Most of us have experienced it: A meal with friends at a restaurant suddenly turns into a photo shoot, as someone inevitably pulls out his smartphone and starts snapping pictures of the food before taking a single bite. Another quick swipe of his finger, and the photos pop up on his Instagram account for all of his friends to admire. It seems that more and more people these days can’t simply sit down and enjoy their food—first, they have to show it off and share it with the world.
Fortunately, this is a good thing for pizzeria operators.
Instagram, an online photo-sharing and social networking application, offers an unmatched opportunity to engage with customers—and promote your restaurant—through eye-catching visuals that tell your story in a way that words can never express. Even better, your customers often do much of the work for you by posting their own photos of their favorite pizzas from your restaurant and sharing them with their friends.
Launched in 2010 and recently acquired by Facebook, Instagram lets people instantly share their life experiences on various social media platforms—from their own Instagram accounts to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr—using photographs and short videos shot on smartphones and tablets. Instagram currently boasts more than 150 million users, and many media-savvy restaurant operators have integrated the service into their online marketing strategies as well.
“Instagram is a great way to not only build a rapport with loyalists, but to create those loyalists to begin with,” says Boston-based digital marketing strategist Bradford Hines from BradfordHines.com. “A medium like Instagram is great because it’s visual, free to implement, and widely used amongst the age 18-to-30 segment. The most overlooked aspect in marketing is storytelling, and Instagram is a powerful tool for that.”
Pizza Brain (mypizzabrain.com), a combination pizzeria and pizza museum in Philadelphia, started using Instagram in late 2012 and quickly built up a healthy, active account that features photos of anything and everything involving pizza. “Instagram has been helpful in the same way any social media platform is helpful: It allows your ideas and viewpoints to reach people far outside your neighborhood, city and state,” says Pizza Brain co-owner Brian Dwyer. “It’s universal if you know how to use it.”
Dwyer says he has gotten positive response from customers to Pizza Brain’s Instagram posts. But the platform works best, he believes, when it’s used to build relationships with customers rather than merely to sell more pies. “The trick is not to use it as a business tool,” he warns. “Use it as a medium to create something meaningful to you. That’s the only real way you can provide genuine content for your followers. If you go into it trying to figure out how to improve your business, it’ll fall flat and be stagnant in most cases, and you won’t enjoy maintaining it, either, so nobody wins.”
Instagram users eagerly share images of their friends, kids, pets and, of course, their food. The last category (jokingly called “food porn” by some) can now be seen all over social media. When Instagram users post photos of pies at their favorite pizzerias, it’s free publicity for the pizzeria’s owner—and that’s usually a good thing. Unfortunately, the food, no matter how delicious it may be, doesn’t always look so appetizing, depending on the quality of the mobile device’s camera and the photographer’s skills. Although Instagram offers various filters and other photo editing tools, a bad photo is still a bad photo. Therefore, many restaurateurs now operate their own Instagram accounts, giving them more control over lighting, plating and color in the food images. Restaurateurs also use Instagram to post photos of happy customers, staff members and behind-the-scenes action.
Dang Brother Pizza (dangbrotherpizza.com), a mobile unit caterer in San Diego, began using Instagram in late 2013. Specializing in wood-fired pizzas, owner Kevin Spenla roams the city in his yellow 1974 American La France fire truck, which creates various locales and events for his photographs. “We post all kinds of different images, from the sites that we are operating in to the pizzas that we are creating,” Spenla says. “Our followers get a direct update whenever we post a picture. Facebook does not allow every post to be visible to your followers, so, in this way, Instagram has a more direct connection to followers.”
Spenla said he prefers Instagram to Facebook because it takes less time to update and users can quickly scroll through the most recent images posted on the accounts that they follow. “Instagram develops a visual connection to your customers that reminds them of the great product that you have to offer,” Spenla says. “A quick photo of the pizza that you just created can bring on a craving for your pizza and get customers in the door. Instagram is good for a daily update and a visual reminder—one post a day, max, is all that’s needed.”
Doug Brandt, owner of Chicago-based Pie Hole Pizza Joint (pieholepizzajoint.com), launched an Instagram account in April 2012. “I remember debating joining Instagram at all,” Brandt admits. “I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to artsy things, and I agreed with a couple of blog comments that Instagram would make people think they were good photographers. The filters are great, but they can’t fix a bad picture—they can only filter a bad picture.”
Brandt took the plunge anyway and now posts all types of photos, showcasing his pizzas, employees and customers, along with shots of the neighborhood and special announcements. Pie Hole has established a strong online presence with Brandt’s focus on personal interaction (he makes sure to respond to followers’ questions and comments), and the result has been increased loyalty from fans and followers.
