People crave stories, especially when they’re about other people. In fact, according to a report by Headstream, the content-marketing agency, 79% of British adults want brands to tell stories and two-thirds thought those that were about regular people worked best. Unfortunately, 85% couldn’t cite an example of a memorable brand story they’d come across recently.
Many franchises already recognise the power of telling stories about their franchisees for both recruitment purposes and in order to give their brands a more personal dimension. “Whether it’s reading about a mum juggling family with work or somebody who’s overcome a challenge, people respond well to things they can relate to and that make them think ‘I could do that’,” says Natalie Sanderson, managing director at Sublime Public Relations, the communications agency.
Another convert is Ian Christelow, master franchisee of ActionCOACH UK, the business-coaching service that routinely highlights franchisees in its marketing collateral. “It’s about telling the human story,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a chocolate bar or a professional service; people buy things based on emotion more than logic. I’d say it’s usually a case of 80% emotion and 20% logic.”
So what exactly is the anatomical makeup of the kind of people-centric story that would make someone sit up and take action? “It has to contain an element of human interest,” says Sanderson. “What can also help is using statistics to give it credibility or hooking it onto something topical that’s already on the news agenda,” she adds. The trouble is, franchisees are often doing amazing things but don’t even realise they have a story to tell, so its up to the franchisor or marketing team to carry out story-mining exercises and be adept at knowing when one is staring them in the face.
Creating storytelling engine If you’ve traditionally relied on promotional content or focused on the franchisor rather than franchisees, Christelow warns that it can take time – even years in ActionCOACH’s case – to start seeing results. It requires a concerted effort to put a process in place in order to sniff out and then tell more people-centric stories. “As you start building a bank of profiles, you should try to develop a good relationship with the network by going to conferences and events and actively looking out for stories so you get to know franchisees better,” says Sanderson.
But not everyone may be comfortable with being in the spotlight and may need some coaching. “The British don’t tend to be major self-promoters,” says Sally Anne Butters, director at Rev PR, the public-relations agency specialising in the franchise sector. “That’s where your questioning techniques can help them come out of their shell.” Butters believes that if you ask the right questions about not just their business successes but about their personal life too, you’re more likely to stumble across an interesting nugget to build a story from. It also helps if franchisees understand the purpose of being involved and what the value to them is. At ActionCOACH, for example, an internal newsletter rounds up all the positive coverage franchisees have received, which spurs others to put their hands up and share their story.
That being said, not everyone will be a suitable candidate and it’s important to recognise when a story just won’t work externally. “Sometimes the information you’re getting is just not meaty enough and you have to face facts and move on,” says Sanderson. “There’s no point in creating a story that has nothing to it.” One of the reasons why a franchisee might not be forthcoming with the details is that while they’re comfortable talking about their business or successes, they might not want to share personal or sensitive anecdotes. But its exactly those probing questions that will uncover information that makes a story feel genuine, rather than something masterminded in a slick PR department.
The franchisor also needs to resist the urge to give people the hard sell. “Naturally I’m very proud of our franchise but at the same time I know that it’s far more effective to take an indirect approach or you’ll end up pushing people away,” explains Christelow.
Butters couldn’t agree more, emphasising that the content should be told in people’s own words and not feel like it’s self-serving. “If it doesn’t feel authentic, it might backfire.” If a story is lacking in any tension or challenges and starts to feel a bit formulaic, you might need to be more disciplined about reining in the urge to boast.
More than words
When making franchisees the star, it’s not just the content itself: the delivery and packaging is equally important. In today’s visually driven world, franchises are using a range of mediums to tell their story. Some are encouraging franchisees to manage their own social-media accounts to engage with people at a local level – a task the central marketing team would struggle with. As for imagery, stock photos don’t really scream authenticity and it’s important images aren’t just treated as an afterthought. “For one client, we made sure we shot the franchisees while they were working and tried not to draw attention to the photographer so the images would come out more natural rather than posed,” says Butters.
And ActionCOACH believes so much in the power of video that it’s created a dedicated production team and invested in state-of-the-art equipment so it’s able to produce around one video case study a week. For Christelow, the cost is easily justifiable. “We can’t have long conversations with everyone, so to a degree having videos of our coaches automates that for us,” he says. “Video case studies are a really important part of our marketing plan.”
Prepare for the worst
Of course shining a light on franchisees isn’t without its risks. “You can’t know everything about a franchisee at the start and skeletons can emerge from closets later on,” says Sanderson. “With social media, a crisis can develop instantly so it’s important to be prepared.” To protect your brand from any blowback if a franchisee gets embroiled in a negative story, both Sanderson and Butters prescribe a crisis management plan so the communications team knows how to respond. It’s also crucial that the people at the centre of the story are aware of the risks. “We ensure franchisees understand that by playing an active role in the company’s marketing material they’re essentially becoming brand ambassadors,” says Sanderson.
But when you add up the time spent hunting for stories, creating visual content and prepping for a potential crisis, putting franchisees at the heart of your marketing can be a big ask and many franchisors will wonder what tangible benefits the effort will bring. After all, while this strategy can create awareness early on, it can take time for that to translate into a sale. This is why ActionCOACH’s marketing team makes a point of asking potential franchisees how they came across the company to try and gauge the effectiveness of a piece of content.
And you can’t argue with the results: it’s seen a huge spike in franchise recruitment figures since overhauling its marketing strategy a few years back to focus on its people. “We used to sign up maybe 12 franchises a year but that’s more than doubled. One year we had over 80 new people joining our network,” says Christelow. “The returns of focusing on your franchisees are there but you need to be willing to invest in it.”