Catching up with Your Customers

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Independently owned restaurants have a long way to go in using online marketing tools and reaching out to consumers, studies show. In a Pew Research Center survey of more than 1,000 adults, more than half of the respondents said they use the Internet to find information about restaurants.

In contrast, fewer than four in 10 independent restaurants displayed menus on their Web sites versus approximately 98 percent of chain restaurants, according to a study by research firm Restaurant Sciences that looked at the online marketing approaches of more than 2,000 U.S. restaurants and bars. "Customers are already talking to each other online, and when they want information, like what's on a restaurant's menu, one of the first places they check is a Web site," says Chuck Ellis, president of Restaurant Sciences. "[Independent] restaurants need to catch up."

To increase a restaurant's chances of being noticed online, it should also claim its business listing on search engines like Google Places and Bing, he adds.

A lack of tech-savvy staff, time, and money were among the primary reasons that independent restaurants had a lackluster Web presence, according to Ellis. Other common explanations were that local customers already knew them or a Web site wasn't necessary since they were on Facebook. "Some restaurants told us they were just too busy…to work on their Web site," he says.

In terms of Twitter followers, however, some independent restaurants "blew the competition away" when compared with chain restaurants, Ellis says. According to the study, the average independent restaurant that used Twitter had 343 followers, whereas the average chain restaurant had 32 followers.

Independent restaurants have a lot to improve on, but those that are using a social network like Twitter are "doing a good job in engaging their customers," which can help them "stand out from their competitors," Ellis notes.

Daily deals sites like Groupon face a growing mountain of criticism from disenchanted business owners and consumers. Offering special deals to entice customers can still be beneficial to businesses, but it is important to have a smart strategy when implementing these deals, notes David Wolf, CEO of InBusiness, a marketing firm that counts several restaurants as clients.

"You won't make money on a Groupon offering [alone]…companies need a strategy to upsell visitors…[or] a second enticing offer to bring them back," Wolf says.

In addition to understanding that special deals sites are a marketing expense rather than an instant moneymaker, having a unique product makes it more likely that a business will benefit in the long run, adds Erik Chelstad, owner of the Flying Apron in Seattle.

"Being [a] gluten-free and vegan [bakery], we serve a niche group of people," Chelstad says. "Our challenge is getting people to try our product. After that, it's our responsibility to provide customers with an excellent experience that will convince them to come back."

Although he says it has been difficult to quantify exactly how many returning customers the two Groupon deals his company posted netted, they were a success in terms of helping the bakeries gain exposure, Chelstad believes.

Restaurants should prepare for the fact that more consumers are using their mobile devices for everything from shopping to looking up information. Google reported that 62 percent of total U.S. searches for national chain restaurants on Valentine's Day this year occurred on mobile devices or tablets.

In addition to making sure that consumers are aware of your business, it is crucial to take ownership of your reputation, Wolf advises. "In this day and age, it isn't enough to simply have people be aware of your establishment. They will be looking for reviews from other people, and proof that you are worth their time," he notes. "If you aren't asking for reviews and managing that array of information, someone else will take care of that for you. Don't leave it in the hands of the unhappy customer to tell your restaurant's story to the world."

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