RESTAURANTS and bars thrive on repeat business, but customers increasingly expect more than just good service, food and drinks. They want to be engaged and entertained, and some food establishments are turning to location-based social media to help keep customers happy and loyal. Buffalo Wild Wings, a national restaurant chain that offers casual dining and televised sports, is embarking on a campaign, called “Home Court Advantage,” to involve customers beyond the smartphone “check-in” they use to note their arrival.
The chain, which has 730 locations around the country, is known for its wing-eating contests and trivia challenges. Beginning this month, it is working with Scvngr, a location-based social media network, to introduce contests and rewards for its customers. Its main target is tech-savvy basketball fans, an important demographic for the chain.
Like the social media companies Gowalla, Foursquare and Loopt, Scvngr is largely reaching the people in their 20s and 30s who frequently use their mobile phones to flag their presence at a specific spot, and to notify friends of their location. While millions of people have signed onto such sites, it is estimated that just 4 percent of smartphone users in the United States have tried these services, with a mere 1 percent using them more than once a week, according to the most recent Forrester Research survey. Most users are men, however, and some 70 percent are between 19 and 35 — and that is the ideal profile of a Buffalo Wild Wings customer.
“We are looking for social engagement,” said Jeremy Burke, brand manager for Buffalo Wild Wings. “We want them to be able to tell others what they liked — a beer, a garlic flavor. Our goal is to build frequency.”
Like Buffalo Wild Wings, some food outlets are experimenting with attracting customers and increasing business through digital approaches, which can be cheaper than paper coupons and print advertising. This month, for example, Fatburger, a chain based in California, united with the social media service Loopt and Fox Television to promote the network’s new animated series, “Bob’s Burgers,” about a family-run burger business.
As part of its marketing, the hamburger purveyor revamped four of its 60-plus stores to look like a Bob’s Burgers store. Some of its stores served free Bob’s Burgers for a day, and the company also sent its “Fatmobile” to distribute free hamburgers for one day in Los Angeles.
“It got people off their feet,” said Alice Lancaster, vice president of marketing at Loopt, which is based in Mountain View, Calif. “Some 1,300 people checked in during a four-hour period.”
Such “user behavior is driving the way brands are interacting with social media,” said Ms. Lancaster. For example, she said that in a partnership with Virgin America, Loopt temporarily rebranded two taco trucks in California with specials to market the airline’s new flights to Mexico.
Buffalo Wild Wings is not taking to the streets, but it is trying to add a layer to smartphone customer giveaways, Mr. Burke said. Customers can win rewards like free chicken wings or soft drinks on each of the first three visits. After that, the chain offers customers a chance to win rewards with challenges like uploading a photo of the crowd’s reaction to a big game play.
Customers can also create their own challenges — in-restaurant or digitally — and win points for prizes, which include a trip to the National Basketball Association finals with Scottie Pippen, an N.B.A. Hall of Famer who won six championships with the Chicago Bulls.
In the first week, the restaurant’s new contests drew 10,000 players who competed in 33,000 challenges. Participants won 5,000 rewards. “It’s very social — almost like tailgating, but in a restaurant,” said Christopher Mahl, senior vice president of brands at Scvngr.
The company, based in Cambridge, Mass., recently has worked to expand offerings on a smaller scale with Finale, which has three dessert shops in the Boston area. “We test our customers’ knowledge of our desserts, and they can take quizzes about — or photos of — our desserts, then earn points,” said Paul Conforti, a co-founder of Finale. The points are used for discounts or free desserts, a process that works better for Finale, he said, than a service that might require a large discount over a short period. Mr. Conforti said the information provided by Scvngr allowed him to track the number of people who came to buy pastry or eat a dessert.
“Each customer came in about 2.4 times in the last two months,” he said of the Scvngr users. “That’s more frequent than our other guests who may come in five or six times a year.” He attributes the increase to mobile users who are checking in or exchanging information using an app that that allows them to “bump” phones. Foursquare, a Scvngr rival, improved its program after people who qualified as “mayor” of an establishment began asking what they got for their loyalty, said Eric Friedman, its director of client services. The mayor designation is bestowed on those who make the most visits to a business.
When restaurants and others enroll with Foursquare, they can opt to offer digital specials, which can be discounts or, in the case of high-end restaurants, a massage at a spa, he said.
Even so, using digital to drive up clientele has yet to become widespread. Melissa Parrish, chief author of the Forrester Research study, noted that registered users were “still a drop in the bucket” compared with the number of people reached by text and other mobile connections.