Chipotle brings new loyalty program to your Venmo feed

Chipotle is expanding its rewards program nationwide and has a plan to make sure you know about it: For the rest of the week, the company is giving out free cash on Venmo. Altogether, the chain is prepared to give away $250,000.

The stunt is a clever way to enter into people’s social media feeds and publicize the national launch of its rewards program. It also helps the company learn more about its customers.

Here’s how it works: About 25,000 people per day can win between $1 and $500 from Chipotle for signing up for the company’s rewards program. The promotion runs from Tuesday, March 12 through Friday, March 15. Winners will receive a payment through their Venmo accounts, with a link to the rewards program and a custom pepper emoji in the “What’s it for?” field.

The company’s rewards program, which rolled out to 140 stores in September, gives out points for ordering food online or on the company’s app. Customers get 10 points for each dollar spent and can cash in for a free entree once they earn 1,250 points.

The Venmo promotion to introduce the program offers some social rewards to Chipotle, which hopes people will see their friends receive payments from Chipotle, wonder what’s going on, click through and learn about the new program.

“Venmo, to us, is becoming an untapped social network,” Curt Garner, the company’s chief technology officer, told CNN Business. Chipotle already has a presence on Facebook and Instagram, Garner said.

Customers have been asking for a loyalty program for a long time, according to the company.

In June 2016, Chipotle launched Chiptopia, a three-month long promotion that rewarded customers who frequented the chain.

But Chipotle held off on launching its first digitally enabled rewards program until it was sure it could accommodate more customers.

The company has added a second line to its stores that field only digital orders, and it’s testing out “Chipotlanes,” which let customers order online and pick up through a drive-thru lane in some stores. It offers delivery through its app and delivery platforms, and dedicated space for picking up online orders.

In the last three months of 2018, Chipotle’s digital sales grew 66%.

“We’ve built the systems around giving people, whether it’s a customer or delivery driver, a guaranteed pickup time before we layered on a rewards program that should drive a lot of traffic,” Garner said. “I think it sets us up to be successful.”

Food companies use rewards programs to learn about customers’ preferences and open a line of digital communication. For Chipotle, Garner said, the program can help raise awareness of the company’s catering business. It can also help incentivize customers to use those services, because a larger order will yield rewards more quickly.

Plus, it’s part of a bigger digital ecosystem that is successfully drawing in new customers, Garner said.

Office workers looking for a new lunch option start their search online, he explained. They may have never been to Chipotle, but knowing that they can place an order for pickup — perhaps one that fits specific dietary restrictions — convinces them to give it a shot. Plus, all customers get free chips and guacamole with their first purchase as Chipotle Rewards members.

“We’re seeing people that are choosing Chipotle for the first time because we now have a very robust digital ordering experience,” he said.