35 spend five whole days a year browsing food images on Instagram, and 30% would avoid a restaurant if their Instagram presence was weak.
Much of the below content is derived from a new social project I’ve taken on at Tapestry Restaurant in Boston. I’ll show you some of the strategies we use, and some of the results we’ve achieved thus far.
Restaurant owners: here’s how to hack the ever-loving burrata out of your Instagram profiles, get more followers, and drive hungry people through the door.
1. Court food bloggers (oh so many food bloggers)
We’ll start things off with an ostensibly obvious hack – if you can get a food blogger with a large following to post about your restaurant, you’ll get the benefit of a huge amount of brand exposure to an interested foodie audience.
But here’s the kicker: however often you’re currently wining, dining, and pork rind-ing food bloggers, you’re not doing it nearly enough. You should start confusing these people for wait staff. They’re easily reachable (most list emails in their bios, but DM is just as effective), anxious to gain more followers (you’ll do this together), and dirt cheap (especially next to the influence they wield).
A lot of bloggers/influencers will charge you quite a bit for their services, but don’t get it twisted—there are more than enough willing to smother their social media platforms with your city-best Neapolitan pizza for the price of…well, your city-best Neapolitan pizza.
How big of a following should you be looking for? A good rule of thumb here is 30k-50k followers—these people have mastered the art of #foodporn, have amassed a loyal following because of it, but aren’t so preposterous as to ask for copious amounts of money to make your tagliatelle look sexy (it already was). 50k+ is where things start getting expensive. Although, we shouldn’t generalize. Shoot for as many followers as possible.
2. Run contests (oh so many contests)
Here’s a hack that goes hand-in-hand with the above, but with one caveat: limit contests to one/two per partnership. Running an Instagram contest with an influencer will cost you at least the amount you put up for a prize—I’ve generated significantly more interest with a $50 gift card than a $25 gift card, and would recommend that as a minimum—so you want each contest to reach a different set of followers (inevitably there will be some overlap). You also want to keep in mind contest fatigue (a real and troublesome phenomenon).
That said, once you’ve isolated a followership, it’s as simple as this: “Like this picture, tag the friend you’ll share your winnings with, and follow [your restaurant handle here].” Ask the influencer if they’ll share four or five pictures over the course of the next week and a half, and watch the followers roll in. Tapestry gained about 75 followers over the course of the contest we ran with the above-pictured blogger—an increase of a little over 4%. Not at all negligible, when you’re dealing with thousands of followers.
Owners: whip up enough gnocchi to feed a food blogger and a contest winner, and you've basically grown your Instagram following for free.
3. “You #knead this pizza”: live and die by catchy, authoritative copy
Throw in a CTA and we’re cooking with…grease, here!
Save the long copy for that novel you are totally going to finish. If Instagrammers’ thumbs were cars, they’d be dilapidated ’86 Honda Civics, pushing 120 mph in the left lane, duct tape where the windows used to be. They’re impatient, peripherally impaired, and they’re not stopping for…it. Accordingly, treat your organic posts like billboards—and, by extension, like promoted posts. Mere descriptions...
and witty one-offs...
often perform better than half-baked attempts at humor…
Because there’s nothing funny about #foodporn.
So tell a story. But keep it close to the length of a tweet. Tell that thumb to stop, like, click the reservation link in your bio (more on links shortly), etc. Good Instagram copy (it’s 2017, that’s a thing) works in conjunction, or as a supplement to the main event: the photo. If the public photography of food stuffs, baked or otherwise, is a source of embarrassment for you (it is for some people), you’ll not want to waste the effort on distracting copy. Kill your darlings!
4. Use the right scheduling tool
There are some pretty thorough articles out there on this subject—here’s one, and here’s another—and I recommend reading all of them (avoiding, obviously, those that seem biased toward one tool or another). Post scheduling is something you don’t want to mess around with. Instagram has long prided itself on being an app of “spontaneous posting,” and therefore does not allow third-party apps to post for you.
You know that awesome bulk scheduling tool you get in Facebook Business Manager? Yeah, there’s nothing of the sort in the Instagram UI. And no third-party posting means that apps like Hootsuite and Sprout Social have their hands tied.
The best these apps can do is send a pin to your smartphone—i.e., here is the post you scheduled, from your desktop, to appear on this date and time, now copy/paste the text to Instagram and post with your smartphone. This isn’t the worst thing in the world. It just means you have to remember to be on your phone when you get the reminder. Obviously not the best thing in the world, either.
Your other option is to pay for a third-party app to outsource your scheduled posts to tech farms in Ukraine, India, and elsewhere. It’s a hands-off alternative. They’ll send your posts for you. But you risk having your account suspended.
Especially if you’re doing contract work.
The following list of third-party apps is far from comprehensive, but comes from a guy who has made a mistake or two (or three) in the social game and feels thus inclined to expound upon his own tomfoolery.
ScheduGram: Check the forums: ScheduGram is the undisputed king of third-party posting. You can post videos, manage filters, post the first comment (important feature, more on that shortly), and integrate Canva for edits. Instagram seems to more or less allow ScheduGram to do its thing—few, if any accounts using it get suspended. One thing: it costs $20 per month. For one account. See above gif.
