I’ve been amazed to read several articles, including some written by senior practitioners within the marketing industry, claiming that JD Wetherspoon’s recent decision to leave social media somehow demonstrates ‘brand leadership.’ What it actually represents is the failure of JD Wetherspoon’s senior management team to grasp the reach and power of the major social media networks, and the sea-change in human behaviour accompanying it.
People are using social media to document every aspect of their lives – from checking-in to venues on Facebook, to Instagramming their food – and by refusing to provide a platform to engage with this, JD Wetherspoon appears to be willfully directing its brand towards future obscurity.
Whilst it’s true that you don’t necessarily have to have a social media presence for your business, it’s also true that you’re not obliged to have a telephone number or an email address – but if you abandon these, you’ll find it pretty hard to communicate with your customers. Social media is no different.
The decision to close down all of Wetherspoon’s social media accounts – assuming that at some point it isn’t reversed – may well be seen in the future as the moment when the pub brand started to decline. Suspending social media activity across an estate of 900+ pubs is about more than simply shutting down a communications channel; it suggests a closed culture within the business, of not wanting to listen to customers, or to embrace change within the wider world. A little bit like Marks & Spencer’s perennial problems with ladies’ fashion, further down the line JD Wetherspoon may well find itself endlessly trying to pivot, to work out how to reconnect with the customer base it lost touch with.
As a freelance marketing consultant, I fully appreciate that the majority of Wetherspoon’s customers aren’t going to be regularly eulogising about the latest ale selection on Twitter, or Snapchatting their fish and chips. But a look at tweets addressed to the Twitter handle @jdwtweet showed that immediately prior to the social media marketing shutdown on 16th April, an influential minority were – and their future customers most definitely will be.
Successful social media marketing isn’t about pulling off big viral stunts like the Oreo Super Bowl tweet, it’s about the every day customer interactions – responding to queries, resolving complaints – which are absolutely business-critical in the hospitality industry.
Some commentators have pointed towards the relatively small number of Facebook likes (100,000) and Twitter followers (44,000) JD Wetherspoon had managed to accrue. Effective social media management has little to do with the vanity metrics of how many followers or likes your business has. It’s about generating engagement: your business’s ability to influence customers to take actions, whether that’s writing a review, visiting your establishment or sharing your latest offer.
The decision to shut down JD Wetherspoon’s social media has apparently come from the very top – a classic case of the decision maker somehow thinking that THEY are the target market.
JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin has received a lot of personal criticism on social media for his pro-Brexit stance, and it appears that his decision to shut down ‘Spoons social media is at least partly influenced by his desire to avoid trolls. As a man who has aligned his personal reputation closely with his brand, he needs to acknowledge that there are reputational consequences for taking a public position on this issue. Whilst using an authentic tone of voice is very much to be encouraged in corporate communications, it is naïve to fail to recognise the polarising effect of public pronouncements on Brexit.
The idea that simply shutting down social media is enough to make the bad comments go away demonstrates an alarming ignorance of social media marketing at the highest level. Some senior business leaders seem to be under the impression that expertise in social media should somehow be reserved for millennials; actually it’s a revenue-generating, reputation-changing force so powerful that it has allegedly swayed the outcomes of elections in western democracies. If Donald Trump can master it, so can you. The genie is very much out of the bottle, and no amount of sticking his fingers in his ears or covering his eyes from Tim Martin, or any other business leader, will make it go back in.
JD Wetherspoon is a customer-facing organisation, serving real, living, breathing people face to face every day. It’s a simple, cast iron fact that a large proportion of Wetherspoon’s customers will be active Facebook users. Facebook has a bigger reach than any news organization, radio station or TV channel in the UK; over 50% of the population log in at least once a month.
If Wetherspoons wanted a simple way to increase footfall to their pubs, they could create and run ads for one of their promotions, such as their Tuesday Steak club, across a small part of their estate and test to see if ROI from running these ads is positive – i.e. if the uplift in profitability is greater than the total cost of running the ads. The huge advantage of using Facebook for advertising is that it can be closely targetted; they can show adverts solely to people who are in close proximity to their nearest pub, and who fit the demographics and interests of their target market. Best of all, it’s all measurable.
If you don’t understand how the online world works – the interplay between search, social media and content – that’s fine: stick to your core competencies in delivering your business, and hire someone who does. Hire someone who could, for instance, look at the Google Analytics data for the JD Wetherspoon website, and advise you of just how much traffic comes from your social media platforms before you publicly declare that you’re shutting all of them. Or point out that by abandoning them, you’re also excluding yourself from advertising on some of the biggest media outlets on the planet. Tim Martin undoubtedly knows how to build a pub chain – let’s hope that he hasn’t inadvertently helped to shut one down.