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How to Use Digital Media to Connect with Foodservice Customers


Digital media levels the marketing playing field, allowing retailers to engage with shoppers cost effectively in more meaningful ways that ultimately — when done consistently and well — yield more loyal customers, a positive brand image and sales lift.

To many, digital media means social media, when in fact it is much broader. Before you can build a social media strategy, you must have a strong digital platform from which to launch your social media. It begins first and foremost with a website that appropriately represents your banner and brands, and relays important information to your customers.

Your website should fully represent your brand positioning and image, and everything you do from there should be seamless and fully integrated with all of your other digital communications, whether you choose to develop mobile technology such as apps, instant messaging (SMS), digital advertising or engage in one or several social media platforms available, including Facebook, Twitter, foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest or YouTube.

“Look professional. Go to a restaurant website and look at it. It’s not simply an image of a hot dog — we all know what they look like,” one retail expert said. “It creates a mood and an atmosphere that the store needs to live up to upon the customer’s arrival. It sets the standard for operations to follow.”

The beauty of the food business is that it is visually appealing and translates well to all things digital, as long as you use good photographs that make your food look as appealing as possible. So, if your website needs updating, now is the time to rework it and do so with other digital applications in mind, planning how they will integrate with each other, what the objective of each will be and how you will measure results.

“Retailers should develop similar guidelines for these digital platforms as they likely have for on-site marketing elements such as signs by the street, at the pump, on the store window, etc.,” said David Bishop of consulting firm Balvor LLC, a member of the Convenience Store News How To Crew. “It should also be built into the annual and ongoing planning process, making it another key component of the category plans as well as key meetings. And, it should be added to the marketing and merchandising packets distributed to stores so that everyone is aware of current and upcoming activities.”


Most convenience store operators have websites — albeit not all are as user friendly, effective or aesthetically pleasing as they could be — and many have begun dabbling in social media, while a handful have developed their own mobile apps. But for the most part, convenience store operators and retailers in general are behind the eight ball in leveraging the full benefits of digital media because many do not understand the value and fear what they perceive as the potential backlash of social media.

However, the fact remains that retailers can’t afford not to engage in digital media if they hope to remain competitive and relevant to customers today and in the future. When done well, digital media marketing can elevate your brands, increase customer loyalty, grow your customer base and boost sales. Effective programs can also yield tremendous shopper insights and be invaluable in developing new menu items and programs.

One of the most successful digital marketing retailers in the food and beverage business is Starbucks Corp., which nearly every CSNews How To Crew member named as being one of the best. Starbucks links and integrates accounts, social media platforms and audiences. One program in particular taps customer ideas for new product and service development.

“Their ‘My Starbucks Idea’ is a tremendous source of shopper insights relative to attitudes and preferences, and then [it] uses crowd sourcing to help prioritize ideas,” Bishop said. “Customers like to know that their voice is heard and appreciated. This platform reinforces both as they highlight the ideas they’ve put into action so far.”

Herein lies the true value of digital media, particularly social media: creating a two-way conversation with your customers/guests and inviting them to be a part of the conversation and, more importantly, part of what you create and sell. Once they become fans, they’ll tell two friends and it is exponentially viral from there. But make no mistake, digital media marketing requires a strategic plan and should not be done ad hoc. It also requires proper focus and attention, and dedicated manpower.

“Be prepared to be fully engaged and interactive, which means designating appropriate personnel resources — both in terms of number of staff and the right staff, and those who understand social media and can think strategically about utilizing it to your benefit,” said How To Crew member Donna Hood Crecca of Technomic Inc., a foodservice consultancy. “Work to build an audience, then establish a wide presence incorporating multiple, but appropriate and effective platforms.”

The next step is to engage users with “creative and effective messaging, generate buzz with unexpected and attention-grabbing programs, and link these activities to sales,” she added.

Some of the best examples of strong digital marketing execution can be found in the restaurant business, with many quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and fast-casual restaurants excelling at it. Some insights gathered below highlight opportunities for c-store foodservice:

  • Digital engagement with QSRs and fast-casual restaurants centers on finding deals, which is also true for full-service restaurants. (Technomic Consumer Trend Update, Q4 2013)
  • Different demographic groups use different social media outlets. For example, Pinterest over-indexes among rural, female, Caucasian and higher-income consumers, while Instagram over-indexes among urban, female, ethnic minorities and 18- to 29-year-olds. (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2013)
  • Social media skews positive. People are more likely to post a reaction to a foodservice experience on social media if it was a good one. For example, 28 percent of consumers will mention and/or friend the restaurant on Facebook if they liked it, but only 17 percent will mention it on Facebook if they had a bad experience. (Technomic Consumer Survey, November 2013)

Which social media platforms to use and how retailers engage in them “really depends on the demographics of your stores,” advised Crecca. “Know your customer and know which platforms they’re engaged with, and work to connect with them on those.”


Before dabbling in social media, build a strategic plan for how you plan to use it, outline objectives and expected outcomes, and have a mechanism for measuring results. Will it be “likes,” sales lift or new followers? And how many and how much of each?

