Punch Cards With a Brain: Making Mobile Make Sense To Mom And Pop

The Interwebs have been trying to sell the mom-and-pop merchants on the bright, shiny objects of digital marketing for two decades now. “Don’t you really want to be on the Web,” the relentless lines of cold-calling salespeople asked. “Your Texas Weiner shack can float to the top of Google search results if you just buy this keyword+zip spot with us,” was the line for years. And now the pitches have just shifted their gaze to the latest shiny toys. “You gotta be mobile. You use your phone to do all kinds of things every day, don’t you? Your customers are, too.”

But one of the longstanding mistakes in trying to “unlock” those billions in local ad marketing dollars has been that the people selling the stuff dollars don’t seem to appreciate how “being on the Web” or “having a mobile strategy” means so little to someone who knows exactly how their own business works. This really struck home with me when I spent some time last week talking with David Kostman, who founded and runs an organic Mediterranean food chain in New York and New Jersey called Nanoosh. David uses an automated mobile check-in platform called LoyalBlocks that seems remarkably sophisticated and next-gen, but is really doing something very simple -- putting a brain and an interactive mechanism onto a loyalty program.

After downloading the LoyalBlocks app and opting in to its geolocation service, his customers who walk in the door are automatically checked in and can get offers pushed to them while waiting on line. “I was looking for a loyalty program to reward customers for repeat business,” he tells me. In essence, the mobile app punches their card but also lets David talk with them on an alternate channel. “I like that from the customer perspective they come in and it is activated -- they don’t need to do anything,” he says. But more to the point, the process lets David talk to them in a way he couldn’t before. “I can say to them ‘Try Our New Baked Falafel.’”  

The LoyalBlocks program, which boasts 500 clients in the New York and other areas now, uses GPS geolocation to know when the customer is nearby. According to Ido Mart, VP of operations, LoyalBlocks, the implementation simply requires an iOS or Android device to serve as a base station at each location. “GPS knows when you are nearby, but the final handshake is via Bluetooth. Unlike go-fencing approaches, this technique is really aimed at existing customers who are approaching the shop itself. The app awards tokens in much the same way a loyalty card gets punches. But it is up to the merchant to determine how and when the tokens lead to offers."

But for David at Nanoosh, the logic of all this technology is very simple. “We treat it like a punch card.”

David says he has several hundred people at each of his locations who have signed onto the program since it started late last year. Signage at the checkout and prompts from the staff encourage people to download the app. He likes the Facebook integration, which (with customer opt-in) posts the check-in at Nanoosh to a customer’s wall.

Mart adds that the merchant can track foot traffic resulting from rewards. “We want them to set it up so they can track how many visits they are generating from promotions and then optimize.” In the end, this is the sort of technology that brings online optimization tools, A/B testing, even behavioral tracking, into the physical realm.   

Ultimately what is appealing to David about this kind of mobile program is not that it brings his franchise into the next-gen world of bright, shiny objects, but that it brings him closer to his customer base. “I see how frequently they use it, how many times they visited. “This is data we never had before. I can personalize offers at any store. I can reward regular customers with a special offer.”

For him and his local, growing business, mobile makes sense because it can help personalize the relationship he has with his own customers. “It creates a relationship between us and the customer,” he says. The simple act of pinging a customer as they come in the door with a message…any message…is more than the cool commercial exchange that is endemic to most takeout spots. “Even if someone on a cell phone greets you, it is a value add to the quality of the interaction,” he says.

And in the end, that is what mobile marketing could and should be bringing to the local market. The most promising route to an SMB-owner’s heart is not bright, shiny objects. It is a marketing program that leverages tried-and-true techniques for generating new and old business but to use technology to tweak and streamline them. In the time I spent with David, I rarely heard from him the term “mobile” or “check-in” at all. But I did hear “loyalty,” “return business” and “punch card.” He is not thinking about whether Nanoosh has a solid interactive strategy. He is thinking about moving those lunches to a steady stream of regulars.

And like any small business owner, he is always his own best, relentless marketer. I promised him I would try the app at a Nanoosh next time I am in the city.

“You really do have to try the baked Falafel,” he reiterates. Tasty and with much less fat, he tells me.       

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