It’s become a cliché of business management that it costs more to attract a new customer than to keep an old customer happy. But that doesn’t negate the fact that to grow and succeed, brands need frequent infusions of new customers who find out about the restaurant, visit it, love it, come back for more, and spread the word.

So how can quick-service brands successfully—and cost-efficiently—draw new customers? In the age of social media and digital experiences, no less? We spoke with experts at a variety of chains to find out how they leverage their marketing efforts.

1. Change the channel

Loyalty is good, but not when a restaurant’s loyalty to a particular marketing channel keeps it from using more effective ones. Businesses that look to the future and the past, experiment with new platforms, and turn regular consumer hangout spots into brand-new marketing channels are the ones that attract eyeballs—and customers.

Social media has long been a leader for brands that want to build awareness, especially if they’re on a budget. Facebook posts, Instagram stories, and tweets are free, and some social platforms let businesses promote or boost their posts or accounts to reach more people.

“Facebook is the No. 1 tool we use to get out there,” says Bill Hart, cofounder of Bubbakoo’s Burritos, which has 24 locations in New Jersey and eight more coming soon in New Jersey and New York. “When we focus on something that’s local or something that everybody’s engaged in, our posts get double the exposure, if not triple. So when we do giveaways like ‘spread the word for a free gift card,’ we’ll boost the post and will get anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 views on it. It gets the word out there organically just through people sharing with their friends and talking about it.”

While social media is practically de rigueur today, some brands are also looking to platforms that have social media–like qualities but aren’t strictly marketing channels: review sites. “Our team is hard-focused on the reviews we get through Yelp, Facebook, and Google Business,” says Charity Faith, chief of staff at SkinnyFATS, a restaurant that offers “Healthy” and “Happy” menu options and has five locations with three more on the way. “While we can’t win every guest, we certainly try—by responding to their concerns and being genuine in our efforts to quickly resolve any service flaws and consistency issues.” Quick serves that track and respond to comments on the most popular review sites can turn even negative reviews into an opportunity to win over diners who are looking for somewhere new to eat.

All this isn’t to say that brands should abandon traditional marketing and advertising channels for digital ones. Bubbakoo’s is adding TV commercials to its list of marketing channels, for example. “We’re hoping to spread out a little farther and hit people who maybe aren’t on Facebook, or who may be on Facebook but are watching TV instead of their phones,” Hart says. “There’s a reason why larger brands are on TV and have been for years. We want to be around for years, so we want to follow suit.”

Like many businesses, the restaurant consultancy Goliath Consulting Group spends a lot of time on digital—from Google ads to geofencing ads on social media—but it also makes sure to bundle in traditional advertising for clients as well. For example, billboards have been around for eons because they work, so Goliath makes use of them.

“Billboard space is much more competitive today than it used to be, because folks know the power of putting a billboard near a restaurant,” says president Jay Bandy. This is especially true for restaurants that aren’t easily visible from the street.

Brands that have a broad customer base and a budget to match may find that the best strategy is to use various channels to reach different demographics via their favorite media. “Broadcast TV is certainly the best match to get awareness and trial,” says Jennifer Chasteen, vice president of brand strategy and activation at Church’s Chicken, which boasts more than 900 locations across the U.S. “And we’ve found that digital channels continue to grow in importance, especially as delivery and catering become growth areas. For Church’s, we use an integrated approach across all of the marketing channels, from TV and radio all the way to print and social and digital. It really allows us to reach customers with the right message at the right time.”

2. Get the timing right

Speaking of the right message at the right time, a marketing calendar helps limited-service chains and their franchisees plan out promotions that make the best use of their data and resources; pinpoint the best times to do, say, a boosted Facebook post or a Valpak promotion; and even schedule social media content.

A long lead time gives operators time to brainstorm their marketing and promotions, and then they hash out the details as the deadlines draw near, tweaking content and timing as needed. “The way we do it is that the first quarter of the marketing calendar is detailed,” Bandy says. “The second quarter is a little less granular, and the third and fourth quarters just have the big items.”

