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Was Wetherspoon stupid to ditch its database?

Updated: Oct 13, 2018

This week, JD Wetherspoon has hit the headlines across the trade, business and even consumer press with its decision to no longer engage in social media. The reaction has been vast and mixed. With a clear outcry from the many social media "experts" warning of impeding doom, turkeys at Christmas comes to mind.

All sensationalism aside, given the recent news agenda relating to data and social media, it was bound to give way to senior-level discussions about strategies and company position on social.

Am I surprised Wetherspoon has made this move? I don’t think so. Nor am I surprised about the level of response. I am sure the communications advisors at the company were expecting and perhaps banking on the sensational media reaction. Let’s face it, to be the first of what is likely to be a number companies making such moves, gains the headlines. The timing is impeccable really, as often seems the case with Wetherspoon announcements. It seems to have a real knack of putting out just the right message at the right time to keep ahead of the news agenda. You have to respect this skill.

In fact, I respect Wetherspoon for lots of reasons. I think it’s easy to be snobby about the brand, I’ve heard lots of this type of talk in recent days following the announcement. I’m sure there are some poor Wetherspoon pubs out there and, yes, you can go in and see people drinking beer earlier than you might personally choose to, but the bottom line is it is a very successful business. 

Personally, I also think it does a good job of raising retail standards in unlikely parts of the UK. I was born and spent my early years near Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, where most of my family still live. When going to visit, Wetherspoon is by far the best place to drink in the town centre. It is safe, has great staff and brilliant ranging. It has also just invested a pretty penny into its site, the Troll Cart, and subsequently opened another venue a few miles away in Gorleston. Both are remarkably busy. Almost everyone I know in the area uses them, from friends who earn six-figure salaries to my 18-year-old brother. It really does cross demographics in a way few other brands do.

Returning to the question of social media, do I think those customers really care someone isn’t answering them on social media? Maybe some but not most, not really. I think they want to know they are going to get good-value, affordable food, great beer and service that delivers a good place to be social – in real life, not online. I’d even take it one step further and say Wetherspoon has built its business on cutting the nice-to-haves and concentrating on delivering this value-based proposition. Tim Martin makes no secret of his no-frills formulae with no music or sport. You have to praise it for its innovation too, just look at the success of its app – who’d have thought a value-driven, wet-led operator would have nailed this technology before almost any other major player in the market? 

The larger can of worms this move opens is one about the suitability and importance of social media to brands. There is a proliferation of articles from social media and digital consultants judging it a bad decision. These people have a vested interest in keeping the social treadmill going, of course. Are they objective? No. I read one such consultant who proclaimed Wetherspoon would be back in "three months". I doubt it.

If we take a step back, social media is a tactic a business should be choosing whether to invest and engage in, alongside others. I couldn’t imagine another tactic or medium attracting such significant publicity. Imagine gaining publicity if Wetherspoon had decided to stop engaging in traditional PR. It wouldn’t gain any attention. This really highlights the tidal wave of sensationalism that has built around social over the past decade, which many of us have been swept away with at one point or another. It’s fair to say this has, in part, been supported by a lack of senior-level understanding of digital and social media as a tactic, as well as the rapid developments in this space.

Please don’t get me wrong – I’m a big advocate of social media in marketing. In fact, I know most brands are planning to do more. At the Restaurant Marketer & Innovator event in January, we took a pulse of the audience as to their marketing budgets. Within the survey, paid social media was the biggest tactic brands planned to spend more money on, with 58% of participants planning to increase spend in this area. Second to this was organic social media (55%), followed by video (45%) and photography (34%). In fact, not one participant suggested they would decrease spend on social media, paid or organic.

It’s important to remember this is a tactic, like any other, which you have to provide resource for in time or money. As Wetherspoon has highlighted, you don’t have to be investing in social media – it is a choice. I hear lots of people talking about it being a free or cheap tool to engage. Done properly at a multi-site level, it is not – it takes significant investment, energy and infrastructure. If this not in place, it is important to remember it may be worth remembering you are just adding workload to your operators and a potentially welcome distraction from the key metrics and role of a general manager. 

If you choose to make this investment you have to believe it will make a difference to your bottom line, directly or indirectly. Ask yourself this, in the grand scheme of things, is having a few tens of thousands of followers on social media really going to move the needle? When considering you might be serving hundreds of thousands or even millions of people each week, probably not. 

If you decide it is a worthwhile investment you have to make it effective. I see many brands making one of two fundamental mistakes. The first is to invest heavily in content and community management, with a tiny audience and no ad spend, meaning they are fundamentally in an echo chamber. The second is the reverse, to have built a great audience and then not investing in the content or regular community management. To me, successful social is a fine balance between commercial messaging, editorial-style content and responsive customer service-driven community management.

Where social works best is with entrepreneurial businesses and for brands with real depth, with a strong tone of voice and something relevant to say. If you don’t have this, you need to develop it, define your brand, build a story and have a clear hierarchy of messages that mean something.

Increasingly you have to spend money on social to gain significant reach, even if you have a large audience – there are so few exceptions of brands that cut through the noise by being outstanding with their content and creative. In reality, most of these will have considerable paid budgets. There are lots of brands out there doing it really well. For some examples, check out the winner and finalists from the Best Use of Social Media category at the Restaurant Marketer & Innovator Awards we held earlier this year.

It would be remiss of me to not take the opportunity to thank Wetherspoon for making this bold move, whether the right decision or not, time will only tell. I will be watching, as I am sure the rest of the sector will, to understand how, or if, it affects their business. Let’s watch this space.

First published in Propel


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