Counting Down Today’s Top Social Media Trends
Here’s what we know: social media is big. Like really, really big.
According to the Pew Research Center, seven in 10 Americans use social media regularly. Social media powerhouse Facebook boasts 2 billion daily active users, while its sister social media site, Instagram, is hurtling toward 1.4 billion daily active users.
Noteworthy as those raw numbers are, it is social media’s continued ability to drive consumer behavior, including the dining decisions of Americans, that is perhaps most impressive. Numerous surveys and studies over the last decade have outlined social media’s ability to spark restaurant trials, generate awareness and increase loyalty.
“As a restaurant owner, you simply can’t discount the importance of social media today,” says Sammy Mandell of the Dallas-based Greenville Avenue Pizza Company (GAPCo). “It’s all about staying top of mind and people need to see you regularly to achieve that.”
Staying current and relevant
But social media doesn’t remain static. Like much of the tech world, it evolves. Its algorithms change. Consumer preferences shift. And restaurant owners must respond in earnest.
While the nation’s large pizzeria chains might be able to dominate the television landscape, Mandell feels local shops like his can compete on social media, where GAPCo can build its brand with entertaining videos and illustrative posts touting limited-time offers. It’s why GAPCo leadership has devoted so much energy to social media, including consistently monitoring trends in the digital landscape to ensure the relevancy and impact of their efforts.
“We absolutely stay on top of social because we know how key it is to our business,” says Mandell, who joined his GAPCo colleagues, co-owner Molly Mandell and creative director Phil Bossart, in delivering “A Pizzeria’s Guide to Social Media” presentation at International Pizza Expo last March.
When independent restaurants monitor social media trends and use market movements to their advantage, they position themselves to earn deeper brand awareness, cultivate richer relationships with customers and better compete in a crowded marketplace.
“Social media has become a crucial component of the marketing and promotion strategies for indie restaurants,” says Jon Morgan, the CEO of Venture Smarter, a consulting firm that specializes in helping small businesses scale and grow. “By staying up to date on the latest social media trends and focusing on creating engaging content, indie restaurants can increase their online visibility and attract new customers.”
So, what are today’s biggest social media trends?
Shorter video content
Video content is highly engaging and shareable. It is also a media format pizzerias can use to showcase their personality, atmosphere, staff and food. But as attention spans dwindle, short-form video content like TikToks, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts have surged in popularity.
Years ago, GAPCo would make 30-second videos – “mini-commercials,” Mandell called them. Today, most GAPCo videos max out at 10 seconds and the three-unit chain is also incorporating TikTok – the home of short-form videos – more often.
“This is what’s resonating now and where eyeballs are going,” Mandell says.
In addition to short-form videos, live videos on platforms like Instagram and Facebook are generating heightened attention. When going live, restaurants can interact with their followers in real time, offering cooking demonstrations or tips, promoting an upcoming event or teasing the grand opening of a new location or renovated patio.
“By engaging with customers in real-time, indie restaurants can create a more personal connection and build loyalty,” says Ashish Goswami of Krish Technolabs, a full-service digital commerce agency.
There remains an ever-swelling ecosystem of tech-savvy souls creating substantial followings – if not, full-time jobs – off original social content, including posts about restaurant visits. These “influencers” can help restaurants reach new audiences and generate buzz on social media, says Jessica Luna, a marketing analyst with Net Influencer, a media company that tracks influencer marketing.
Now, some hear influencer and immediately think “Kardashian.” That’s the tip of the global influencer spear.
More realistically, independent restaurants can team with locals boasting sizable social media followings. So-called “micro-influencers” might range from a school principal to the local TV station’s meteorologist to a local food blogger. Name, image and likeness (NIL) deals for college athletes have also opened a new opportunity for restaurants to tap into others’ social networks.
“The key is to find influencers who align with the restaurant’s brand and values and who have a genuine interest in promoting the restaurant,” Goswami says.
With almost every special at GAPCo, the pizzeria’s public relations agent brings influencers into the restaurant to post social content.
“There’s no shortage of local people highlighting who they are and where they go, so we leverage that as an economical marketing approach that feeds into social media,” Mandell says.
Inviting user-generated content – and supplying a branded hashtag
Pizzerias have long sought user-generated content (UGC) – that is, diners creating their own original content. UGC provides external validation and valuable social currency.
These days, restaurants are increasingly encouraging customers to share photos and reviews of their visits on their personal social channels. Yet more, restaurants are supplying a branded hashtag like #PizzaAtPappis or #ADateWithPizzaboy to amplify the UGC. The branded hashtag allows restaurant leadership to track content more easily, repost customers’ photos and videos and expand social proof.
“This can help build a sense of community and loyalty around your brand,” Luna says.
Favoring a cozy, homemade aesthetic
As many consumers cringe at the idea of being advertised to or sold on something, authenticity matters. Rather than sharing super polished content, businesses are favoring unscripted content on social media, such as videos recorded from a point-of-view angle or photos that appear unedited and natural.
“If you are planning to use images as ad creatives and want to give the images that homemade and authentic look, you can increase the exposure slightly and brighten the shadows,” suggests Arsh Sanwarwala, founder and CEO of Thrillx, a full-service digital agency based in Toronto. “After that, increase the vibrance of the image until it looks natural.”
Keeping it real
Alongside the homemade aesthetic, Venone Public Relations founder Kelly Richardson is seeing more independent restaurants leaning into social media to share the stories behind their restaurants, from the motivations of founders to the local farmers who supply ingredients. Above all, Richardson says, diners are attracted to stories and lively original content.
