Consumers use websites to discover, research and buy – so why do so many franchise websites fall short?
When it comes to people’s experience of your brand online, expectations have never been higher in terms of speed, security, content quality and design. In fact, 40% of web users will give your website roughly three seconds to load before they give up and move on. But many businesses in the UK, both small and large, are struggling to keep up with the pace of digital change.
A select committee report in June this year found that Britain faces a digital skills crisis that could affect productivity and cost the economy around £63bn a year, while another report in 2015 from GoDaddy, the domain-name registry, revealed that around 60% of small businesses don’t even have a website. And franchises are no exception. “Franchisors in the UK have quite a traditional approach to marketing and that’s true of their websites too,” says Nick Strong, who delivers digital training courses through his role as managing director at Franchise Intelligence, the growth consultancy.
It does seem that some franchises could be missing a trick. “The franchise industry is still learning about the value of websites,” says Alex Cavell, PR and marketing director at Bluebird Care, the care franchise. “Most franchises stick to what they’re good at so if they have an offline business that’s very operational or people-oriented, digital only gets what’s left over from the budget once traditional marketing has eaten it up. But if you stop investing in your website it will quickly become dated.”
And one area where the lack of budgetary commitment is most apparent is web design. “If you compare the look of franchise websites with other websites, we look old-fashioned,” says Cavell. “People expect to see video, imagery and animation that’s so good it rivals the stuff Disney produces.” With the rise of video- and image-based platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, people see the world through an increasingly visual lens and simply don’t have the time to wade through long brochures – especially at the start of their journey. “Franchises are missing out on leads because they’re burying their contact details and making people go through pages and pages of copy,” Strong adds. “That’s a rookie mistake.”
The digital barriers
So what’s holding some franchises back? While there is a lack of practical digital skills across all sectors and age groups, the real problem may lie further up the chain with an ageing leadership team. “Most directors tend to be in their 50s,” Strong says. “Many of them are embarrassed and only embrace what they understand, which can be quite limited. Digital is a huge chink in their armour.” And without commitment from the top, it’s easy for franchises to turn into laggards when it comes to investing in the latest technology.
The lack of digital know-how is also creating a culture of fear. As it is, Strong believes there’s a certain predisposition in the industry toward avoiding anything risky. “Franchising is built upon the reliability of historic achievements that you aim to replicate,” he says. “That means there’s a cautiousness about doing anything that isn’t proven.” What’s more, social media is making it easy for negative stories to be amplified while brands are finding it harder to control their own narrative. “We’re all publishers and the CEO is now eyeball to eyeball with the customer,” Strong adds. “This terrifies senior management.”
This sense of dread often results in franchise websites becoming static documents – something you might update at the start of each year and then leave for months. Risk-averse franchisors often put layers upon layers of approval processes in place before something can get uploaded – a long way from Facebook’s “move fast, break things” motto. But this is a mistake when people are using your website to find out more about you. “Your website should be a moving, evolving asset – not just a digital version of your brochure,” says Cavell.
Besides, attempting to retain complete control is a futile mission. “They can’t stop it,” Strong warns. Instead, he believes in educating directors to remove their sense of vulnerability. And beyond senior management, it’s equally important to share digital know-how throughout the network while recognising that not everyone will be at the same stage of their digital journey.
At Bluebird Care, Cavell and his team have created around 200 microsites to help franchisees deliver localised content. At the start of the project, Cavell discovered that while some franchisees were able to take on the managing of their website and run with it, others preferred head office to upload the content for them. Additionally, franchisees were given a huge amount of hand-holding on everything from the company’s tone of voice to the use of photography. These microsites now form an “extremely important part” of the company’s marketing mix and an increasing number of enquires come from them. Part of the reason for their success is that the digital team has managed to balance giving franchisees the autonomy to execute a localised digital content strategy with ensuring consistency and head office oversight. “We’ve shown our franchisees that people don’t want to just read about head office: they want to know what we’ve been up to at a local level,” Cavell says.
But is a website really that important in today’s multichannel world? Cavell believes they play a critical role at every stage of the customer journey. “More and more people are using websites to learn, research and make decisions,” he says. And while social media is important, Twitter’s decision last month to axe Vine, its video platform, demonstrates the dangers of relying on a third-party platform at the expense of investing in your own website.
There’s also a massive opportunity cost for those who ignore their website. “The few bright lights that do invest in their website are getting ahead of the more nervous franchises,” Strong concludes. “The website will continue to be an important hub.”