It is important to integrate your social media plan into your overall marketing plan to ensure there is consistent brand and program messaging. Some of our How To Crew experts contend digital marketing should be the driver — the heart — of the overall marketing plan.

“The power of marketing and engagement is to have a coordinated message and to keep your guests focused on your message through all mediums,” said Ed Burcher of Burcher Consulting, a former retailer and member of the CSNews How To Crew. “For instance, when running a coffee promotion, the POP (point-of-purchase) at the store and coffee area will have the special or feature. This will be supported by the POP in the store. Any external media, such as outdoor or TV, will have the same message. Digital should be no different and should be used to support this, and the tone, manner and style should also reinforce the main message.”

For those operators who have not yet ventured into social media, our How To Crew experts highly recommend beginning with Facebook since it is so widely used and recognized, and also user-friendly for operators. They fairly unanimously recommend getting really proficient on one platform before expanding into others such as Twitter, foursquare or Instagram.

“These platforms have different strengths, which means it’s important to align what you’re doing with where your messages are placed,” said Bishop. “Facebook is the strongest platform for brand/image-building purposes given its features and how consumers naturally interact with it. Text messaging is the best tool for traffic building because it’s a great vehicle for pushing limited-time offers and it competes with far fewer messages compared to email. Check-in apps [such as foursquare] have been the best for transaction-building activities. However, proprietary apps will become more effective in the future as more retailers focus on proximity marketing.”

The other near-unanimous recommendation by the experts is to hire young marketing professionals for whom digital media is an extension of their daily life. They understand it, they like it and they know how to use it effectively. And, of course, content is king. You must communicate information that is relevant and interesting to your digital media customers. Social media users will be turned off by traditional advertising messages that they will view as self-serving. They are really seeking to communicate with others, typically their friends, to share social updates, knowledge, interesting information, news, fun facts, videos, etc.

“If you tap into that mindset as opposed to utilizing these platforms to promote your special of the week, you will have a better chance of success,” one retail expert said. “If you post traditional advertising in an attempt to interrupt the users, you will have a strong chance of failure.”

In traditional advertising, you are speaking directly to consumers with your message in hopes of getting them to act. With digital, you are speaking to your followers in hopes of getting them to tell your story, the expert further explained. “Think of it as speaking to your disciples. You need to get them excited about who you are and what you do, so they will go out to their friends and talk about you.”

As Burcher put it, social media is about “engagement, not talking at people. You will lose followers and social interest with one-way conversations.”

Social media looks simple — and it certainly is not rocket science — but it takes time, energy, patience and fortitude. Unlike other advertising and marketing mediums, it cannot be controlled, but it can be managed.

“Don’t be quick to judge. Digital media is a living, breathing, growing animal. It starts off small and takes a while to mature,” one expert said. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.”

Be sure to respond to all comments posted by users/customers — both positive and negative. Most importantly, don’t ignore negative feedback. By responding to negative comments, you have a chance to retain the customer and demonstrate to other followers that you are open and honest and take their input seriously. Negative comments are also very valuable because they help retailers identify where they can improve.

Ways to engage customers in two-way interaction can include mechanisms where customers can earn points, discounts and prizes, or specials that are unlocked when they “check in” or “like” your page or comments. You can also run contests, offer apps, engage them with games and draw them in with photos and videos, and invite them to share their own images and experiences.


According to our experts, convenience store industry players doing a good job with digital and social media are Kangaroo Express with its “Roocipes” program; Kum & Go’s Snaxperts; Wawa and Sheetz, with Sheetz being a bit more irreverent, consistent with its brand image; and QuickChek. Those who stand out also use digital media to serve a functional purpose and typically have strong technology applications in their stores such as touchscreen ordering, point-of-sale scanning, as well as backend and supply-chain applications that make them more efficient operators.

For those who are moving into mobile apps, they need to be sure they are offering functional tools. “An application or digital tool should serve a purpose such as online ordering or pre-payment to avoid waiting in lines,” said How To Crew member Tim Powell of Think Research & Consulting, a foodservice consultancy. “This is really what the digital media trend is responding to. Beyond that, having an online presence on foursquare, Facebook and Twitter, where groups can comment, complements the functional attributes.”

Retailers need to also consider reallocating a good portion of their traditional advertising dollars to digital advertising, such as on top-rated websites and search engines that can localize messages and/or target consumers through keyword search advertising.

Digital marketing now and in the future will enable retailers to communicate with consumers and offer them specials and promotions wherever they are. Foursquare, for example, is a location-based app that geolocates customers and delivers offers to them via their mobile devices when they check in (also called proximity marketing). In general, geolocating and geofencing — which is triggered by a consumer when they enter a predetermined radius of a store or billboard sign and are then pinged with a call-to-action marketing message via text, email or mobile app — will become more ubiquitous in the future.

The digital world is constantly changing and evolving, and offers tremendous cost-effective marketing tools to retailers. But the only way to learn and reap the rewards is to jump in, engage and play in the space, exactly where your customers are.

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