As Wetherspoons scraps Twitter and Facebook – is social media important for big brands?

Do we really need all these platforms to sell our wares? Or do they merely fill customers’ timelines with white noise? David Barnett talks to industry insiders 

David Barnett
Friday 27 April 2018 09:17
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Even with no social media channels, or limited activity, every business can be popular. All it needs is the right digital strategy
Even with no social media channels, or limited activity, every business can be popular. All it needs is the right digital strategy

The prevailing wisdom is that if you’ve got something to sell, then social media is your shop window. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube… if your brand isn’t doing the business on these and a multitude of other platforms, then there’s a risk it’s not doing the business at all.

According to the latest number-crunching report from Brandwatch, which helps businesses understand social media, out of a global population of 7.6 billion there are 4.2 billion internet users. Of those, more than three billion are active on social media, and that number grew by 121 million between the second and third quarters of 2017 – equating to someone signing up for a social media account every 15 seconds.

Facebook has two billion users; Twitter 330 million; YouTube has 1.5 billion; Instagram 800 million. Even MySpace (kids, ask your parents) still apparently has 15 million regular users, according to Brandwatch’s figures compiled this month, which is a potential market not to be sniffed at. So it’s no surprise that 81 per cent of small- and medium-sized businesses have a social media presence, with 91 per cent of retail brands active on two or more platforms.

It seems like a no-brainer. With more than half the world on the internet, this is surely the best way to get to your potential customers. Which makes it all the more remarkable that one of the most recognisable pub brands in the UK, JD Wetherspoon (more commonly known as Wetherspoons) last week announced it was closing down all Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts not only for its corporate head office, but also for its 900 pubs across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin admitted that the move was “going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business”. But he said: “I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever, and this is the overwhelming view of our pub managers.

“It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion.

“We will still be as vocal as ever through our Wetherspoon News magazine, as well as keeping the press updated at all times.

“We will also be maintaining our website and the Wetherspoon app, and encourage customers to get in touch with us via our website or by speaking with the manager at their local pub.”

Chairman Tim Martin believes that closing these accounts will not affect business

As a bit of ad hoc research for this piece, I posted a poll on Twitter to find out if people felt it was important or necessary for brands to maintain a social media presence. One in five respondents thought it was vital; 31 per cent weren’t at all interested in seeing branded tweets, and just short of half thought it depended on what was being sold.

And that’s perhaps the crux of the Wetherspoon’s decision. Everybody knows what Wetherspoon does; they sell beer, and they sell it pretty cheaply, all day long. What does it benefit you, the Wetherspoon regular, to follow them on social media?

There are unlikely to be stunning offers, because the beer is pretty much as cheap as chips (they also sell chips, too). Nobody really goes to “Spoons” for extracurricular activities beyond drink and food, such as bands or quizzes.

Wetherspoon also points out the recent negative publicity surrounding social media, including trolling of public figures or ordinary people on religious or ethnic grounds, and the revelations about Facebook and how users’ personal data is used.

Wetherspoon’s move away from social media might not be immediately followed by many other big brands, but it does make sense, according to Evgeny Chereshnev, CEO and founder of internet company Biolink.Tech.

Chereshnev says, “One of today’s modern misconceptions is that social media is essential for business. The truth is, most companies totally mix cause and effect; they invest lots of money in social media as if those channels were a business goal in itself, but in reality social media is just a tool for talking and listening to your clients. Is social media the only way to perform those two tasks? Definitely not.”

He has a point when he says that social media often becomes a main focus, rather than just a communications tool for many companies.

A quick search on the website of recruitment company Reed throws up a whopping 6,688 positions where “social media” is in the job title, or mentioned in the post description. These range from a £45,000 a year role for a sportswear and outdoor clothing brand in Manchester to “take control of their social media strategy”, to a social media manager on the same salary at a financial service tech company in West London, to a £23,000 job at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in Stevenage to ensure their corporate social media presence is “effective, engaging and up-to-date”.

So there's a lot of money in the budget at a wide variety of companies to pay for social media experts. If we’ve got to a point where brands are scared to not be on social media for fear of missing out, then Chereshnev has some encouraging words.

He says: “There are numerous examples of companies being weak or absent across social media and still remaining insanely successful at the same time. Apple, for example, has never run contests or produced a huge amount of content for Facebook, and it is still able to sell billions of devices. Same with Google, Tesla or SpaceX… and the list goes on.”

The really big operators might be above social media, but why do the rest of them – Wetherspoon now excluded, of course – think they have to devote time and a good portion of their salary bill to making sure they’re out there?

“The reason for such behaviour is very simple to explain,” says Chereshnev. “Most companies prefer to talk whilst not really having anything important or valuable to say. As a result, a huge amount of content is being produced every day by tens of thousands of Facebook business pages and, in most cases, this is a total waste of money and time.

“Seriously – every human being has a cap on how much information he or she can handle during the day, or even wants to read to start with.

“Most content produced by businesses is never even read. Even when you as a company seem to have likes and shares for a promoted post, those are often just bots.

The truth is, when you are a company that has something truly unique and valuable to say, people will always find a way to get in touch with you. They either will come to your blog, or get information from a traditional source like a well-known and trusted media outlet.”

Even the government advises business to get on social media, and their greatbusiness.gov.uk website has a whole section devoted to showing firms how to do it. The site links to an advice page from Lloyds Bank which lists a number of benefits to companies of being active on social media.

The revelations about Facebook and its use of data caused something of a backlash

“Turn customers into brand advocates by engaging with them regularly through social media,” suggests Lloyds. “As interactive, real-time platforms, social media sites allow you to build relationships with your followers in a way that's natural and personable, rather than as a faceless, corporate entity.”

Which can, of course, be a double-edged sword. PR fails by big brands on social media are legion. At Christmas, the discount store Poundland flummoxed people with a series of ads posted on social media featuring a toy elf performing various lewd acts.

And while you might have a well-paid social media manager, be careful who else gets the passwords. In 2013, disgruntled employees at HMV live-tweeted the mass laying-off of almost 200 people at the company’s head office and distribution hub.

The Lloyds guide also makes an important point, though, when it says social media can be useful to “improve customer satisfaction by responding to complaints and queries directly, in a public setting”.

“When done right, this helps build a positive brand reputation, establish a loyal customer base and reduce strain on telephone support.”

Social media has given unhappy customers an instant outlet, and if a tweet or Facebook post gets seen by enough people, it can be damaging for a brand’s reputation. Close monitoring of social media allows a company to quickly act when a brand’s name is rubbished, contacting the complainant directly and taking the argument offline via direct messaging, email or phone call.

However, Chereshnev thinks the cons far outweigh the pros for most companies. “Every time a company wants to say something, they should ask themselves whether this content has real value for the readers – not the company’s PR department,” he says. “The way most companies run social media is a total waste of time and money. They post content that has zero value to the readers.

“Don’t get me wrong, social media can be a very productive activity for business. But unfortunately creativity is not scalable. Great social media managers and leaders are a rare breed, but a lot of them get exhausted over time and stop being quite so great.

“Is Instagram popular by being active in Instagram itself? Is Tesla’s $50bn valuation the result of having an amazing Facebook page? Are people eating McDonald’s food because they do an amazing job promoting themselves via YouTube? The answer is no.

“Even with no social media channels, or limited activity on SM channels, every business can be popular. All it needs is the right digital strategy based on true values, not tools of execution.”

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