Digital menu board basics
by Scott Sharon * • 24 Nov 2008
Part 1 of 4
One of the first questions I receive when discussing digital menu
boards is “what’s the ROI?” Although it’s the most important
question to ask before making any large purchase or investment
in equipment, it’s not easy to answer. Your ROI depends on how
the equipment is used. In this article, I will give some examples
of how digital menu boards can be used that may make the ROI question easier to
Since digital boards have so many more capabilities than traditional boards, a better
question should be “what’s the ROI on the additional capabilities?”
Menu boards are the primary tool used to communicate with your customers in your
restaurant. Digital allows you to do that more effectively, more quickly, more often,
easier and at a lower graphics cost.
To understand the difference in cost between traditional and digital menu boards you
should determine the total cost of ownership of each system over at least a five year
period. The cost of each should include all hardware, content (including packaging,
distribution, freight and labor to change or insert in the boards), software, connection
cost and maintenance.
If you determine the cost of digital boards to be higher, is it worth the extra investment
for the increased features and capabilities? If you don’t use the extra capabilities to
increase short and long term sales the answer is simply no. In order to answer this
question you need to know the capabilities of digital boards and how to use them.
There are many advantages for digital menu boards over static ones. How much would
each of these aspects increase your sales?
• There are no limits to the number of day parts you can use.
• All the information on your boards can be relevant for any day part or condition. Only
the items for sale when the customer is viewing the boards will be seen. This can vary
by region or individual location.
• You can change the look of your board for each day part. Certain colors, designs and
fonts look more appetizing in different day parts.
• Could have menu variations based on regions.
Better product promotion
• Digital boards or kiosks can up sell better than your employees.
• Make higher margin items stand out with movement.
• New products can be introduced much more quickly & effectively. Plus, it will be
easier and less expensive to do it by regions or test markets.
Instant changing of content
• Prices can be changed more quickly and easily based on cost and supply. Prices can
be different for each day part. Many companies have learned they can charge more and
offer different portion sizes for each day part?
• Prices can be lower during low traffic times of the day to increase the effectiveness of
store capacity and to reduce wasted food.
• Items for sale could change quickly and more effectively based on weather conditions,
inventory, season, holidays and current events.
Appeal to customers
• Eliminating all paper and plastic graphics would improve your ”go green” initiative.
• Increased capability and lower cost to do local promotions for local sports teams and
events to increase sales and promote restaurants as members of the neighborhood.
• Could have bilingual content in areas with a high percentage of non-English speaking
• You can use motion to attract attention and increase retention.
• Can reduce the actual, or more importantly, the perceived wait time.
• Can add other senses such as sound or scent to stimulate the appetite.
Can you use digital boards to build or improve your brand?
Your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what
they can expect from your products and services, and it
differentiates your offering from your competitor's. Your brand is
derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be. Is
your brand promise resonating with consumers? In other words, does the customer
experience equal their expectation?
If you are the innovative maverick in your industry your customers should see you that
way. Keep in mind you can't be all things to all people. Who you are should be based
on what your target customers want you to be. You should be who you want to be vs.
who you are in the eyes of your customers and potential customers. A marketer’s job is
to create and build brand identity, not just to sell products. How well you do that will
have a positive or negative affect on sales now and in the future. Your image should
represent what the brand stands for and imply a promise to customers.
What is your plan to drive traffic and build your brand?
First, do your research to identify what habits, perceptions or beliefs your customers
have of the brand and develop a plan to build, change or reinforce them today. It
usually takes one to three years to show significant results.
Review the visual aspects of your brand first. Does the look and feel of your
promotional materials accurately and effectively reflect your brand? It's difficult to sell a
high-quality product with homemade-looking marketing materials. In the mind of
consumers, quality materials equal quality product. Digital menu boards will show your
customers you are innovative and up to date with technology. They also make it easier
to make the changes you learn from your research.
Here is an example:
Several years ago one of the major restaurant brands asked me to review one of their
prototype restaurants where they made some significant interior design changes. The
first thing I noticed when I entered the restaurant was the increased amount of
graphics and images inside. They even added some soffits to increase the space for
graphics. Although everything was very nicely done it simply did not work. Too many
graphics and too much information simply increase clutter, create confusion and cause
your customers to tune it all out.
