by Sam Sebastian

Large companies—including quick-serve restaurants—often use television, radio and print advertisements to reach their customers. Marketers know that creating an ad with a compelling message will build brand loyalty and drive customers to their local stores. And they probably do. But an online campaign is a nice complement to that offline strategy, as it offers the ability to target your varied customer base at the right place and the right time.

As the quick-serve industry becomes more segmented and competitive, marketers are placing a greater emphasis on reaching customers with targeted messaging and having measurable campaign results. All of this can be done online in a way that directly benefits your offline business.

Consumers are Searching Online for Restaurant Information

To help quick-serve restaurant marketers understand more about the Web and explore how their potential customers are using the Internet, Google commissioned a study, conducted by Media Screen Market Research. The research revealed that nearly 70 percent of quick-serve consumers go online to find restaurant information, including location, directions, hours, and menus. Of these customers, more than half use search engines to learn about eating opportunities.

Between Web sites, search engines, and online video, the Internet engages potential customers in an in-depth way. Because consumers are using the Web to find specific information, the Internet can reach potential customers at key decision-making moments. For example, our research indicates that about 40 percent of quick-serve customers decide where to have lunch while at work during the hours before noon. The Internet is the dominant media outlet used at work, with 56 percent of American workers using the Internet at the office, according to the Ball State University Center for Media Design. Thus, the Web offers an important opportunity to reach potential consumers while they are at work and looking for information about restaurants.

Targeting and Measurability

The Web offers restaurant brand marketers the ability to target their message to potential customers in a number of ways. For example, companies can use search advertising to target customers with an advertising message after the customer has entered keywords into a search engine. These advertisements are called sponsored links. For example, a restaurant marketer might complement their offline campaign by buying keyword advertising associated with their latest menu promotion. By bidding on specific keywords, restaurants can direct advertisements to appear in front of potential customers when they are searching for promotions or specials they may have heard about offline. Ads can be also be targeted to appear next to Web searches made within a certain distance of a particular location. In other words, someone using a search engine to find out about eating options can be served with targeted advertising about quick-serve establishments within driving distance.

Contextual targeting places ads on our partner Web sites (i.e. NY Times, About.com and WSJ.com) that are related to the context on that page. For example, if a potential customer is reading a news article about Mexican food on a site with contextual ads, they might see advertisements related to Mexican restaurants. This type of targeting is effective because it directs messages to potential customers who are already engaged on a particular topic.

Additionally, marketers can purchase banner ad and video ad space on specific Web sites that have partnered with an online advertising network to reach specific demographics. An online banner and video ad campaign can then be developed and distributed on a series of sites that meet only their target market requirements, thus eliminating some of the waste that can occur when doing larger mass media offline campaigns.

Quick-serve marketers can also benefit from the measurability of online campaigns. From Web page impressions to click-thru rates and ROI on online sales, almost every area of online marketing is quantified and compiled into a performance report. The report shows an advertiser which sites their advertisements ran on, as well as the metrics for their ads on those sites, allowing a company to identify high- and low-value sites for their business. This measurability allows quick-serve marketers the opportunity to change the sites that their ads run on, and if necessary, refine their messaging during a campaign as they see what messaging is resonating with customers.

Online As Part of Overall Marketing Campaign

Opportunities on the Internet go beyond just having a comprehensive and regularly-updated Web site with store locations, directions, hours, and menu items. Restaurant marketers are using the web to launch new products and new menu items; reach a segmented target audience for limited time offers; for seasonal promotions and market-specific messages; to drive gift card sales; promote new store openings and build community ties.

Earlier this year, Google worked with Baskin Robbins on the chain’s Love Chocolate promotion. Baskin Robbins executed an integrated package of search, contextual and display advertisements targeted towards specific demographics and interest groups (such as chocolate lovers). By directing a message to consumers interested in chocolate, Baskin Robbins was able to generate significant returns for a relatively small amount of money. The Love Chocolate ads by Google generated 25 million page impressions for Baskin Robbins, ultimately contributing to more than half of its online promotional registrations.

Looking Ahead

Over the past year, some restaurant marketers have started recognizing that online advertising can reach the large set of customers on the Web. Given the targeting, measurability and engaging content available online, they have successfully used the Internet to complement their overall marketing efforts. Using online media to reach the quick-serve customer base is just beginning, as new mediums such as online video and social networks continue to grow. Products and technology will continue to evolve online, and so will restaurant marketer’s use of the Web.

Sam Sebastian is responsible for leading Google’s national restaurant practice. He engages quick-serve and casual dining marketers in the benefits and efficiencies of the Google platform.