There is no manual on how to run a successful loyalty or rewards program at a full-service restaurant. In fact, the topic is often the source of contentious debate among operators. Some brands, especially in the multi-unit, chain segment, turn to technology as a preserver, while others dangle tangible rewards, like free products or discounts, to attract new members. Christine Lorusso, the digital marketing manager at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, a group that just opened its 40th unit in St. Charles, Missouri, has helped her brand thrive in this notoriously challenging field. Instead of incentivizing its loyalty program with deals and gimmicks, Firebirds offers the promise of inclusion.
The brand’s Inner Circle, Lorusso says, has enjoyed steady growth, especially in the last few periods. “What I think is so significant about our numbers is that unlike a lot of our competitors, who constantly offer discounts and couponing and details, we really focus on providing our Inner Circle with up-to-date news,” she explains. “And while we do offer a welcome and birthday offer, they’re opening at this rate knowing that most of the time there’s not going to be a deal on the inside.”
Firebirds works with data analytics solutions company Fishbowl, a major player in this field, and was handed the following metrics: While the average open rate for most restaurants is 19 percent, Firebirds witnesses a nearly 4 percent boost at 22.7. The click-through rate, on average, is 1.5 percent. Firebirds is at 1.8 percent.
Perhaps most telling, though, as Stephen Loftis, the brand’s vice president of marketing, reports, is the upward direction. The growth rate last period, in terms of period-over-period increase, was 1.77 percent. In the last six months, it’s nearly 12 percent at 11.8. There are over 500,000 members in the Inner Circle, which Loftis says is a substantial pool when you consider the amount of units.
How they’ve done it exactly, Loftis believes, would surprise some people. While the digital option is there, Loftis says more than 90 percent of the sign-ups come via paper-and-pencil at the restaurant table.
“These folks are the first to know about new menu items, seasonal offerings, if we have a particular deal or an offer—they’re the first to hear about it,” he says. “Any type of remodel or new restaurant openings in a particular area, they hear about it first. And we keep them in pretty high regard. These are the people we talk to specifically.”
There’s something to be said about making guests feel like part of the team—or Inner Circle—of a brand they frequent.
“It makes them feel like they’re a part of something really important and special, and really helps them become a more valued guest,” Loftis explains, noting that repeat diners, what he calls “Firebirds Fanatics” are a major boon for the brand’s business.
There are technical details as well. Lorusso notes that Firebirds stays on trend with its message and pays attention to other loyalty programs floating through the market. She says Firebirds bolsters its emails with interactive elements, like scrolling images and links to menus. “So there’s multiple places where people have the option of interacting and I think that’s also really helped our click-through rate,” she says. “Because people are visual nowadays. They don’t just want to read text.”
Building on that personalized mantra, Firebirds is honing in on geo-location. Each unit has its own website and Facebook page, and Lorusso says they continue to experiment with the technology in regards to the Inner Circle. Loftis adds that guests who sign up at a specific location will link up with that same restaurant. “You’re kind of part of that specific Inner Circle and we’re very conscious to have local communication back to those individuals, not only on the website but also on the email communication as well,” he says. “It all works in tandem.”
“We’re always changing it to fit the right location,” Lorusso says. “As far as making a reservation or what you can click, it’s going to really just be based on where you are. It’s all about keeping it local.”
She also explains that Firebirds keeps their email subject lines short, and is working on making those local as well, placing items like the location in the subject or pre-header, and addressing the information to the user directly. “Things like that catch their eye,” Lorusso says.
They’ve been able to leverage the Inner Circle around current events. For example, Firebirds ran an Olympics program for this past summer’s Games in Rio. Guests in the Inner Circle were exclusively offered the deal. In addition, Loftis says a Thank You promotion, which launched after Labor Day, was introduced through the Inner Circle. The scratch-to-win sweepstakes has more than $3 million in prizes and will last a couple of months.
“It’s a pretty powerful tool for us,” Loftis says. “We’re pretty excited about the possibilities.”
By Danny Klein