Ask Al: How do I build up my restaurant list?

Ask Al: We're a restaurant that just opened. We signed up for an email service provider (ESP) platform and we're looking to buy email lists to get started. Where should we start?

[ not all ideas are great ]

Hey! Thanks for reaching out, but I wanted to warn you that email list purchasing isn't the way to go here. It's problematic for multiple reasons (poor deliverability, angry recipients, poorly targeted traffic) and just about every email service provider prohibits use of purchased lists. Run away from vendors telling you that their lists contain people who did really opt-in to hear from you -- they’re typically lying. Here is just one example of why you should avoid this.

An organically grown email list for a restaurant or entertainment venue is a valuable asset and people don't usually give away that asset to others, not even for a modest fee. Meaning if somebody is offering to sell you a list, it's either questionably opt-in, or it could even be stolen. I once got spammed by a restaurant who had an employee who stole an email list from a prior restaurant they worked for. It was scummy to see and I'm pretty sure the response wasn't positive.

Instead, consider a few different methods to grow your email list from the ground up. Here’s what I would recommend for starters.

  1. Make sure you have clear and easy email list signup options on your website. On every page. Very noticeably so. Some people actually want to be able to sign up for your emails when they find your website. Don't make it hard for them to do so!
  2. Look for Chamber of Commerce-like groups, local neighborhood discussion groups, local foodie blogs or groups, etc., that you could potentially partner with. Ask them if they’d be willing to send out an email or partner with you to help promote your business and email list. If they are able to send out emails to help advertise you, ask them if they can include and track an option to invite people to opt-in to your email list. Or at least drive that traffic to a page on your website where people can easily opt-in. With Facebook groups and discussion boards, ask the admin if it's OK to post a bit about your restaurant there. Most neighborhood groups like hearing about new restaurants.
  3. Depending on what your budget is and where you are, considered paid search. This is where you pay to place ads in Google based on certain “keywords” that people use for searches. Like “restaurants in (your town)” or terms for the type of cuisine you sell. You can often limit these geographically to help focus marketing efforts to only your area. Set a low budget in the system while you test this out, so you don't accidentally spend hundreds of dollars a day while you figure out how paid search works.
  4. Similarly, Facebook ads are another option. Not my area of expertise, but there are plenty of guides out there. Here's one of them.
  5. Work with a digital agency or marketing partner to help you develop an email marketing growth strategy. I know a number of them but I'm hesitant to just broadly list them here, knowing that who you should work with is going to vary based on your needs and budget. This is another area where a Chamber of Commerce-style local business group or association could help guide you toward a vendor partner.
  6. Search, read and learn. There's lots of expertise out there being shared already. Take it all in. Just watch out for the "too good to be true" bits where you see stuff like people offering you a billion website visitors for fifty cents. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

I've actually done all this myself before; going back a number of years, I helped my friend's jazz club build an online presence and using SEO, paid search and organic website traffic to build their email list up to over 5,000 subscribers. (And even though the club has closed, we resurrected the email list and still send out emails to it every once in a while.) Back in this early time it wasn't always easy to measure how well our email campaigns were working, untiol we found out the silly way -- when we typo'd a cover charge in an email, lots of people came through the door expecting to pay the wrong price. It's not a practice I recommend, but it sure let us know that the emails were doing well to inform customers and potential customers about upcoming shows. What you could and should do, though, is offer specials or discounts or a spiff that only email recipients are given access to. That'll help you denote success or failure.

Good luck! And remember that spam doesn't pay. Sending unwanted emails won't make you money, and it'll just make people upset with you.

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