Hot Dog Sellers Relish Vienna Beef’s Custom SMS Offering

Posted on by Brian Quinton

Marketing through mobile can be very effective, but small, independent mom-and-pop operators don’t always have the budget—or the know-how—to design and implement campaigns on their own. Chicago hot dog maker Vienna Beef is taking that obstacle out of the way by offering its restaurant customers throughout the country free access to a customized text messaging program that lets them get their daily and weekly specials onto the phones of loyal Chicago dog fans.

The custom text program is being offered through Chicago-based mobile marketing and technology company Vibes Media, which serves as both an authorized short code provider and campaign executor. Vibes supplies the short code, 31901, that Vienna Beef’s restaurant clients can then offer to their patrons as a way to receive special offers and updates. Vienna Beef then designs a calendar of offers for each restaurant client, links them to the keyword specific to that restaurant, and then uploads them to Vibes—as much as a year’s worth at a time. Vibes then makes sure that the proper messages get delivered at the specified time.

“The program is free to our customers, and while we expect they’ll use it mostly to promote Vienna beef products, they can also include messaging about any other programs they want to run: announcements about catering, parties, or special events,” says Carrie Bodman, marketing coordinator for Vienna Beef.

Client restaurants that sign onto the SMS program get point of sale materials promoting the text service to their diners, including table tents, counter cards and banners if they wish. Those customers send a text message to 31901 using a code, usually the name of the restaurant, and receive back a message asking them to agree to receive texts from their favorite hot dog place.

Those texts usually include coupons for half-price, two-for-one or free-with-purchase deals that customers can redeem simply by showing their mobile phone at the point of sale. Since the operations are low-value, restaurant clients don’t worry about keying in redemption codes. Some merely keep a checklist by the register to keep count of how many offers have been redeemed in a cycle.

The restaurant owners are able to set the timing of the texts and to determine how long offers will be valid. Striking the right balance of offer frequency, value and redemption period is often a matter of trial and error for these operators, many of whom have not had much experience with new-media marketing channels.

Vienna Beef has acquired that learning in the two years it’s been offering the SMS program, and Bodman and her team are ready with advice for first-timers.

“We recommend fielding at least seven different offers during the year and no more than two messages per week, in order to minimize the opt-outs,” she says. “We also tell them not to worry that they’re giving away the store in free hot dogs, at least in the beginning. They may start with only 50 sign-ups. When the numbers get bigger, they can pull back on the free offers in favor of the 99-cent hot dogs.”  

The value of the program for Vienna Beef’s clients is the ability to drive traffic during slow dayparts—Monday afternoon is a favorite—and to get regular customers to increase the frequency of their visits, all of that resulting in incremental revenue at no cost to the operator.

“It’s not like an email, which everyone basically ignores if they’re not interested or available at that moment,” says Bodman. “If you get a text message, you’re going to stop and check it out right away. And if it’s a coupon you’re interested in, chances are you’re going to redeem it soon too.”

For Vienna Beef, it’s a way to stay in touch with their clients and to act as a partner in building their businesses. The custom text program is one more feature for the company’s sales reps to present when they contact restaurant buyers, one that Bodman says results in better customer loyalty and stronger sales.

“A lot of the operations involved in the Vienna Beef SMS program are single restaurants, and some are basically hot dog stands,” says Alex Campbell, co-founder and CEO of Vibes. “The company is offering them the ability to do mobile coupons, which you don’t see all that often even among the big players in the space. It’s a great B2B use of the technology, now that it’s scalable and convenient for Vienna Beef to implement. People always talk about the mobile use of big chains. But this is a great way for small independents to benefit from this technology too.”

Right now the Vienna Beef SMS program has about 400 participating restaurants, although Bodman estimates that only about a quarter of those take part actively throughout the year.

Some are very active, however. One operator down in Florida put the shortcode for his restaurant up on a highway billboard and reported a burst of sign-ups and a strong surge in sales as a result of his mobile couponing programs.

Text messaging is not Vienna Beef’s only foray into mobile marketing. Last year the company launched a free iPhone app (since available for Android) called the Vienna Beef Locator that lets users find nearby restaurants offering Vienna Beef dogs, see maps, get directions and even click to call the restaurant directly.

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