Connecting with the Customer
Marketing With Technology
By Joye Hopkins
For business owners, connecting to customers is a top priority. The ongoing evolution of internet technology makes it easier and cheaper for restaurateurs to reach their target customers. More and more owners and chefs are learning to put email marketing, the internet, customer databases, blogs and social media to work for them. The ultimate goal of marketing with technology is to maximize customer information while minimizing inconvenience and intrusion for loyal customers.
BUILDING A BASE
“Deciding how you will use customer information and building a foundation for collecting and storing that data is the first step to any database-driven marketing program,” explains Stacie Hanna, an independent marketing and public relations consultant. While Hanna was the Director of Marketing for Buckhead Life Restaurant Group (BLRG) launching an e-mail marketing program was one of her first major projects.
“First, we analyzed our objectives and how the program could help us accomplish them. One important goal was to build our customer database for regular e-mail communications and for other direct marketing programs. Then, we found a technology partner to help us build the back-end functionality,” says Hanna. “It’s important to consider a program like as a part of an overall marketing strategy – especially in the context of what else you are doing to boost your presence with customers online.”
Starting with a relatively small list of customer e-mail addresses collected in various ways, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group sent an e-mail offering a $25 Ultimate Card as incentive for joining the company’s new e-mail program. Signing up for the program and receiving the incentive required guests to input information about themselves into an online database. It also encouraged viral growth by allowing recipients to forward the invitation to friends and families. Within a week, more than 20,000 people had signed up for the e-mail program – an astounding response by any measure. “The key to the long-term success of the program was to use the customer information respectfully, with relevance,” says Hanna. The program launched in 2001 and still remains a powerful marketing resource for the restaurant group.
Buckhead Life Restaurant Group’s Ultimate Gift Card
Restaurant owners want to collect information not only from a la carte diners but also from patrons at private parties and special events. Customer comment cards are another option from directing individuals to your website. Whenever possible, secure a second piece of identity information, such as a birthday or anniversary. And clearly, in this internet age, obtaining a customer’s email address is key. Once this information is obtained, the restaurant employee can enter the details and preferences into the database. “Ask for contact information in whatever ways are appropriate for your business whether offering a card at the table, providing the ability to sign up online or when a guest calls for reservations,” adds Hanna. “It’s important to respect the customer’s privacy and priorities. Some will eagerly offer a few minutes to share information but others may be turned off. It’s best to offer multiple avenues to suit a variety of preferences.” Tell your customers that you appreciate their loyalty and would like to add them to your database. Ask customers to fill out “keep in touch” cards, so that you will be able to keep them informed.
More and more restaurants are using mutually beneficial online reservation companies such as Open Table (www.opentable.com). From the customer’s standpoint, Open Table is an easy way to check on current availability and reserve a table. And a booking automatically provides the restaurant with the customer’s name and email address.
IMPROVING THE SEARCH
Like it or not, the internet has become a vital part of doing business. In order to maximize opportunities via the web, restaurants must focus on designing and updating their web presence, ensuring search engine optimization. Chief Experience Officer of Sherpa Web Studios (www.sherpawebstudios.com) David Felfoldi explains, “there are a number of tricks to improve your web presence. Most restaurant websites are in a flash format, which allows for fancy visuals and multimedia. That may create an appealing atmosphere, but it is bad for search engines and your website might be overlooked during a search, in favor of another non-flash option. Also, whenever possible, the restaurant name should match the domain name. Finally, content is king. If your key phrase isn’t in the website content, then your site won’t be listed.”
MAKING IT WORK FOR YOU
Once customer information is gathered, it needs to be used in ways that are most beneficial to your restaurant. “Obtaining the customer’s name and email is important for general communication but when possible figure out how else you can serve them,” says Hanna. “Find out if a weekend a la carte customer is also the person who organizes the monthly luncheon or dinner events for his firm.”
