In the first quarter of 2012, 6 percent of restaurant visits (926 million visits) were influenced by online marketing, reports market research company The NPD Group. Additionally, those restaurant visits supported 8 percent of all spending for restaurant meals/snacks, and the influence is expected to increase.

Online marketing, which is typically delivered via a website or smartphone application, is used most frequently to take advantage of restaurant deals and special offers, according to NPD's CREST, which tracks the foodservice industry based on consumer reporting of more than 400,000 visits a year. Other online marketing messages consumers use in selecting restaurants are menu details, general information, recommendation/review and restaurant location.

Online and smartphone apps that influenced a restaurant visit include:

  • Deal/special offer: 37 percent;
  • Menu details: 30 percent;
  • General information: 27 percent;
  • Recommendation/review: 14 percent;
  • Restaurant location: 13 percent;
  • Loyalty program: 12 percent;
  • Pre-order online: 10 percent;
  • Nutritional information: 10 percent;
  • Other: 20 percent.

NPD's CREST also finds that online marketing is effective in attracting new customers and stimulating trial. Of all online marketing influenced visits, 26 percent were first time visits to a specific restaurant, more than twice the new buyer incidence for restaurant visits overall.

Addressing the question of whether online marketing can be effective in building loyalty, NPD reports that, in aggregate, consumers who use online marketing have higher revisit intentions than those who don't, although this varies by the type of online marketing used.

While a large majority of visits influenced by online marketing occur at quick-service restaurants, a disproportionate number occur at casual dining places, according to CREST data. Casual dining accounts for just over one in every 10 restaurant visits, but the segment receives one in every six visits driven by online marketing.

"The influence of online marketing on restaurant demand is expected to continue to increase," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. "It's no longer a question of if online marketing should be a part of a restaurant operator's overall marketing plan; it's a must-have."

Read more about online and mobile initiatives.

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