Throughout the pandemic, communities have expressed a desire to go local.

How to Navigate Localized Marketing Through COVID-19

Here are three tips for how you should be shifting your strategies.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Restaurant Association estimates that U.S. restaurants have lost more than $185 billion. It’s reasonable this loss will continue to increase into 2021 as state and local governments re-impose restrictions around capacity, hours, and indoor dining to prevent the ongoing spread of the virus. 

For restaurants, communicating local updates and changes in business hours with customers across locations has never been more important as COVID-19 has forced both consumers and restaurants to shift to digital. In this new normal—and one that isn’t changing anytime in the foreseeable future—restaurants must leverage localized platforms like Facebook, Google My Business (GMB), and Yelp to communicate updates to their community and keep customers engaged. 

If you’re responsible for navigating localized marketing for your brand in 2021, here are three tips for how you should be shifting your strategies during COVID-19.

1. Prioritize your digital presence at the local level

Consider how consumers are searching for local business information throughout the pandemic. When looking for information about restaurants, consumers today primarily conduct local searches, nearly all of which are now dominated by the Google 3-Pack results (a method that Google uses to display the top three results for a local search). This showcases how critical it is for restaurant chains to have a localized presence across all locations. 

Additionally, the majority of consumers conduct searches with non-branded terms, like “gluten-free,” “fast food,” or “restaurant near me.” However, even these non-branded searches are producing local results like those found in Google 3-Pack. Your ability to appear in this limited set of three results is the key to your restaurant being selected over your competitor’s. 

Outside of GMB, consumers are also turning to other platforms, such as Facebook Store pages, for up to date information on hours, availability of indoor and outdoor seating, changes in service, delivery or to go options, and more. Restaurant brands must be aware of this trend and react by ensuring localized digital presence is up-to-date and consistent across all platforms to build trust with consumers, and with the search engines. 

To optimize for ranking, restaurant brands must build E-A-T (expertise, authority, and trustworthiness) into their local presence by:

  • Claiming all local listings across the major platforms (GMB, Facebook, and Yelp)
  • Providing accurate, up-to-date information on local pages across these top sites
  • Optimizing all local pages, and filling out profiles with keyword rich details about your business
  • Creating authentic, localized content and posting to local pages
  • Encouraging customers to leave reviews
  • Monitoring local conversations and reviews and responding in a timely manner  

2. Stay informed on platforms’ updates and communicate local market offerings

Prior to the pandemic, every single location in a chain restaurant could operate the same way with the same operating hours, safety protocols, and dining capacities, for example. However, as a result of COVID-19, state, and sometimes even local, government regulations are now dictating the type of services and operating hours for local restaurants. With these changes happening so quickly, and the fact that consumers now turn to search and social sites first for business information, it is critical for local restaurants to communicate local market offerings through localized social content so consumers stay informed.  

Throughout the pandemic, key digital platforms like Yelp and GMB have made multiple updates to empower restaurants to showcase their updated business procedures on their local profiles; such as adding dine-in, takeout, and delivery options, third-party delivery links, virtual service offerings, COVID-19 banners, and more. Therefore, it is necessary to remain agile not only in your business practices as regulations continue to change, but also in your digital presence as platforms’ offerings change. By staying on top of these changes and making swift shifts to your strategies to incorporate the new platform offerings, you can ensure you’re maximizing the engagement potential with customers.

3. Rebuild your online reputation

As consumers’ research has turned entirely digital, online reviews provide consumers with the context they need to determine where they will make their next purchase. Throughout the pandemic, many restaurants’ online reputations suffered. GMB temporarily disabled reviews because consumers were leaving negative reviews for businesses that were only doing what was required of them during the pandemic, such as requiring masks or limiting capacities, which led to increased wait times. 

As consumers have adjusted to this new normal, restaurants can start rebuilding their online reputation by:

  • Focusing on the customer experience, not the star-rating. Your rating likely dropped during the pandemic—don’t panic. Focus on creating the best possible customer experience and positive reviews will likely follow. 
  • Responding to negative reviews. Eighty-seven percent of consumers express a willingness to change their negative reviews depending on how the business responds. 
  • Creating positive customer engagements. At the beginning of the pandemic, many restaurants relied solely on social engagement with customers because locations were closed. As restaurants have reopened, you should still maintain a focus on creating engaging content on social. 

Throughout the pandemic, communities have expressed a desire to go local. It is essential to build a connection with your local community by being attentive, authentic, and timely in your local communications. By posting localized content on your local business pages across the top search and social sites, local restaurants can keep their patrons and future patrons updated on new offerings and services, promotions, local events, and more. Outside of updates, local restaurants must also monitor accounts and be attentive to local community questions, comments, and reviews that are appearing more frequently across these local pages. 

The restaurant industry has faced more challenges throughout the pandemic than most other industries, considering the changes to operating procedures, to declines in revenue, and even some permanent closures. The key to a restaurant’s survival now and in the future is a localized digital strategy. The actions that restaurants take now will go a long way toward ensuring your business survives the crisis, and comes out with stronger local connections than before.

Monica Ho is the CMO of SOCi, where she is responsible for developing and leading SOCi’s marketing and communications functions and ensuring the company is uniquely positioned in the social media and reputation management marketplace. Her tenure in the industry includes nearly 20 years of digital marketing, advertising and research experience.