Approximately five years later the same brand asked me to review a new prototype
restaurant with all digital menu boards. The difference was so dramatic it shocked me.
All graphic clutter was removed and everything was placed on the digital boards. It
made a significant improvement in the perception customers had when they entered
the restaurant and made the graphics and information much more effective.
If you feel your design is ineffective or out-of-date, consider updating it by retaining
key design elements that still work, while shedding those that don't. The key is to make
your brand look current without losing its original appeal, and thus customers.
Ensure all pricing, ordering information, product lists and product specs are up-to-date.
Delete anything no longer relevant or accurate. If you're advertising on the internet,
make sure there are no elapsed limited-time offers being advertised. This is especially
important when using affiliate advertising. Often affiliates will use old ads and/or links
to offers no longer valid. This not only confuses and aggravates consumers, but also
reflects negatively on your brand.
Digital menu board design criteria
To make effective use of the extra capabilities of digital menu boards you must first
understand how your customers use menu boards. You should have a different strategy
for indoor and drive-thru boards. Although the same customers may alternate use of
indoor and drive-thru service they will have different needs for each.
Design the menu boards to fit your customer’s needs. At the drive-thru speed of service
and convenience is very important without making customers feel rushed. Service and
communication is more important for the indoor boards. Perceived wait time is very
important. If you can occupy your customers while they are in line the perceived wait
time is much less and it improves your customer’s experience.
Research will likely show most of your customers know what they want before they see
your menu board (that number may be slightly lower inside than in the drive-thru).
Plus, the more information you have in the order area the more confusion it causes and
it decreases the likelihood any of it will be read and retained.
We all agree it’s very important for customers to read your menu boards. It’s your last
opportunity to influence their purchasing decision before they make a purchase and
increase the likelihood they will return. Most of your customers return, or don’t return,
because of past experience. A great goal would be to create an experience that brings
When I first started in the digital menu board business my advice was to change only
one or two panels of the current boards to digital. I designed an LCD panel that would
replace one or more of the existing panels easily. Because of developments in the
industry since then I no longer advise that. Based on new cost, capabilities and
reliability, it would now be a better investment to replace the complete board with a
digital board. However, the board should have a limited amount of animated or moving
copy. Too much movement makes it too confusing for your customers and defeats the
purpose of moving content.
There should be a goal for each board, such as help to make the ordering decision,
trade up or increase ticket, introduce new items and build the brand. It should have a
positive effect on the customer’s experience.
Small copy, information on toppers, adders and misc. signs are not easily read in the
drive-thru. Digital menu boards will eliminate the need for these and make the ordering
decision easier and faster. The feeling of being rushed is increased when a customer
doesn’t know what they want and there is a car behind them. Those who feel rushed
are less likely to be satisfied with the experience and brand.
As with your current boards there should be separate, clearly identified sections on the
boards for different categories of products. Rather than just “present” information
boards need to merchandise and promote your products. The products should look real
and stimulate the appetite.
Some of the comments I make in this section are just common
sense but in view of the many mistakes I have seen I will
mention them. Since the start of the digital signage business
there have been many companies enter the business and several
have filed for bankruptcy. As in most new industries there is a
shortage of expertise and many unqualified people are selling
digital signage systems, so be careful.
Many of the digital signage suppliers have made no investment to enter the industry
and simply contract everything out. If they sub everything out and have no value to
add to your project, you will be paying extra and receive delayed and poor service. Be
careful with someone that tells you they do everything. Make sure the supplier you
choose will be around for a while and can back up their warranties. Also, make sure the
warranties are backed up by the original equipment manufacturer and will be honored if
your supplier disappears or defaults.
Designing your digital signage system requires the cooperative effort of your marketing
department and the IT department. It may be best if driven by marketing with the
assistance of the IT department. First, you should understand all the capabilities of a
digital system. This may require at least a small test. When you have a good idea of
what you want the system to do you can design the system and set up a plan with
objectives and goals.
