Was Wetherspoon Right? Does Social Prove Its Worth Beyond Vanity Metrics?

It can be, quite literally, a sobering thought when a company does something in digital marketing that goes against the grain. A good example came this week with the Wetherspoon pub chain shutting down all social media activity for its brand and all of its pubs.

Several hundred accounts were apparently closed, and the feedback from HQ seemed to be that social was being used too much and taking up too many man hours to run for little return. Plus, for a pub chain whose owner is a well-known ardent Brexiter, the abuse some MPs came in for on social was becoming alarming. 

So, nasty comments on platforms that were taking too much time to run meant a lack of revenue upswing could no longer be ignored. It kind of goes against everything that social media gurus would have us believe, but some recent research would tend to back it up. 

Marketing tech firm, Acquia surveyed consumers in the UK to find what they really care about when interacting with a brand. As Netimperative reports, a mere 4% cited they were bothered by how brands reach out to them on social media. If you want to pop another bubble, only just under 3% are bothered by personalisation. 

When it comes down to it, it turns out that two in three of us -- more than anything else -- just want a website that is easy to navigate. A site that looks good is important for just 13% and engaging content hits the spot for 11%. Make a good-looking site that is easy to navigate and fill it with compelling content and you can pretty much say 'job done!'

I'm always cautious about quoting figures from ad tech company research, because they are often self-serving PR exercises, but this one struck home to me. I'm sure it will with many internet users.

Sure, I have found that social media is a good way for brands to talk about new products and services, and I have bought from a handful over the years that I otherwise wouldn't have known about. However, the vast majority of my monthly or even annual spend has absolutely no correlation to social media activity. So social can be effective -- but for me, it has nowhere near the power the gurus would have us believe.

Same for personalisation. Highly targeted ads delivered to segmented audiences are obviously a great idea, but to follow this all the way to personalisation just seems too creepy to me, and I'm sure a lot of internet users would agree. Being stalked around the internet with retargeted ads is one thing, but imagine if everything we saw was data-driven around past activity with a brand -- or, even worse, on the wider internet. 

There is a fine line between segmentation -- driven by understanding different audiences' needs -- and building an entire experience around a single person. One feels useful, and the latter would definitely appear intrusive. 

I know as a digital dinosaur, the opposite of a digital native, but I found the Wetherspoon announcement this week interesting. It challenges the core belief that social is right for everyone. The pub chain in question absolutely knows who its key market is -- we all do -- people who want to sup low-cost alcohol for the longest time possible or eat a bargain meal on the right day to qualify for a discount.

I don't want to sound a snob, but I'm pretty sure this core market already knows where its nearest Wetherspoon is -- and that's why the decision was made to stop social media not that long after the chain shredded its email list. People in each town already know where the cheapest pub is to buy a round of beers. They don't need the key message to be repeated.

I suspect this is ultimately the rationale behind the decision that has prompted so many headlines. For me, I'd still keep social and email channels open to remind people of offers on food and beverages. If social was becoming too embarrassing to police, and if the remarks were too rude, then I'd at least have kept the email list going.

This going "off grid," in digital marketing terms, appears to be a step too far for me -- but there's still a part of me that agrees with the pub chain board. Will people buy less beer because their local pub is no longer putting up pictures on Instagram? I doubt it.

This whole episode is refreshing because it shows that we don't just have to accept what the gurus tell us, and smart business people are still doing very well by ignoring social and the vanity metrics or likes and shares. If you want proof beyond a UK pub chain, look no further than Apple. It's virtually non-existent in social, but the headlines seem to suggest it is selling rather a lot of smartphones. 

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