Email is an excellent marketing tool for restaurants. It's personal, interactive and inexpensive. How can you make it work for your restaurant? Here's a short guide on using email to keep your most loyal customers coming back for more.

Set up your email list. The first thing you need to do is choose strong software to power your list. This step is more important than many people think. You don't want to get in too deep with software and then find out it's not working for you.

Choose the right software from the start. The service we recommend is called MailChimpbecause it’s both easy and reliable for restaurant owners. Not to mention, it offers a very generous free plan. Templates make creating your newsletters as simple as drag and drop.

But sending newsletters is only the tip of the iceberg. Email marketing services like MailChimp and others also let you track the effectiveness of every email you send. You can see how many people opened your email and how many clicked the link to view your website. Which brings me to one very important aspect: 

Integrating your email list with your website. It’s important that your email newsletter and your website work hand-in-hand. You want new visitors to your website to subscribe to your newsletter.

You’ll also want to use your newsletters to direct traffic back to your website, where visitors can see what this week’s specials are, or download your latest coupons. MailChimp and other email services offer widgets to embed on your website.

Build your list. Now this is the tricky part. But it can also be very rewarding. You want your list to be grow—fast!Adding a newsletter signup box to your website is a great start.   But if you really want to see your list grow, it’s best to offer an incentive. Try offering 15 percent off the customer’s next meal or send them a coupon for free appetizers. Customers will appreciate a reward for their dedication.

It’s easy to set up an automatic reply to anyone who signs up for your list, so you can easily send them the reward.

Here are some practical ideas for building your list:

- Ask customers to opt-in (subscribe) by texting their email to a specific phone number. Remember to make their subscription official with a friendly confirmation email.

- Use email subscriptions to "unlock" web content like your Facebook page or downloadable discount codes.

- Add an opt-in form to every page of your website. Adding a small form to the header or sidebar can be a great strategy.

- Add a suggestion to "Join our list" at the bottom of the check and suggestion cards. Add these subscribers manually and send a thank-you discount in the confirmation email.

Promote! Create a buzz around your emails by giving subscribers exclusive info. Send them offers they can't refuse. Make it worthwhile to tell friends about the benefits of being on the list.

Your email list is an excellent way to promote nights that are typically less busy. Is Tuesday your typical quiet night? Send an email invitation that morning to get people in the door. Offer flash-deals like half-priced drinks or two-for-one specials.

Email is also great for promoting special events. Send an e-flyer to showcase a music performance or art show. Use your list to build support for charity events in the community.

Be consistent, but with moderation. Most effective campaigns send something out once or twice a month. You want to stay on your customers' minds, but you don't want to spam them.

And always remember: Every email you send should include this vital info:

- A hyperlink to your official website

- Social media links (Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, etc.)

- An "unsubscribe" link discreetly worked into the footer

- Your physical address and phone number

- A professional image that shows off your restaurant's best qualities

Email is perfect for marketing restaurants. If it's not part of your promotion strategy, it should be.

Brian Casel is the founder of Restaurant Engine, a website design solution for restaurants. For more on this topic, check out The Ultimate Guide To Restaurant Email Marketing.Email Brian at brian@restaurantengine.com.