“I’ve noticed two strategies that seem to be successful: either a consistent run of images or completely random,” Brandt says. “I’m too ADD to be anything other than random. As with all social media, the point is not to go for the obvious hard sell with every post. Instead, the goal is to personify the business, make it relatable to the public, and humanize online interaction. Pictures say a thousand words, so I want to paint a picture of what Pie Hole is about. I want everyone who goes through our Instagram feed—whether they are existing or, ideally, new customers—to understand what we are like, what we do, what we stand for, what makes us laugh, what makes us hungry, and where we are headed.”
Sue B. Zimmerman believes so strongly in the power of Instagram that she created Insta-Results, an online course, and published an e-book, Instagram Basics for Your Business. She found her way onto Instagram after she saw her twin teenage daughters using it and thought it would be perfect for her own boutique clothing and jewelry company. Along with other social media, she makes Instagram a requirement for all of her employees while working at the store. “I have used it for more than a year to attract customers and have seen a 40% increase,” Zimmerman says. “I think anybody with a pulse who owns a business should be on Instagram.”
To call attention to your photos on Instagram, Zimmerman recommends using hashtags—words or phrases preceded by the hash or pound sign (#), used to identify messages on a specific topic—and making sure the visuals are the best they can be. Common hashtags for pizza restaurants include #pizza, #pizzaporn, #pizzatime, #pizzanight, #pizzaparty and #food. Operators can even create a hashtag for their own restaurant, such as #vitospizza. Zimmerman also recommends using geotags on your posts so that your location can be mapped and potential customers can find their way to your pizzeria.
Walter Blake Knoblock, a social media consultant in Detroit, says an Instagram presence makes sense for any restaurant because every single one of the platform’s 150 million users have something in common: They all eat. “If you go through most people’s feeds, you’ll find that one of the most prevalent and common aspects are that people love taking pictures and sharing pictures of their current meal,” Knoblock notes. “This interest alone is enough to bring any restaurant/pizzeria into the Instagram realm, but, beyond that, since 95% of food advertising is visually based, a photo-sharing platform like Instagram is the perfect place to invest in showing people how delicious your product looks.”
Since Instagram doesn’t offer links to product pages, marketers can’t test return in a typical ecommerce sense, Knoblock says, but they can test engagement through contests, calls to action and followers. “For example, if you ran a contest telling people to take a picture of their pizza and tag it #BlakesPizza and then picked a random winner every month, you could gauge how many people were actively sharing your pizza by the number of posts. From that, you could deduce what your potential exposure actually is,” he explains. “If you had 500 people, each with their own 500 followers, post a photo for your contest, that’s a potential unique audience of 250,000 people—not bad for a simple app on your iPhone.”
Words of Warning
Instagram works because your customers are already using it and food photos are popular, says Philadelphia-based social media expert Alexandra Golaszewska from AlexandraGo.com, but it can be used incorrectly. Examples include posting bad photos, making negative comments to customers, posting too many images and quitting over a low follower count. She also recommends against spamming other users’ threads with promotions from your pizzeria.
Hines agrees that some posts can do more harm than good for a pizzeria’s reputation. “The biggest ways to get in trouble are typically copyright infringement, offensive content, posts that invite ridicule, or, in the case of many restaurant fiascos to date, employees posting on Instagram—unbeknownst to the company—with damning photos,” he says. “Rather than incessant posting of menus and specials, operators should use Instagram to highlight the brand and business itself—i.e., photos of staff, how the food is made, etc. Show the culture of the brand visually.”
Additionally, using too many filters on food photos can make it seem as if you are hiding what your pizza really looks like, notes Vernon Ross, owner of Ross Public Relations in St. Louis. Instead, Ross recommends starting out by posting photos of the most attractive items on the menu in about 10 pictures over a one-week period. “This shows consistency and can help build an audience,” Ross adds. “Also, follow customers that have followed you on your social media pages and reach out to them on Instagram.”
Ready to start your own Instagram account? Obviously, the first thing you need is an audience. Some customers may find and follow you on their own, but don’t count on it. Make sure to promote your Instagram page on your website, Facebook and any other social media platform that you’re currently using. Use your Facebook account to promote contests and giveaways on Instagram, and vice versa.
Vin Ferrer, a social media strategist with Graphic D-Signs in Washington, New Jersey, also recommends promoting your Instagram account on fliers and in print promotions. “Come up with a unique hashtag for your establishment and have customers use it when they take pictures at your place or with your food,” Ferrer says. “You can measure your effectiveness by searching the keywords for that hashtag. But remember to be patient. This isn’t going to blow up overnight, unless, of course, you publicize a giveaway such as, ‘Get a free pie when you Instagram our storefront!’”
When it comes to building an Instagram following, says Golaszewska, quality is more important than quantity. “A restaurant is a local business, so its Instagram feed will mostly appeal to those who are nearby and can actually visit,” she says. “It’s better to have fewer loyal followers than a huge number who aren’t really paying attention.”