Onlypult: Pretty cost-effective (about $8/month), but you lose some of the functionality of ScheduGram. I used Onlypult for about three days on an account, had trouble posting, resolved that, then promptly had a “shadow ban” imposed on my account. My posts stopped showing up in my hashtag lists. Likes plummeted. Impressions plummeted.
Gramblr: When you’re in the annals of a Reddit thread about Gramblr, and a user with a name like “gramblrlovr11” come out of the woodwork and protests, “I dont no why you say a bad thing about Gramblr, Gramblr is best app,” you can safely take it with a grain of salt. This app follows/unfollows users at a rampant pace, posts erroneous comments, and messes with your DMs. It will, in all likelihood, get your account suspended. And judging by its Reddit presence, its bots are learning and will soon render us all obsolete.
*General internet consensus: stick with apps like Hootsuite, Buffer, and Sprout Social—even if you have to use the free versions of these, with limited functionality. The hope is that, in the near future, Instagram will take pity on social media contractors everywhere and either integrate bulk scheduling into its UI, or allow third-party posting.
5. Use the most effective linking method at your disposal
An Instagram story link. For unverified accounts, Moby Dick.
Here’s another way Instagram just squeezes your social management: you can’t link within posts, and you can only link once in your bio. This means that if you really want people to see your slick new homepage, but you also want to send low-funnel users right to your OpenTable page to make a reservation, you have to choose one or the other (unless you’re running Instagram ads, in which case your options open up quite a bit).
Just win a “Best of Boston” category, or get linked to in a “Best City Patios” article? If you don’t want to sacrifice website/reservation clicks, you’re going to have to tell people in a single organic post, list the URL, then hope they manually type the URL into their browser (you can’t copy/paste out of Instagram, either).
Some very exciting news on this topic: Instagram story links are in open beta. Users will be able to “scroll up” on a story to a webpage of the restaurant’s choosing (perhaps a beautifully formatted menu, or an even more beautifully formatted “reserve table now” button). The story link function is currently available to all verified accounts, and to a lucky few among us in the bourgeois. The belief among erudite forum-dwellers seems to be that, like Instagram stories before them, story links are being gradually “rolled out” to all users, Frenchie-style.
The most painstaking rollout there ever was.
6. Don’t skimp on hashtag research
The most precious step of post preparation.
#SeriouslyTho. Using the right hashtags is the single biggest thing you can do to drive organic impressions and increase your reach.
Instagram posts with at least one hashtag average 12.6% more engagement than those without. Imagine what you can do with around 24 (the typically allowable amount)!
Hop into your search bar and look for hashtags that will return enough results to get your post serious visibility, but not so many that your post will be buried in the glut. This, for instance...
shows higher intent, and will yield more low-funnel eyeballs than this:
There’s no hard and fast number to go by here, but it’s always a good idea to specify by location: i.e., #bostonfoodporn rather than #foodporn. This way, you’re not wasting impressions on a person in NYC who has no intention of ever coming to your restaurant. Experiment with different tags and give it the eyeball test—if certain tags return more impressions than others, pull and plug.
*Pro tip: post all of your hashtags in the first comment, after five vertical periods. Your hashtags will be hidden, your post will look cleaner, and you can avoid the stigma attached to trying too hard get noticed (and to hashtags #ingeneral).
*A master class in hashtaggery: keep your tags in a note on your smartphone for easy copying and pasting, pulling and plugging.
7. Don’t sleep on crowdsourcing photos
However talented you may be at using your friend’s smartphone to muster up the perfect lighting over those #dollaroysters (bonus hack), you just can’t match the aggregate talent and bandwidth of all your loyal customers.
Head to the "tagged pictures" tab in your profile and check out all the beautiful content your customers have produced while eating at your restaurant. That can all be yours! Direct message each user a sentence or two about how you’re glad they enjoyed their meal, how you love their picture, and how you’ll tag them for photo credit if they give your permission to repost their photo to your page.
When I first inherited the Tapestry Instagram page, 44 of the 60 customers that had tagged us in pictures gave me permission to repost their content. At one post per day, that’s a month+ worth of content I was able to throw into my bulk scheduler. When you’ve exhausted your tagged shots, click the geolocation you’ve been including on all your restaurants photos and sift through that cache.
*A final word, regarding filters: don’t use them. The idea is to have content that doesn’t need coiffing, and Instagram users are surprisingly keen on making that association: filter (in any capacity) equals content that couldn’t stand on its own. If you do find a filter that seems to generate interest, and that fits your brand, use it in every post. Research shows that 60% of the top brands on Instagram use the same filter for every post. Uniformity is a key ingredient to brand recognition and loyalty.
About the Author
Gordon Donnelly is a college hockey washout, failed poet, and all-around oxford comma enthusiast. He's a sucker for: fly fishing, mudslides, well-structured SEO podcasts, and the dwindling half-light of Clery's basement.