Making friends and influencing people

Creating an online community can help franchises reach a bigger audience. But doing so is easier said than done

Making friends and influencing people

Given that research from Harvard Business School has pointed out that building great customer relationships could boost a company’s profits between 25% and 95%, franchises depend on their ability to engage with their clients. Thankfully, the rise of social-media platforms has provided franchisors and franchisees alike with the unprecedented opportunity to become intimately connected with their customers by creating and nurturing online communities.

While some franchisors may initially opt out of using these new platforms, feeling more comfortable with traditional offline marketing methods plenty of people in the industry are waking up to the benefits online communities can bring for their businesses. According to a survey by Retortal, the social-media-management platform, 62% of SMEs use social media to promote their business. “Online is far, far better,” says Richard Dancy, senior marketing manager at Barking Mad, the dog-boarding franchise.

One of the primary benefits to taking things online is that costs are lower. While franchises do have to splash out to boost the visibility of content in people’s Facebook feeds, it doesn’t cost a single penny to just post something that people will respond to, whether that’s a news story or a video of a dancing dog. “Franchises should spend more on online as it will be better for their turnover,” says Dancy. In light of this superior ROI, he advises franchisors to opt out of paying around £15,000 to have a stand at an exhibition and invest that money in a part-time employee managing online communities. “There’s no contest: the benefit of that is much greater,” continues Dancy.

One of the reasons businesses rely on online communities for their marketing efforts is because an increasing number of people have an account on social-media platforms. “And you have to be where people are,” says Dancy. Indeed, it’s predicted that 62.5% of the British population will be active on social-media platforms by 2021, according to Statista, the statistics portal. That’s roughly 40.8 million potential customers just waiting for franchises to grab their attention. “We need to tap into these channels and engage with them,” says Julie Clabby, founder at Busylizzy, the post-natal fitness, baby and toddler class franchise.

But the growing online population is only part of the reason why franchises should seriously consider making online communities part of their marketing mix. Another factor is that it gives them direct access to their local market. “Customers want to see companies’ presence in their neighbourhood,” says Dancy. By creating local pages, franchisors can use their franchisees to create a direct line of communication with their customers, whether they’re in London, Liverpool or Leicester. “People are part of local communities, both offline and online, and to be involved in them is far better and cheaper than buying TV or newspaper ads,” says Dancy.

However, while understanding the potential of these communities is one thing, successfully utilising them is a different matter entirely. A good way to start is to get to know the people you’re targeting. “Find out what they’re interested in,” says Roz Sheldon, joint managing partner and head of client services at Igniyte, the online-reputation-management firm. Looking into who they’re following and using analytics is certainly a good way to start that research. Another is to simply talk to customers face-to-face when they come into your establishment and ask them directly what they’re interested in. “You can also look at your competitors, see what they do and work out if you can do it better,” continues Sheldon.

Additionally, this research must take into account that your community on Facebook may be very different from the people you engage with on LinkedIn. “It’s really important to understand which parts of your audience hang out on which platform and how that affects the way your message will look,” says Clabby. Realising the difference between what audiences on different platforms want to hear will enable a franchisor to tailor their posts to each group and ensure the message matches the medium. “Don’t just bang out the same content across everything,” says Clabby. “You have to be more strategic than that.”

While franchisees are franchisors’ most valuable asset when it comes to engaging with online communities, giving them too much freedom could have some negative consequences. “If someone has a bad experience on a local franchisee’s page, they could end up avoiding the rest of the network,” says Sheldon. To avoid that from happening and to ensure that each franchisee puts up high-quality content on their page, franchisors are well-advised to set up guidelines for their online behaviour. “This should include how they handle your branding and imagery, as well as how they talk to people,” says Sheldon.

Still, while having guidelines may help, it doesn’t hurt to have additional security in place to avoid franchisees committing any social-media mistakes. “Our social-media manager ensures that our main page is perfect and that nothing slips through the cracks on our franchisees’ pages,” says Clabby. Not only does this social-media manager ensure that all content is up to snuff but they also check that franchisees are engaging with customers and posting things frequently. “If you have a social media page that isn’t updated in two weeks, your audience is going to fall off,” says Clabby. “Even if it’s just copying something from the main corporate page onto theirs, that’s okay because it shows you’re there and that you’re connecting.”

Even though franchises have everything to win by establishing and nurturing online communities, they should think twice before abandoning all other marketing methods. “It should be a part of your marketing mix, not all of it,” concludes Clabby.

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson