Why a mobile website is a crucial first step for restaurateurs

OpenTable this week announced an ambitious initiative aimed at helping its restaurant partners become more mobile-friendly. The online reservation company is teaming with DudaMobile to help build mobile-optimized web sites for its 25,000 current customers across the U.S., Canada and the U.K. The upgrade is free through January; in February OpenTable will begin charging $100 to “mobilize” each site.

The idea, of course, is to make it easier for consumers to access dining information and book tables on their phones. That should be a no-brainer for nearly every restaurant, but creating a mobile-friendly website should be one of many ways restaurateurs should be targeting hungry users on the go.

A hunger for mobile dining information

OpenTable CEO Matt Roberts told The New York Times that while online reservations still account for only 12 percent of all bookings, 28 percent of those online reservations are made on a phone or tablet. And while mobile usage is increasing quickly, only about 10 percent of restaurants have mobile-friendly sites, Roberts said.

That probably isn’t surprising considering how the slow the dining industry has been in leveraging the power of the Internet. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate last year, the websites of even some high-end establishments are often “horrifically bad” destinations where Flash technology is poorly implemented, multimedia is overwrought and actual useful information – like pricing — is impossible to find.

Building a great mobile site is no small feat, of course: It requires less content and a simpler layout to ease navigation and make the most of smaller screens. And it should take into account the fact that we often use mobile for different reasons than we use computers — we might take our time to check out menus at home or at the office, but on-the-go users are more likely to want basic information like location and hours.

Beyond the mobile web

Perhaps more than any other kind of business, though, restaurants are keenly positioned to leverage the power of mobile in several other ways. (And I’m not talking about building an app – unless you’re a huge chain, that’s a prohibitively expensive proposition.) My kids’ favorite local pizza chain does a great job with SMS by texting special offers once a month or so, giving it a direct and affordable line of communication with nearly every one of its customers (not just the ones with iPhones or Android handsetse). QR codes provide a way of delivering menus and other information to consumers with just a couple of clicks. Mobile coupons provide an easy way for users to save discount offers and redeem them without having to clip-and-save.

And the next few years will see the emergence of new, more efficient ways for restaurants to present themselves to mobile users. Location-aware social networks and hyperlocal advertising will allow restaurants not just to target potential diners in the area, they’ll increasingly enable customers to broadcast their whereabouts to friends (serving as advertisements themselves). Restaurants can leverage mobile ad networks to boost their location-based campaigns when business unexpectedly stalls, giving them a chance to quickly fill seats that otherwise would go unoccupied. NFC promises to improve upon the user experience of QR codes by providing a simpler and faster vehicle for mobile marketing, and the emergence of the mobile wallet (in a few years) will open the door to high-tech loyalty programs that keep customers coming back.

For now, though, those restaurants that have no mobile strategy should be making sure they can reach as many mobile users as possible at the lowest possible cost. One way to do that is through SMS, which will remain the most popular mobile messaging platform for many years to come. Another is through a well-designed mobile website that presents useful information across just about every device with a web browser. OpenTable has a dog in this fight, obviously, but restaurateurs should be heeding its message.