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Between lingering pandemic issues and a difficult economy, these days the restaurant industry may feel like a rapidly changing and unknowable space. Systems we have relied on for years may not be as useful or predictable anymore. Along these lines, experts have been researching different customer loyalty programs. Observed with a more critical eye, though they were once touted as an effective marketing tool, it is clear that they really only served already loyal customers and did little to increase this audience. “…loyalty only touches one aspect of customer engagement, particularly when it only applies to the top 20% of guests,” states a recent Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN) article, which insists “The key to driving restaurant traffic is engaging customers beyond the loyalty program.”

Part of good business always has included flexibility and a willingness to grow into new markets and customer behaviors. This is especially important in today’s social and economic climate. A positive impact of large changes in the industry is the digital movement, which offers not only faster ways of reaching customer but also handy, quickly applicable data about customers. NRN reports:

We have a successful loyalty program, and we like it but were topping out at 15-20% of our customer base,” Ryan Wilkinson, vice president of marketing for Primanti Bros said. Theres a whole lot of people out there who arent part of your loyalty program, so were thinking, that 20% will take care of themselves, what about the other 80%?”

Wilkinson said that Primanti Bros has been using anonymized credit card data to track the remaining 80%, match them against addressable lists, and push them through email marketing campaigns and/or expose them to ads on social media.

With the majority of consumers using social media multiple times a day, digital marketing makes sense. This goes beyond social media engagement from company accounts, which, while important, is like a loyalty program in that it only reaches a fan/customer base already following the account. The beauty of digital data is accessing the previously unreachable part of an audience through targeted ads and digital campaigns, which are highly customizable through social media platforms.

‘We keep thinking, How can we be very specific with who we’re marketing to and what that message is we’re providing to them?because I need to just nudge that one customer over the edge,’ Wilkinson said. ‘If I’m using the customer data I have, I can nudge them pretty softly sometimes and get them across the finish line, and thats less aggravating to operators than setting up a massive direct mail campaign. When you don’t know your customers, you might use spray and pray, but if you know what each person needs, then you only have to push them just a little bit.’”

Social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, X, and Pinterest offer business accounts for advertising purposes, with customizable features to reach highly targeted audiences. Marketing teams should familiarize themselves with these features to offer discounts, coupons, and messages that will reach a more robust audience than the already loyalty members of in-house loyalty programs. 

The other key is making sure that you are marketing and promoting what differentiates your brand. What makes your restaurant stand out?”  asks Richard Weil, owner and principal of National Restaurant Consultants. Working with a restaurant consultant is the best way to streamline all of your marketing efforts—both in-house and digital—under a single business plan that will ensure your restaurant’s profitability in the coming year.

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