JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin has been criticised for closing the brand’s social media accounts, but it shows he’s brave enough to decide they don’t fit his target market or objectives.
It’s been just over 24 hours since JD Wetherspoon made the shock announcement that it would immediately shut down its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages. “Rather than using social media,” Wetherspoons announced on Monday, “we will continue to release news stories and information about forthcoming events on our website (jdwetherspoon.com) and in our printed magazine – Wetherspoon News.”
In this social media age, such announcements are unheard of. Replacing social media with a website? And a magazine? Surely this is commercial suicide? Wetherspoons’ founder and chairman Tim Martin was told on BBC News on Monday that many in the business world had already said that “this was a mistake” and that “companies have got to have profiles on social media”. Martin’s response was to beam, bright eyed into the camera.
The news and Martin’s genial acceptance of it quickly sparked a debate, ironically on social media, about the true motivations behind the blanket ban. Was this a very clever publicity stunt? Would Wetherspoons return, in a second storm of publicity, to social media in a few weeks? Had Wetherspoons’ chairman, a vociferous supporter of Brexit, been caught sharing his social media campaign with Cambridge Analytica and was he now attempting to cover his own malfeasance? These, and even more lunatic suggestions, have abounded.
In truth, the reality is more humdrum and impressive. Wetherspoons dropped social media for three major reasons. First, it was a total waste of time. A “distraction” was how Martin described it on the BBC and you can see his point. Despite all the coverage exalting the 44,000 followers on Twitter and 100,000 on Facebook, the harsh reality is that organic relationships like this are almost worthless.
If you stack up the number of followers brands communicate with on social media and then compare it to their actual customer base it represents a channel of low, single-digit potential. Social media is, for all intents and purposes, social – designed for people and not brands. Digital advertising makes a lot of sense because we can ride on the coat tails of this social interaction, but people connecting with brands organically on social media was BS from the beginning.
No business impact
Let me illustrate with some data. The average Wetherspoons tweet in 2018 managed to garner a total of six retweets and four likes. Wetherspoons serves three million pints a week. “We were concerned that pub managers were being side-tracked from the real job of serving customers,” Martin explained on Monday. “I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever.” You can see his point.
The second reason for the cessation of all social media activity is that Martin is a master of customer orientation. He would hate the title. Quite possibly laugh in my face at even the accusation. But it does not stop it from being true.
Martin is that rare and wonderful beast, a leader of a big company that still “walks the floor”. No big data. No artificial intelligence. No wank-trend agency to tell him what is going down with the customers. Martin does something all leaders in marketing should do, but almost never bother with. He goes down the pub.
Lots of them, actually. Martin tries to visit as many of his own establishments as he can. He likes to park his car on the other side of the town from his pubs. That makes no sense, until you realise why he does it. Martin likes to walk through the town, usually early evening, and just take in the state of the place and the toing and froing around him. I might call that ethnography, but again, Martin would shake his head in disgust.
Martin knows his pubs. Knows his staff. Knows his customers. Knows how they currently think and feel about things. And he can position Wetherspoons accordingly to ensure that, like any great brand, his company stands for what his target customers want it to stand for.
At the moment, Big Tim’s antenna is picking up a great deal of distrust and unease with social media among his customers. “The people who aren’t on social media wish that their friends weren’t either, because they seem to be obsessed by it. And people who are on it feel they can’t get off it because they are addicted,” explained Martin.
In making the move, Martin was certain of publicity, but more importantly he was certain of publicity that would help bolster Wetherspoons’ position as a no-nonsense, working person’s boozer. In branding terms, the subsequent global coverage of his decision to cull social media across TV, news media and the internet is worth approximately eight million tweets that no-one was reading anyway.