How to Use Text Message Marketing to Boost Restaurant Profits

How many unread emails currently sit in your inbox? You can rest assured you’re not alone if that number’s well into the hundreds. On the other hand, it’s doubtful you’ve let your unread text message count get nearly as unruly.

The simple immediacy of text messaging makes it among the most effective tools you can use to connect with people – customers included. Text open rates average around 82%, more than four times higher than the restaurant industry’s average email open rate at roughly 20%.

But like with every marketing strategy, there are ways to make your text messages more effective. There are also some important rules you need to know before getting started.

“You can’t just go and start texting all of your customers on an ongoing basis without their permission, and if you do, you can rack up some serious fines,” says Shane Murphy, co-founder of restaurant text marketing platform Boostly.

Below, we dive into the basics of SMS marketing for restaurants, along with best practices to get the most out of every texting campaign.

Step 1: Partner with an SMS software platform.

Rule number one, don’t solicit customers from your personal phone. While that may sound like common sense, it can’t be understated, because doing so can create a whole slew of data privacy and security risk concerns. 

Instead, you can use a SMS software platform to safely, and effectively, communicate with customers. There are a variety of options on the market, including SMS specific platforms like Boostly and TextMagic, as well as comprehensive loyalty software that offer SMS capabilities, such as Boostly and TapMango. Look for a platform that integrates with other parts of your tech stack, like your point-of-sale and online ordering system. This will enable you to send personalized and targeted messaging by allowing you to segment your contact list by factors like average spend and visiting frequency.

Step 2: Ask customers to opt-in – this is required!

Before hitting send on any customer texts, government regulations require you to get consent. Choose to ignore this rule, and you’re likely to regret it. Why? Just ask Domino’s Pizza, which ended up paying close to $10 million in fines in 2013 from unsolicited text messages.

You must also make it easy and clear for customers to opt out of your SMS program. Typically restaurants provide a “short code”, a six-digit number customers can text at any time with specific keywords to opt in or out of a contact list. 

Ask your SMS partner how they handle compliance. Generally, they’ll help get you started with a campaign to build your initial subscriber list.

Step 3: Pair your opt-in request with a discount.

There are a variety of strategies to scale a contact list. If your SMS platform integrates with your online ordering system, you could build an opt-in feature into that workflow so that when a customer places an online order, they’re prompted to sign up for texts. You could also create a QR code that you feature in-store for customers to scan and sign up, or create marketing materials with a short code that customers can text. Regardless of how you go about it, customers are far more likely to opt in if you reward them for doing so. 

“We have a sign-up bonus – $10 off a $30 purchase – and at first, we had so many people sign up that it was actually a little daunting,” says Sarah Turner, general manager of La Salita Restaurant

Based in Albuquerque, La Salita started using text messaging to reach customers about six months ago and has since built a contact list of over 1,700 customers. Turner says the upfront investment has been well worth it. “I have customers that come in specifically on the days I send out texts, and so it’s definitely boosted sales,” says Turner. “The other big benefit is the ability to easily communicate with customers, like if we lose power or have some sort of emergency.”

Even smaller discounts can entice customers, whether that means giving away free garlic knots or taking 10% off the bill. Some people might sign up without any discount offers at all. But more often than not, you’ll want to offer a little something to persuade people to let you into their text stream.

Step 4: Craft concise messages with a clear call-to-action.

Start every message with your reason for texting, followed by a call-to-action that lets customers know what to do next. That could mean sharing a discount offer, and then including how to retrieve it with messaging like “order online now”, “come in by Friday”, or “show this coupon code to your server”. 

“Promotional texts are meant to prompt someone to pick up their phone and at a glance, impact their decision-making in the moment,” says Murphy. “If you have paragraphs and paragraphs, it’s more likely to be ignored.”

Step 5: Use variety to keep customers engaged.

You have to make it easy for customers to opt out of your text list, which means you also have to continuously prove to customers why they shouldn’t. Generally, you’ll want to avoid sending the same text over and over again.

“Maybe you offer a percentage off [the bill] one week, a free item with a minimum purchase the next week, and then the next week you’re highlighting a new menu item,” says Murphy. “You could also include a photo every few text messages to increase engagement with the brand.”

Step 6: Strategize your text frequency to prevent burnout.

There’s a fine line between making your texts feel like surprise gifts (AKA welcomed promotions) versus annoying spam.

“Texting isn’t the medium to announce your daily special,” says Murphy. “All the data shows that you maximize returns when you stick to a text per week, on average.”

Turner says she typically sends La Salita customers three texts per month. Her strategies have included 15% off checks of $30 or more, $5 off checks over $25, and a free beverage with the purchase of an adult entree. “You don’t want to go overboard, but right now, everyone’s looking for a way to save,” says Turner.

Text messaging campaign ideas:

When crafting a text-based campaign, consider your restaurant’s goals and the values of your customer base. Here are a few popular ideas to spark some inspiration.

  • Discounts that target slower days/times (Example: Receive 10% off your check when you order lunch between 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.)

  • Exclusive offers to drive takeout/online ordering (Example: Score a free drink with an online order placed in the next three days.)

  • Rewards for loyalty sign-ups (Example: Sign up for our loyalty program today to get $5 off your next order.)

  • Seasonal menu launch alerts (Example: Have you heard? Our new summer menu just dropped. Check it out on our website with the link below.)

  • Birthday offers (Example: To celebrate your birthday, we’re gifting you with a free appetizer of your choice. Book your reservation today!) 

  • Customer feedback: (Example: Thanks for dining with us! We hope you enjoyed your experience. Please let us know how we did in this short survey and get $5 off your next meal.)

Last-minute notifications (Example: We apologize, but we are currently experiencing some water issues and will be open for take-out only until Thursday.”

[Photo courtesy Andrea Piacquadio]