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Wetherspoons calls time on social media

April, 2018

Is the decision from Wetherspoons' Tim Martin to call time on social media a cynical ploy to simply cut costs at the budget pub chain, or are the likes of Twitter and Facebook going a little flat for some brands? Andrew Metcalf and Rachel Knight of PR and marketing agency Maxim give their views.

Andrew Metcalf, Director at Maxim, says:  

I'll be the first to admit I'm not a social media expert, but I was a tad surprised to hear the news, especially given the brand had 100,000 Facebook likes, 44,000 Twitter followers and an Instagram account. 

The big question is: do people actually want to get social with brands? With their friends, family, and celebrities yes, as most people are intrinsically interested in knowing what's going on. But do we really want to have a connection with a pub or pizza chain, a seller of petrol, DIY tools or other everyday staples?

The only time I'm interested in hearing from a brand is if there's money off and I happen to be in the market for what they are selling.

Tim Martin has never been shy in courting coverage, but one thing is certain: he's a smart operator, knows his customers and invariably reads the market. He's taken a commercial decision that switching off his social media channels and relying on his website, the app, newsletters and traditional advertising, will not harm his business. 

Why did Wetherspoons close its social media accounts?

The 'official' reason given was bad publicity surrounding social media and the trolling of MPs. However, the chain's PR man said he'd rather have 200 words in the Sun or Times any day over a tweet, which is a fairly old-school way of thinking. However, according to Prof Martin Ritson in 2018 the average Wetherspoons tweet generated only six retweets and four likes. 

Tim Martin himself alluded to the cost of social media being a factor in the decision, suggesting his competitors were 'wasting hours of their time' online. Maybe he's analysed his likes and followers and concluded they are not people who buy his beer, eat his breakfast or visit on curry night. If that's the case then he's a smarter man than most.

Nearly 30 pubs a week are closing, I bet none of those former owners are now thinking 'if only I'd spent more time promoting my pub on Facebook or Twitter'. While many close, Wetherspoons has created a portfolio of 900+ pubs, many in former landmark buildings, and is now on a mission to develop a hotel chain.

I've visited many a 'Spoons' in my time and never thought I must like or follow them while I drank my cheap beer or ate my bacon roll, and looking around I doubt many of its clientele have either. Like me, they were probably more interested in speaking to their mates than getting social with Spoons.

One thing is for certain, Wetherspoons is closing an important customer relations channel. They are either confident their staff will handle any issues professionally, or would rather the public not go online to share their opinions.

Tim Martin appears to see no commercial or reputational gain from using social media, I'm sure there are many who would disagree. He may have called 'last orders' for his company accounts but there will be many who continue to drink at the social media bar.

Rachel Knight, Account Director, says: 

While I don't totally disagree with Andrew's comments, I wanted to have my say on this particular issue. 

Given what a huge company it is, Wetherspoons hadn't built up a large following on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. In fact, a quick look at the feeds would tell you they didn't have a great deal of enthusiasm for social media so it's not a great shock to hear Tim Martin say he's not a fan. The language he's used this week suggests he simply doesn't get social media.

He claimed people 'spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion'. Coming from the Chairman of a chain of pubs known for serving cheap food and alcohol, I found this a little hard to swallow (if you'll pardon the pun).

That's not to say I'm not a fan of Spoons. Sometimes it's a really handy place to meet friends, catch up and not spend a fortune. I spent a very enjoyable evening in the pub a few months ago with an ex-journalist. We'd never used the Wetherspoon's app before but decided to give it a go. I was impressed enough to look up the firm's Twitter handle - because I didn't follow them - and tell my 1,800-odd followers. Granted, those kind of numbers aren't going to set the world alight but I know of several people who downloaded the app because of my tweet. In case you're wondering, Spoons didn't reply. 

One of Tim Martin's arguments is if people want to complain, they can talk to the pub manager - the reasoning being that customers are far more likely to do that than post a negative review on social media. He's right, but surely they're also less likely to praise the firm? 

I certainly wouldn't have bothered to seek out a manager or email head office to tell them I like their app. Obviously I can still post about them, but it's harder for Wetherspoon's to find out what's being said about the firm. I didn't necessarily expect a reply to my tweet, but it would have been nice and it seems like a missed opportunity to engage with a happy customer.

Which is where I disagree with Andrew again. People are very happy to engage with brands - if the brand is doing social media well. Take Innocent Drinks as an example - their accounts are funny, conversational and far from being purely a sales tool. In fact, they rarely mention their own products but have still been able to build a sizeable audience and brand awareness. Social media is a form of public relations and the staff at Innocent clearly know what they are doing. 

A life lived online

I consider myself a marketeer's dream. I post a great deal of my life online so I'm easy to target with ads. I accept that if I put something on the internet, it's in the public domain and can be used by anyone. My hand once went viral after I posted a photo of some a tiny Quality Street tin on Twitter - because that's what happens on social media.  

Why wouldn't you want to take advantage of that? That's what I can't understand about Wetherspoons' decision. I'm not alone in being the kind of person who would #askTwitter for a nearby pub garden or open fire, for example. I know several local pubs who would reply pretty quickly and I'd likely head there and buy a bottle of nice chilled white wine (hopefully accompanied by chips and mayonnaise).

I do understand that social media is time consuming and you need to have the right people running the accounts to make them successful. With 900 pubs each having their own accounts and staff having other priorities, it might well make sense to shut them down. However, I can't understand the reasoning behind closing the head office account.

Tim Martin argues that 200 words in the national press 'are worth more than a tweet' and again, he has a point. However, they're totally different media, often with different audiences. 

Those 200 words will never be from the horse's mouth and there are times when that can be invaluable. Wetherspoons is a brand worthy of parody accounts and they're unlikely to disappear - the now suspended @Wetherspoon_UK sounded official but it was a spoof account. 

Last year the account tweeted that 'Due to the ever expanding multiculturalism of our clientele and employees this year our staff will not be wearing the poppy while working.' The rumour spread to Facebook and soon #BoycottWetherspoons was gaining momentum. 

Of course, the easiest way to stop such rumours is to step in on the platform they're created on. Wetherspoons did eventually post a denial, albeit somewhat bitterly and belatedly.

Perhaps this was one of the factors that made the firm finally give up on social media - but if a brand isn't there to monitor the conversation, correct the mistruths and boost the positive comments, who will be? 

posted in: digital, social media,

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