JD Wetherspoon is quitting social media. Should your brand do the same?
JD Wetherspoon announced yesterday it will be closing all of its social media accounts connected to over 900 pubs and bars, due to concerns over the misuse of personal data and online abuse.
The UK High Street chain is set to remove its presence from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, adding that the move was to take a moral stance against social networks and their addictive nature.
In a statement yesterday, Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin said:
“We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business.
“I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever, and this is the overwhelming view of our pub managers.
“It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion.”
Seismic shift for social?
Author and futurist, Brian Solis, believes social networks are in the throes of an existential crisis unlike anything previously experienced, and that Wetherspoon's announcement is the latest in a long line of recent events that are indicative of a change in public mood towards social networks.
“10 years ago social media was predicted to be used in terms of positive propaganda and help people become more productive and build a better society.
“But even as a hopeless optimist I can see that social media is exposing gaps in society.
“Just last December we had Chamath Palihapitiya, a former VP at Facebook, saying social media is ripping apart society. Then we have had Cambridge Analytica, the issue with bots and all the while there’s seemingly no one taking accountability for their own behaviour right now because social media is still seen as ‘new’ and something of a social experiment.”
In March, Facebook was outed for allowing UK data firm, Cambridge Analytica to access and ‘harvest’ data from over 80m of its users, which is in turn alleged to have influenced both the 2016 US election result and Brexit, in the UK.
And last year it was revealed that nearly 50m of Twitter’s 320m+ users were bots, set up and used specifically to spread fake news stories around the web.
Even as a hopeless optimist I can see that social media is exposing gaps in society
People are seemingly turning away from social networks as a result. Facebook lost around 2.8 million U.S. users under 25 in 2017, with 2018 expected to be much worse, according to eMarketer. Twitter is said to be losing nearly 3m users per quarter. So, coupled with Wetherspoon's announcement, should brands now follow their lead?
Sean Farrington, a VP for customer feedback firm, Medallia says that, while the ethics behind Wetherspoon's decision may seem worthy, the brand risks losing its online voice on a channel which, regardless of the number of consumers leaving, still provides a simple connection tool to billions of people.
"In the world of commerce, to close the door on this vital channel and ignore the very powerful voice of the customer is a highly risky strategy.
"When used well, social media acts as an additional earpiece for brands, enabling them to get insight into what their customers like and don't like.
"We live in a 24/7 always-on society that loves to share and loves to voice their opinions. Blocking access to a tool such as this could have negative repercussions for a brand, something Wetherspoon might find out quicker than they'd like."
The dangers of ditching social
Stats from a recent study by Lithium Technologies suggests that brands would be losing out on a customer service channel still heavily favoured by consumers, if they were to undertake a social media blackout.
In the research The Future of Digital Customer Service it was found that 73% of consumers feel more comfortable now about reaching out to brands on social media than they did two years.
What’s more, in cases where they weren’t able to communicate with a brand via social media, 49% of consumers were left feeling less positive about the brand as a result and 30% considered taking their business elsewhere.
“Just because they’ve gone dark on social media it doesn’t mean their customers have, so they’ve just voluntarily given up their right of reply,” says James Royston, marketing director for radio brand, VQ. “I can’t imagine there are many marketing teams in the world looking for fewer ways to engage with current and potential customers.”
Making the business case
Many believe that beyond the ethical justification, Wetherspoon's decision is actually more likely aligned to one key sentence in its chairman Tim Martin’s announcement:
I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever
This admission highlights that for some brands, mere presence is no longer enough, and that social media must start providing genuine return on investment. It’s something businesses have grappled with for years, says Mark Brill, senior lecturer in Digital Communication and Future Media at Birmingham City University.
“The effectiveness of social media as a channel for brand engagement remains somewhat unproven. Whilst likes or reposts suggests a level of consumer interest, a study by AdMap six years ago found that just 0.5% of people who engage in this way could be counted as true brand fans.
“Clearly it makes sense for Wetherspoon but they are a physical business where they can deal with customers face to face. It would be a very different matter if a pure ecommerce business such as ASOS were to close their social media accounts. In the absence of stores, Twitter and Facebook are essential communication channels for service and reputation management.”
Reassessing social media ROI
However, Debby Penton, managing director for Wildfire PR and author of the report Surviving the post-social media apocalypse hopes the Wetherspoon decision acts as a catalyst for other brands to reassess the return on investment social media offers them.
“There is a strong message here to brands and businesses. Instead of investing time and energy broadcasting communications on all the latest social media platforms, they need to focus their attention on channels that drive genuine value. In fact, this has always been the case. But they need to recognise that in the era of fake news and low trust, consumers are reconnecting with the value of third-party endorsements and truly personalised communications.
“Brands need to turn their attention to building a trusted reputation and genuine advocacy.”
According to research in The Journal of Marketing, consumer trust in brands on social media is low and continuing to decline. And according to Wildfire's Surviving the post-social media apocalypse report, trust in fellow users and their data is also at an all-time low too.
Mark Brill says that this issue should now be the main priority for both brands and the social networks they reside.
“The most positive impact of the Wetherspoon strategy is that other brands will consider their responsibilities to their customers at a time when the use of personal data and individual addiction to social media has become central to the debate around digital media.”
About Chris Ward
Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.