Restaurants should utilize email marketing to streamline and automate processes. This can be done in three ways: newsletters, campaigns, and automated email sequences. Restaurants should use all three types of email marketing when appropriate to best serve their customers. Knowing how to present different types of information about your business is half the battle.
Sender Address & Name
When you create your email address for your email marketing program, use your domain (this builds trust) and get creative, as long as it fits in your messaging guidelines. For example, try [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected] The key is to create an email address for each section of your sales and marketing efforts, so your customers can keep each aspect of your business separate in their email according to their personal preferences. e.g. [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected] Plus, if they unsubscribe to your marketing emails (or mark them as spam), for example, they’ll still receive transactional emails.
This setup is critical, so be mindful of this decision and get feedback from your team before setting up the email addresses and email marketing account. You want these email addresses to be used by your customers and prospects, so be sure to include that note in your emails, too. Then, be sure to assign team members to monitor each email account so you can provide customer service through these avenues.
Tip: Avoid using [email protected] or any free email address (e.g. @gmail.com, @yahoo.com, @outlook.com) as they reduce your overall trustworthiness to customers. They also show customers that you don’t want to communicate with them via email, showing them that email is only a one-way ticket for your sales and marketing efforts. Don’t make these mistakes. Make your email addresses friendly so your customers feel comfortable communicating with you via email if they need your assistance. (Many customers prefer email communications, so let it be two-way.)
As a small business, you will likely want to say that your emails are from your Restaurant Name. Typically, only celebrity chefs can get away with being recognized by using their First and Last Name or Name from Restaurant Name.
Tip: If you’re unsure of what sender name to use, A/B test. Then, once you have your winner, be consistent. Lacking consistency will only confuse subscribers and may lower your open rates.
Choosing an Email Marketing Platform
Using an email marketing platform is important to organize subscribers, review analytics, and automate the business’s email marketing. Email marketing cannot be done effectively in Gmail or Outlook. It’s best to start by using a free email marketing platform, such as Zoho Campaigns, Mailchimp, MailerLite, SendPulse, or Sendinblue.
There are also industry-specific platforms available, such as Fishbowl and Bridg. Strategically, there are no big differences between each platform. The important thing to do is to choose a platform and start creating and sending emails and gathering subscriber emails. Once you do gather subscribers, it’s important to organize them in some way, either in different lists or by tags. This will not only help you send better campaigns to each audience, but it will also help you transfer lists to a different platform if you decide to use a different one later on.
Collecting An audience
Restaurants should never pay for an audience. Instead, they should create a simple system to request a prospect’s or new customer’s email address when they reserve a table online, over the phone, or in person. This can be as simple as pen and paper (before adding them to your email marketing platform), but the key is to separate prospects and customers so you can send them different email content that relates to their unique needs. This helps you better serve them wherever they are in the customer journey.
An easy way to collect email addresses is to create a sign-up form when they order online or make a reservation. You can also add a sign-up link on their receipt to encourage people to sign up themselves. Another option is to have a landing page with a lead magnet on your website (see Lead Magnets).
On the sign-up form, you will want to ask them for their name, email address, and birthday (month and day are necessary, though for most restaurants the year is unnecessary; if you serve alcohol, it’s best to require the year, too). This way, you send them a birthday email, with or without a discount. If you have multiple locations, ask them what locations they would like to receive updates about and discounts for. If you offer vegan, vegetarian, kid’s, or seniors menus, include these options on the sign-up form, too. These options help your audience choose what messages they want to receive. This is essentially segmenting your audience from the start, which will increase the ROI of your email marketing program.
Tip: If you already have an audience but don’t have these preferences, send an email to your subscribers to ask them. This can be in the format of a survey. It will take time to add the results of the survey to your customer list in your email marketing platform, but this segmentation effort will be worth it in the long-run.
Lead magnets encourage people to subscribe to an email list. Subscribers give up their email address, and in return, businesses give them a lead magnet, such as an ebook. Nowadays, people guard their email addresses, so businesses use lead magnets to encourage people to sign up for their marketing emails. If a subscriber is willing to do that to receive the lead magnet, they are already interested in your restaurant.
