Restaurants didn’t need a global crisis to realize the parameters of word-of-mouth marketing had changed. In truth, the premise didn’t go anywhere—customers still want to hear what other people think before they spend their money and time—it’s the outlets of engagement that webbed out. The pandemic forced discovery-minded diners, even those slower to migrate than others, into new channels of connection.

Global scale-up company Deliverect explains this across four buckets: discover; delivery; delight; and drive. How restaurants can understand the way in which customers today find and pick restaurants; explore the delivery preferences and channels that redefine online ordering and dining experience; create a digital brand that fosters loyalty beyond transactions; and leverage data-driven insights to enhance operations and customer engagement.

The baseline, company CEO and cofounder Zhong Xu explained, is customers are increasingly relying on digital platforms to enhance interaction. “Integrating a perfect blend of technology, human interaction and personalization is a must for all restaurants looking to make a lasting impact,” he said.

Deliverect surveyed 5,000 consumers to provide a view into how restaurants should drive sustainable growth in a digital arena. Let’s start with the discovery phase.

Respondents revealed they’re finding new restaurants through Google searches and third-party food delivery apps as much as recommendations from friends and family:

  • Friends and family: 42 percent
  • Google search: 40 percent
  • Food delivery apps: 38 percent

This point in particular is driving much of Domino’s recent call to, after many years of resisting, jump into third-party delivery. The company is doing so but still fulfilling its own orders with uniformed drivers. So if it’s not a play to broaden access to labor, what is it? CEO Russell Weiner shared after the announcement Domino’s recognized aggregators had reached scale. U.S. research and findings from 13 international markets, he continued, showed “that taking orders using the Uber Eats marketplace provides access for Domino’s and its franchisees to a new segment of customers and what we believe will be a meaningful amount of incremental delivery orders once it’s widely available.”

In other words, Domino’s wasn’t inspired as much by fulfillment objectives as the observation we’ve reached an inevitable point in digital maturation. Domino’s wants to court customers who use third-party apps to discover occasions; those diners who are more platform or marketplace loyal than brand specific. Per The Wall Street Journal, 14 percent of pizza sales last year came through delivery apps.

When it came to researching newly discovered restaurants, customers in Deliverect’s survey said they turn to websites, at 82 percent, for a deeper dive.

The other options:

  • Online restaurant reviews: 78 percent
  • Food delivery apps: 71 percent
  • Social media: 64 percent

Staying within pizza, Papa Johns has spoken at length about this dynamic in recent quarters. Like many chains, it’s worked to foster a dichotomy where organic channels offer repeat customers better value, primarily through loyalty and rewards. Papa Johns entered the third-party space four or so years ago—well before much of its peer set. That’s allowed it to be where customers are, CEO Rob Lynch told QSR earlier. But if that’s the greeting, the follow-up has been to take top-of-funnel, incremental users and bring them in-house. The end result generally means much of Papa Johns’ aggregator volume is add-on because its best customers order through direct channels. As of May, the chain said 50–60 percent of its third-party marketplace business was incremental. “They love our products. They love the innovation, the new ideas that we bring. And then, they want to come back, because it is more economical to order Papa John’s through our organic channel,” Lynch said. “That’s the business model.”

Today, roughly 85 percent of Papa Johns’ sales arrive via digital channels. The chain has 30 million or so loyalty member accounts. Over the past few years, it’s also invested in technology and organizational infrastructure to operate an “industry leading” CRM platform designed to drive brand engagement through relational and transactional experiences.

And it’s a high-stakes field: If Papa Johns can earn one more transaction per year, with an average $20 ticket, Lynch said previously, you’d be talking nearly $500 million in incremental sales on a $3 billion baseline.

What Deliverect’s data uncovered is most customers today are savvy enough to understand that value equation. They’ll find a brand and then go direct to learn more. That’s why brands from Papa Johns to Shake Shack have highlighted digital offers and rewards as hooks to turn curious guests into loyal ones, with personalization and customization as lures. More digital-exclusive offers and speedy paths to redemption have become common sights in quick service for this reason.

“These results show us that digital first impressions are super important and often the first step on a customer’s journey toward a purchase,” Deliverect said. “So, be sure to plate up the best version of your brand across all of these touch points to nail the discovery phase.”

Moving on to the “delivery” topic, here were the most important elements respondents highlighted in their decision set to take the plunge:

  • Affordable prices: 92 percent
  • Variety of menu options: 90 percent
  • High standards of health and safety: 89 percent
  • Customers and community care: 88 percent
  • Treats employees well: 86 percent

And once they make the decisions, how they like to order:

  • Direct from the restaurant: One in two people
  • Via food delivery app: One in four people
  • Alternates between both: One in six people

Sixty-five percent of people said they prefer to order directly from the restaurant’s website or app. Of those, 44 percent said they choose to do so as it allows them to personalize their orders. What’s key to note, however, is people still rely on delivery apps for reviews and recommendations, meaning they’re critical for acquisition.

Again, it’s pulsed throughout Deliverect’s research that guests use first- and-third-party channels in tandem.

With “delight,” results showed people valued an intuitive and personalized experience when it came to using an app and website.

These were the five top things to consider for app and website to capitalize on the movement:

  • Detailed menus (descriptions, photos, etc.): 47 percent
  • Simple menu navigation: 42 percent
  • Online ordering: 39 percent
  • Loyalty programs: 24 percent
  • Location finder: 19 percent

The majority of respondents also confirmed new tech was important for creating a positive experience when engaging with a restaurant.

The notables:

  • Online reservations: 73 percent
  • Contactless payments: 70 percent
  • Self-service kiosks: 59 percent
  • QR codes: 55 percent

If there’s one reality of the present backdrop it’s everybody has access to data. Yet is data information or just something collected and hoarded? In the “drive” portion of the survey, Deliverect noted digital experiences are vital, but restaurants can’t give up on the human touch. Warm and friendly in-person experiences “can and should complement your digital brand,” the company said.

What makes people feel loyal?

  • Consistently good food: 48 percent
  • Friendly and attentive staff: 35 percent
  • Fast delivery: 26 percent
  • Reliable and accurate service and ordering: 26 percent

“Use data and insights to determine where you can strengthen your offering,” Deliverect said. “For instance, digitizing tasks can free your staff from admin and give them more time to talk to customers and push upsells. Do sales increase when table ordering is active. Learn and enhance.”

There was a broader degree of hesitancy around some current solutions. When it came to robots carrying out certain functions, 50 percent of people said they were comfortable with them doing so for service; 46 percent for food preparation; and 46 percent for food delivery (drones).

But the 25–34 age groups surveyed proved the most comfortable, with most people agreeing that new technology was important to creating a positive experience. Like all disruption, time will uncover how that unfolds. Much of today’s hesitancy could be credited to a lack of experience or data points—customers who haven’t formulated opinions for technology they simply haven’t tried. This came up often in QSR’s Drive-Thru Report this year. For something like voice-automated ordering at the menuboard, for instance, it’s hard to gauge acceptance until it becomes relatively ubiquitous. Users will either be surprised or offended by what they encounter, and those scales are likely to tilt over time. Either way, it’s difficult to measure from a survey pool going off what they think it would be like versus how they actually experienced it.

Plainly, it’s still early.

“The findings outline the importance of restaurant brands creating a strong digital presence, maintaining consistency, and offering compelling experiences to stand out in a competitive market, all of which cannot be underestimated when it comes to sustaining growth and increasing customer retention,” Xu said.

Consumer Trends, Story, Technology