Growing your local online audience

22 September 2022, 15:10 PM
  • Samantha Priestley explores how indies can grow their digital reach without sacrificing their local USP
Growing your local online audience

It might seem like a contradiction in terms, to talk about growing your online audience locally. After all, isn’t the point of an online presence to attract customers from further afield?

But really, for most indie food and drink businesses, that’s just not practical. Sure, you might find some customers are travelling from far and wide to find you, but the bulk of your business will still go to those who live locally to you. So, what does it mean to grow your local online audience?

For head of marketing at Sessions Food Hall, Shannon Butler, it’s about stretching the idea of social media to fit into other online tools.

“The most effective platform for us for a local audience, both for people who live in the area and are visiting, is treating our Google Business Page as a social media platform. We regularly add new photos, publish events natively and update menu items. We also do paid targeted social ads in the local area.

“We send out an after-visit email asking for Google reviews. Our Shelter Hall page gets upwards of 400,000 views a month and our photos are viewed up to 250k times a month compared to similar businesses who get around 90k.”

Those are quite some numbers. But the truth is, it’s a lot of work and it takes up a lot of time. Running a small business is tough enough without the added pressure of keeping up with the online world, surely? But for Robi Lambie, founder and co-owner of Cairngorm Coffee Rosters in Edinburgh, it’s both essential and hugely rewarding.

“Harris Grant, co-owner, and I are staunch believers that running a business in 2022 requires you to treat yourself as 50% a content creator or media company. To this end, we do prioritise making videos and planning marketing as much as we can and it probably takes up at least a day a week of our time.

“In addition to this, we currently have retainers with three different agencies who help us create content. Two of these are one-man bands who have created fantastic pieces of video for us and really understand what we’re trying to achieve.”

For Robi, the key is to view growing your online audience as an integral part of your business, as important as any other area of work, and it’s vital to not view the time needed for this as a waste.

“Marketing your business online seems unavoidable in 2022. The first place anyone now looks to find out about the food we serve or the coffee we work with is our Instagram, and it feels like the majority of our customers want to understand the value of their money before they part with it.”

For John Sinclair, owner of Craigies Farm Shop, Deli & Café, there simply wasn’t time to keep up with everything himself, but that was never a reason to not push forward with building an online audience.

“We have just hired someone in a dedicated digital marketing role, so that goes some way to highlighting how dedicated we are to this side of the business.

“We also have the help of an agency to manage our website and media presence. It is a huge focus for us, and it has paid off with our online followings – we have over 45,000 followers on Facebook and over 10,000 followers on Instagram.”

Spreading the word
Food and drink businesses can think of their online shop in exactly the same way as they view their physical shop. Loyal customers are already visiting, but no one can rest easy on that alone, those passers-by have to be tempted to come inside too.

“Inevitably, we will always have our content viewed more so by the audience that are engaged followers of what we’re doing,” says Robi. “However, we’ve used competitions where entrants are asked to share with their audience to enter, and sponsored adverts on some platforms to further this reach. It’s a funny dynamic to put yourself out there on social media in that regard as you aren’t always viewed by someone who has bought into, and understands, what you are trying to achieve.”

Robi knows his on-site customers are his online customers. Businesses are simply communicating with these people more than ever before, and as social media is sharable, the word can spread so much faster than ever before. For John, it works in the same word-of-mouth way as locals chatting on the school run.

“We’ve had many instances of people coming along to visit us after seeing our content online. It’s brilliant to be able to reach so many people in this way, and it’s a massive help when people share our posts or leave a review on TripAdvisor, for example. Often, you’ll see people tag their friends in our posts with a comment like ‘this is the place I was telling you about’, or ‘we have to go here’ and that always brings a smile to our faces.”

Shannon Butler has found it’s a case of the two worlds being seamless in 2022. Loyal customers can be rewarded for that loyalty, and with the rise of app-based ordering at your table, a pandemic tool that’s here to stay, the majority of customers will be fully connected to your business after just one in-person visit.

“More valuable than our social media accounts, which lots of customers use to window shop before they visit rather than follow, is our email database. As all of our ordering is done either via our web-based ordering platform or our app, we’ve built a strong database of followers who are predominately local. We announce new launches, events etc to this audience first and give them priority for booking.”

For Shannon, building the online audience starts before the physical outlet is open. It can be seen in the same way as promoting a movie or album before the release date. That buzz every business is looking for can be built and anticipation can be created, bringing your business a ready-made audience.

“Launching the new venue, setting up the Google business page is one of the first things we do. We put the opening date and regularly post images etc in the lead-up to launch. On soft launch night, we have wooden QR codes that will be on every table asking all attendees to leave a review before they leave,” she says.

Getting to know your audience
Knowing who your local online audience is, and what they want to see and engage with online, might not be as easy as it sounds. Robi has found the only way to know is to test the waters.

“Mostly our more serious content hasn’t had the uptick that the fun videos have. We’ve tried some educational pieces to teach viewers about coffee and how to make it, but there’s already such a wealth of information on the topic online and showcased by established content creators, so it makes it a hard one to really make viral.”
It’s a good point. There is so much information available online in 2022, most regular users of social media are looking for something that stands out.

“I think it’s important to show a variety of different qualities of content,” says Robi. “Often our local supporters will be most interested in an iPhone video of us in the shop just talking about our plans for the weekend. It can oftentimes come across more genuine and therefore engaging.”

For John Sinclair, it’s a double-sided coin. He’s found online activity can be both educational and fun. It can drive customers to his business and it can simply make someone smile, which, arguably, can still drive customers to the business.

“Facebook advertising has been key for us in reaching new local audiences and generating traffic to our online shop. But overall, our social media and other online activities are all about building a brand and supplying something of use to our customers – whether that’s a photo of a pygmy goat to brighten their day or a recipe they can save for later. This kind of connection can’t be measured in sales.”

Once you know your locals well enough, you know exactly what they’ll respond to, and it’s all growth from there.

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