You know their favorite drink. You know when they get off work and what they really think about their co-workers. You even know whether they’re married, just dating, or possibly both. You know more about your regulars than is strictly comfortable, and you wouldn’t have it any other way. They love what you do at your restaurant — they became regulars for a reason, naturally. And you love what they do — namely, show up on the regular.
The only thing you don’t know about your regulars is where to get more of them. When you’re putting together your marketing plan, you may even overlook them entirely. You have your email list ready, and the loyalty program you’ve put together is pretty sweet. But without considering those superstar repeat customers, you risk treating every visit like a one-and-done.
Fortunately it turns out that email — with its sheer ubiquity and sneaky, in-your-pocket intimacy — is an underrated tool for helping to convert the casual visitor into a potential regular. We talked with Matt Plapp, the founder and CEO of America’s Best Restaurants and Restaurant Marketing That Works (which happens to be the name of his most recent book) about how to use email to convert customers into repeat visitors.
To Plapp, the distinction between advertising and marketing is the entire game. Advertising is letting people know who you are and what you offer. Marketing is more about the interaction between you and your customers. People feel bombarded by advertising in emails, text messages, and social media. So be strategic, and think beyond advertising to deepen your interactions.
“Most restaurants will send out 52 emails a year — one a week to their entire database,” Plapp says. “And it’ll be about them: why to come and eat at their restaurant. People don’t open those emails.”
Here’s how to get more out of your email list, so that your email that gets opened.
You’ve gathered hundreds, maybe thousands of email addresses through your POS and through other methods. There’s an excellent chance that your POS or your CDP will let you sort and group those addresses along some relatively simple demographics — gender identity, marriage status, income, proximity to your restaurant. This will help you start conversations rather than just broadcast to the mob.
You’ll also want to divide frequent from infrequent customers. This approach requires more work upfront, but will pay off.
Think of this as the Taylor Swift model. Do I hear from Taylor’s team every day or every week? Nah. I only get messages when she has either a) put out a new (or re-recorded) album b) dropped new merch or c) announced a tour. Taylor doesn’t have time for small talk, and I respect that. So I pay close attention every time my inbox tells me that Taylor Nation has something to say.
Be like Taylor Swift. (Easier said than done, I know.) The emails you send shouldn’t be filler. Rather, they’re an opportunity for your clients to engage with you. You’re not talking at people; you’re sharing a conversation that involves asking and listening. Messages should be specific to certain clientele. Every email from your team should feel like a mini-holiday, even on actual holidays.
The week of the Super Bowl, Plapp’s restaurant clients emailed their customers to ask the question they all had been guessing at: Who’s gonna win? The message then prompted them to click on a link to win a gift card, and the link then drove them to the restaurant’s Facebook page.
People opened 40-60% of those emails, far above the usual 10-15%. And it prompted significant engagement on the restaurants’ Facebook pages, in the form of hundreds of comments. The buzz drove one of the clients to the best sales day he’d had in five years.
The Super Bowl happens just once a year, but special events are all over the calendar. Use one (or invent one) as an excuse to reach out and to get people talking. “Information doesn’t always have to be about you.” Plapp says.
So a customer isn’t clicking what you’re sending. No worries — you can use your database to trigger a text to that person if they don’t open the email. It’s a different medium, obviously, so think about how to engage them with a question instead of just announcing your new cedar plank salmon special. Plapp recommends Drip or ManyChat for this sort of “smart” email-to-SMS campaign.
Don’t be afraid to be generous with your new or infrequent customers. Everyone loves a bribe from the kitchen or the bar. If someone in your database hasn’t been to your restaurant in a while, and you see they have a birthday coming up, seize the day. Instead of emailing them with an offer of 10% off, dangle a free steak or a specialty cocktail instead. They’ll likely bring a date or their kids — and they probably won’t forget that meal any time soon.
The thing about a truly special experience is, people tell the story, and every time they do, they think about when they should come back. “You’re not going for visit number one,” Plapp says of the email marketing game. “You’re going for visit two through a hundred.”