Pizza industry veteran, Michael Shepherd, shares his expertise

ms_qa_pizzaspin2I recently got the opportunity to chat with veteran pizza industry consultant Michael Shepherd, a four-time World Pizza Champion and eight-time World Medalist Pizza Acrobat, to explore his perspective on the changing landscape of marketing for pizzerias.
As the owner and president of 70×7 Incorporated, which operates the Six Hundred Downtown restaurant in Bellefontaine, Ohio, Michael Shepherd has more than 20 years of experience in the pizza business and holds more international medals than any other American.

Michael Shepherd has appeared on the Food Network (!!!), ABC’s “Master of Champions” and the Discovery Channel, and is a featured speaker for Pizza Today magazine. Shepherd puts his official Italian Pizza Maker certification from the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli to good use by teaching the art of crafting the perfect pizza at local adult vocational schools.

Q: The advertising landscape has evolved considerably over the past decade. How does the typical independent pizzeria’s marketing strategy of today differ from the approach that such an establishment would have taken 10 years ago?

Michael Shepherd quoteA: You are absolutely correct – 10 years ago, a pizzeria’s advertising strategy revolved heavily around newspaper advertisements, radio, Yellow Pages and direct mail. A pizza operator used to be able to put in a newspaper insert or quarter-page ad and boom! Sales would instantly skyrocket. It was cheap, fast and very effective.

A full-page ad in the Yellow Pages meant that you were a pizzeria of stature. People used to get their news from the newspaper and radio. When they needed to look up a phone number or find a local place to eat, they grabbed the phone book. Today, newspapers are rarely read and radio has been replaced with Pandora, Spotify or satellite radio. If I need to find a place to eat, I ask Siri, Yelp, Urbanspoon or Google Maps.

The old method is what I like to call “shotgun marketing” and today’s style is more “sniper marketing.” Today, you have to search out the people and engage them where they are. Social media and review sites are huge – to say the least – and they should be a cornerstone in today’s marketing. Database marketing through your POS/loyalty program is also one of the fundamentals that you should be using from Day One. Identify your customers and target them.

Q: For entrepreneurs eager to take their independent pizzerias to the next level, what combination of marketing tactics would you recommend and why?

A: The first step that all pizza operators need to take is to develop a marketing plan. Once you have a plan [for] what you want to do, you then need to schedule it. I like to plan out a marketing strategy a year in advance. Get a giant wall calendar (one where you can see every month and every day at once) and put it somewhere you will see it every single day. Plot your entire strategy out on this calendar and then put it to work. Spend at least three to five hours per week developing and maintaining it.

Michael Shepherd quoteSecondly, operators need to understand there is no silver marketing bullet that will solve all their sales issues. A good marketing plan is made up of many smaller moving parts all working together to push your pizzeria to the top of everyone’s minds in your community. Here are what I like to call the Fundamentals of Pizza Marketing. Every marketing plan should include all of these:

  • Database marketing: Use your POS to market to your customer base. Email or direct mail your new customers and lazy customers (those who have not been in for 30/60/90 days) every month.
  • New resident program: I hear Moving Targets’ is pretty good!
  • Community involvement: Connect with the community, integrate into the community, support the community, partner with the schools and be creative.
  • Direct mail: [This channel is] still effective once or twice a year, or more often when used in conjunction with your database.
  • Four-walls marketing: Market to those who are already in your establishment. You already know they like pizza, so don’t miss an opportunity to bring them back again a little sooner.
  • Customer service: Make sure your customer service is exceptional, both proactively and reactively.
  • Social media: Engage and entertain your followers. Don’t just post specials, be sure to stay engaged on all the review sites.
  • Word of mouth: Word of mouth, word of mouth, word of mouth. You need to give people reasons to talk about you. What makes you special? What makes your establishment special? What makes your menu special? You have to stand out and you have to make people want to talk about you.

These are just the beginnings of a robust marketing plan – the main gears. There are still many more smaller little gears that should be working as well, like cross-promotions, fundraising events, upselling, contests, etc.

Q: What are some ways independent pizzerias can improve their marketing that their owners or advertising teams may not have thought of? How can these efforts benefit pizzerias looking to flourish in this new and evolving landscape?

A: Much of this question is answered above. Proper planning and maintenance is the biggest failure that I see. Most operators do marketing reactively – “Sales are down, so let’s do some marketing” is the mindset of many operators. Plan, plan, plan and then execute. Don’t forget to measure the ROI afterward as well.

Michael Shepherd quoteOn top of that, I believe it is important for operators to understand that social media is a platform to market on, not the marketing in itself. In order for social media to work, you have to have something worth talking about. A sub, chips and a drink for $5.99 is hardly something to talk about on Facebook. Most “fans” will just breeze on by that post, if they even see it at all.

However, posting a video of your fastest pizza-maker busting out 10 large pizzas in five minutes or your guys making dough in the morning and paying a few bucks for a “boost” will generate a lot more interaction, word of mouth, shares, etc., that will translate into sales. Engage and entertain your followers on social media for maximum word of mouth.

Q: Engaging customers for the duration of a single campaign is one thing, but building long-term consumer loyalty is quite another. What have you found to be the best long-term approach to customer engagement?

A: Hands down, the absolute best long-term sales-builder is community involvement coupled with word-of-mouth builders. Getting people to talk about you organically and having a high stature in the community is worth more than you could ever afford to spend on marketing. Think way, way, way outside the box and people will talk about you.

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