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February 16, 2017

Restaurants in the Digital Era

It’s a tough time to be a restaurant operator. With an oversaturated market, low unemployment rates and a new White House administration, chain restaurants have little to celebrate (except flat sales growth). Human resources professionals are in the hot seat as turnover rates skyrocket and the labor pool shrinks. However, restaurant marketers are facing an equally tough challenge – figuring out how to attract customers in a new technology-centric era and driving sales in one of the worst periods for restaurants since pre-recession.

Enter the annual Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K) Global Best Practices Conference. This past January in Dallas, Texas, restaurant marketers from across the industry gathered for the first ever Marketing Summit. A series of panelists, including industry leaders and digital marketers, discussed strategies for developing a robust online presence, zeroing in on mobile and understanding the importance of online reviews.

Digital Storefront

What constitutes a great guest experience? Many operators would likely list great food, friendly service, an attractive storefront and so on. But, what about before the guest even arrives at the restaurant? How is your guest experiencing your restaurant online?

During the Marketing Summit, Lisa Landsman of Google emphasized understanding your brand’s search experience, especially through the perspective of the customer. When a guest is on the hunt for their next dining location, is it easy for them to get information they need? How does your brand’s searchability compare to your competitors?

The first thing to consider, Landsman suggests, is how customers search for your brand. Know what phrases customers use on Google to find your site. This can help you analyze their intent and develop new strategies for distinguishing your brand from your competitors.

According to Landsman, another seemingly basic piece of advice that many restaurateurs neglect is providing ample amounts of accurate information in your Google search listing. This involves consistently updating business hours, photos, menus and store addresses.

Finally, ensure that the experience from the search results page to your website is consistent. Can users still find what they are looking for once they reach your site? Evaluate where users are spending time on your site and how they are navigating around.

Mobile is the Future

When considering the consumer of the modern age, “mobile” should be the first characteristic that comes to mind. Cliff Graham of Facebook lightheartedly explained the concept of “nomophobia,” the fear of being without a mobile device. While the word itself is fictitious, the truth of it is substantial. Jill McFarland of Stellar Digital Marketing shared that the average person looks at their phone 150 times a day. This indicates without a doubt that today’s consumers rely heavily on their mobile devices to make purchasing decisions, especially when it comes to selecting a dining experience.

Graham shared that 83 percent of people pick a dining location within 3 hours of a meal, and 57 percent make that decision within one hour. This timeframe, referred to as the “point of hunger,” is the sweet spot and prime opportunity for restaurants to gain visibility through mobile search. Furthermore, McFarland explained how ratings and reviews impact a consumer’s decision. 92 percent of customers will use a business with four or more stars, but what happens to brands with lower ratings?

  • 72 percent of customers will use a business with three stars
  • 27 percent of customers will use a business with two stars
  • 13 percent of customers will use a business with one star

Additionally, McFarland revealed that for Google search queries that use “best” and “near me” in a competitive location, businesses need at least a 4.0 rating to be shown in the top three listings. 64 percent of mobile search clicks are to one of those top three listings.

The message is clear – the future of restaurant marketing rests on mobile. However, success on mobile does not come without strategy. Success, like all else in the restaurant space, requires a recipe: create the crave, drive action and bring the customers back. Brands need to generate awareness and demand within an established community and be at the mobile forefront at the “point of hunger.” Then, after action has been taken, brands can increase repeat purchases through personalization and convenience.

Reviewing Your Reviews

Getting your guests to find you online is just half the battle. What are they actually experiencing in your restaurants, and how is that impacting your organization’s performance? Kathleen Buehler of Guest Intelligence (formerly Guest Intelligence (formerly White Box Social Intelligence))™ discussed the true value of collecting and analyzing online reviews.

As McFarland noted, positive online reviews contribute significantly to search rankings. In addition to this increased visibility, utilizing unsolicited guest feedback can also help operators identify the pain points and saving graces of their brand, all the way down to the DMA and even unit level.

One particularly important pain point to identify is service. Service can make or break a customer’s dining experience, and this has become especially apparent through analysis from both Guest Intelligence (formerly Guest Intelligence (formerly White Box Social Intelligence)) and Financial Intelligence (formerly Black Box Intelligence). Research has shown that more negative service mentions online correlate with lower sales and traffic in restaurants. “Consumers continue to express their frustration with service, as demonstrated by Guest Intelligence (formerly Guest Intelligence (formerly White Box Social Intelligence)) data. Workforce Intelligence (formerly People Report) data records high turnover and vacancy rates. Both trends correlate with sluggish Financial Intelligence (formerly Black Box Intelligence) sales,” stated Wally Doolin of Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K).

Therefore, online reviews impact more than just your brand’s online presence. In order to stay ahead of the curve, marketers must keep an eye on the real-time feedback their guests are providing and quickly identify potential threats to their brand health.


Guest experience is no longer confined to the four walls of your restaurant. From the moment a customer says, “Ok, Google,” to the finish of their meal, operators must foster a truly accessible and memorable brand identity through connection with their guests. It’s the only way to stand apart and weather this perfect storm.

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