Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

The Right Way to Build Your Social Media Following as a Bar Professional

Image: Valero Doval

For all the purported downfalls of social media, there’s no denying the fact that a robust online presence can open doors for you, improve your business and even change your life. Of course, big numbers mean nothing if you don’t have the substance to back it up. But there’s no reason, in the year 2019, for a talented business-savvy beverage professional to overlook the power of platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

So how do you begin to grow your following? It may be daunting to compare your 500 followers to a colleague’s 50,000, but don’t let that discourage you. There are universal foolproof ways to build your audience. For starters, establish a clear voice and aesthetic, post regularly at optimum times, and engage enthusiastically with your network.

In the drinks world specifically, remember that you’re in the business of pleasure. As bartenders or brand ambassadors, you’re selling an experience and a feeling as much as a product. Find a clear perspective and lean into it. If possible, work with brands that can help amplify your message, but at the same time, don’t compromise your integrity. And of course, respect yourself and your audience by encouraging responsible drinking.

Ready to get started? We’ve rounded up advice from some industry friends, including bartenders, bar owners and influencers.

1. Establish a Quality Photo Style

This goes without saying, but in the digital age, we eat, drink and shop with our eyes. From lighting to staging, make sure your photos at least offer some aesthetic value.

For those with the means, a hired photographer of course can make things easier, but know that anyone can learn how to take good photos. If you work at bars that are typically dimly lit, shoot your cocktails before your shift, preferably in natural light. If you’re often working in the same venue, identify those tabletops, corners, backdrops or walls that work consistently well for photos, so you can shoot and post regularly without having to scout out a new location each time.

Over time, you’ll ideally find a cohesive style that works for you. Don’t just think about individual posts or photos; think about how your feed will look as a whole. At the same time, don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.

“Having a unique aesthetic is definitely helpful, but at the end of the day, you just need good to great photos; they don’t need to have a new or different filter process applied to get noticed,” says David Kapan, the proprietor of Death & Co in New York City and Denver. “We use the same small stable of photographers for our properties and continue to update and define our aesthetic.”

2. Be Authentic

Sure, social media is a highlight reel, but your online profiles don’t need to stray far from who you are in real life. If earnest enthusiasm is your vibe, let that shine. If you prefer a studied aloofness, embrace that in your posts and captions. Authenticity translates well in any scenario.

“When I first started, I didn’t think too much about it; I posted what I felt was going to be interesting, what I was personally obsessed with,” says Prairie Rose, the cocktail blogger behind Bit By a Fox. “My personal look was very retro, and people loved that. They also love a photo of me holding a glass of wine or something. You can give things a personal touch.”

David Kaplan agrees: “Remain authentic but spend time and effort on your photo assets, and spend time and effort on your written content to ensure that it’s interesting and engaging.” He adds, “Personally, I unfollow anyone that seems like they’re trying too hard—it feels like they’re selling. I don’t want to follow establishments that are just telling me about their specials, and I don’t want to follow individuals who are selling me an alternative version of themselves or their interests.”

3. Embrace Your Expertise

Now let’s get down to business. It’s important to remember that platforms like Instagram use digital algorithms to boost certain posts. Such algorithms also identify the experts and tastemakers for a given topic, whether it’s menswear, makeup or cocktails, and among other things, this can help your posts reach new followers.

For Instagram specifically, it’s also important to make a strong first impression. When people discover your profile online, you only have so much time to capture their attention. “Declare yourself an authority on your subject,” says Céline Bossart, a spirits writer, social media specialist and contributor in New York City. “The first step is presenting yourself as an expert, then using your content to back that up.”

4. Optimize Your Profile

Make sure your profile looks and seems professional or otherwise engaging. At the same time, make it clear who you are and what you do. “Have a smart, succinct bio,” says Bossart. “When I find an Instagram profile with a vague bio, I’m confused about who the person is and what they do. Think about what you want to communicate within the first two seconds of someone landing on your feed.”

