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Remove the Strings! How to Build Guest Loyalty with Email.

By Joe Gabriel, Fishbowl Marketing

Email marketing has become part of the fabric of our industry’s modern marketing strategy. Open an email account, type an offer, add a couple of photos and links, click and send, and voilà:  new sales. Right? Not so fast. Restaurant operators have been encouraging their guests to “sign up” for their email program for well over a decade now. At Fishbowl, we currently manage a growing list of over 85 million unique email addresses on behalf of our restaurant clients. In fact, the average consumer today belongs to well over a dozen retail and restaurant email marketing clubs. Add the crowded online and social media marketing world to the mix, and it is becoming even more difficult to have your marketing message stand out and drive customer visits. So the question is, what can you do to stand out and generate customer visits utilizing your email club?  The answer is simple … build loyalty.

Broken Tactics

So what has gone wrong? In today’s world of daily deals, it is incredibly easy for a restaurant consumer to find a “deal” or “discount” to your restaurant. Just sign up for Groupon, Living Social,, heck, even listen to your local radio station, and offers are a-plenty. But is offering a $5 discount on your next visit, or $10 off $25 really generating the type of business that you want to capture for your restaurant? Promoting the same type of offers through your email club is just adding your message to the mix, not rising above the crowd. The devil is in the details. A recent study by the Harte-Hanks Postfuture Index show that email marketing standard open rates in 2010 were around 17%1. Compare that with Fishbowl’s higher general open rates for restaurant-specific email campaigns, at just under 23%. What is staggering though, is that loyalty email messages sent by restaurants through Fishbowl (Welcome, Birthday, and Anniversary emails) have a 52% average open rate. That’s over triple the open rate of standard email campaigns! 

Create Loyalty

Email is very permissive. Your guests are “opting in” to be a part of your restaurant’s community, so make sure you are taking every opportunity possible to thank them for that permission and provide them with a positive experience. Email is not as frequent as Facebook and Twitter; also, it is very much a push marketing tactic. So, you need to put significant thought into the campaigns you are going to promote via email.

Start with the welcome message. This may be the most important communication you send to a new email subscriber, as it is the first and only chance you have to reinforce the message you used to get the guest to sign up in the first place. Your welcome message should go out immediately after the guest signs up, and it should have a strong value to encourage that guest to return to your restaurant soon. Think “free bottle of wine,” or “free entrée.” But remove the strings from the message. Strings you say? What are they?


Strings are all of the standard restrictions, or “fine print” that operators tend to add to their email message like “receive a free entrée with a purchase of $40 or more,” or BOGO, or “free appetizer with the purchase of two entrees.” What those “strings” do is turn your loyalty building opportunity into a coupon. You don’t have to give away the house here, but 2 or 3 times a year, use your email program to truly thank those guests who have given you the permission to engage them via email. Think “gift” not “offer.” The results will amaze you.


Fishbowl works with an operator who has maximized the use of their email program. They have created a buzz around their “Birthday Club” by offering a strong value proposition to their email club. It’s simple really: sign up for our email club, and receive a free dinner on your birthday. No strings attached. Now, the restaurant knows that the majority of their guests are not going to come into their restaurant by themselves on their birthday, so adding the standard BOGO language seemed silly to them. What this operator does is track email redemption for their birthday club by having a “Free Birthday” button on their point of sale system. Results: over $200K in sales attributed to their birthday emails. This is not their entire email club, mind you, just the birthday campaign. They have a 40% redemption rate on this campaign, and they have subsequently built an email club of over 13,000 names. Not too shabby.

Now Get Started

When you take the time to thank your guests for being a part of your restaurant, you create loyal customers. The time and expense you put into building that loyalty will be returned to you in many ways. First your guests will respond and redeem your “Thank You” gifts, which will organically bring in more visits and sales for your restaurant. Second, your loyal guests will pay closer attention to the rest of your email campaigns throughout the year. And they will bring their friends: in today’s social sharing world, they will want to share those positive engagements they are having with your restaurant.

So go out there and take a new look at your email program. Thank your guests and build loyalty. You will stand out above the crowd.