By David Rivett, restaurant manager at Hale Kitchen and Bar

Since the start of the recession many SMEs have struggled to strike the right balance between making a profit and offering competitive prices to attract new customers. This is something we felt particularly strongly in the hospitality sector where dining out is considered a luxury, not a necessity.

When we first opened in 2005, advertising in the local paper worked well to generate awareness of our business but over the years it became apparent that this was no longer the best way to target new customers. Instead of reading papers, people started jumping online to get ideas for new experiences and places to go. Almost three quarters of the population access the internet daily and because we didn’t have an internet presence, we really started to see a drop in customer numbers.

No matter what size your business is, or what sector you operate in, having a website is critical in today’s competitive market. We decided to implement a full online strategy, incorporating a website, social media and online partnerships with Groupon to raise awareness of our restaurant in our local area. As a result we’ve seen what we consider a huge increase in first-time customers – a rise of 30% in the past year alone, and this keeps on growing.

Here are some top tips based on our experience…

Start with a simple website

Your website will also define your brand as it’s another way to project your business image, which will ultimately have an impact on the customers you attract. It doesn’t have to be an incredibly expensive or fancy website, in fact, ours is a simple Wordpress site and it does the job perfectly, allowing people to view our menu, see our latest offers and even book a reservation online.

There are lots of websites, such as Moonfruit, that provide you with a template to help you build your own site – you can make it as simple or as sophisticated as you like, depending on your ability and business needs.

Introduce social media

Social media channels are a great way to not only market a business and communicate with customers directly, but also to help you understand them and what they are interested in. They are free and pretty straight forward to set up but you need to think long term and allocate the necessary resource to keep it running.

A common mistake can be to use social media to sell rather than to engage – customers do not want to be fed purely sales-focused content through these sites but if you build relationships with followers, it’ll be easier to engage them with your products and services later on. Not all social media sites will be right for your business, so you’ll need to have a think about which ones will work best for you:

Facebook – good to help you reach new customers but fairly ineffective without advertising. Luckily this is relatively cheap as you pay for each new ‘like’ of your page, so it can be capped it to suit your budget. You can also narrow your advertising reach down to local areas, which is great if you want to attract customers in a small region. It’s worth bearing in mind that interacting with people that post on your wall and showing your personality is important.
Twitter – more about creating conversations with your customers, as well as reaching out to new ones. Posting content your followers will want to re-tweet or reply to is key as it’ll help increase visibility of your profile and gain new followers.

There are other popular social media sites available, such as Pinterest and Instagram, but they weren’t quite right for us as they are very image led and therefore more suited to retailers. These include Pinterest, which is growing in popularity in the UK and is now one of the primary ways people share content online and Instagram, which is more popular with a younger audience.

Work with online experts

There are various online sites that will help drive traffic to your own site and one of the most popular ways to do this is through affiliate marketing – a type of performance-based marketing where your ‘affiliates’ refer new customers to your site in return for a small commission.

To boost customer numbers during quieter week days, we decided to partner with Groupon to entice new diners in with a special discount. As a result we’ve seen 30% more customers, with a quarter of these returning after their initial visit - a brilliant return on investment for us. Making sure customers have a great experience has been a big part of the reason why these new customers keep returning and review sites like Trip Advisor have helped us to keep track of their feedback.

Getting mobile ready

You can learn a lot from the way your customers use your website and online analytics tools will help you understand how many customers are accessing your website from a mobile device. Based on this data, you’ll be able to assess the need for developing a mobile optimised site, or if a full application is needed. This can be quite costly, so it’s important to make sure you’ve got the customer needs already in place before investing.

There are many ways to develop an online marketing strategy and it’s important you pick the elements that are right for your business. Start by considering your business objectives and what you want to achieve – is it to reach more customers, to improve relationships with your existing customer base, or to offer more ways to communicate with them? Don’t just jump on the digital bandwagon because you feel you have to – think about what your loyal customers will appreciate. It’s also important to continue to focus on providing the best experience possible so customers return and recommend your business to friends and family. However you chose to implement your online strategy, the customer experience needs to be convenient and seamless to achieve success.