[Opinion] Wetherspoon deletes all social media

“I can’t wait for the next Facebook post from Wetherspoon” thought nobody. Ever.

Has the pub chain become the first to admit that the Social Media Emperor wears no clothes?

Businesses typically race into social media thinking it’s a form of free advertising without understanding the platform dynamics and the true purpose and value of social, either to themselves or the billions of people using it.

For Facebook users (i.e normal people) the value is to connect with people. People use social media primarily to converse with their friends, family, contacts and community. Whether that’s posting photos of their holiday to chatting in a group. They’re not there waiting to Like or Retweet the latest update from Wetherspoon who, in a blaze of media updates this week, announced that they were quitting social media.

For businesses the value is to reach the right people at the right time with the right message, and social media – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in particular – have made this really simple. But most of it is NOT free, it’s paid advertising.

The problem with social media’s effectiveness stems from these businesses typically posting self-serving content that doesn’t provide any real value to people. It doesn’t entertain, educate or wow them. It’s more often “look at me!” and “buy now!”. Social spam if you will. As such users filter it out as if it was an unwanted ad and algorithms pick up on that disinterest and stop serving content from that commercial source.

Thus brands and businesses of all shapes and sizes effectively created a rod for their own backs, and Mark Zuckerberg’s way of dealing with this has been to continually reduce the ‘free’ visibility of their posts in the News Feed to the point where, unless they are highly creative and follow specific News Feed Optimization techniques, find their content is seen by practically nobody.

It’s quite common for only around 2-6% of a Facebook Page’s ‘fans’ to see the content, and even less on Twitter. So in Wetherspoon’s case with around 100,000 fans it means as few as 2,000 people might have seen their posts on average.

That might actually be acceptable if social media content wrote itself but developing good organic social media content is anything but free. The time and money taken to write those witty posts, take the photos, record the videos…it’s a sizeable sum. Even more so if you’re paying an agency or hiring people internally to do it for you. Multiply that by the number of physical locations, in the case of Wetherspoon, and you have a very hefty overhead for just 2000 sets of eyeballs.

Does this signal that we have reached peak social media?

The Gartner Hype Cycle

It appears that Wetherspoon’s Board finally got wise to the fact that for many brands social media is in Gartner’s trough of disillusionment right now. Social media promised so much – it appeared to offer free exposure and rapidly evolved to a popular alternative to old school PR, direct mail and expensive TV and media advertising. Plus it was easy. Employ a digital native, heck, throw the job to the intern, and watch those Page likes mount in response to your “Happy Friday” posts and updates about the latest menu addition.

For many brands organic work on social media is still climbing that peak of inflated expectations as they toil away with ever more creative approaches in an attempt to go viral. But believe us, social media nowadays is more of a pay to play medium than ever before and that bubble is rapidly bursting for many organisations previously intent on a ‘free’ organic-only approach. According to a Locowise study from as far back as 2016, over 43% of Facebook Pages were using advertising and in February 2018 it found that Pages used advertising to pay for 37% of their total reach. In 2018 it appears a guaranteed place on the Plateau of Productivity is only attainable with sizable ad budgets.

So should businesses ditch social media?

Does this all mean there’s no ‘free’ advertising opportunity for businesses on social media? Absolutely not! There’s plenty of opportunity to gain massive free exposure, but only if you know what you’re doing. Most do not invest in the right techniques or resources to master News Feed Optimisation (NFO), the Facebook equivalent to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Without knowing these “rules of the road” it’s really hard work.

Social media isn’t absolutely necessary for every business. Some, particularly local service businesses where there is a well-defined need or demand, may get much better results from some investment in paid ads on search engines.

But with well over 2bn people using Facebook, it’s not a platform you should ignore. There is plenty of opportunity to gain visibility, even if you don’t have the time to master NFO, particularly if you set aside some money to pay for some visibility.

In fact we would advocate a predominantly paid social strategy where you define clear goals upfront, goals that actually have a positive impact on your business. These could be conversions, loyalty or purchases (yes, actual sales!). Or if you’re trying to gain awareness you could measure by brand recall or whether someone would recommend to a friend.

Were Wetherspoon right to close all their social media accounts?

On the face of it Wetherspoon’s decision is a backward step, however if their social media and the team running their accounts were simply overwhelmed with complaints and customer service related issues amidst dreadful organic reach we can totally understand why they would decide to ditch it.

Users love to use Twitter to complain, Instagram to photograph their meals and Facebook to be informed of local events and new menu choices. But, for large companies like Wetherspoon social media is also a massive time suck. Managing those channels on that scale takes a battalion of skilled staff, 24/7 attention with the majority of the time spent fire-fighting complaints corporately that relate to a local outlet.

With the ever-evolving Messenger platform as well as Twitter, social media companies have made online customer service ‘easy’. Read: ‘easy for punters to complain and therefore massively increase the volume and frequency of complaints’. Wetherspoon customers are now being encouraged to talk to local pub staff rather than vent on social media although the reality is that customers will still continue to Tweet, they simply won’t have a corporate account to @tag or expect any reply.

By exiting their corporate accounts Wetherspoon have arguably lost control of the channel, and certainly have no voice there. But with their high volume, low margin approach to business, this Michael Leary-esque approach is almost to be expected. CEO Tim Martin rarely misses an opportunity to generate news about his business. Jumping on the #DeleteFacebook bandwagon has earned Wetherspoon more free publicity in a single day than millions of pounds of ad campaigns and social media support staff would have achieved.

As journalist Jon Card says: “Tim Martin is one of a handful of successful pub owners prepared to speak out and give opinions and commentary, as a result he has become a ‘go to’ figure for journalists. The result is that when he announces a change in his marketing strategy it becomes headline news and everyone is interested.”

We’d not be surprised if Wetherspoon are back on social media in some other incarnation at some point in the future. Their #DitchSocial strategy delivered masses of brand awareness and has given them a clean slate (and arguably with GDPR looming that’s what many organisations could be facing if they’ve not got permissions sorted out) to begin again.

Unlike the rest of the UK’s pub industry where profits are in serious decline, the Wetherspoon business model works. Pre-tax profits increased 16 per cent to £76.4m last year. As with Ryan Air, it’s a low margin, no frills approach to business that’s now also embracing a zero fluff and zero empathy approach to online activity.


Marie & Carlton

About Marie & Carlton

Marie and Carlton are Directors of The Digiterati. They frequently co-write articles for our blog and others, including Smart Insights. They enjoy receiving comments from readers so be sure to have your say!