A test is a waste of time and money unless you have a proper plan with clear objectives
and a method of measuring success. When you have a good understanding of what you
want your system to do then you can design it. Without at least some minimum
specifications and guidelines before you send out an RFP the proposals you receive will
be so different you can not make accurate cost comparisons. If you are not very careful
the lowest priced system will end up costing the most.
Major components of a digital menu board system
The major components of a digital menu board system are hardware (screens and
computers or players), software, content, method of connection and implementation.
Hardware: The price of screens and computers change very quickly. If you do not
have good specifications you may end up with low quality screens that won’t last long
or do what you expect from them. As an example, your supplier may get a great deal
on some outdated models but will have to switch hardware on future purchases. Try not
to purchase a technology that may not be continued for long. Many people still use
plasma screens although LCD screens are now more popular. I am starting to hear
some major screen manufacturers state they will no longer manufacture plasma
screens. Make sure the screens and computers are industrial grade made to run 24/7
for up to five years. You can get warranties for that long.
Make sure all screens have the same or similar specifications. As an example at some
time in the future you may have screens on the wall behind the counter for your menu
board, a screen on the side wall, one on the counter, on a drink dispenser, in your
dining area, in the drive-thru, a pre-sell board and even an LED message center on
your main street sign. Where you can, make sure they all have the same aspect ratio
and similar enough specifications that all your content will run on any screen. It will
save on your content cost and help keep your image consistent.
Outdoor digital boards: Regardless of what you hear there are very few companies
that know how to manufacture outdoor digital signs that can be seen in the sunlight
and will last. Some companies that have been supplying outdoor LCD screens for years
still have serious problems with them. Due to the brightness and protection from the
environment required the cost is usually about twice that of the same size and type
indoor screen. New screens with LED backlighting that adjusts to the ambient light are
best but may also be the most expensive.
Software: Software is used to create content, download content, manage and schedule
content, play content, record how often and when content is played, to monitor the
health of your system and to alert service people when there is a problem. Most digital
signage companies have their own software but usually don’t have all these features.
You should test several to see which you think would serve you best and is easiest to
There are many available and most of the major software companies will license their
software to other suppliers. An important factor in selecting a software provider is how
many systems they have deployed in the field. Many small companies do not have
enough personnel or resources to support their own software. It requires a staff of
people to support a help desk, solve problems as they surface and to keep the software
updated. You won’t know what changes you may want when you install a system. It
should be adaptable to new technologies.
Content: What your customers see on the screens is most important. Many digital
signage companies supply their own content but it may be better to contract with a
company that specializes in digital content, especially for animated content.
It is possible to eliminate all the middle people and operations. The content can be
created by your own people or by your agency. It can go straight from them to the
boards. All paper or printed graphics can be eliminated and all the processes in the
middle. Your software should allow you to do this. There is also software available for
repurposing graphics to produce animated or moving graphics, although it requires a
high level of skill. If your graphics don’t engage your customers and call them to an
action you will loose the value of a digital system (or any system).
Connectivity: This is where your marketing people need to let the IT people step in. I
am a marketing person and don’t have enough expertise to give advice in this area. I
will just identify the important components to understand and share some of my
The most popular method of connection world wide is through the Internet. I have
observed very few problems with this type of connection and it may be the lowest cost.
There are several other ways to connect such as satellite and narrowcasting that would
be better if you are doing live content, very large files or live training on your system.
Even if you use very little video, animation or other large files it may be best to use a
multi-port switch to manage your band width.
Most of the customers I have worked with on digital menu boards start out stating they
want to use a wireless connection within the store to save the cost of running cable
and/or to keep the displays portable. Almost every one of them ended up using a cable
connection because of security concerns and it is a more reliable connection.
One of the most common problems I have observed occurs when the system is turned
of intentionally with a switch, or unintentionally during a power failure, while content is
being downloaded to the computer that runs the screens. To avoid these problems all
system shut downs must be managed or controlled. This is usually done with a large
enough battery back up to allow the download to complete before the system shuts
Most of the proposals for digital menu boards do not include the cost for adequate
battery backup or for a multi-port switch to manage downloads. The major reason,
other than just not knowing you should, is these items can be expensive and when
prospective customers review bids they just do not know to look for these items. That’s
just one of the reasons the lowest bid can be the most costly in the long run.
