WASHINGTON – Restaurant operators using online marketing and loyalty programs properly can increase their customer traffic and sales significantly during a challenged economy, said Scott Shaw, founder and chief executive of Fishbowl Inc., an Alexandria, Va.-based firm specializing in automated guest marketing services management.

Proper implementation and management of online marketing programs could not only reach customers faster than traditional campaigns, but also result in a huge return on investment, Shaw said. He discussed advantages and challenges involved during the recent National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago.

Online marketing is powering a return to our roots.

“I call it the new Golden Age of marketing, this shift from mass media to online marketing,” he said. “[It has also] leveled the playing field between chains and independents. When the only way to reach outside the four walls was through TV or print [media], chains had more money and won. But with independents, their content is more relevant because they know their customers better.”

Online marketing can [grow] sales by increasing the frequency of current customers or by attracting new customers, Shaw said. “The goals are the same as with traditional marketing,” he added.

Online marketing costs aren’t high to begin with because most of the tools are free. “The challenge is to pay someone to manage your online program, but they have to know what they're doing,” Shaw said.

Most retail operators can't handle their own online marketing; they don't have the time or expertise to do so.

“If you do a good job [in online marketing], you'll have a much higher, better impact on your business,” Shaw said. “If you do it very well, your online marketing program will produce exceptional results. We've seen [return on investment] of between $5,000 and $6,000 a month. Based on variations at some 150-seat casual-dining restaurants, sales have increased between $25,000 and $150,000 a year.”