As consumers become more comfortable navigating social media, restaurants are getting savvy about using it as a marketing tool. Customer demand, for example, pushed Genghis Grill, a build-your-own stir fry restaurant with 70 stores in 19 states, into the location-based marketing arena nearly two years ago.
"We started (using) check-in social sites when our fans started requesting it," said Chiara Granado, marketing coordinator. "It was pretty amazing." The chain now uses FourSquare and Google Places to stay connected with its customers.
"Our fans are creative - we have a lot of musicians, artists, video gamers and tech savvy individuals. They love telling others where they are and sharing where they are with the whole world," Granado said.
Although Granado said the company doesn't have specific measurements for how location-based marketing has helped grow business, she is positive that it's contributed to sales. The company has received a lot of positive feedback from its monthly promotions that reward the customers who have the most check-ins with a gift basket of Genghis Grill products and gift cards.
"We have it to where they had to post a photo of themselves in our location, so we know they aren't just checking in because they are sitting outside our restaurant," Granado said. "These type of small promotions create more of a brand awareness and interaction, and it lets our fans have a voice and most importantly, bring their friends in."
Wisconsin-based Toppers Pizza uses FourSquare and Twitter's GPS function to let its fans know the location of its mobile food truck, the Spank Tank.
"If the Spank Tank is headed to Milwaukee, we can do a search throughout the day/night on Twitter about those talking about the Spank Tank in the Milwaukee market," said Bridget Keeler's, marketing manager of Toppers Pizza. "We can then reach out to them and message them about our presence and tell them about menu items and deals."
Toppers, which has 29 locations but only one food truck, also uses Foursquare as a way to connect with customers.
"We closely monitor the trends of our core demographic, the college student, and saw an opportunity within those trends to tap into marketing the Spank Tank as a mobile venue," Keeler said. "We are able to change as the Spank Tank moves around downtown Milwaukee. This gives our fanatics an easy way to figure out where to feed their appetites at night."
Like Genghis, Toppers doesn't have a specific way to measure the value of location-based marketing. Keeler said, however, it's the only way for customers to keep tabs on the Spank Tank, so it's been a very crucial part of generating sales.
"Our customers love the way we interact with them over our social networks," she said.
Foursquare also gives in-depth analysis for each of its venues, so Toppers can track how many customers have checked-in to the Spank Tank's locations.
Something is better than nothing
The first step in starting location-based marketing is to simply "claim" your place on one or all of the major sites (Foursquare, Facebook Places, Google, etc.) said Asif Kahn, president of the Location Based Marketing Association.
"It's really important to take control of your brand in the location-based arena," he said. "The reality is that people are 'checking-in' to your restaurants even if you're not officially talking to them on these platforms. At the very least, you should be monitoring the conversation and planning an engagement strategy."
The best plan is to hire a social media consultant or dedicate someone on staff who is familiar with the applications to handle it; however, Kahn realizes that not everyone has the resources for that.
"If you don't have someone on staff, or can't afford a consultant, find an intern that wants the experience," he said. "Location-based marketing is hot and many would jump at the opportunity."
As Foursquare becomes more prominent, it is becoming increasingly easier to work with, according to Keeler, who said the biggest hurdle a company might have with Foursquare is educating employees on how to properly utilize it.
"It is extremely important that our Spank Tank employees understand and are educated on how to use Foursquare, which is why we make sure that each Spank Tank employee is well versed in how to use the technology," she said.
Employees at Genghis Grill's corporate office handle the company's sites with some outside assistance from an email marketing company.
Going a step further
Subway stores in the UK can now deliver mobile coupons to customers when they are a near a Subway location. The chain has partnered with O2 Media to launch a program that allows customers to opt-in to the "You Are Here" service to receive messages and scannable mobile vouchers.
In early September, Burger King UK launched an iPhone application allowing users to find the closest restaurant.
The technology allows iPhone users to share their location through Facebook via GPS capabilities. It was developed by marketing specialists Pancentric Digital, and includes a full menu with nutritional information.
A week after Burger King UK's location app was launched, McDonald's UK announced its own location-based application, developed by Mobile Commerce.
Burger King Corp. nor Subway have similar plans for the U.S. market right now.
Danya Proud, a spokesperson for McDonald's U.S., said domestic units will have a mobile application in the near future for most mobile devices that will include a "find your nearest McDonald's" feature. However, it is too early to share specifics of this technology.
Is privacy an issue?
As with any new technology, privacy issues are part of the discussion surrounding location-based marketing. The popularity of Foursquare and Google Places, however, is proof that consumers are already coming around, according to Khan. He said consumer adoption is always a little slow with new technology but that customer participation with location-based media is quickly increasing. A series of reports from Pew Research showed that 4 percent of the U.S. population was using services like Foursquare last year, and it's already up to 12 percent now.
Privacy isn't an issue for Genghis Grill's location-based marketing, Granado said.
"(We are) doing such a great job making sure fans will get what they ask for, so in return they trust us as a brand that we'll be loyal to them," she said.
Read more about mobile services.
Cherryh Butler has been a reporter for nearly 10 years, writing on a variety of topics ranging from the restaurant industry to business and health and fitness news. Before joining FastCasual.com as editor, she oversaw KioskMarketplace.com and PizzaMarketplace.com and contributed to RetailCustomerExperience.com. She's also written for several daily newspapers, magazines and websites, including The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine.