A Week Since Wetherspoons Went Dark – Has the Digital Plug Been Pulled?

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So, it’s been over a week since Tim Martin, founder of JD Wetherspoon, publicised his decision to close all the pub chain’s social media accounts. He’s denied it was a publicity stunt and with many heralding it as the start of a digital crisis, what has the week of debate brought us?

“Rather than using social media,” Wetherspoons announced, “we will continue to release news stories and information about forthcoming events on our website and in our printed magazine – Wetherspoon News.”

In the bigger scheme of marketing and communications strategy, it can be viewed as a confident move, one that perhaps reflects Wetherspoon’s audience preferences, mood over social and actual engagement with its brand. As Mark Ritson writes for Marketing Week;

“it shows he’s brave enough to decide they don’t fit his target market or objectives.”

Ironically the debate over whether this was commercial suicide or bold marketing strategy was sparked on social media. Martin has cited the lack of trust of social media, trolling of MPs (he has long been a vocal Brexiteer himself), the misuse of data and that social media is a “waste of time”, as reasons for the move, but there is perhaps more to it than that.

Speaking to BBC News this week Martin added that;

“On a personal level many of us are fed up with social media and think it has got damaging effects and a lot of people are on it far far too much….the people who aren’t on social media wish that their friends weren’t either, because they seem to be obsessed by it. And people who are on it feel they can’t get off it because they are addicted.”

Perhaps then, this is more than a hunch and based on what their own customers and staff are telling them. Brands relationships on social media are often far less powerful than what these mediums are designed for – social engagement with other people.

Wetherspoons only had around 44,000 followers on Twitter and 100,000 on Facebook, clearly no match for its actual customer base across 900 pubs and 3 million pints pulled per week. “The harsh reality” as Ritson labelled it, “is that organic relationships like this are almost worthless.”

The Guardian underlined that this move was also following much of the chains social activity being devoted to “fending off complaints” with Martin highlighting that customers could use the Wetherspoons website and app to contact the company or speak to pub managers.

In his opinion piece for the Drum following the announcement, Rich Leigh made the point;

“I’d wager that a large percentage of the unanswered complaints to Wetherspoon’s accounts – and indeed many brand accounts that serve as a customer service channel – would not be made if it meant speaking to a manage or having to write a letter, like those in ancient times gone by.”

And as we tell almost every request we deal with for ‘another social profile’, they are only going to be as good as the support and content behind them, as whether we like it or not, they are most definitely two-way beasts rather than one-way loudhailers.

But a focus on the channels that are delivering the most value – whether they are ‘on trend’ or not, is surely a sage approach to any communications strategy? Wetherspoons deleted its entire email marketing database of 650k email addresses last June, in part a response to the data breach it suffered in 2015 and in view of getting GDPR-ready. Weekly emails promoting offers however, were clearly not yielding the right engagement.

Founded as a no-fuss, high footfall and low-price pub chain, it’s focus on channels and improving its market share can perhaps be explained by its financial data over the past year which the Financial Times highlights “is below the industry average relative to its peers”. It’s net profit of £56.6m would be wiped out if fined for its data breach if GDPR had been in place.

 “We were concerned that pub managers were being side-tracked from the real job of serving customers. I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever.” Tim Martin, JD Wetherspoons.

As Ella Minty highlights in her blog:

“In business, some of the key rules are to manage expectations and minimise business risk – by deleting its entire customer database and leaving social media… JD Wetherspoon ticked those boxes”

Facing calls that this was a publicity stunt, Martin told BBC news that “you would have to be completely off your rocker to do a publicity stunt…which banned the medium which is supposed to give you the most publicity”.

It hasn’t, as yet, caused the social media world to implode. However, with an increasing lack of trust around social media and use of personal data, brands do need to monitor how their social media profiles add value to their overall engagement of key audiences. In some cases, social channels are not able to reflect what audiences are using them for – namely complaint or customer services – and if your content isn’t able to evoke the right conversation, maybe you should be looking at where else you need to be talking.

Data

  • Average Wetherspoons tweet in 2018 managed six retweets and four likes
  • Wetherspoons serves 3 million pints a week
  • Many of its 900 pubs have Facebook pages with fewer than 1,000 likes, meaning anything they post is unlikely to be seen by users in their news feed. They are still a magnet for bad reviews which Facebook displays prominently
  • In 2016 JDW’s customer database was hacked and details of more than 600,000 people were stolen. It took 6 months for them to make public the breach and if GDPR had been in force they would have been fined £69m as opposed to a little over £800,000

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