The use of gift cards has increased dramatically in the last few years. Consider sending out promotional gift cards specifically to people who have employees of their own. Look for ways to tie promotions and events into opportunities for collecting information, such as offering gift cards that require activation, typically entering the user’s name and email, before being used. Ned Barker is the General Manager and Partner of My Panini, an Atlanta restaurant focused on lunchtime catering and office delivery in addition to serving their eat-in breakfast and lunch crowds. Barker explains “we promote our gift cards on the website. People then use the website to order a card, and activate them online. Once we have their email address, we send them a monthly newsletter with events and promos. Sometimes we add more credit to the gift cards, like on their birthday.”
BACK TO THE CUSTOMERS
The final, and most important stage of the marketing cycle is effectively communicating back to the customers. Once the database is established, customized emails are a good way to let customers know about any particular off-the-menu specials, events or other features.
Hanna also mentions the power of partners, “it is wise to form partnerships with other businesses who have a similar customer base. For example, a high-end restaurant and a high-end boutique located next to each other can cross-market by inviting customers to events, such as a shopping event at the boutique, catered by the restaurant. ” My Panini puts this into practice by working with Atlanta’s Eon Condominiums. For their Earth Day promotion they are handing out My Panini gift cards. Positive publicity and exposure increases for everyone involved.
Personal recognition also can have a very positive effect in the restaurant industry. Customers enjoy getting to know the staff and management, and vice versa. “People like to be recognized and they are more willing to part with their information if it ultimately gives them a better dining experience,” adds Hanna. Recognition often leads to a more personal touch from the restaurant’s staff, perhaps a better table and better service. However, it is important to strike a balance between what is appropriate and what quickly becomes too much. In this fast-paced information age, people can be a bit guarded with their personal information. And the type of restaurant plays a factor as well. Blanket marketing, especially at the fine dining level, can have a negative effect. Respectful subtlety is key.
Many restaurateurs hire professional mass email marketing firms such as Fishbowl Marketing (http://www.fishbowl.com/), Constant Contact (http://www.constantcontact.com/) or Atlanta’s Trend Influence, the company that initially helped Buckhead Life launch its program. Fishbowl’s Chief Marketing Officer Michael Murray explains “the restaurant business is the largest single industry that has very little real access to the consumers. Once they leave your restaurant, the connection is lost. Putting your restaurant name in front of your customer can lead to people in the seats.”
Fishbowl Marketing’s customized email.
Octane (www.octanecorp.com) is another company that helps people connect with their customers in an interactive setting. Social media is the latest trend in internet marketing and involves such sites as Facebook and MySpace. “The new potential is to connect with people daily and expose them to your promotions throughout the day, rather than just with a monthly email,” explains Brandon Sutton, president of Octane Interactive. By all accounts, internet-related marketing is fast becoming the most efficient way to connect to an increasing percentage of your customers.
Three top marketing and public relations professionals were asked: “What one piece of advice would you provide to a restaurant about marketing?” Here were their responses.
Melissa Libby of Melissa Libby and Associates
- Be open to new opportunities.
- Participate in community events.
- Find a non-profit organization that you care passionately about and focus your giving there.
Mary Reynolds of The Reynolds Group
- Great marketing always begins within the four walls of the restaurant.
- Skilled and defined hiring practices, excellent training, education and mentoring of your team should be the number one “marketing” initiative for restaurant owners and chefs.
Dean Trevelino of Trevelino Keller Communications Group
- Build a Marketing Calendar. Every restaurant needs to develop an annualized marketing calendar as early in Q1 as possible. Once identified, you can determine where to place your public relations emphasis, your online/social media initiatives, in-store creative and any traditional marketing vehicles such (direct mail, couponing). Also, your marketing calendar should identify your community based initiatives and sponsorships. That calendar should be broken down into several key areas:
- Product Features or Limited Time Offers
- Quantitative milestones
- Seasonal Specials
- Key Celebrations