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Is social media bad for business?

Wetherspoons is an absolute student staple – after all, who hasn’t paid a visit to the Benjamin Satchwell on a Leamington night out? The pub chain hit the news this last week after it announced that it was quitting social media, telling its 44,000 Twitter followers that its head office and pubs were going to quit the site (as well as Instagram and Facebook) with immediate effect. Its chairman, Tim Martin, stated that the move was linked to “current bad publicity” surrounding social media, citing the trolling of MPs and the recent Facebook scandal as examples, and the addictive nature it incites – but is this all there is too it? And nowadays, can a business survive without social media?

Wetherspoons was never innovative with social media and will instead focus on using its website and its printed magazine, Wetherspoon News, to issue news stories and information. Martin stated that the brand would also keep the press informed of key developments. In an interview at the end of 2017, Martin said that he believed social media in general was challenging the business of pubs – prior to it, “if you want to socialise you had to get out of the house and see people and the main place that people met up was the pub.”

Martin said that he believed social media in general was challenging the business of pubs…

It has been suggested, however, that there may be more to this decision than the chain has indicated. In October 2017, Wetherspoons was the victim of a PR disaster when a parody account claimed staff at its pubs would be banned from wearing Remembrance Day poppies due to ‘expanding multiculturalism’ – it was forced to issue a statement emphasising that account was not official, but a lot of damage was done.

Wetherspoons also attracts a large number of millennial punters – an age group that is both far more likely to use social media and was far likelier to have backed Remain in the EU referendum. This matters because Martin is a staunch Brexiteer, and he brought Wetherspoons into the Brexit debate by printing ‘Vote Leave’ beermats which urged voters to take back control. The brand came under fire on Twitter, with one user requesting that Martin ‘leaves politics out of pubs’.

He brought Wetherspoons into the Brexit debate by printing ‘Vote Leave’ beermats which urged voters to take back control…

Now, the question is whether or not the brand will suffer because of this move – Wetherspoons’ PR man Eddie Gershon said that he doesn’t believe it will have “any impact” on the company’s PR, and noted that he didn’t even particularly like Twitter. The official Wetherspoons account didn’t really form a key part of the company’s strategy, posting infrequently (normally with an image of a menu item) and receiving little engagement. Tara Rooney, a lecturer in strategic marketing and the Dublin Institute of Technology, notes that “social media accounts add value if they’re used cleverly and if you use it as platform to enable customers to converse with you” – in the case of Wetherspoons, the lack of a strong social media strategy means it is easier for the company to get rid of. It also benefits from the fact that it boasts a physical presence and an established brand name – it would be a lot harder for an online-only company to do the same because they do not have a face-to-face channel with customers.

If you look at any of the Wetherspoons accounts, you’ll notice a lot of complaints – for the company, its social media was a customer service channel first and foremost. Managers could spend hours of their time going through these complaints and managing their individual branch’s social media presence, and Martin thinks it is a “waste of time” (something, he says, that some 90-95% of his managers agree with). The suggestion is that customers will have to speak to staff in the pubs in the event of issues, and that the need to actually speak to somebody will help customers cool down and reduce the number of trivial complaints.

The need to actually speak to somebody will help customers cool down and reduce the number of trivial complaints…

Scrapping social media would not work for every company (and Martin hopes that other companies don’t try to emulate him, stating that he now has an advantage because his competitors are spending time on social media). Global spending on digital marketing and advertising last year was estimated at £159 billion, so the industry isn’t going anywhere – however, as social media comes under more fire, keep an eye open for companies potentially reconsidering how they approach it. And, if you’re worried that you’re going to miss Wetherspoons too much, head to the Twitter account dealing solely with its carpets – it’s everything you could want and more!

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