Forging Authentic Customer Connections Through Digital and Social Engagement

Posted by Sarah Clark on September 15, 2016


For years, the restaurant industry has relied heavily on a variety of marketing tools to help attract and retain customers. From value-driving coupons to timely promotions to loyalty programs, the options are abundant — yet it’s gotten harder for many restaurants to keep the right customers continually coming through their doors.

Marketing efforts help get customers inside, while the food and service keep them there. But how can restaurants truly engage with their guests to make the overall experience the primary reason they want to return time and again? Through the implementation of digital and social media programs targeted at understanding who their customers are, what they like, what they’re saying, and where they’re saying it — that’s how.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a business today that hasn’t leveraged digital technology and social media tools to better connect and engage with customers. And for good reason: Digital and social media programs allow you to not only manage your business more efficiently, but also to interact directly with customers and become a part of their lifestyle.

That’s why 44 percent of restaurants expect to spend more on technology in 2016 than they did last year. Nearly 90 percent want to use technology to improve business efficiency, with 40 percent earmarking cloud-based software as a top priority. There’s a major shift underway to focus on customer-centric, digitally driven strategies like branded mobile apps and touchscreen ordering. It’s important for brands to implement technology effectively or risk being left behind by competitors — or, worse, customers.

Here are a few simple ways for restaurants to make their digital and social strategies work smarter to better engage customers.


  1. Monitor Social Conversations (and Use Them to Adjust Your Strategy)

There are myriad websites and social networks where restaurants can turn for insights about what their customers want. Their customers are already very vocal and reading others’ reviews online, so why not leverage their feedback to tailor your marketing strategies to better attract and engage them? Just make sure the feedback is relevant for your restaurant or category.

For instance, if you run a full-service restaurant, check out Yelp or Eater, where customers are more likely to leave thoughtful assessments about their dining experiences. Glean insights from what they’re saying, and play them back by highlighting those positive experiences in the restaurant the next time they visit. QSR? Check out your competitors’ social platforms to see what customers are saying they like (or don’t), and make changes to your restaurant accordingly.

But don’t stop at watching what the competition is doing. Brands need to actively monitor their own social pages and engage with the customers who are taking the time to visit their channels. Are guests complimenting a local server or praising a signature dish? Are they complaining about service or offering a suggestion?

Instagram has rapidly become one of the de facto platforms for restaurants to engage on macro and hyperlocal levels to create a personalized connection. Pay attention to what your customers are saying and sharing. Listen closely and often, and join in the conversation with them. It’s not about pushing information at them, but talking with them.

It’s also important to provide guests with the right mix of content to engage them, show you’re listening, and satisfy their desires. Foodies are frequently posting photos of meals and describing dining experiences on platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. Celebrate the fact that they’ve posted a dish from your restaurant by liking or commenting, but don’t stop there. Share original content with them, such as photos and recipes of dishes that might inspire them to try something new. Social media is a powerful platform when used to create organic two-way conversations.


  1. Streamline the User Experience

User experience gets a lot of airtime in the tech world, but it’s just as important in the restaurant industry. Technology can simplify both the guest and operations experience, from tracking order flow to backing consumer loyalty programs to entertaining guests on-site.

Tablet-to-table ordering, for instance, is being adopted widely across the industry. Last spring, Chili’s installed more than 77,000 tableside ordering tablets in various locations across the U.S., and Applebee’s installed 100,000.

Touchscreen ordering helps save consumers time and eliminates potentially incorrect orders, allowing workers to focus more on providing efficient customer service. Tablets also offer engagement opportunities throughout the course of a visit, from entertaining guests with games and information to sharing upcoming location-specific offerings to capturing real-time guest feedback.

But restaurants can also use technology to better the user experience before a guest even reaches the front door. Starbucks, which hired its first chief technology officer just last fall, does a great job of providing its customers with a seamless omnichannel experience. Motivated by rewards and the chance to skip the line, guests can easily order and pay from their smartphones using Starbucks’ mobile app. In 2015, the company debuted on-demand coffee delivery through Postmates, now available in dozens of cities across the country; just this summer, it released a Microsoft Outlet plugin enabling customers to send gift cards and schedule meetings at local Starbucks.

In addition, Starbucks employs observational data gathered through technology to design stores that don’t just improve the customer experience, but also position the brand favorably in the digital space. Starbucks successfully simplifies the experience by tailoring it to meet users’ preferences.

Last year, Domino’s launched its pizza emoji as an example of a novel social execution rooted in consumer insight. The company’s target audiences (primarily individuals from Gen Y and Gen Z) are fluent in both emoji and mobile usage, so being able to order their favorite pizza by simply texting an emoji creates a fun, intuitive way to keep guests engaged with the brand. Another recent innovation is AnyWare, which simplifies the online ordering process, allowing customers to order through tweeting, texting, and even smart TVs and Ford SYNC.


  1. Surprise and Delight Your Customers

Today’s customers — particularly Millennials — tend to value authentic experiences more than tangible things. When they eat out, they want to have a meaningful interaction with family and friends, and they want to be entertained. In a more family-friendly restaurant, for example, providing a tablet at the table could distract otherwise rowdy kids with fun games, resulting in a more enjoyable dining experience for the parents.

Using mobile to geotarget local audiences and connect on a hyperlocal level can enable restaurants to connect with patrons in surprising ways. A staggering 70 percent of consumers are willing to share their geographic information if they think they’re going to get something in return (e.g., coupons, loyalty points). Restaurants can use this as an opportunity to reward loyal customers and attract new ones.

For example, restaurants using mobile-enabled geotargeted ads can personalize offers for existing customers any time they’re nearby, or they can reach hotel guests near their location and offer a free appetizer for dining in.


  1. Engage Influencers in the Local Market

While it’s crucial to impress people when they visit your establishment, it’s equally imperative to engage potential customers long before they set foot inside.

A recent study found 76 percent of customers interact with brands or products before visiting a brick-and-mortar location. That same study found 70 percent of shoppers seek advice from independent bloggers, friends, and family rather than turn to traditional advertisements.

Tapping into local influencers could be the key to connecting with customers in a more authentic way. Social media is key to these hyperlocal marketing efforts. Knowing exactly how — as well as when — to use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram is key to reaching influencers in your market.

Once you’ve found influencers you think jive with your brand, invite them to learn more about your restaurant or to review some new dishes you’ve added to the menu.

Digital and social media play a huge role in shaping consumer insights on a variety of issues and industries, and the restaurant space is no different. Your customers will talk about you whether you ask them to or not, so it works in your favor to engage in their conversations. You’ll garner valuable insights about everything from your competitive position to trending flavor profiles to guests’ personal likes and dislikes. Use that feedback to adjust conversations and drive strategic customer interactions, and you’ll connect with your audience on an entirely new level.


Topics: Digital and Social