Want Repeat Customers? An Email Marketing Lesson From Firehouse Subs


Using email marketing to inspire loyalty at every stage of the customer journey can lead to better results.

By Colby Cavanaugh
At the foundation of any business is one question: How do we attract customers? At the foundation of a successful business is a different question: How do we retain customers? Firehouse Subs, a franchise with more than 800 locations, does both by using email marketing to inspire loyalty at every stage of the customer journey — from brand awareness to point of purchase.
For Firehouse Subs, continually building customer loyalty is crucial to its business health. The fast casual restaurant market is crowded and competition is tough, so brands have to give customers a truly special experience to stand apart. This challenge is intensified by the fact that franchise communications are primarily handled by just one person in the Firehouse Subs family: Matt Olsen, Senior Manager of Digital Marketing. 
Olsen needed to determine how he could single-handedly reach new and existing customers spread across hundreds of locations. He found that email marketing lets him accomplish the work of a much larger team, effectively connecting with customers and inspiring them to stay loyal to the brand. Here are three ways Firehouse Subs’ leverages email marketing to keep customers coming back. 

Segmenting Audiences to Create a Personal Experience

In today’s overflowing inboxes, consumers expect personalized campaigns catered to their interests. If an email comes across as too generic, it will likely be deleted. When Olsen sends a marketing email for Firehouse Subs, the ultimate goal is to get people to open it and take some sort of action — like coming into their local restaurant for a time-sensitive promotion. To create personalized emails that consistently get opened and ignite action, he relies on segmentation. 
When Firehouse Subs wants to target specific customer demographics, he segments by audience. Using properly tailored segmentation, Olsen knows the brand’s emails are landing in the inboxes of only the specific groups he wants to reach and not bothering the subscribers the email doesn’t apply to. For example, when Firehouse Subs opens a new franchise location, Olsen emails potential customers to announce the news and offer coupons enticing them to come check out the new store. He simply segments the brand’s subscriber list by zip code so only potential customers within a certain radius receive the email. 

Inspiring Customer Loyalty with Rewards

When someone subscribes to an email list, they usually expect to receive something in return, like free shipping or a discount off their next order. It’s important for brands to consistently reward subscribers with these kinds of special offers and exclusive deals. Not only does it keep them interested in your brand, it ensures they continue to open your emails. 
That’s why Olsen makes sure that every new Firehouse Subs subscriber receives an automated welcome email immediately after they sign up. The message contains a personalized note and encourages the subscriber to act on a compelling offer that expires two weeks after the send date. Subscribers receive something of value and are more likely to redeem it due to the sense of urgency that accompanies it. 
It’s great when someone subscribes to your list, but make sure to make the most of that initial touch point. Welcome emails are the equivalent to a first impression in the inbox, and they’re the best chance your brand has to win over customers for the long haul. 

Using Automation to Get More Done

Olsen is just one person, yet he manages to execute personalized marketing for an entire franchise business. What’s the key to Olsen’s success? He and Firehouse Subs rely on an automation suite that fires off various email campaigns without anyone ever having to hit “send.” Automation keeps these campaigns running smoothly, so after the initial setup, Olsen can focus on other marketing activities. 
Automation not only saves time for Olsen but also generates business results for the whole franchise. Firehouse Subs’ welcome email is opened by a whopping 76 percent of subscribers, and the brand doesn’t stop there. Olsen also makes sure to send subscribers personalized birthday emails, offering them a free sub on their special day. Like the welcome email, this is one of the most effective messages Firehouse Subs sends, with a staggering 50 percent open rate.

Ultimate Combination for Success

Firehouse Subs combines all three of these activities to create efficient and successful email marketing campaigns. For example, Firehouse Subs’ “Hearty & Flavorful Challenge” leveraged these email activities to ignite customer action. With a new under-500 calorie menu, the franchise wanted to actively engage customers across all locations, ages and marketing channels. 
First, Firehouse Subs asked customers to sign up for the challenge with their email addresses. Then, it asked users to complete different challenges by posting photos of themselves on the campaign’s website. To expand these efforts, Olsen automated personalized emails that would fire off to individual participants based on the number of challenges they completed. Firehouse Subs also targeted people who registered for the campaign but hadn’t participated and sent them an email with incentives to complete their first challenge. Alternatively, frequent participants received different rewards and health tips each time they completed a new challenge.
This tailored and engaging content was a huge success: Nearly 2,000 people participated, uploading more than 5,000 photos to the campaign’s website. Plus, the email campaign received an 83 percent open rate and a 48 percent click-through rate.
Combining all three of these tools to create engaging email campaigns has helped Firehouse Subs attract new customers and keep existing customers loyal. Franchises of all types can follow these tips to effectively leverage email marketing and keep customers coming back for more. 
Colby Cavanaugh is the senior vice president of marketing at Emma, a digital marketing platform that makes it easy to create emails that drive results.