Implementation: I don’t know any digital signage company that has employees to
install digital signage roll outs. I have learned it is best to use trained installation
management companies. There are several you can choose from.
Several major QSR chains started rolling out digital boards a few
years ago but the hardware, software and content was not
reliable, was difficult to use and very expensive. Although they
saw the benefits of digital menu boards they started before the
industry was ready.
All those problems have now been solved but the QSR industry has been slow to switch
to digital. The only major QSR chain I am aware of to roll out digital menu boards to
their entire system in North America is still Tim Horton’s in Canada. Although they have
had some problems with the outdoor digital menu boards I am told they are very happy
with the results of their system.
Many of the major chains have been testing digital boards, some for a couple years.
Many use them in Europe and Asia. Just recently several have announced they will be
rolling them out to their systems and have established a timeline. Many other chains
are seriously considering a roll out.
Selling ads to vendors and third parties
Some of your major suppliers will pay for space on your digital menu boards. Also, third
party ads can be sold on digital boards in your restaurants. Some companies have
signed deals where third party ads will pay the total cost of the digital boards.
There are several companies that install digital displays in your sites at no cost to you
but they retain ownership and sell you part of the space. They make money on the ads
that run on the screens. This is becoming less popular as the chains realize space on
the screens is too valuable for anything but their own products and information.
Several companies are recommending or selling systems with entertainment or current
event information on digital menu boards to give people a reason to view them, or for
just the entertainment value such as in a sports bar. A better idea for menu boards
may be to show coupons or discounts to train people to view the boards.
Menu board placement
Digital menu boards and displays can be used effectively in several zones in your
restaurants and in the drive-thru. The purpose for each board will determine where it is
The first zone where you may consider digital boards is when you first enter the drivethru
lane or walk into the restaurant. This is where you want to make your guests feel
welcome and set the mood. Since most people won’t read much when they first enter
this zone it would not justify the expense of a digital board. Some simple welcome
message and a design that reinforces the brand would be enough. This could also be
included on a directional sign.
The next zone is after the customer has entered the restaurant or drive-thru and starts
to think about what they will order. This is a good place for a digital preview board. It
can influence the order, introduce a new product, upsell or influence a purchase on a
return trip. It is also a good place to introduce discounts or coupons.
The next and most important zone is where the order is placed. This is where the main
menu board is placed and the final decisions have to be made. These boards must be
well organized so they can be quickly read and easily understood. The products, prices
and necessary information should be displayed in a clear and appetizing manner. Only
information used to influence and make the final decision should be placed on these
boards. Order confirmation units have been very popular in the drive-thru but new
technologies are making them less needed and are on the decline. Some are being
converted to digital merchandising screens.
After the customer has placed the order and is either driving up to a pay window or
waiting to pay the attendant behind the counter is a good time to introduce credit card
information (maybe with a small screen on the back of the cash register), frequent
customer programs, brand information or new services.
After the order has been placed and customers are waiting for their food is a key time
when the perceived wait time needs to be influenced, especially in the drive-thru. If you
have a separate order pick-up area inside you can also include entertainment, current
event and neighborhood information.
Since outdoor digital boards are much more expensive than indoor it’s difficult to justify
using them anywhere in the drive-thru other than as preview boards or main menu
boards. However, traditional signage and graphics can be used.
Inside there are other areas where digital boards may be justified other than as
preview and main menu boards. They would be very effective in drink areas, dessert
bars or in the dining area. This is where you can influence additional or secondary
purchases such as a dessert, side order, take home order, extra drink or non-food
The dining area is a good place to put brand information, entertainment and local and
The last zone is where the customer leaves the restaurant. Although digital boards may
not be justified there should be some type of message thanking them for visiting and
encouraging them to return soon.
When you develop your digital menu board plan keep new technologies in mind. New
technologies that allow your customers to interact with your displays have been
developed and are increasing quickly. These technologies are more common in other
parts of the world but are showing up in the US also. We are shifting away from “what
happened” to “what is happening.”