Research proves that as unemployment rises, so does coupon use. But for operators who think slapping a coupon on Facebook counts as social media, Erika Brookes and Jason Poinsette, panelists at this year’s Dine America conference, have a few tips to enhance their game.

Brookes is vice president of marketing at Vitrue and Poinsette is client partner of the marketing solutions team at Facebook.

“More than anything, advertisers are paying more attention to where customers are spending more and more of their time – online,” Poinsette says. “Online marketing has proven to be a very cost-effective vehicle to not only reach a mass audience, but to engage them at levels that traditional media might not allow.”

Brookes and Poinsette agree that in order to capture customers in the store, online engagement is key. If effectively executed, online media results in profit.

“Social networks allow an operator to be in touch with their customer before and after an in-store visit,” she explains. “The ability to extend that relationship and to be potentially top of mind has loyalty and revenue-based benefits.”

It is important to recognize that customers live in two worlds: the online and the physical.

“Your customers are already on social, sharing, liking, and engaging,” Brookes says. “You should be there too. [But] although we live in a digital world, restaurants are still brick-n-mortars places where people want to gather, eat, drink, or socialize.”

Successful online marketing thus metabolizes online activity into a physical presence in the store.

Poinsette says the strategy, however, is not only to give away coupons to fans or encourage them to like your brand for a free meal, “because the danger with that is, you get a million fans and not one of them really cares about your brand,” he explains. “They just want the free coupon.”

While coupons can be effective at growing a fan base and driving traffic, brands need to be prepared on the back end to engage these new fans, keep them, and turn them into loyalists.

To that effect, Brookes lays out three observations that are critical to social media marketers today:

  1. Content is king. “This phrase is kicked around a lot, but no place is it more relevant than on social,” she says. The ticket is to promote content that customers actually want to interact with, as opposed to what marketers want to share.
  2. Listen, learn, and respond. “Social media allows for a true two-way communication relationship between brands and consumers, but that means it is not push advertising anymore,” Brookes says.
  3. Performance benchmark. Decide which metrics matter most and then measure against that.

Ultimately, an online following signals loyalty.

“A highly engaged fan base means a highly loyal fan base,” Poinsette says. “The more loyal they are to your brand and your message, the more they share and the more they return.”

“Bottom line: social can drive your overall business goals,” Brookes says. “But brands must embrace all the tools and technologies available today to truly maximize social success.”

Food News Media hosted the executive leadership conference Dine America from October 9–11, 2011, in Atlanta.

By Sonya Chudgar

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