Remember back in the 1990s, when business owners asked, “Do we really need a website?” My, how quickly that question disappeared. Today the vast majority of businesses now have websites, and for a good portion of those, it’s the only way they conduct commerce.
For restaurants figuring out their mobile strategy, the question, “Do we really need a mobile app?” sounds almost silly. True, many restaurant marketers don’t know how an app would benefit their company, but sooner than later, they will. Market demands will make it crystal clear. Here’s why:
Smartphone use continues to soar. A recent study by Comscore said 57 percent of all mobile users are smart phone users (roughly 134 million people), and the number of tasks performed they perform is mind boggling. According to ABI Research, there are 800,000 Android apps and 775,000 Apple apps available today. That’s over 1.5 million apps managing tasks ranging from altering a home thermostat remotely, managing a family schedule, booking plane tickets and managing loyalty programs.
We all know not all those 1.5 million apps are terribly useful or even frequently used. Apps for games and photography are fun, but they don’t do much for our businesses. Yet, like websites, apps must morph from purposes of convenience to engines commerce—and they will. I guarantee it. Businesses that adapt to apps could be left behind, especially when it comes to marketing.
FastCoCreate.com writer Scott Kveton said it this way: “What is increasingly clear is that mobile will confound the cookie-cutter campaign creator, bother the bulk emailer, and annoy broad-audience advertisers. Brands that rely on traditional, one-way mass media must completely re-engineer their approach for mobile, because when customers perceive marketing as an interruption, they take immediate action to tune you out.”
Tuning into customers’ "frequency" is a matter of giving them an app of value, one that simplifies and/or speeds up purchasing from you. Kveton pointed to the Walgreens Pharmacy app that allows customers to scan prescription bottle barcodes with smartphones to trigger refills. It makes automated phone refills look laughably dated. A Wal-Mart shopping app, he added, aligns users’ shopping lists to in-store aisle locations.
Clearly, many in the restaurant industry are struggling with this. Lots of chains only have calorie count apps for all their menu items or a "nearest restaurant" locator or the apps connect to webpages with menus. But customers typically want to do something more meaningful, like earning loyalty points, engage with brands over social media, or get the latest offers.
Rita’s Italian Ice is one of the few restaurant brands offering a very popular mobile app, Rita’s Rewards to engage customers in a fun and rewarding way. Rita’s Ice fans can earn points whenever they visit, share their experiences with friends over social media, submit a review, play a game, and also get “Cool Alerts” when their favorite Ice flavor is available. And Rita’s gets insights about every single fans so they can personalize offers to specific stores or customers.
The convenience of having a mobile app, however, comes at a price that only the largest of restaurant chains can afford. Large restaurant brands with deep resources committed to developing such technology; likely no smaller rival has the ability to create and perfect its own app in-house. Luckily, there are many fine third-parties that produce such apps for the restaurant industry.
But even if you find the right vendor to customize an app, you’ve still got to know what app best would fit your customers’ desires. To figure that out, here are some questions to ask:
1. If I need a mobile app, what should it do?
Allow customers to order? Help them find my restaurant? Manage their loyalty points? Pay for food? Provide a two-way communication channel? All the above? Be certain the app meets multiple needs.
2. Who among my competitors has an app, and what, exactly does theirs do?
It always hurts to be behind the curve in competitive situations.
3. By adding an app, what value can I bring to my customers?
For the well-to-do clientele of a pricey steakhouse, an app that helps earn exclusive rewards for high spending might be the right thing. But for a fast-casual chain serving millennials, an app might need to make it easier to order food faster.
4. Is it just a matter of time before I need one?
Even the pricey steakhouse patrons might want to know each night’s specials, have access to an updated wine list, etc., plus the fast-casual frequenting millennials will someday become the fat-walleted fine diners, and they’ll expect an app!
5. Should I build my own app or buy it from a vendor?
The choices are many; you could get a low-cost app by outsourcing the job to entry-level programmers, or a very beautiful app by asking your marketing agency to build you a minimum viable app.
However, the more critical questions you should be asking are:
Beyond just a minimum viable app, what functions will you need now and in the near future? How can the app accommodate loyalty programs, gaming, payments, ordering, catering, reviews, surveys, or other functionality your different consumers expect?
How will the app reflect your unique brand, your marketing programs, your rules, and at the same time integrate with your point-of-sale?
Will the app preserve your freedom to choose the best online ordering app, the best catering app, or any payment technology?
Who will be responsible for maintaining the app and make future enhancements that you are almost certain to need?
How will you get a substantial number of your guests to use the app?
What is the expected Return on Investment (ROI) for your app?
Asking those questions and thinking strategically about the answers will clarify your needs and the timing of your decision. The fact is, though, sooner or later, your business will need a mobile app. The time to consider it is now.
Jitendra Gupta is CEO of Punchh, the only mobile-centric marketing platform for restaurants that uses the power of mobile devices and social networks to drive and measure repeat visits, word of mouth, and referrals.