The best lead magnets for restaurants are:
- Recipe for an item on your menu
- Discount or gift card
- Video or video course on cooking
- Free appetizer, dessert, or drink
- Challenge information and printable
The format of the lead magnet will depend on what your customers could benefit from having, but they are all typically saved as a PDF or as an image within the email itself. If you do offer a discount of some kind, be sure to accept the digital copy of the coupon (i.e. a customer showing their waiter or waitress the email on their phone) as most customers are unlikely to print it off.
Email Creation & Design
Newsletters primarily educate and engage subscribers on a recurring basis, such as monthly, to help keep your brand top-of-mind with your subscribers. Newsletters are a great place to showcase reviews, introduce new staff members, promote menu item changes, and more. Newsletters should follow the same format each time so subscribers can recognize it.
Email campaigns can be one or multiple emails promoting one thing, such as a sale or event. Campaigns can either be automated to send at specific times or intervals, or based on specific subscriber actions, but they don’t have to be. Campaigns can be created in advance or just before they are sent, depending on the need for them.
For example, if a restaurant is having a special fish dinner every Friday for six weeks, then an email campaign would be a great way to inform prospects and customers about the special. You could send one email on the Monday before, another one on Friday, and five more on the remaining Fridays. Each email would focus on that one topic (the special) and the call to action would lead directly to the restaurant’s website where the customer could reserve a table.
Depending on the restaurant and services offered, you will want to showcase long- or short-form content within your emails. The length of the content depends on the intent of the email. If an email’s purpose is to provide a transactional purpose, such as confirming a reservation or offering a free appetizer for their birthday, the content should be very short. If an email’s purpose is to provide an informative purpose, the content can be longer.
For example, a coffee house sending a loyalty reward email will create a very short email, but if the same coffee house wants to promote their next event with a local guitar player, the email will include more content.
In general, restaurants will primarily use short-form content because your customers are busy and on the go.
Automated Email Sequences
An automated email sequence is ideal for repetitive emails you want to send to your audience using triggers. They can be time-based or trigger-based. Time-based emails are scheduled in advance at a specific time. Each email in the sequence is sent at a specific time interval. (For example, email 1 is sent immediately after a subscriber is added to the list, email 2 is sent one week later, email 3 is sent one day after that, etc.) This type of sequence is ideal for sending onboarding sequences to inform your new customers how your loyalty program works, what they can expect at your next event, birthday emails, and more.
Trigger-based email sequences are based on triggers, meaning when a subscriber opens an email or clicks on a specific link within an email, they are “triggered” to receive a specific email based on their open or click (or lack thereof). These triggers show your subscriber’s behavior, so it helps them see more relevant content based on their actions and preferences.
Trigger-based sequences are often more complicated than time-based sequences because they offer more options within the sequence, but they deliver a more unique experience for each subscriber based on their behavior. By delivering a more relevant user experience to your subscribers, open and click rates, and purchases or reservations are likely to increase.
The length of an automated sequence depends on the content included in it. And the content in the sequence depends on the purpose of the sequence.
Tip: Each email should have one call to action, so let your calls to action determine how many emails you create. Or, if you have one call to action for most of your emails (perhaps after a lead magnet), then allow your content to determine the number of emails.
The key is to integrate your other content assets into your email marketing efforts. Use your ebook, for example, as a lead magnet on a landing page on your website. Then, in the first email in the sequence, give them the ebook as a download. From there, give them an experience that acts as an extension of your restaurant experience, such as event information, blog articles, and other content.
Tip: Creating fresh content is not necessary for your email marketing. Instead, what is fresh is bringing your customers what they need when they need it in their email inbox.
Tip: Automated sequences can include birthday emails; sending one automated birthday email is good, but sending 2-3 automated birthday emails to remind them of their discount, for example, can increase the chance that they’ll take you up on it. Offer birthday gifts, like a discount or a free dessert, for an entire month rather than just on their birthdate. Your best customers are busy and may not be able to visit your restaurant on their birthday.
