By Lisa Jennings, West Coast Bureau Chief for Nation’s Restaurant News
With the battle for market share expected to get even tougher next year, restaurant operators will have to be smarter in how they target “influencers” — people others turn to for restaurant advice — to drive traffic.
So says Carin Galletta Oliver, president of the San Francisco-based world-of-mouth marketing agency Ink Foundry, who predicts six restaurant marketing trends for 2012 — plus one trend she contends restaurant operators should rethink in the new year. Ink Foundry has worked with restaurant brands such as Bonefish Grill, Fogo de Chao, California Pizza Kitchen, Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill and Carl’s Jr.
Consumers are growing ever more selective about restaurant choices as they cut back on dining out occasions, Oliver said.
“They’re going to want to feel they’re making a safe choice,” she said. “And that puts more pressure on restaurant operators to make a connection.”
Oliver predicts five key tactics restaurant operators will use next year:
Data. The number of tools that allow restaurant operators to collect information about social media, public relations, e-mail marketing and advertising is growing. Savvy restaurant operators are also collecting data on their customers in various ways.
The key, however, will be how well restaurant operators integrate that data and develop a more holistic analysis across all platforms.
Most restaurants keep data in separate silos, Oliver said, thinking of marketing, public relations and influencer relations as separate departments.
“You need to break down those walls,” she said, and merge that information to more effectively mine insights.
Identifying and activating influencers. Restaurant operators tend to define their customers in demographic terms, but today’s restaurant influencer is likely to defy or transcend more traditional demographic characteristics, like income level, gender or age.
A powerful restaurant influencer today, for example, might be a young woman who traveled through Europe, living in bargain-rate hotels so she could spend more money on high-end restaurants.
“If you looked at her on paper, she probably wouldn’t be on your list” based on demographics, said Oliver. “But if you listen to her conversations, you’d realize she’s in your restaurant five times a month and spends more money” than the average diner.
Those are the people who are driving restaurant recommendations these days, Oliver said, and restaurants next year will be developing tools to encourage those people to spread the word about their brands.
“We need to identify those folks and create programs for them so they can more easily pass along information to friends and family,” Oliver said.
Some restaurants, for example, have used gift certificates given to specific influencers to share with friends and family members. “That’s like a third-party endorsement from someone they really trust,” Oliver said.
And as gift certificates become more available in digital form, restaurants can track how they’re used, who is sharing them and their impact.
Signature items. Most restaurants have a signature item or two that stands out, but Oliver sees the role of the signature dish becoming increasingly important.
Having a great signature dish is one way to offer influencers a “wow experience,” Oliver said. “It gives them something to tell their friends about.”
It also gives people something to search, she said.
Consumers tend not to search online for generic terms like “steak restaurant.” Instead, they’ll look for where they can find a great macaroni and cheese dish or taco.
Oliver noted the Bonefish Grill chain, which is known for its Bang Bang Shrimp appetizer, an item that creates positive chatter on Yelp.
“It’s extremely challenging to sway diners from one restaurant to another, but a great signature item has the power to do it,” she said.
Loyalty programs look to gaming. Loyalty programs are effective tools for driving traffic, but next year Oliver predicts more restaurant operators will be integrating aspects of social gaming — offering rewards for certain actions, like referring friends or multiple visits.
Rather than offering guests nebulous titles, like the mayors of Foursquare, Oliver said restaurants will offer more tangible offline incentives for participation in loyalty games.
One-to-one accessibility. Restaurant chefs used to stay closed in their kitchens, but the age of social media has allowed those who cook to engage with those who eat in ways that were formerly impossible.
In 2012, however, Oliver predicts that customers will be demanding even more direct interaction with chefs, both on and offline — and not through an intermediary on the marketing team.
Expect to see personal messages directly from the chef to his or her best customers informing them of menu changes, nightly specials and suggestions based on past orders, Oliver said.
“As chefs get more comfortable with being in the limelight and with using technology, we’ll see even more engagement,” she said.
Coupon personalization. In 2011, many restaurants experimented with social coupon sites, such as Groupon or LivingSocial, with both positive and negative results, Oliver said.
Next year, Oliver predicts restaurants will continue to experiment with social couponing, but they will do so with more realistic expectations. They will also look for ways to have more control, to customize the offers and to ask for more data on results.
Oliver said more restaurants will use their customer lists to promote such social coupons, focusing on top influencers to provide a value-added experience and reward pass-along recommendations.
More generalized coupon seekers “tend to just come for the coupon and never come back,” Oliver said. “And you can’t upsell them.”
Search local. Allocating resources to enhancing local search engine efforts is not likely to drive traffic, Oliver said.
Surveys by Ink Foundry have found that consumers tend not to select where they dine out based on online search engine results, she said.
Word of mouth is far more effective, Oliver said. Once consumers have a recommendation from an influential friend or family member then they turn to sites like Urbanspoon or Yelp to look up information.
Restaurants may be better off spending marketing dollars on identifying and courting those influential guests, rather than pouring dollars into local search enhancements.
“You want a well-rounded approach,” Oliver said. “Remember, most influence happens offline.”
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