How to Cash in on User-Generated Content to Establish Your Restaurant's Brand

By: Tyler Williams

7 Minute Read

Mar 28, 2019

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Now more than ever, technology is deeply integrated into the consumer decision-making process. From poring over reviews, to seeking out photos online, and scrolling social media for check-ins, consumers set their dining expectations based on these social insights.

So, how can you take advantage of this? There’s a simple answer that goes by the name of user-generated content (UGC). UGC is the newest trend that restaurants and bars are using to turn their customers into their best advertisers. Embracing emerging technologies and social trends can enable you to extend your social reach farther than ever before. In other words, it’s your new (mostly) hassle-free social marketing strategy.

What is user-generated content and why does it matter?

Curata explains that user-generated content is any content related to a brand that is voluntarily produced by its customers. It does not include content made by a paid social influencer: it is both organic and unpaid.

Consumers trust organic, user-generated content more than they trust what you say about yourself. According to a survey by Bizaarvoice, over half (51%) of Americans trust UGC more than information given directly by a company, and millennials are three times as likely to turn to social media to get opinions on where to go out. Since millennials now have more spending power than any other generation, it seems fitting to tailor your social marketing efforts to fit their rules of engagement.

With this high demand for authenticity, simply telling customers to use your hashtag and geotag isn’t going to cut it anymore. You’ll need to find creative ways to engage with your customer’s desire to share their experience. Adding a social or interactive element will give them a reason to stay longer and invite friends, which inevitably results in spending more money. It’s a win-win-win.

Now that you know how to take advantage of the age of social and why it matters, what can you actually do to make it happen? There are a few ways to easily create experiences your customers will love (to share).

How to make user-generated content work for you

1. Create a (branded) Instagram-worthy moment.

In your restaurant, you can hang up a clever neon sign, paint a brightly-colored selfie wall, set up oversized bar games, or create an over-the-top specialty drink or menu item. This is mostly about enhancing the customer’s experience, but also being smart in how you brand the experience. Mr Holmes Bakehouse in San Francisco is practically breaking Instagram with their neon sign. This bakery, which is one out of hundreds in SF, has made itself stand out among the crowd - just from a simple sign.

Photo of the Mr Holmes Bakehouse Instagram hashtag.

When you search their hashtag, they have almost 38,000 photos (and counting) that have been shared by their customers. At the end of the day, potential customers are being influenced by the people who are posting these photos, and not just by the sign itself. These posts are the difference between someone deciding to go to this bakery or one of the other hundreds - that’s how powerful user-generated content can be. The sign was a small investment, and it generated a large demand, a new customer base, and overall hype for the restaurant.

Would the bakery be as popular if it wasn’t shared on Instagram like this? Perhaps, but having 115k followers definitely isn’t hurting business.

They can also lean on the library of 38,000 photos when planning out future restaurant marketing campaigns or promotions, drastically cutting down on the time required to create content to share on Instagram.

2. Add a social iPad photo booth.

Everyone loves photo booths because they allow users to instantly capture and share an experience with friends without the awkward selfie arm. Typically photobooths are free for customers and the resulting photos will include your logo and custom graphics.

Can you imagine having over 2,000 photos with your brand being shared by customers every month?

When users post to their social media stories and pages, they are effectively advertising for you, free of cost, with authentic content. We know, your restaurant marketing budget is already stretched pretty thin or non-existent even, right? Fortunately, there are affordable gif booth options, like the one Infinite Monkey Theorem uses in their Denver-based taproom.

Although we as consumers rely heavily on technology, sometimes it's nice to just put down your phone and live in the moment. A photo booth allows you to share some laughs and enjoy and experience with friends while still capturing a shareable memory. When someone sees their friend having a blast at a bar they've never been to, they get instant FOMO (fear of missing out). People have a strong desire to share their good experiences and let others know about the cool things they're doing. A branded photo booth allows customers to do that in a unique, non-selfie way.

A very significant perk of this plan is you get to know your customers and learn how to reach them. To receive the photos, customers enter their name and email or phone number, and you can use this information for your future email or text marketing campaigns.

Photo from RunRileyRun on Instagram, at Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery in Denver, CO.

3. Accept selfies as currency – within reason.

The selfie is very much alive and well, and people looooove to share them – why not capitalize on this form of social currency?

When a customer freely promotes a restaurant to their followers, there's real value there – so don't be afraid to “pay” for it. We’re not saying you need to go drop $10,000 on an influencer post. Instead, utilize your own social accounts to hold a contest with a low barrier to entry – these types of contests are shown to have the highest engagement. Canadian chain Cactus Club Cafe frequently holds contests where the only thing a customer needs to do is follow them and tag a friend to win a gift card, drink, or other treat. 

A contest from Cactus Club Cafe.

As much as people love sharing photos of where they are and what they are doing, they also love free food. They love to win. Typically, consumers are more than willing to share a photo if it means they have the chance to win something. One of the top-ranking tactics used to drive brand loyalty is offering discounts and coupons: 61% of consumers say they use them when offered. You can re-post the selfies on your own page to let them know they’ve won, or feature a selfie of the week with a prize of your choosing. Have signs around your bar promoting snapping, sharing, and tagging with the contests, coupons, or features as incentives. Treat your customers like ambassadors, and let them share about how great their experience is with genuine excitement.

The Blue Moon Brewery in Denver does a really great job of this. They offer a free pint if you share a selfie from the taproom with the hashtag #bluemoonrino and show the bartender on your next visit.

If your margins don’t allow you to offer something for free, just recognize your customers on your social feeds every once in a while, because a little appreciation goes a long way.

Analyze the benefits of UGC

If you implement a UGC strategy you're going to want to collect and measure the effects of your hard work. Identify the micro-influencers that have shared photos and engage with them. Go even further and interact with everyone who shares. People love being noticed, and will think even more of your bar if they know you care. Also, everyone who follows them will also see your engagement. Try it for a week and you'll see your click rates go through the roof.

Now that you know your customers want to capture and share their experience, it’s time to give them something to share about.

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