Email Marketing Best Practices
Resend to Non-openers: Email is effective, but subscribers are busy. To increase the performance of campaigns with minimal additional effort, you can resend campaigns to non-openers. This can be automated in most email marketing platforms by checking a box or copying an email and setting the trigger to “did not open” the initial campaign. However, this should only be used on the most important campaigns because some subscribers may see the duplicate content as spam. To mitigate this possibility, you can limit the use of resends and be clear in the subject line that it’s a resend. In fact, you can A/B test your resend subject lines to see what performs best.
Email Design: When a restaurant uses both marketing and transactional emails, it’s best to have the same basic look for all emails to offer a better customer experience to each subscriber. It can be jarring if the latest campaign emails are on brand and inviting, and then the “Your table is reserved” email is colorless and stale. When beginning an email marketing program, you should unify the look of all emails. Yes, the look can change over time and adapt for individual campaigns, but there still needs to be cohesiveness among all emails so subscribers know it’s your restaurant within the first one-second glance.
A/B Testing: Creating and sending content to subscribers isn’t enough for restaurants. Emails should be tested using the A/B method. Testing means taking a small portion of the restaurant’s list, say 10% each, to send two versions of the same email to see which one leads to more opens, clicks, and reservations. Each test should only test one thing, such as:
- Subject line
- Sender email/name
- Call-to-action button color
- Plain text vs. HTML
- Long- vs. short-form email content
After the test is done, the restaurant can wait about 24 hours for the results to see who won. Which email led to more reservations or online orders? Then the business should use the winning email to send to the other 80% of the audience. Testing should happen frequently and, if possible, for every email sent to increase conversions.
Note: Some email automation platforms, like Mailchimp, don’t offer A/B testing for lists that have less than 10,000 subscribers. This is because they recommend a test group of 5,000 subscribers each. (Mailchimp also does not offer A/B testing on their free plan.) However, if your list is small, you can still A/B test sequence to sequence or newsletter to newsletter. Just remember to only change one thing for each (except the content, of course), and test each change for a few campaigns rather than just one.
Personalization: Personalizing emails starts with using the subscriber’s name in the email and continues by using the user data to personalize each subscriber’s emails in an effort to improve their experience. For restaurants, this means sending customers on your email list a reminder that their favorite Vegetarian Night is coming up (if they checked the box on the sign-up form saying they are interested in vegetarian dishes). Note that sending an email about Vegetarian Night to all of your subscribers isn’t ideal because some of them will not be interested; this is why segmenting subscribers is so important.
Mobile First: Most emails are opened on a cell phone, which means campaigns developed solely for large computer screens are often useless on a small screen. Simple, mobile-friendly emails that are responsive are more effective than immaculately designed campaigns that aren’t responsive, so businesses should be sure to use a simple layout and test all emails on multiple devices (or using a service like Email on Acid) before sending them out. Within most email marketing platforms, businesses can see what devices their subscribers are using to view each email. Combined with testing, you can ensure that every email looks good on those devices.
Email Scrubbing: Even with restaurants, subscribers can become unengaged. When more subscribers than usual are unsubscribing or reporting the business’s emails as spam, it’s time to scrub the list because an email marketing program is only as effective as its lists. Before scrubbing a list, it’s important to attempt to re-engage the unengaged subscribers first. This can be done by sending a re-engagement campaign to try to get them interested in the business again. This campaign can include a lead magnet or special promotion from the restaurant. Those who open the re-engagement campaign stay. Those who don’t will be scrubbed from the list.
Scrubbing an email list means deleting inactive subscribers, looking for and removing spam and duplicate subscribers, and narrowing down the list to active subscribers who are likely to benefit the business. Spam email addresses can be easily spotted by searching for letters and numbers jumbled randomly in an email address. Duplicate subscribers can be found using a spreadsheet. There are email scrubbing services, but a restaurant can manage these processes in-house better because they know their customers.
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