Cosmetics firm Lush is closing its social media accounts. What are the arguments for and against abandoning social networks?
This week British cosmetics firm Lush has announced that it is to close its UK social media accounts in protest at having to pay to appear in newsfeeds and battle against algorithms.
In a statement on Twitter bemoaning that “social media is making it harder and harder for us to talk to each other directly”, it said that it had decided it was time to “bid farewell” to some of its social channels and “open up the conversation” between itself and its customers, encouraging consumers to reach out via email, live chat and telephone instead.
The Facebook, Twitter and Instagram LushUK profiles will be closed, despite the accounts having hundreds of thousands of followers - LushUK has 202,000 Twitter followers and 569,000 on Instagram, while more than 423,000 have liked the page on Facebook.
The news follows last year's announcement from UK High Street chain JD Wetherspoon that it too would be closing all of its social media accounts connected to over 900 pubs and bars.
The UK High Street chain deleted 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 at the time, 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.”
So, with both Lush and Wetherspoon's both abandoning social media, should other brands follow their lead?
An existential crisis for social media?
In the statements from Lush and Wetherspoon’s, both brands express their displeasure at social media’s influence on society. Certainly this is in step with a growing backlash against the likes of Facebook, even if millions are still using these networks on a daily basis.
Author and futurist, Brian Solis, believes social networks are in the throes of an existential crisis unlike anything previously experienced, and that the announcements are the latest in a long line of recent events that are indicative of a change in public mood.
“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.
In many ways, Lush is picking up on a broader trend where consumers are increasingly critical of social media.
“Recently 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.”
Last year, 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 in 2017 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.
People are seemingly turning away from social networks as a result. Facebook has an estimated 15 million fewer US users today than it did in 2017, while the social network's own statistics reveal that it has lost a million daily and monthly active users from Europe . Twitter, meanwhile, is said to be losing nearly 3m users per quarter.
Dr Zoetanya Sujon, acting programme director in communications and media at London College of Communication, UAL, notes: “In many ways, Lush is picking up on a broader trend where consumers are increasingly critical of social media. From the rise of fake news, mass surveillance by governments, such as the NSA and GCHQ, and non-consensual collection of personal data, such as Cambridge Analytica and shadow profiles, many people have had enough of social media's sometimes questionable data practices. Lush, in this sense, is forging a new direction, one that echoes an underlying trend resisting social media's ever-prying eyes and constant data collection.”
Greg Consiglio, COO at social media platform Connectt, is in agreement.
“Lush’s bold decision to step away from social media surprised many but made absolute sense in 2019. The announcement is the latest indication that there is a sea change underway when it comes to social media management and how brands build authentic relationships with their customers. They are not the only brand to vent frustration at platforms whose algorithms dictate the user experience and force advertisers to pay to reach customers they brought to the platform in the first place."
The dangers of social media
But there are also dangers associated with abandoning a touchpoint used by such vast numbers of consumers.
Medallia's Paul Turner warns that by abandoning social media, brands risks losing their 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.
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.
"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."
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.”
Will Lush lose control of its customers?
Andrew French, GM EMEA at Smartly, is unconvinced by Lush’s arguments to leave social media.
“Typically, brands will always look to target their customers wherever they are online. With such a large percentage of time spent on social media, Lush's decision to remove their main accounts means that it will get harder for consumers to find and interact with them. They will still likely use social channels via a community of influencers, meaning Lush won't be completely removed from social media. Therefore the move seems to just limit their possibilities to interact with their consumers.
“This does mean that Lush will lose much of the control of what its audience sees online. It will no longer have as much influence over creatives or messaging on social media, and that could impact their revenue opportunities. Instead of fighting the algorithms brands should embrace them and utilise the constantly changing possibilities new channels and formats offer to interact with customers.
The biggest danger of abandoning it could mean alienating your community and risking client loyalty - a fact that is clear in consumer feedback to Lush's announcement on Twitter.
“Communicating via social media in a personalised and relevant way is a very customer-centric way of sharing information, offers and news. If Lush is reluctant to spend money on social advertising, then they don't have to, but removing such a valuable touchpoint for consumers all together may frustrate them into finding an alternative retailer."
