Digital messaging strategies for restaurants in uncertain times

In order to flatten the curve of COVID-19, restaurants have been ordered to close their doors to customers. While we hope businesses will reopen safely in due time, we’re left to navigate these unchartered waters.

Yes, some guests are choosing to staying home completely, but many can still order delivery and takeout: according to National Restaurant News, quick and limited-service restaurants are capturing more than two-thirds of all restaurant traffic. This is a great opportunity for restaurants to provide comfort to their customers and continue generating business—even if guests can’t dine-in.

During these times, restaurants need to make sure they clearly and effectively communicate to their guests. Of course, this is easier said than done. But the key is not to doubt or underestimate the importance of a strong digital messaging strategy. As consumers spend more and more time on digital right now, restaurant marketers can leverage these channels to connect with guests and guide them to dine-out, all while strengthening relationships and trust.

And while it might not feel like it, there are steps restaurants can take immediately to take back some control.

Learn more: Recovery mindset: A phased digital media approach for restaurants


Adjust your messaging

Messages should be informative and relevant

If your restaurant is new to the delivery/takeout game—as even many established restaurant brands are first-timers or underprepared for this to be the bulk of their business—brands need to adjust in-market promotions to consider the new context of their offerings.

Brands need to adapt creative quickly to use photos of menu items that travel well, remove photos from the rotation of dishes that you don’t offer for delivery and takeout, replace in-room dining creative with that of the takeout or delivery experience, etc. Additionally, use your limited messaging space to deliver the most pertinent information:

  • Inform customers that you are open right now for delivery and takeout options, and direct people to where they can order online or by phone. Major brands are making sure customers are aware of their new dine-out options; take Chipotle: the fast-casual giant has launched a campaign titled “Straight to Your Door” to inform guests of their new operations focus and options.
  • Highlight your food safety protocols as it continues to be top of mind for consumers across industries. (Notice how Chipotle was sure to feature their employees preparing food with gloves!)
  • Although it may seem fairly straightforward, include your hours of operation at each location. People may be less familiar with your typical hours, and we’ve seen some restaurants extend their hours as well to accommodate more mealtimes than they normally would or reduce their late-night hours.

Reflect the tone of the times

This is clearly not business as usual, so how you communicate with customers should reflect that. While restaurants need to be informative and promotional of their brands to drive revenue, it’s also important to remain empathetic with your customers.

Take Guinness’s St. Patrick’s Day ad, for example. While it’s a big-budget commercial many restaurants brands may not be able to support right now, their sentiment and tone is something all brands can emulate when they speak to customers. Right now, focus on being authentic in the moment in your creative messaging; we don’t know what is to come, but we can provide real connections to customers right now.

Prioritize flexibility in your messaging

We have all seen how quickly this situation can change—news from even a week ago is seemingly out of date. One third of advertisers have canceled at least one campaign before it started since the start of the pandemic.

During this time, work with a partner that prioritizes flexibility of marketing messages. Brands need to be able to easily swap out messaging and creative to reflect the new normal and be in market with that new message as quickly as possible.  

This also means having flexibility in where messages are being placed. For some, advertising next to or around coronavirus news might be fine, but for restaurants, it may be more sensitive. Consumers report that food and travel are categories they feel most resistance towards seeing next to COVID-19 imagery.

Think through your channel strategy

Email continues to be a key channel

During this unprecedented time, email has emerged as one of the most trusted channels for communicating with consumers. But it’s also highlighting 1) just how many emails people get and 2) how outdated many brands’ email lists are.

It’s likely you’ve already sent a few emails around your business updates, but make sure you look at how you’re speaking to customers across your database moving forward. You shouldn’t send the same message to a loyal, high-value customer as you do to someone you want to re-engage. The former likely wants all of the information on how you’re adapting right now, while the latter likely just needs a friendly “hello” message and a reminder that you’re open. Consider the level of engagement of each contact and the above recommendations for creative.

Extend your message across channels

Email is still an important channel, but people’s inboxes are getting flooded (and rightly so). You need to consider how to extend the same email messaging strategy across channels.

People have more free time than normal; in a March survey from Integral Ad Science (IAS), 88% of consumers surveyed said the COVID-19 situation is changing the types of content they typically consume, and 59% said they are actively consuming more news.

In addition to emails, extend the conversation to digital media on publisher sites and leverage SMS and push notifications to reach consumers. By diversifying the channels for your conversations, you’ll gain more traction.

Consider display to reach your best customers

To bypass crowded inboxes, digital display ads are a great option to ensure you are actually getting in front of your guests. For one thing, with people staying put in their homes, online traffic has surged—in the US, traffic is up 18 percent since January.  

Customers are online, but restaurant marketers need to be smart in order to reach them. Right now, every single ad dollar counts as many restaurants don’t have the short-term revenue projection needed to go all-in on massive media budgets. Make sure you message only those who are most likely to dine with you and show that you can prove performance on the backend.

Location-based advertising is critical right now, and it could be beneficial for restaurants to expand their typical geotargeting range (as long as it doesn’t impact other locations) as people may be more inclined to travel a bit farther for takeout during this time.

Be smart about your TV advertising

Always a mainstay channel, TV is becoming even more important as people increase TV consumption while home during the quarantine period. That being said, brands need to leverage their TV spots differently; a spray-and-pray approach is not the prudent choice right now. Instead, restaurant brands need to focus on connected TV and streaming advertising opportunities that allow them to know the individuals they’re reaching and tie that ad view back to an actual transaction at the restaurant.

Focus on channels and tactics that drive real results

Restaurant brands need to prioritize marketing channels that focus on results right now. Restaurant brands don’t have the luxury of big budget buys that are great for awareness but lack tangible traction. It is noted that during times of hardship or recession, companies are pressured to justify their ad spend to executives. Now is the time to use lower-funnel tactics that are guaranteed to drive results.

True understanding is needed

Keep in mind that your customers are dealing with their own concerns right now. This is the time to reach them with content that makes them feel connected and understood during a crisis. The real challenge comes in how brands can share their most important messages—at scale—to consumers.

Of course, expanding your messaging strategy will not completely solve for the current business downturn. But it will help restaurant marketers forge better, longer lasting relationships with their customers while keeping them informed of new promotions or programs.

It’s not a quick fix, but rather an overall strengthening of communication when customers need it most.

Want to learn more about how restaurants can adjust their operations to handle challenging times for their business? Check out our whitepaper with FastCasual to learn more. 

Looking for an interactive and interesting way to learn how your restaurant brand can boost revenue post-coronavirus, read our new guide here