Developing a social media presence has become a ‘must do’ project for businesses of all varieties. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube offer so many possibilities, as well as global reach, either for free or at a negligible cost, that they are simply too good to be ignored. However, while the online world still offers similar benefits for franchising businesses, there are unique challenges to overcome. Franchises depend on maintaining brand consistency across every single one of their operations. While franchisees may indeed possess some independence, they still must operate within the parameters set out by the franchisor. Management is controlled and categorised, and this type of controlled regimen seems to jar with the fast, free and spontaneous world of social media. “
For all businesses there are lessons to remember when engaging on Facebook and Twitter. Firstly, they are primarily public forums and items posted can have enormous reach. Typically, users like people to behave in a transparent, honest and useful way. They can react badly if they feel someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes or abuse their trust. Furthermore, businesses can become spectacularly unstuck if they attempt to oversell their propositions. “
Choosing the right network
Franchises have moved tentatively into this arena and there have been some great successes. Barking Mad, established in 2000, provides an alternative to kennels for dog owners who are going on holiday. Instead, pets go to a home with a dog-lover who replicates the animal’s normal routine, meaning the animal returns ‘happy and not smelling of kennels’. In many ways, Barking Mad is an ideal business to be on social media, because if the public like to do anything online it’s sharing pictures of animals. “The main network we use is Facebook; it lends itself well to people who want to share pictures of dogs,” says Barking Mad founder Richard Dancy. Dancy says social media has brought in new business and a significant amount of new franchisees, so much so that it has become the company’s primary channel. “We only began using social media two years ago and it is now the most significant way we promote the business,” he says.
Users of social media groups are often very passionate about their interests. As a result, the community can guard against those who attempt to hijack them or that become abusive. Similarly, they can drive positive behaviour. Barking Mad has found that the community aspect of social media is very important. Although Dancy was initially concerned about the openness of Facebook groups, since then his fears have been allayed. “We worried that we would be opening ourselves up to abuse, but that hasn’t happened,” he says. “We haven’t had many negative comments but, when we do, everyone else answers them for us.”
For many people, social media is a part of their everyday lives but for a significant part of the population it is still something quite new and an area which they are wary about. For Dancy, helping his franchisees understand the nature of social media has been one of his biggest challenges. “The biggest issue for us has been people not understanding how social media works or what potential it has. We now provide training to all our franchisees. Sometimes you are waiting for that ‘light bulb’ moment when they get it.”
Franchises that want to utilise social media should be aiming to bring it formally into their training and support network. This is then an opportunity, not only to help franchisees understand, but also to learn what is acceptable. Sharon Bassett is co-founder of children’s sports coaching business A-Star Sports. The company promotes the business across a range of social media networks but this takes both time and planning, says Bassett. “We have a mixed model when it comes to managing social media, based on how supportive the networks themselves are and the direct benefit to franchisees. To support franchisees in the use of social media, we have a detailed brand guide, training materials and online one-to-one support,” explains Bassett.
In order to get the most out of its social media, A-Star Sports has begun using Facebook’s parent-child framework, which enables businesses to create a ‘parent page’ with full administration powers, and then child pages for each of its locations. “Last year we faced two challenges – how to ensure brand control and consistency across an increasing number of business pages and how to keep our franchisees at the forefront of effective practice,” says Bassett. “We discovered Facebook’s ‘parent-child’ development and sought support in transferring current endeavours into this structure, which is specifically designed for franchise businesses but not well-known in the UK.”
The transfer was “delving into the unknown” for Bassett, however it has now transformed the company’s Facebook interactions. “Effectively, this means that the franchisor can have brand control and manage national campaigns, as well as giving franchisees the freedom to post local news and offers and interact directly with their local market,” comments Bassett.
Social media is no quick fix and does require considerable time and effort. Dancy says he is considering employing another person to work on it, whereas Bassett says it’s a part of her daily routine. Crucially, though, both Barking Mad and A-Star Sports say their recent social media work has had a major impact on their bottom line. “Facebook referrals to our website have increased almost three-fold when compared to the same period last year. All prospective franchisees check us out on social media and it’s always a talking point at our first meeting,” says Bassett. Similarly, Dancy has seen a surge in business referrals. “We are getting regular customer inquiries via Facebook and we sold one franchise via LinkedIn. We made 24 franchise sales altogether last year, which is a record, so it has certainly been effective.””