In the era of social media, are mailing lists going the way of the dinosaur?

Not quite. Roughly half of all operators invested more in mailing lists last year than the previous one, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Before you open your wallet for an email marketing campaign, consider that diners are inundated with promotional messages. Getting noticed requires strategy and sweat.

Here are the do's and don’ts for rising above the din – without screaming until you’re blue in the face.

Hit pause on your social media obsession 

Chew on this surprising stat: two out of three consumers prefer getting marketing offers via email, according to a recent study from Adobe, the document software company. Also, adults are almost twice as likely to sign up for emails than interact with a brand on Facebook, research firm Forrester found.

While posts are seen by Facebook fans only 2% of the time, research shows consumers glimpse email subject lines at least 64% of the time. “No matter how big your marketing budget, email can serve as a powerful sales tool and should be considered,” says Noelle Jackson, owner of Elle PR in Atlanta.

Get creative with email capture

A giant pop-up ad on your restaurant website is more likely to turn diners off than entice them to sign up for email offers. Instead, look for captive moments when servers can slip diners a sign-up card, such as while they’re waiting for food or lingering over the check. Take the same non-pushy approach online.

“I don’t recommend many social posts promoting email lists,” says Jackson. “On Facebook, we use the email marketing service Mailchimp, which has an email capture plug-in. It’s a prominent tab and doesn’t feel too promotional.”

Cool it on the freebies

While mailing lists still have a strong pulse, coupon codes are definitely passé. Diners are more interested in feeling like they’re part of a community than simply being pitched. “Successful mailing lists make subscribers feel like an insider,” says Ann Marie van den Hurk, a principal at Mind The Gap PR in Tarboro, North Carolina.

“Modern diners love feeling educated, and particularly millennial diners like to know the story behind their food,” van den Hurk says. Instead of a promotion for half-price wine, for instance, spotlight a new bottle on the wine list with notes about the vineyard and history.

Break out the stamps on rare occasions

“Mailing lists are primarily for digital delivery because they’re cost- and time-efficient, but there are exceptions to the rules,” says van den Hurk. Some breweries in her area mail postcards for major events like announcing a new location. But they are targeted. Sending a postcard announcement to diners who live near the new location might be an effective way to help fill seats; paper-bombing an entire ZIP code might be an effective way to fill recycling bins.

Create a Calendar – But Be Flexible

To keep marketing from getting put on the back burner, set a schedule. Online email delivery services that allow the user to schedule and automate mailings are indispensable, publicists say.

Biweekly mailings are the industry norm – anything more, and it can feel like you’re spamming diners; anything less, and you miss opportunities to connect. Use this rule of thumb: If you don’t have something to say, say nothing. “A lot of independent restaurant owners swing from being gun-shy about this type of marketing to going totally overboard,” says Jackson. “If you find you’re sending emails that aren’t interesting, just stick to the calendar.”

Take the long view

Email marketing makes it easy to track communications. But how do you know whether those readers turn into eaters? “Track a trend over time,” suggests Ebony Grimsley-Vaz, chief strategist at Tampa, Florida-based Above Promotions. “Diners may open an email today, but not visit the restaurant for three weeks, and almost none of them will announce that an email is why they came in” unless there’s a call to action or the server inquires.

To spot what’s working, she suggests telescoping promotions. If you run an email series about the restaurant’s cocktails one month, track bar sales for the next two months. If you spotlight Tuesday night specials one week, compare total sales for the next six Tuesdays. “It’s impossible to account for every single conversion, but noticing the trends will help you figure out what your diners are responding to,” says Grimsley-Vaz.   

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