Marketing isn’t always just about reaching people — restaurateurs have to reach the right people at the right time. Restaurant owners can gain competitive advantages by targeting their audiences more selectively, tracking which advertising methods are working and generating immediate revenue through timely communications.

Everybody who browses the Internet bypasses dozens or hundreds of messages because they’re not really in the mood to read about that particular content. The benefits of digital marketing, social promotions and technology are in their ability to target the customer, time and place where an advertising message appears. Restaurants can spike sales at desired times, decrease waste, take advantage of current events and set benchmarks for their marketing efforts.

The Customer Whisperer

Restaurateurs, managers or marketers face challenges making their restaurants stand out from the crowd, but the process is easier when decision-makers understand the restaurants’ customers. You can’t target the right audience if you don’t know who they are. Most restaurateurs are surprised to find that their customers aren’t always the type of people they’ve always assumed them to be.

Knowing Your Market

You might think your customers are conservative, set in their ways and unwilling to change when they actually visit your restaurant for convenience and really would like to see something different on the menu. Your target market isn’t who you want them to be but who actually buys the food you serve.

Consider your unique selling point, cuisine, concept and things that make your restaurant different from those around you. Ask your customers why they come, and poll your staff for their opinions. You can use digital resources to send surveys as emails, publish questionnaires on your website and build a customer profile from your experiences, customers’ online behavior, loyalty program data and information in your database.

Consider the following basic demographic information:

  • Age and sex
  • Education
  • Household size
  • Home location
  • Housing prices in the customer’s neighborhood
  • Job or career
  • Ethnic background
  • Single or married
  • Sexual orientation (if known)
  • Buying habits
  • Food preferences

Using this information, you can make certain deductions about your customers if you get lots of people with similar demographic profiles. You can get much of this information from the U.S. Census Bureau. Demographics are good indicators of political leanings, favored causes, positions on social issues and other attitudes that you can leverage in your marketing efforts. For example, if you get lots of college students and there are lots of colleges nearby, you might want to advertise in the college papers, online forums or bulletin boards.

If you get millennials, you might want to advertise your mobile and tableside ordering, carryout orders and deliveries. Baby Boomers are more likely to respond to traditional advertising and in-house dining specials. If you get lots of sportsmen, you might want to feature entrées made with game or promote hunting-season specials. If romantic couples choose your restaurant to dine, you might offer romantic dinner packages that include flowers, chocolates, gift baskets or special wines.

Targeting Strategy for Getting Competitive Advantages

Competitive advantages can be concrete facts like prices, menu selection or intangible characteristics like friendly service or customer perceptions that guests or management share similar attitudes. The most common competitive advantages are cost, differentiation of products and services, atmosphere, social engagement and entertaining diversions. Customers also respond to like-minded attitudes like political leanings, support for community and charitable causes and backing the sports teams that the customers favor.

Differentiation of Services

This is one of the strongest areas where your marketing can establish a competitive edge. Most restaurants try to offer something that their competitors don’t, but it’s even more important to reinforce these differences to existing and potential customers. After all, most restaurants serve safe, tasty food — although people with different attitudes often disparage food from different culinary styles. Restaurants also price food competitively for their level of service and quality of cuisine. Perception is the key to differentiating your food from other restaurants’ menus.

To differentiate your restaurant from a similar place down the street, you might focus on your suppliers, preparation methods, quality ingredients, nutritional profile or the customer’s ability to substitute ingredients. Rather than try to sell your food as bargain-priced, try to build value for the food while mentioning that it doesn’t cost more than food sourced or prepared in inferior ways.

Friendly Service

Friendly service is the gold standard for restaurants, but that doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone. Some people prefer low-key, professional service that stays in the background while others favor personable, talkative servers who share stories or wisecrack with the customers.

Millennials often favor restaurants where they know the staff and managers, their aspirations, their histories and social connections. Oddly enough, millennials are more than willing to do most of the work themselves, such as placing their orders on tablets, reserving tables, preordering food, paying for their meals online and connecting with the restaurant through its digital signage, loyalty program and website. When these experiences go smoothly, millennials tips their servers just as though the staff had done all the heavy lifting.

Depending on your style of cuisine and customer profile, you can get lots of promotional mileage by differentiating your restaurant as a leader in customer-facing technology, social causes, sustainable and ethical sourcing, organic ingredients without preservatives or in-house cured and aged products, signature fountain beverages, wide selections of gourmet teas and roasted coffees and fascinating fusions or mashups of culinary styles.

Using Social Media to Target Customers

You can use social media to target customers and key influencers for email marketing campaigns, mobile promotions, text message advertising and marketing on your social media Pages. Depending on your core audience, you might post photos of convivial crowds enjoying your food in the evenings, people having fun at special events, videos on how to prepare one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes or a contest to engage your customers.

Key Influencers

You can also use social platforms to find and engage key influences for your targeted audience. These influencers might be restaurant reviewers, journalists, sports figures, writers, social commentators, current or former customers, local politicians, restaurant suppliers, outlying farmers or popular bloggers in the community. If you get lots of local business people, you might target an influential business writer, hometown entrepreneur, investment banker or stock-portfolio manager. You can engage these influential people by offering them incentives to visit and review the restaurant, appear at the restaurant to talk or sign autographs or take part in a community cause or celebration.

Using the old methods of trying to appeal to everyone sets your restaurant up for failure. You can’t please everyone, and people have an incredible number of restaurant, dining, carryout and delivery choices. If you want to attract a loyal following of customers, use marketing promos that differentiate your restaurant from others and provide distinct competitive advantages.