Dr Sujon adds: “Social media is so dominant, the biggest danger of abandoning it could mean alienating your community and risking client loyalty - a fact that is clear in consumer feedback to Lush's announcement on Twitter, for example.
"In addition, social media is the most popular channel for user engagement so opting for live chat, and other niche kinds of content delivery, could mean losing out on potential clients, as well as excluding those uninterested in exploring the next innovation. In my opinion, mediums such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, allow brands, like Lush, to appeal to ordinary users, as well as those more closely aligned to Lush products and values. Moving away from social media could exclude those existing customers who follow and engage with the Lush brand on social media.”
Martin Newman, an e-tail and retail expert who’s headed up multichannel operations for brands like Harrods, Ted Baker and Burberry for 37 years, is unsurprised that there has already been some negative reactions to the announcement on social media from Lush's customers.
“I think it’s a very bold move. However, I believe that it potentially removes a layer of transparency as consumers might think you don’t want to face into any customer service issues in public. I think it will have a detrimental impact in the short-term upon consumers’ perception of the brand.
“I don’t think it should be one and not the other. To be truly customer-centric you need to be in the channels where consumers want to engage with you. And I really believe that the more open and transparent you can be as a business the more trust and good will you generate with customers, which in turn feeds through into sales and customer lifetime value.”
Could leaving social media pay off?
So would brands be wise to ignore the track that Lush and Wetherspoon’s have taken? Is abandoning social media commercial suicide? Against a backdrop of increasing scrutiny of social networks and growing concern about privacy, there is certainly an argument that companies that have established themselves a very powerful ethical brand could survive and perhaps even thrive without such a significant customer touchpoint. But it perhaps depends very much on the company, its brand and its products.
For instance, Nimesh Shah, head of marketing at Feel Good Contacts, believes that the move could benefit Lush because of the nature of their service and products.
"Whilst Lush's move away from social media could be considered a PR stunt, if it is a genuine business move, it may not be the worst idea for them. Lush relies on consumers coming into the store to truly experience the brand, and this isn't something they can easily get across on social. When you go into one of their stores, the music is loud, the staff are plentiful and helpful, and they encourage every single customer to try before they buy. This goes to the extent of the employees actively using products like soaps and moisturisers and getting the customers involved in upbeat demos. This is all contributing to the Lush experience.
If Lush is tapping into the deep-seated frustrations that consumers have about social media's invasive data collection practices, they will develop a loyal and passionate audience - so watch this space.
“When so much of your marketing and advertising relies on the hands-on activities and emotionally-led experience in store, it can be extremely hard to replicate this on social media. Arguably, they still could have done emotive content with videos, and focused on the visuals of their product, but, this may just pay off for them as a brand looking to connect with people more in person, and less through screens."
Consiglio believes that more companies will begin to step away from social media. “I believe we’ll see an evolution rather than exodus," he predicts. "Rather than leaving the major social media platforms wholesale, brands will evolve their focus: away from the vast networks of today, where they’ve little control or insight, to smaller targeted communities where they can engage with relevant consumers, away from the noise and with greater control over their own social experience.
“These will be focussed environments where customers and advocates can better connect around a common theme, without the issues of all aspects of their customers’ lives competing for new feed attention along with fake news and third party algorithms dictating their brand experience
“It’s dialling back to what social media used to be: passion-driven communities, uniting people who share a common interest – be they brands, neighbours, parents, students, shoppers, entrepreneurs or any group of like-minded individuals.”
For brands that are still seriously considering following suit, Dr Sujon has the following advice.
“Be smart. Be clear. Listen to your audience, and think about the integrity of the data you collect from your clients. The myth of personalisation is more convincing for business than it is for clients, so know your audience and respect their privacy rights. If Lush is tapping into the deep-seated frustrations that consumers have about social media's invasive data collection practices, they will develop a loyal and passionate audience - so watch this space.
“Lush may, indeed, be forging a new path, well worth following. If you are thinking of doing the same thing, be sure to communicate your motivations to your audiences. In this climate, they may very well take notice.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.