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Digital Menu Boards: The Future Has Arrived

Customer data and AI are redefining onsite menu boards. Read how to deliver impactful, relevant customer experiences to increase engagement and build loyalty. 

Digital signage has played a role in customer experience at quick service restaurants (QSRs) for years, with large scale rollouts focusing on front counter and drive-thru digital menu boards in particular.  

For most QSRs, the drive-thru makes up between 50 and 70 percent of total revenue as of 2019, according to QSR magazine, making the drive-thru menu board the most important [digital] customer channel. While most restaurants still have analog menu boards, the pandemic has caused many restaurants to place an increased emphasis on drive-thrus, with McDonald’s and Starbucks both reporting that more than 90 percent of sales in the second quarter 2020 came through this service, according to QSR magazine. 

Starbucks, Chipotle, Shake Shack, Panera Bread and Wawa have all announced drive-thru investments as a result of COVID-19. Chipotle, for example, is planning for 60 percent of new restaurants this year to have a drive-thru lane, with 70 percent of new restaurants having lanes by 2021. There are customer experience implications to this: brands need to look hard at how their customer data and loyalty initiatives come to life on digital menu boards--if they have them--or how they are going to develop digital boards from scratch. The 2020 HT Restaurant Technology Study, which includes insights from more than 25,000 restaurant locations, also found that 54 percent of restaurants believe customer data is the highest priority area of insight driving IT strategy, with 39 percent seeking to improve customer engagement and loyalty and 37 percent seeking to improve business and customer analytics. A huge opportunity lies in connecting this rich customer data to the digital menu boards themselves.

54 percent of restaurants believe customer data is the highest priority area of insight driving IT strategy, with 39 percent seeking to improve customer engagement and loyalty and 37 percent seeking to improve business and customer analytics.

The digital menu board may soon have less in common with analog menus than with mobile applications, where the board can be used to curate and personalize the menu in restaurants or at the the drive-thru. Nearly all digital menu boards have full adoption because they’re directly in front of customers when they pull up to a drive-thru or approach a counter. And while front counter boards must appeal to a broader audience, drive-thrus have always been one-to-one interactions with customers, even when the customer is unknown and the restaurant doesn’t have any of their data. 

Digital menu boards drive growth

With more customers than ever going through the drive-thru, the grand prize for restaurants with digital menu boards is not just lowered cost, but the ability to drive incremental revenue while improving customer satisfaction and loyalty. By displaying customer orders on the menu board, for example, products could be recommended based on what the customer is ordering, regional sales data and time of day. Now, it’s possible that the menu board is no longer just a menu board – it’s a real-time interactive marketing channel delivering data-driven insights that can be informed by the rest of the customer experience journey. 

With this in mind, Publicis Sapient has developed Premise, an accelerator for data-driven digital signage, which was built from the ground up with a fully open architecture, capable of stitching together content and data from multiple sources. It provides content scheduling and device management, while putting no limits on future integrations. It puts analytics at the forefront so that brands can create actionable insights and easily A/B test hypotheses, leading to data-driven merchandising strategies. 

Data as a key enabler

Early digital menu board adopters are already enriching the experience using data. In March 2019, McDonald’s acquired Dynamic Yield, a leader in personalization and decision logic technology, for $300 million. McDonald’s has cited the acquisition as an opportunity to increase sales via digital drive-thru boards through upselling additional offerings. Starbucks has also been using its in-house AI platform to make recommendations to customers at the drive-thru, similar to what it’s already been doing on its mobile app. While these solutions are targeting unknown customers, it’s only a matter of time before recommendations and upselling are implemented for known customers, such as loyalty members. While the bump typically seen from switching from analog to digital boards is about a three to five percent growth in sales and a 12 to 24 month break-even point on investment, according to Networld Media Group’s Digital Menu Boards and ROI study, providing tailored recommendations to customers drives incremental revenue above and beyond that.  

Most QSRs curate the menu items which are shown on their menu board, with slight seasonal variation and sometimes more frequent changes to limited time offers. However, even for brands with digital menu boards, due to the long turnaround time and difficulties associated with changing major sections of the menu board, the bulk of the board remains unchanged throughout the year with limited data to support optimizations.  

But there is plenty of actionable data available to fine tune the products displayed on a digital menu board to unknown customers. While time of day and weather are the most often used data points, store-level and regional sales data can be used to predict customer preferences. When customer order display is integrated, it can drive product-level cross-sell or upsell. And for known customers, recent orders, customer preference data and loyalty can all be integrated to provide a tailored experience that helps them order faster, curates items they are most likely to try for the first time or reinforces that they are earning or burning points as expected. This has the potential to increase confidence and speed at drive-thrus.

Restaurants must also realize that simply implementing a digital menu doesn’t go far enough. Once menu boards are digitized, the next generation of solutions enable data-driven merchandizing and suggestive selling, or selling add-ons. Even if automated data-driven merchandising is not on the immediate roadmap, there are clear benefits to implementing digital menu boards with a strong system design and limited need for digitization, with greater levels of flexible content authoring directly in the content management system. Robust analytics and A/B testing, when paired with a flexible system design, offer the ability to experiment and optimize product merchandising.

What comes next

Restaurants need to consider that in the next five to seven years, which is generally the life span of digital signage hardware, the menu board partner they choose will have a meaningful impact on their business. Digital menu boards will help restaurants thrive in the coming years and not only survive the economic crisis and shifting customer behaviors due to COVID-19. Customers will be looking for smart and efficient experiences whether they’re at a drive-thru or order counter to minimize contact and time spent in a restaurant, and digital menu boards will provide them with a personalized experience that aligns with the path many restaurants were already on before the pandemic.

For brands who are currently evaluating digital signage partners, consider not only the needs of today, but also the customer experience roadmap for the next five to seven years. When evaluating software, study where the content is coming from, if product display can be influenced or determined by external data sources controlled by the brand and where data is stored and reported on. These are critical success factors in creating more seamless customer experiences across channels.

Publicis Sapient has a long history of helping clients with their omni-channel technology solutions, including digital signage. As investment in customer data and loyalty continues to drive growth in QSRs, and with a growing number of customers passing through the drive-thru each day, the time to completely re-consider the drive-thru menu board has arrived.  


Premise is a fully adaptable platform that enables in-venue experiences leveraging content and data in ways that are meaningful and effective.

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Now Streaming: The Digital Signage Today Podcast

Discover the latest trends and insights about in-venue digital signage. Learn how AI and machine learning are driving better business outcomes with cloud-based, data-centric menu boards

Jackie Walker
Jackie Walker
Senior Director, CX&I

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