The social media exodus?
Dr Robert Cluley
Nottingham University Business School
In the middle of April 2018, Wetherspoons, a leading UK pub chain, announced that it would turn off its social media accounts. Instead of using Facebook, Twitter and so on, they said they would only distribute information on their website and in a printed magazine. Tim Martin (Law, 1977), the CEO of the company, proclaimed that he wanted to encourage consumers to spend more time socialising and less on social media.
Marketing commentators couldn't agree if the move represented impressive brand leadership, a bold PR stunt or reckless brand suicide. Time will ultimately decide. Certainly, the euphoria around social media is often based on a lack of understanding about how it works more than anything else but, if we dig beneath the headlines and controversy, how should we evaluate the move? Is it something others should consider? Indeed, is it something other brands will copy?
The first point is to note that, in marketing as in life, there is never a single answer. Brands, customers and their relationships are so different. What works for a fast-moving consumer good might not work for a high-end luxury product and probably won't work for an industrial product. With that in mind, social media might not be a particularly effective way to engage with Wetherspoons' customers. Yet, it might be a really effective way to engage with other customers.
Second, we have to recognise that social media is not an effective tool for every marketing problem. It's a great way to reach consumers with advertising. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow brands to target individual consumers based on a range of demographic and pyschographic measures. But it's not cheap. Indeed, as recent events prove, this form of data-driven marketing can alienate customers. There was a hope that it could be used to support innovation – allowing customers a voice in the design of products and services. This is rare. There was also a hope that consumers would willingly create and share branded content on social media – producing what one academic calls 'lean' advertising. This sounds good in theory, but it's rare for a brand to produce a truly viral video.
Finally, it is important to realise that social media itself is not one thing. There are different platforms which reach different consumers and allow brands to engage with customers in different ways. Indeed, social media is changing. Recently, it was forecast that more over-55 year olds would use Facebook in the UK than teenagers. So, where once it was a great way to reach young people, this is becoming less true.
If Wetherspoons' move does nothing other than encourage brands to question why they use social media, and to look at facts rather than hype, it will have had a huge impact. Even if none of them chose to follow them and abandon it completely.