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Phew! I can't believe it's almost a month since this year's NRA Show (yeah, that one!) and the Marketing Executives Group meeting in Chicago. I love both events and have been a regular for the last three years. The free food samples, thought-provoking conversations, and the wonderful Chicago weather. What's not to like?

A lot of the products you see on the show floor each year at the National Restaurant Association Show don't change much from year to year. Dough mixers get new timers, ovens get better temperature management systems, and some chicken frying systems still just fry chicken (and one in particular did a tasty job, I must say!)

But seemingly nothing stays the same in the ever-growing show floor section dubbed the Tech Pavilion, where products such as POS and online ordering systems, guest ordering tablets and back-office management tools and more evolve in leaps and bounds annually. With every passing year we see technology racing further ahead of the hardware side of the business—and restaurant guests love it.

Nowhere is this more evident than in mobile technologies. There were 48 such companies at this year's NRA Tech Pavilion. Two days prior to the NRA show, we attended MEG, where attendees talked endlessly about using technology to target customers according to their preferences instead of mass marketed messages.

Everyone is a millennial.

If there's one thing that underlies this big quest (by brands and vendors) for customer engagement it's "The Millennial Generation". There are many definitions of who a millennial is. Actuarial definitions aside, in today's smartphone, tablet, and social media world, everyone is a millennial. There are atleast 80 million of them, counting just the 18-39 year olds. With mobile devices and social media, customer behavior and expectations have changed dramatically across many age groups.

Why are millennials different? They want one-to-one interactions with brands.

Customers are increasingly blind and deaf to broadcast messages, partly because there are so many of them, but mostly because they prefer personal engagement with a brand. They are so used to so many brands attempting to sell to them they are only paying attention to those which really understand them. The transformation and opportunity brought by mobile devices is much bigger than when the worldwide web began to be widely adopted by businesses.

To engage millennials, mastering mobile is key.

Most customers expect to interact with their brands via mobile – earning rewards, sharing experiences with friends, and getting personalized offers. For brands, mobile phones provide a channel through which brands can gain rich data about what customers want, when they it, how much they're willing to spend and how often.

And unlike traditional advertising, customers don't mind sharing that data with us because they get something in return: information that suits their wants and desires, not an avalanche of generic "two-for-one donuts and coffee" deals every morning or "large pizza and pop" bargains every night.

A new metric for customer engagement. Network lifetime value.

The MEG group also discussed that age-old topic of "customer lifetime value," while pointing out that, historically, they could only guess that actual value. Now, using marketing platforms that connect customer smartphones and restaurateurs' POS systems, we know that customer's value to the penny.

Better yet, we also can know that customer's "network lifetime value" by tracking referrals they make to others through their phones and social media. Where in the past operators have focused on getting each customer to return more frequently, smartphone marketing and POS integration allow operators to focus on encouraging that same customer to refer that restaurant to their friends.

That shift effects a key change in strategy from depending on one loyal customer to spend $1,000 a year in one particular restaurant to encouraging one customer to refer many friends who each spend $500 in that restaurant. That's the essence of "network value."

Millennials (18-39), of course, are the prime audience for such customer engagement since their use of smartphones is higher than any other age demographic. But their younger peers are even more techno-tuned and even Gen-Xers are increasingly comfortable with smartphone technology. (Surprisingly, we learned at MEG that this group checks its Facebook status six to eight times a day on their smartphones.)

Finally, after decades—centuries, really—of mass marketing, leading technology in the restaurant industry has made marketing a relationship-building tool, not just a sales device. Restaurant operators we talked to clearly saw the value in that and want to know how to use it in their businesses. Knowing that makes me excited to see what will be new in the aisles when we return to the NRA show next year.

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Mobile CRM Director

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Jitendra Gupta
Jitendra Gupta is CEO of Punchh, a mobile CRM suite that includes branded mobile apps for campaigns, games, loyalty, online ordering, payments, referrals, reviews, gift cards, surveys, and integrates with social networks and operators’ POS systems to gather 360° customer insights. Punchh helps restaurants increase same store sales and profitability by driving repeat visits, word of mouth, new customer referrals, and higher returns from marketing campaigns.
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