Consider keeping your aesthetic consistent over time and across images. While individual photos may look good on their own, remember that some of your followers will discover you through your feed. Whether it’s sticking to the same filter or shooting in a consistent style, people want to know what they can expect when they follow you. Having a marketable social media brand can also lead to other opportunities in the press. Journalists and writers often check out potential sources’ social media profiles before interviewing them.

Lastly, use hashtags, when applicable, to quickly isolate your topics of interest and expertise, but do so tactfully with a cloud of tags at the end of a post, rather than sprinkled gratuitously in your captions. “No matter what people are saying these days, I still incorporate hashtags,” says Rose. “They bring new eyeballs that may have not otherwise found my profile.”

5. Find Out What Works and Repeat it

After you’ve established a solid voice and image, consider introducing new concepts to see if your followers like them. Over time, this will help you get to know and reach your audience better. Play off your successes, and consider why the missteps didn’t resonate with your followers.

Michele Mariotti, the bar manager at Mo Bar in Singapore’s Mandarin Oriental, started using the hashtag #ClassicTuesday to share photos of classic cocktails. The positive reaction to those posts inspired Mariotti to start an educational video series called “Classic Tuesday” in which he demonstrates how to create classic cocktails like the Penicillin, Hanky Panky and Daiquiri.

“#ClassicTuesday was initially a fun tutorial tool for our colleagues to follow when creating drinks,” says Mariotti. “After a few sessions, we realized it had the potential to become a great stand-alone series because of its visual impact, relevancy and easy straight-to-the-point storytelling. There was also a lack in the bartending community for such digestible one-minute content, and our videos were the perfect bridge.”

6. Create a Solid Call-to-Action

This goes back to old-school marketing. When appropriate, create special call-to-action moments that inspire your followers to engage with you. Whether you want them to participate in a promotion, build buzz around a hashtag or discover your bar or product, give them an incentive. This can include anything from a contest or giveaway to insider information that’s only available to followers, or a promotional content piece created in partnership with a brand.

When launching such a brand cross-promotion, for example, anticipate how each party will enhance the other and increase follower engagement. “Make sure both parties have something unique to share. For example, if they have photos of the finished drink, you have a video of the R&D,” says Ricardo Gomez, the general manager at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Beverly Hills, Calif. “This way, you can drive followers from one account to the other in a way that keeps them engaged and offers another perspective or part of the story. Beyond just asking the brand to tag you or include your hashtag, create a call-to-action that you feel is a genuine extension of their post and something you would be excited to see if you were a fan of the brand.”

7. Engage, Engage, Engage

“Get to know your community,” says Rose. “Reach out in real life and online. Go to other bars and meet other bartenders. Promote other people and lift them up. Be a cheerleader for other people and other accounts, and it will come back to you.”

This rings true on several levels. These days, your in-real-life networking almost always translates into organic social media activity. However, liking and commenting frequently (without being creepy) also helps boost online engagement, thanks to Instagram’s algorithm.

“Set aside half an hour a day to engage with people in your network,” says Bossart. “Take time to engage with like-minded accounts and people. You never know who you could connect with that could lead to career opportunities or professional collaborations.”

And if you want to engage with brands without partnering with just one or being tied to just one, Bossart advises “creating content that includes and tags lots of brands in hopes that those can be posted and reposted. That’s a great way to expand your network, get your work in front of people and manifest new opportunities through social media.”

8. Be Accountable

It would be a waste of time to try to outline every scenario in which good judgment is paramount in our online decisions. Accountability on social media ranges from being transparent about brand relationships to exercising culturally sensitive and encouraging responsible drinking. It also means standing up for what is ethical and right, as well as holding others accountable when they promote harmful behavior.

“I’d caution against anything implying overindulgence. As a tastemaker or influencer—yes, even in the alcohol service industry—you carry a responsibility to project a positive image,” says Brandon Wise, the vice president of beverage for Denver’s Sage Restaurant Group. “First and foremost, serving and imbibing responsibly is the most important thing from a personal and public safety standpoint. But don’t forget that every post is essentially part of a job interview. Maybe not right away, but once it goes online, it’s with you forever. A drunken Instagram post is like a glitter bomb of a bad decision—you’ll never get rid of it.”