Editor’s Note: The following is custom content provided by the Penton Food & Restaurant Group.

Email offers the highest and most measurable returns for operators.

With all the attention garnered by restaurant social media and smartphone app marketing, some might regard email marketing as old-fashioned compared to newer tech toys. The contrary is true, however, as email marketing not only remains effective and widely used, but restaurant companies also are employing customer relationship management, or CRM, to create better targeted and highly personalized customer messages.

Email marketing reaches customers where they spend a lot of time each day — their inbox.

According to a report from the Direct Marketing Association, 66 percent of consumers have made a purchase online due to an email marketing message.

For restaurant operators considering where to spend their marketing dollars, few more cost-effective options are better than email. And since response rate is easily tracked, it will always be an excellent tool for determining an operator’s return on investment.

The Direct Marketing Association reports that email remains unbeaten, with ROI still almost $41 per dollar spent. It has maintained its dominant position in relationship to other Internet channels, which remain far behind in their ROI results: mobile, $10.51; social media, $12.71; display, $19.72 and search, $22.24.

Even large restaurant chains with the best marketing strategies continue to use email to share special deals with subscribers. Their messages are customized using detailed demographic information and customer purchasing history collected through web ordering.

But while collecting of customer data becomes easier over time, experts say some restaurant companies fail to use that valuable information to market directly back to their customers.

As the founder of Restaurant Building Blocks, a consultancy in Montreal, Canada, Christopher Wells says that’s not surprising given that many restaurateurs are people-oriented types who focus on personal relationships with customers, while neglecting their higher-tech marketing options such as email.

“They know customers can’t be treated like numbers, so they don’t always use email well or enough,” Well says. “It’s like they forget that the customer likes them already and that the customer wants to know more about their business through email.”

Personalize the Message

To make email marketing effective, restaurants must build a robust customer list to spread the word wide and far. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this, whether via the low-tech route of sign-up cards at every table, point-of-purchase reminders that lead customers to sign up online or through their smartphones. All three options are highly successful in enticing customers to contribute information.

The best lists are those that capture the most information about each customer. Not only does that cover the basics of names and email addresses, but also the next steps, such as birthdays and special anniversaries, preferred menu items — even favorite local sports teams. Clever operators know to build special events around big games to encourage likeminded customers to join in the fun.

Also, it’s wise to find out what customers want from your emails. Do they want to know about menu updates, promotions, special events and clubs tied to your restaurant? Knowing this information allows the operator to better target promotions to those who want them rather than sending out a generic email.

“Not everyone wants the same deal — they want what they want based on who they are,” Wells says. He adds that people who deliberately opt in to an email offer “want to think they’re special, part of a club of customers who are the only ones getting that offer. You don’t put those offers on Facebook.”

Or overload customers with loads of coupons tied to generic offers, says David Erickson, vice president of online marketing for Minneapolis-based public relations firm, Karwoski & Courage.

“Restaurants fall short by offering underwhelming coupons that don’t have enough value,” he says.

Sending emails without a clear idea of who’s receiving them depersonalizes the message and makes it ineffective, says Marc Falsetto, chief executive of JEY Hospitality Group (JHG), a multi-concept company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“When someone supplies their email, they want to be contacted,” says Falsetto, who trains servers to promote the email program when presenting guest checks. “The customers who give us their emails actually want to be part of our loyalty program.”

They also expect to get some swell deals. Falsetto says JHG’s email marketing offers run the gamut from food and drink freebies to fashion-centered giveaways. In every case, the offers are unique.

“On our ladies’ night at Himmarshee Public House, we’ll give away shoes and purses; those get a lot of response,” Falsetto says. Such offers, he adds, can’t be broadcast on the web or in social media. “What we do is always targeted to a specific demographic.”

Shula Steak Houses alternates its monthly email messages with targeted local and national offers. According to 919 Marketing’s Kevin Behan, who handles email campaigns for Shula’s, the 14-unit the fine-dining chain always sends birthday offers to customers in its loyalty program, but it also hosts a national sweepstakes in which customers have won trips to Tuscany, Aruba, and Napa Valley, as well as ocean cruises and luxury cars.

Striking a balance between centrally and locally executed email marketing

As a restaurant group or franchise, you know your brand. Your owners know their customers best and details such as their location-specific menu items, promotions, and events. It’s important to decide which communications are best suited to send from your corporate email marketing account and which are best to send locally in order to ensure traffic is being driven into your restaurants, those location-specific details are getting to their customers, and new customer email addresses are being captured.

As restaurant owners, your locations or franchisees struggle to find the time and the money to market, especially at a start-up when they are working day and night to keep the doors open and make payroll. They shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel to do their own marketing. And you want to ensure there are controls to maintain your brand and to have one voice.

Be sure to look for a tool that allows for the following:

  • Easy self-service local marketing. Since franchisors are rarely equipped to offer individual marketing support to each franchisee, they need to empower potentially hundreds of franchisees with an intuitive, self-service marketing solution, especially for first-time marketers. Owners must be able to market locally within a strong brand identity, and evaluate and improve ongoing efforts.
  • Brand control. Choose a system that allows you to create templates for any marketing that your owners will carry out, such as email for customer birthdays, new menu items, events or specials. Make sure you can lock down branded sections while providing franchisees customizable sections for local information.
  • List growth.  Keep your network’s email lists and sales growing with sign-up tools for Facebook pages and websites as well as restaurant signage or receipts that enable mobile texting or scanning to join.
  • Administration portal. Your group or franchise should be able to track success at both the local and network level through an easy-to-use dashboard.
  • Support. Your online marketing vendor also should provide expert technical and marketing support and services directly to anyone in the network who needs guidance.

Learn more about Constant Contact’s Restaurant Solution for groups and franchises here.