Snagging customers on the Web

News

Despite the restaurant industry’s highly competitive nature, operators who exploit developments on the frontiers of technology, advertising and promotions are able to bring in more than their share of new customers.

Whether they are testing the waters of text messaging to cell phones and PDAs or taking advantage of online opportunities such as YouTube and MySpace or courting the favor of restaurant review forums online, foodservice marketers are tapping technology to make a difference in customer traffic tallies.

Dan Doherty, owner of the fashionable Silicon Valley restaurants Smoke Tiki Lounge and Mission Ale House in San Jose, Calif., is a veteran at using the Internet to reach out to new customers.

"We started with restaurant websites seven or eight years ago, and we are now using tools like mobile[-phone] sites, text messaging and social networking sites like MySpace," he says. "We see a strong connection between social networking and the mobile channel. Our restaurants have a big client base in the 21-25 age group and a late night singles crowd who are very into texting and social networking on mobile phones."

Doherty firmly believes that technology is helping and says he has found that many new interactive mobile-marketing initiatives are actually less expensive and more efficient than traditional marketing has ever been. "We are using iLoop Mobile's mobile technologies right now to create engaging mobile Internet sites, and we'll be looking to branch out into more text-based initiatives for getting timely info out to customers," he says. "We have replaced much of our traditional media marketing such as radio, print ads and fliers with Web and mobile marketing. We used to print trees-worth of fliers, and now we've pretty much concentrated on interactive marketing that really works with our customer base."

Providers of mobile-messaging technology services say they can provide restaurants with effective and affordable means to attract new guests and extend relationships with existing customers.

Vendors of such systems say multinational quick-service chains and local eating hot spots alike are using mobile technologies to drive foot traffic to street locations and increase the number of visitors to websites. Most marketers who have tapped mobile methods view them as amplifying traditional TV, radio, print and billboard advertising.

For example, Chili's Grill & Bar, the flagship chain of Dallas-based Brinker International Inc., became a corporate sponsor of MySpace. In addition to its own MySpace page, Chili's sponsors MySpace Secret Shows, a concert promotion.

And late last year, Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill challenged college students to compete for $40,000 in prizes by creating 30-second ads for the burrito specialist and posting them on the popular YouTube website, a promotion that drew more than 17 million online viewers. "There were some small out-of-pocket costs for us, but the reality is that we couldn't have produced one 30-second commercial ourselves for $40,000, let alone produce the 17 million viewers of the ads. It was really a cost-effective thing," Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold told NRN in December.

In some marketing circles, mobile is viewed as an ideal medium for the restaurant industry because it enables immediate, realtime communication with guests. A logical first step into mobile marketing for a restaurant operator is the creation of a mobile Internet site. Some technologies allow almost instantaneous creation of websites optimized for viewing on mobile phones and personal data assistants. Through those devices, customers can readily access restaurant information, promotional details, e-coupons and other mobile content, such as music, images, video and games.

Text messaging is at least equally powerful as a form of mobile marketing and is perhaps the simplest and most ubiquitous portable technology employed by cell phone users. That's especially true for sometimes hard-to-reach members of the coveted youth demographic who use text messaging as a preferred communications channel.

McDonald's last year ran a mobile couponing campaign, distributing virtual coupons to cell phones and PDAs to help boost late-night traffic in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut markets.

In addition to electronic coupons, restaurants can use mobile technology for prize promotions, product giveaways, branded content distribution, loyalty programs, consumer profile collection, advertising and much more. Through online mapping functions,mobile technologies also can direct diners directly to restaurant locations.

Scott Fox, owner of Cafe Bellino in Boca Raton, Fla., likes to reach out to seasonal "snowbirds" who flock to his area every winter, bringing with them the coveted dollars that put many businesses into the black. He is a big believer that consumers' growing use of the Internet to shop and make purchasing decisions demands that restaurateurs maintain high online profiles via appealing websites.

"I am rolling out new upgrades to the restaurant, and it will be the first impression that counts," Fox says, adding that the Web is a marketing tool too few restaurants exploit.

"People will check you out before they buy," he says. "It used to be word of mouth and advertising were enough. Now, even after that, people will go to your website so they can back up what they have heard. I believe it is hugely important to have a quality website that enables potential guests to continue the dialogue." Another advocate of online marketing, even for local, singleunit operators, is chef Angelo Morinelli, proprietor of Cucina d'Angelo, also in Boca Raton.

"Many of us are chasing the same nickel and doing so in the same ways," he says. "You've got concierge programs and meetings with social directors at the private residence clubs and advertising and dining guides. This year I had to ask myself if there was a better way."

Morinelli is counting on the Internet for his outreach efforts. "I will be focusing on the Web," he says. "I have redone my website in a way that aims at convening community. I change the content often to reflect what's going on at the restaurant and to show upcoming events. Plus, tourists and part-time residents will be searching for what's going on when they arrive. My website is a place where they can see the menu, the events, the news, and meet me."

However, the Internet also can work against a restaurant, says Kipp Bodnar of MMI Marketing in Raleigh, N.C., who leads the firm's online efforts on behalf of several restaurant clients.

"The Internet has really changed the way that they reach their customers," but it can sound "the death knell for any restaurant," Bodnar says. "With the ability for anyone to post negative comments or reviews on blogs and review sites, one poorly handled customer service situation can result in thousands of dollars in lost business."

What's more, "most restaurants only have modest websites, meaning that they are not properly optimized for search engines," he says, adding that technical support to correct such a problem might avert embarrassments. According to Bodnar, improper indexing of a website for search portals can result in a blogger's negative comments about an eatery appearing among search results even above the listing for the restaurant itself.

-- John Riddle