Historically, the most effective form of restaurant marketing has always been by “word of mouth.” Known as the “referral network,” this original form of direct marketing started with those early taverns and inns that operated along major roadways. Information touting location, services, menus and pricing was passed along by travelers. Reputations grew and the industry expanded into local cities and towns.
Prior to the 20th century, communication options were quite limited. Word of mouth referral was still the mainstay for reputation and business development. Eventually, restaurant operators began to expand their “advertising” via small print ads in local newspapers. As their businesses continued to grow, operators added flyers, posters and sandwich boards to help attract customers. With the advent of the automobile, billboards and sequential highway signs added to the mix. Soon the industry adopted magazine, radio and, in some cases, television advertising. All the while, the most respected standard was still by customer referral.
Throughout the 20th century, numerous other marketing tactics and strategies have been developed within the industry. The concept of advertising to promote business was broadened to “marketing” and included advertising (newspaper, magazine, radio, television), promotion/public relations (press releases, special events, charities, etc.) and direct marketing (various direct to the customer forms, such as, postcards, table tents, point of purchase signage, decals, etc.).
Soon data based marketing became the industry gold standard. During the mid 1980’s, Bink Garrison, CEO of Ingalls Advertising in Boston, introduced the concept of VOAC (Value of a Customer) and stressed the importance of keeping your customer active in your referral network. He outlined how the new age of business marketing had to understand the customer, their habits, likes, dislikes and the importance of tailoring your efforts down to their individual needs. Instead of attacking the market on a broad based approach, go after the individual and keep him/her “thinking about you.” He trumpeted the advance of data based marketing as the vehicle to maintain and promote “word of mouth” for your business. Restaurant operators needed to develop and maintain accurate, up-to-date mailing lists gathered from current customer info, collected business cards, industry publications and other business and social sources . Capture the customer and keep them close. This concept was prophetic.
Fast forward ten years to the internet , websites, home pages, email and Google. We began a race to broadcast our business to the world. Restaurants had to have a website simply to keep up, let alone dominate. Smart operators understood the new opportunities and blasted ahead full bore with email marketing, inter-active websites, and in-house and on-line amenities to maximize the customer experience. The goal was to keep the “word of mouth” buzzing. Now add Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Chowhound, Groupon, StumbleUpon, Foursquare,etc., to the mix and people are really talking. Never has “word of mouth” been so important. Virtually all traditional magazine and newspaper advertising has disappeared for restaurants. Print ads have never been more ineffective as subscription volumes are way down with total readership falling drastically. The technology age has moved the daily focus of people’s lives to electronic screens ranging from 21” diagonals to 3” squares. Computers and cell phones now dominate both our personal and professional lives.
Never in the history of restaurants has the need for the tools of “word of mouth” marketing been more important. In the old days (20 years ago), a dissatisfied customer (whether food, service or ambience related) would ultimately tell up to 17 people of their negative experience. If happy, they would tell 2.2 people. In both instances, this process would usually take up to about 30 days. Today, if dissatisfied, they can tell hundreds, even thousands, of people immediately via the social media. And now, typical complaints of food quality, inattentive service, etc., are joined by everything from the download speed of your website, the inability to make a reservation on-line (off-line), the frustration of trying to read your menu on their mobile phone to the absence of your address or phone number on your landing page. From the most exclusive full service restaurant to the smallest quick service operation, all restaurants are exposed…good or bad because the network is talking….constantly.