For example, PJ’s Coffee, a New Orleans–based chain with 105 locations in eight states, lays out its marketing calendar about a year in advance; Church’s Chicken does the same 18 months in advance. Both brands finalize their calendars five or six months out from each promotion launch. “This really helps us evaluate consumer trends and purchasing behaviors within our markets, as well as make sure that our commodities are having a really strong cost of goods,” says Reid Nolte, vice president of brand strategy at PJ’s Coffee.

Wondering what to put on those calendars to bring in new customers? National holidays and the changing seasons are a staple of marketing calendars everywhere—but tying into a holiday that resonates with the brand’s location or values helps it stand out from all the competitors that are jumping on the “pumpkin spice for fall” and “BOGO for 4th of July” bandwagons.

PJ’s Coffee did this by releasing a Mardi Gras–themed hot cup to celebrate the popular Southern Louisiana holiday. “It’s special to New Orleans,” Nolte says. “We took a functional brand touchpoint and created an emotional connection, and we’ve had tremendous feedback.” The company also draws inspiration from a traditional Mardi Gras treat, the king cake, which consists of a ring of cinnamon-roll-type dough with green, yellow, and purple icing. During the Mardi Gras season, PJ’s Coffee offers a limited-time King Cake–flavored coffee, which is also available in K-cups, plus the king cake itself.

Food-related national holidays are another obvious candidate for restaurants’ marketing calendars. Bubbakoo’s Burritos always schedules a promotion for National Taco Day on October 4 and National Burrito Day on the first Thursday in April, for example. Church’s Chicken makes sure franchisees know that National Fried Chicken Day is July 6. Mrs. Fields offers free cookies on National Cookie Day, and Dunkin’ gives away doughnuts on National Doughnut Day.

And for those restaurants serving smoothies, subs, or chicken wings? There are national days for those, too. Luckily, there are holidays that will work as a springboard for promotions even for restaurants that specialize in more obscure foods—from National Whipped Cream Day to National Oyster Day. And if there are no relevant days for certain specialized menu items yet, starting one is fairly straightforward: Businesses just need to send an application to the National Day Calendar website.

3. Mix and mingle

While each customer is important, brands need a lot more than one person at a time to thrive. So why not move some of the marketing focus from individuals to groups? One marketing promotion can bring in a whole school, sports team, or business.

Local businesses are good places to reach many like-minded new customers at the same time. “We have seen a pretty nice ROI on direct-mail programs that are targeted toward businesses,” Nolte says. “What’s nice about it is that you can customize your coupons where one-third will target morning daypart traffic, one third can influence afternoon daypart consumption, and the final third can focus on office catering programs.”

Then there are universities, which are full of hungry students who enjoy a quick bite out. At Bubbakoo’s New Brunswick, New Jersey, location, about 75 percent of sales come from students at Rutgers University, and 60 percent of the sales at the company’s two West Long Branch, New Jersey, stores is from Monmouth University.

Bubbakoo’s Burritos spreads the word by delivering to the sports teams at those universities. It even brings food to the visiting teams. “Any university that we’re around, we’re involved with one way or the other,” Hart says. “Most of the time it’s food drops for the teams or even the teams that are coming into town, so we can make sure they know who we are when they go back to their towns.” The company simply reaches out to the athletic departments to talk about their upcoming events and how Bubbakoo’s Burritos can be of help.

SkinnyFATS also puts the spotlight on college students as a way to attract new visitors. “We’ve been working with Pocket Points for several years, which has a large college-student subscriber base,” Faith says. “Pocket Points rewards college students for staying focused in class. For every minute they stay off their phone, they earn points, and with enough points they can earn free stuff or discounts at SkinnyFATS.”

Bringing in new customers is all about knowing when to stick with the tried and true—like doing promotions for the big holidays and using traditional marketing channels—and when to experiment with new platforms and reach out to new demographics. And by testing new strategies, limited-service brands stand to discover more fruitful marketing tactics for the ever-evolving consumer base.

Marketing & Promotions, Story, Bubbakoo's Burritos, Church's Chicken, PJ's Coffee, SkinnyFATS