Today’s restaurant consumer is different than last year’s, last month’s, and sometimes even last week’s. Successful restaurants have been able to identify who their customer truly is and adapt their offerings to serve that audience best.

More specifically, restaurant owners have found success in focusing on what they do best, sharing interests and goals with team members and then executing, according to Sara Monnette, senior director of consumer insights and innovation at Technomic, speaking at the company’s recent Trends & Directions Conference in Chicago.

Monnette listed three factors in creating an emotional experience with today’s consumers: fine-tuning the product and service, being active on social media and using technology to engage the consumer.

“You have to be where the consumer is, be present,” she said. “And it has to be done in an emotional way. It’s the emotions that get to the consumer that make them want to take part in that brand.”

So, starting with technology, what do today’s consumers want? Often they don’t even know what they want until they’ve experienced it, Monnette added.

For example, Technomic recently did some research with restaurants that incorporated tablets at the tabletop. Of the diners who sat down at a table where a tablet was available, 83 percent used it. “Convenient” was the word they used to best describe their experience.

Outback recently tested some location-based advertising where the stores looked for potential diners driving around in the area, potentially browsing competitors, and sent these people direct text messages. Message click-through rates increased 78 percent when sent to consumers who were close to competitors, Monnette noted.

“It’s definitely a top-of-mind value proposition to get that info when they’re ready to make that decision,” according to Jackie Rodriguez, a senior manager at Technomic. “It’s all about targeting and knowing your customer and linking that experience to the loyalty program.”

Another (potentially creepy) way to learn more about an audience is to monitor what guests are doing on their devices when connected to a restaurant’s wi-fi network. On the other hand, places like Panera have experienced issues with consumers lingering and using the free wi-fi without making purchases, Rodriguez says. The company recently decided to limit wi-fi access to 30-minute increments.

“If you give more entertainment at your restaurant, you’ve got to be careful of people poaching,” she said. However, she added: “If you know what customers are doing on their computers because they’re doing it on your wi-fi, that’s a good marketing tool.”

Patrick Benson, senior v.p. of information technology for Ovation Brands, noted that before mobile devices became prevalent, managers at Ovation stores spent much of their time in the back of the restaurant with the door closed. “Now they’re walking around with their mobile (point-of-sale system). The technology is allowing us to increase personal interaction,” he said.

While technology is improving the customer experience, restaurant operators need to be extremely careful not to remove the human element of hospitality and service, observed Annica Kreider, director of brand development for Mellow Mushroom.

“There are some things we could put in the store that I would push back on,” she said.

Technology is just a small part of the customer experience. Along with food quality and service, restaurants need to provide an experience that is conducive to sharing. Sharing experiences are highly correlated to experiences that diners want to repeat, Monnette observed.

“When does the experience resonate? When it makes us feel something,” she said.