There is no question that the Web has taken a prominent position in the lives of most consumers. And where the customers are, so must hotels and restaurants be with their marketing messages.
According to a new report from PhoCusWright Inc., 2007 will be the first time that transactions on the Internet will account for more than half (54 percent) of all U.S. travel bookings. Restaurants rate e-mail marketing their most effective marketing vehicle, according to a May 2006 survey by Constant Contact, and restaurants experienced, at 57.5 percent, the highest click-through rates in a cross-industry Harte-Hanks Postfuture survey, compared to travel/hospitality's 23.4 percent.
As online marketing grows increasingly refined, operators are seeking enhanced quality and the ability to carefully target their messaging. Through their online experiences, hotel and restaurants have forged best practices as well as tactics to avoid in their e-marketing programs, revealing a list of eMarketing Do's and Don'ts.
1. Follow the rules of spam filters and the Can Spam Act, which applies to all marketing and promotional e-mail distribution, except transactional e-mails such as confirmations or thank-you correspondence. Legal e-mails include things like accurate and clear "from" lines, messages consistent with the subject line and a working opt-out mechanism, according to Profits and Pitfalls of Online Marketing by hospitality Internet marketing company TIG Global ( www.tigglobal.com ). Use reputable e-mail service providers and avoid lots of characters, exclamation points or upper case letters in the subject line, something spam filters screen for.
2. Play the keyword game. Web site copy optimized for search engines and effective keyword bidding pegged to local events like the Cherry Blossom Festival together with strategic advertising on travel sites helped drive additional Internet business, higher average daily rates and longer stays from online bookers for Residence Inn by Marriott Bethesda Downtown, MD, with help from TIG Global. Check the frequency of proposed search terms at http://inventory.overture.com .
3. Make your customers feel special. Sylvan Street Grille, Peabody, Mass., rewards new e-mail subscribers with 20 percent off, but the exclusivity doesn't stop there. "We sell gift cards at 20 percent off December first to 10, and send an e-mail December 10 reminding them it's the last day," says Danny Poltari, general manager. "But if they're in the club, they can buy online for an extra day. We sold $6,000 in gift cards that Monday." Since starting to use restaurant e-marketing firm Fishbowl ( http://www.fishbowl.com) three years ago, the three-unit chain has boosted sales while cutting ad spending by 80 percent.
4. Tap e-marketing's immediacy. Among the benefits of e-marketing is the ability to cut the cycle time from offer to close. Plano, Texas-based Bennigans, for example, incented respondents to a Fishbowl-driven survey with a free dessert offer, good only for 24 hours after the response. A Subway franchisee trial issuing coupons via cell phones delivered a staggering 50 percent response rate, according to eWeek. The instant-implementation flexibility of e-marketing is a real advantage across industries; 41 percent of online merchants changed their online marketing mid-season during this past holiday season, according to BizRate Research.
1. Avoid messaging without a purpose. Inundating customer mailboxes with generic and too-frequent messaging dilutes the program's value and can be interpreted as spam. Sign-ups without an explanation of the program garner little participation. Operators agree the most successful programs broadcast e-mails no more than twice a month and contain specific messaging tailored to their recipients.
Don't forget the power that electronic messages have over others. Rubio's Restaurants, Carlsbad, Calif., tracks the click-throughs on its e-newsletter to learn what is compelling enough to draw readers. "We even learned that while many of our members read our carefully-researched article on the health benefits in Rubio's food, even more wanted to read about beans making a person flatulent!" says Dawn Mayeda, marketing specialist at Rubio's. "Beyond being interesting, this information helps us shape our future communications to our members, and allows us to create a club experience that is rewarding for our members," she says. Rubio's uses solutions from Fishbowl and Questar ( www.questarweb.com ).
2. Don't overwhelm. Subscribers to Orlando-based Olive Garden's thrice-monthly e-mail program were opting out more than opting in, and the program was too complex and not well integrated with restaurants and the Web site.
In conjunction with a new menu launch, e-marketer BlueHornet ( www.bluehornet.com ) helped the chain develop a new e-newsletter, encouraging sign-ups with the chance to win a gift card and a prize for friend referrals. Subscription rates spiked up 150 percent in one month and the chain received 57,000 referrals in the first month versus 3,290 in the previous 12-month campaign.
3. Don't overuse e-coupons, an easy temptation to succumb to when early campaigns boost business. Making a special offer in every e-mail trains guests to wait for the offer and diminishes the full price value of the product. Narrow e-mail coupons to a few per year and always for a particular reason, and make it time sensitive, tied to a purchase and personalized.
4. Don't forget surveys. An e-survey conducted by The Customer Connection ( www.custcon.com ) prompted one client to change a restaurant's concept, and another to discover the hidden value of a salad bar. Rubio's, for example, surveyed its e-club members on preferences for flour, corn, or whole-wheat tortillas. Results were back in just days, at virtually no additional cost, and the restaurant used them to forecast new product offerings. "Our e-club members have responded quickly, and in large numbers, when asked for input that ultimately plays a part in shaping the offerings at our restaurant. They feel involved, and important in knowing we are listening to them," says Mayeda. One caveat, she says: "remember that the e-club is not necessarily made up of the exact same demographic as the restaurant's typical guest."
Surveys can also flesh out information garnered through earlier solicitations, making for a richer database to mine for marketing uses (and avoiding appearing too intrusive at sign-up). E-surveys that invite groups of members to respond via e-mail generate response rates as high as 40 percent. Be up front about how survey results will be used, such as improving the next visit.
Experts agree that striking the right tone is essential in an e-marketing program. Sounding too promotional, overwhelming with graphics and words, or using too many cliches or too-frequent communication can all be turnoffs. Be clear, straightforward, respectful and fun to score points with recipients, and offer things they value: exclusivity and meaningful rewards. Then, use database analysis tools to make the most of the data collected: one of the beauties of e-marketing is the ability to slice and dice data to cater to specific groups and even personalize messages.