As one example, Mattenga’s Pizzeria, a six-unit chain in San Antonio, publishes a “Customer’s Choice” segment on social media every Thursday. Co-owner Hengam Stanfield says the store selects interesting pizza combinations from its POS, recreates the pies and tastes the pizza on camera.
Speaking of “behind the scenes”
Restaurants are taking people behind the scenes more often than ever on social media. It’s a shrewd marketing move that appeases consumers’ growing appetite for content about the businesses they frequent as well as food and cooking.
Using short-form videos or Instagram stories, forward-thinking pizzerias like Mattenga’s are pulling back the curtain and providing fans a glimpse into their kitchen, in particular. Pizzerias can showcase everything from the dough-making process to the preparation to the plating.
“People want to see how their food is made,” says Cari Garcia, a Miami-based social media manager, food content creator and food influencer.
Such behind-the-scenes content shows the personality of the restaurant, unlocks storytelling capabilities, heightens feelings of community and, perhaps most importantly, strengthens trust with diners who want to frequent clean, professional operations.
Getting on TikTok
Over the last five years, TikTok has surged in popularity, especially among American teenagers. In its Teens, Social Media and Technology 2022 study, the Pew Research Center found TikTok was the second most popular social
media platform among U.S. teens, trailing only YouTube. Two-thirds of teens reported using TikTok and one in six said they used the app “almost constantly.”
“If restaurants are already shooting short-form video, they might as well maximize its use and post it on TikTok,” Garcia says. “TikTok reaches a different and relatively younger audience with growing spending power.”
(Of note, the Biden Administration recently gained the ability to ban Chinese-owned TikTok in the U.S. That political situation bears monitoring for pizzerias using the platform to attract and engage with guests.)
There is climbing consumer demand, especially among younger Americans, for businesses to act with environmental stewardship and social responsibility in mind. Such actions are something more businesses are highlighting on social media, including restaurants sharing posts and videos spotlighting the sourcing of local ingredients, their steps to reduce waste and their use of environmentally friendly products like eco-friendly packaging.
“Highlight your restaurant’s efforts in these areas on social media to attract like-minded customers and differentiate yourself from competitors,” Luna says.
Creating “Instagrammable” experiences
Instagram is all about the visual and many restaurants are leaning into this by creating photo-worthy opportunities on site to inspire picture taking and posting.
To encourage user-generated content that spreads the restaurant’s name, restaurants are creating photogenic dishes like colorful pizzas or monster-sized desserts served in unique vessels. They are also goading photos by installing distinctive décor in their eateries, such as an oversized throne in the lobby or a retro neon sign that reads, “I’m Hungry.” Here again, inviting customers to take photos and share them with a branded hashtag increases the velocity and impact of the post.“Instagrammability” can certainly extend to other social media platforms as well. Jessica Klein of pizzeria technology platform Slice cites Joe Brignoni from Joe’s Rotisseria in Asbury Park, New Jersey, as one notable example. Brignoni’s dynamic personality and over-the-top, creative recipes like the Triple Threat (a calzone, garlic knots and pizza all in one) have helped him amass more than 72,000 Instagram followers and over 200,000 followers and 2.8 million likes on TikTok.
Klein says some of Brignoni’s dishes are “purposely designed to spark audience engagement.”
Prioritizing engagement, not promotions
Overly promotional content is OUT on social media, as consumers are skeptical of blatant advertisements screaming “buy, buy, buy.” In line with the aforementioned “cozy, homemade aesthetic” trend, there is accelerating movement toward informative, educational or entertaining social content.
“Too many restaurants think you post your food pictures or videos each day and then wonder why no one interacts,” says Matt Plapp, the CEO of America’s Best Restaurants, a national media company that highlights local restaurants.
Instead, Plapp sees restaurants capturing success by prioritizing engagement over promotion. On Mother’s Day, for instance, a restaurant might post photos of staff members with their mothers and urge followers to share a special memory of their own mother in the comments.
“What’s working is using social media for its intended purpose: creating conversations,” Plapp says.
Social media challenges continue gaining momentum as a way for brands of all sizes to capture eyeballs and stir engagement.
A pizzeria might create a poll or bracket-style competition to select the name of a new specialty pizza or it might challenge fans to craft their own pizzas using a select group of ingredients and then post their results via video or photo on social media.
Restaurants might also create hashtag challenges. In 2019, IHOP found momentum with its #SyrupTurnUp challenge, which invited TikTokers to send in videos doing funny skits with pancake syrup bottles.
“Humor works really well on social media so a challenge like [#SyrupTurnUp] went viral,” says Joshua Wood, CEO of the tech hospitality company Bloc. “It’s a fun and easy way to showcase your indie restaurant brand’s personality, which is great for marketing.”
Employing social media to listen and learn
So often, business owners think of social media solely as a megaphone, a tool to broadcast their message. Wise businesses, however, have noted social media’s potential as a listening tool and a path to improved customer service and enhanced offerings. Through social media, pizzerias can gain perspective on customer preferences and experiences, double down on what’s working and attempt to recapture customers with earnest and empathetic responses.
“Social media provides a direct line of communication between indie restaurants and their customers,” Venture Smarter’s Morgan says. “Indie restaurants should respond to both positive and negative feedback in a timely and professional manner to demonstrate their commitment to customer service.”
Daniel P. Smith Chicago-based writer has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.