What's your eMarket Share?

By Curt Harler | September 08, 2008

What could be cooler than reaching out to customers with free water ice or frozen custard over email? How about with a free pint of Guinness? Building upon the use of Web 2.0 vehicles, these are just two e-marketing strategies that paid off handsomely for companies striving to build market share: a practice that is being embraced by hoteliers and restaurateurs alike.

"We have a loyal collection of customers who come to our locations. We felt it was a natural extension of our marketing efforts to take them online," says Kelly Banaszak, public relations manager for Rita's Water Ice Franchise Company, Trevose, PA (www.ritasice.com).

Rita's Water Ice has grown to more than 500 franchised locations in 17 states with more stores on the way. As Rita's turned sweet 16 this past March, management decided to roll out a multi-pronged e-marketing campaign to promote the store and its products.

Through a partnership with Fishbowl (www.fishbowl.com), Rita's launched a loyalty campaign that included store promotional advertising and news that corresponded with their "First Day of Spring" giveaway, an annual event in which every store gives a free regular Italian ice to all of its customers. Rita's e-marketing campaign also tied into the launch of a new flavor, birthday cake ice cream, to celebrate the brand's birthday.

"It's cold [in March] but our guests want to welcome us back," remarks Banaszak, who also notes that their loyal customers have created a near cult following.
To date, Rita's loyalty program has more than 50,000 members and is still growing. In addition to the e-marketing campaign, Rita's also launched Facebook and MySpace pages in an effort to leverage guest loyalty through social networking (myspace.com\ritaswaterice). Each site features blogs, birthday and new flavor promotions, and customer discussion sections.

Internet chatter
By late June, Mo's Irish Pub (www.mosirishpub.com) in Noblesville, Indiana, had given away more than 500 virtual "perfect pints" of Guinness. This virtual illustration that guests can place on their MySpace of Facebook pages is just one way that Mo's is building buzz among the online community.

Like Rita's, Mo's launched both Facebook and MySpace pages a few months ago in an effort to reach a broader online community. Media rich video, images and applications that allow patrons to have conversations about everything and anything Mo's are key features of the sites. Additionally, Mo's posts announcements about upcoming events to drive visitor conversation.

"The reason for having a presence on social networks is to send invitations to guests and potential guest," notes Duncan Alney, creative director for Firebelly (www.firebellydigital.com), the marketing arm for Mo's. "We consider this to be the main stream of marketing, and we measure results on the more basic level based on the types of conversations and the depths of those conversations [that are occurring]."

MySpace has 115 million users, making it a country unto itself. Mo's closely monitors the conversations that occur in the Facebook and MySpace forums, as well as other social networking sites. Whenever there is a conversation, Mo's is made aware of it and they decide if they want to get involved with it or not. The ability to respond to a customer's negative experience, for example, is viewed as an extension of customer service, notes Alney.

"An Irish pub is a place to gather, a comfortable place," says Johnny Vassallo, founder and proprietor of Mo's. "Our goal is to build deep friendships with our customers."

Mo's also gained web visibility through the launch of an email marketing campaign, which has been in place for the past five years. Powered by Guest Bridge, Inc.'s (www.guestbridge.com) email marketing wizard, Mo's is able to target 10,000 patrons through email blasts that promote the pub's events and drink specials.

"We followed a convergence strategy, blending traditional PR and social media," Alney explains.

Hotel happenings
"Web 2.0 is the way to go," says Bill Waichulis, general manager at the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Spa (www.pinkshell.com) in Fort Myers, FL., a four-star, luxury resort located along the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel in Florida. Owned by Boykin Lodging Company, the resort was re-branded from a Best Western property and needed a new website and online marketing plan to assist its changing needs.

"We see this as the direction advertising is going," says Waichulis.

To capture market share from the many surrounding Fort Myers luxury resorts, Pink Shell contracted TIG Global (www.tigglobal.com) to design and develop their current website last year. The result provided Pink Shell with search engine optimization, pay-per-click marketing, strategic linking and online advertising, email marketing, and monthly reporting.

The new site also features a live webcam that shows potential guests some of the property's activities. Can't make a wedding being held there? Pink Shell's webcam lets guests attend, live. The next step is to add a forum to their site where guests can post vacation shots.

"Conversion has increased for us considerably and we are seeing more bookings," says Waichulis. In the past year,  Pink Shell has driven nearly 400,000 unique visitors to its website and has increased their year-over-year revenue by 32 percent.

Following the website upgrade, Pink Shell decided that incorporating Web 2.0 into its marketing plan should be the next big step. The hotel recently started using Flickr (www.flickr.com), a social networking site, in which amateur photographers can create an account and post images or video blogs of hotels or restaurants that they have visited. Searchable by city, state, or property, online customers can see where guests have stayed when planning their own vacations.

User beware
If there is one place a restaurant or lodging property needs to draw the line on web-based initiatives, it is on the number of times they reach out and ping their guests. The response to e-marketing can be good; so good, in fact, that some outlets might get carried away.

At Rita's, for example, they had to limit their franchisees to two messages or offers per month, in addition to one monthly message that is sent to each customer from the corporate office.

"Fishbowl lets us market to the guests who sign up at a particular location," Banaszak says.

At Pink Shell, Waichulis warns that Web 2.0 can work against the incautious business when it comes to receiving negative travel reviews. "Trip Advisor is very important to us," he says. "And we monitor all the travel sites, like Expedia.com, and immediately respond to any negative review to give our side of the story."

There are positive sides, too. Pink Shell has a three-tier program that includes: booking and email confirmation; a pre-arrival email that provides details and allows guests to order groceries, for example; and a post-stay bounce-back that offers a $35 credit to anyone who stays two nights or a 50-minute spa treatment for those who spend three or more nights.

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