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Restaurants: Facebook 'social inbox' will not kill e-mail marketing

Experts weigh in on social network's upcoming e-mail feature

Restaurant marketers responded positively to Facebook's plans to develop a “social inbox” that would aggregate users' e-mails and separate friends' messages from those sent by all others, including businesses.

Operators and social-media experts contended that the new platform, which Facebook announced last week, would not pose a threat to e-mail marketing, which is still an advertising workhorse for the restaurant industry. Rather, a “social inbox” could make e-mail marketing better, they said.

“It creates more and more pressure for good content, even with our e-mail,” said John Piccirillo, director of marketing and development for Fado Pubs Inc., parent of Fado Irish Pub and Tigin Irish Pub. “Gmail has its Priority Inbox now, but we haven’t seen our numbers in open rates go down with them at all. If the content is good, customers will continue to find it; how they manage it is what’s different.”

The e-mail content that has produced the best open rates recently has been "cause marketing" and philanthropic news, along with “anything that makes the customer or the staff the star,” Piccirillo said.

“When we send e-mails built around getting to know our bartenders or servers, those do very well,” he said. “So does sending along pictures of our restaurants or events from people’s Facebook or Flickr pages.”

E-mail is not going away

Scott Shaw, founder and chief executive of Fishbowl Inc., one of the industry’s pioneers in e-mail marketing, sees Facebook’s proposed platform as a way to strengthen engagement through e-mail, not to replace it.

“We love Facebook for the simple reason that the heart of any way that a restaurant grows its business is word-of-mouth marketing,” Shaw said. “We’ve been doing viral campaigns with e-mail, but Facebook is so much better for viral. It’s easier to grow a fan base than an e-mail list. So we’re looking at Facebook as another way to stay in front of your customer base and a good way to grow your e-mail database, because you’ll want different touch points [in your marketing program].”

As such, Fishbowl is going “all in” on social media, helping clients create applications and text advertisements for Facebook and showing them how to use their rosters of fans to cultivate their e-mail databases and vice versa, Shaw said.

“We don’t see it as either/or,” he said. “E-mail is not going to go away. It’s how utilities and banks send statements, and it’s not losing its effectiveness for restaurants, as measured by response rates. It’s just not the only arrow in your quiver anymore.”

Piccirillo agreed that e-mail marketing continues to work and may become only more efficient through certain social applications.

“E-mail isn’t as sexy as it used to be, but for us, it’s still really important,” Piccirillo said. “I don’t know the exact demographics, but we still see a 20-percent to 30-percent open rate, so people are still paying attention to it. When one in five people are still using e-mail, you’re not going to abandon it, you’re just going to try to make it better.”

Helping e-mails break through

No matter how social-media savvy Milwaukee restaurateur Joe Sorge becomes — and he’s co-written two books on restaurants and social media, “Twitterworks” and “Foursquareworks” — he still uses e-mail to market to his customers. That format lets him down, however, when e-mails get caught in spam filters, something the permission-based aspect of Facebook’s proposed social inbox could help, he said.

Much like how brands cannot send Facebook users messages unless the user allows that access by “liking” the restaurant on its fan page, social inbox users will be able to control whether they see e-mails from anybody other than their Facebook friends. Communications from friends would go straight to one inbox folder, while messages from brands go to an “Others” folder, though users may choose which brands’ e-mails go to the inbox for immediate viewing.

“The problem for me right now is I have a database with 47,000 e-mail addresses, and when I send out an e-mail, I know it’s not getting delivered to half those people, because it ends up in their spam folders,” Sorge said. “So if a customer could tell Facebook where they want my e-mails delivered and how, it’s a more effective connection to your desk and an aid to traditional e-mail.”

Oliver Muoto, principal at digital branding and consulting firm Metablocks, said the announcement is good news for everybody but Facebook’s e-mail competitors, including Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Hotmail.

“The headline is: ‘E-mail is dead, long live e-mail,’” Muoto said. “E-mail is going to become more relevant. … Facebook does a good job of providing mechanisms where users associate with whom they want to. You have to ‘Like’ a brand. The permissioning infrastructure makes it easier for people to give you accurate information and for you to get a hold of them if they want you to.”

The proposed new platform wouldn’t necessarily change anything about e-mail other than where it ends up, Muoto said.

“The destination would be closer to the customer and more trusted by the customer,” he said. “Facebook users have the ability to permit at a higher level than just ‘spam’ or ‘not spam.’ Vendors whose pages I like show up in this box, others in that box.”

Restaurants’ new starting place

The social network’s potential for aggregating consumers’ messages, combined with its restaurant-specific abilities to place orders or reservations from a tab on a brand page, mean that a Facebook page today is as essential as a traditional website was five years ago, Muoto said.

Restaurant brands that have yet to set up or upgrade their Facebook pages to take advantage of all the network’s advantages can do so in four steps, he said.

First is “claiming your homestead” by making a brand page and establishing a vanity URL that ensures the restaurant comes up first when users search for its name.

Step two is to start collecting fans, by leading them to the Facebook page from their traditional websites, migrating fans from old networks like MySpace, and promoting the page through an e-mail database.

The third step is to “build trust” and get permission to communicate with customers, he said.

“The way that happens is through applications,” Muoto said. “Once you [the customer] give a Facebook app permission, it knows you. The sooner you get applications and permissions, the sooner you’ll reach your goal.”

The final step is using that permission to send offers and e-mails to Facebook users in a targeted way.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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