1. Get involved on user review sites - namely, Yelp, Urbanspoon, Trip Advisor. By get involved, I don't mean write reviews or tell others to write reviews. I mean: monitor the conversation happening about your business. On Yelp in particular, business owners can start their own free accounts where they can input information for their listing, respond to people's reviews, offer deals and more. Each and every business should take advantage of this platform. Additionally, user review sites are invaluable sources of information about your business operations. Listen to your customers, and work to correct mistakes and problems with service.
2. Have an easy-to-find online presence. If you can't afford a regular website, set up a free blog. Get your name into cyberspace any way you can. Research keywords your customers would be using to search for your restaurant, or similar topics, and integrate these keywords into blog posts, Facebook posts, Tweets, etc. Be out there and visible when people search you by name or topic. You can also claim your business listing on Google for free, so customers can more easily find you.
3. Location, location, location. There are many location-based services these days, and while small businesses don't need to take advantage of ALL of them, there are many ways location tools can be useful. If you're a fan of Foursquare, offer deals to the Mayor of your spot. If you prefer Facebook Places, go that route (and make sure you claim your place on Facebook), or if Yelp is your site of choice, reward the Duke or Duchess of your establishment with 10% off. There are many ways creative thinkers can take advantage of these services and drive more customers through their doors. McDonalds recently increased check-ins by 33% in a widespread Foursquare promotion. And, if you're a food truck, you can use Twitter to broadcast your location to hungry potential customers, free of charge.
4. Put your menu ONLINE. This is a no-brainer. You can request it be added to Menupages, post a link on your Yelp profile, upload a photo of it to Facebook, put a pdf on your blog, etc. There's nothing more frustrating for a consumer than not knowing what you have to offer. Make it easy for them. I'm constantly amazed at how many restaurants fail to do this.
5. Utilize Twitter (and your other social tools) to advertise specials, discounts & other incentives. Offer exclusive discounts to your fans & followers. LA-based Sprinkles cupcakes posts a special phrase to Facebook each day, and the first 25 people to say this phrase at one of their locations gets a free cupcake! Thanks in large part to this smart strategy, they now have 160,000+ Facebook fans. (It's important to be aware of Facebook's promotion guidelines - they don't allow contests without an ad buy and approval - but you can do giveaways, discounts, etc.) Some businesses, like Coffee Groundz in Houston, Texas, even accept orders via Twitter, and have built significant business this way as well.
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