The franchise industry’s success has been defined by uniformity and consistency, but with the advent of tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, even this century-old industry is being shaken up by social media. Indeed, as potential investors rely less on industry trade show and franchise publications for information and turn more to their social networks and blogs, franchisors are finding it necessary to invest more of their time testing out the social media waters. “Social media platforms are quickly becoming an important part of franchise companies’ marketing strategies, especially in a time of lower marketing budgets,” says Alisa Harrison, vice president, communications and marketing at the International Franchise Association (IFA).
According to a recent study released by Aberdeen Group, 63 percent of companies plan to increase their social media marketing budgets in 2009, despite the current state of the economy. Meanwhile, consumers are beginning to expect companies to have a social media presence. “Ninety-three percent of Americans expect companies to have a social media presence and are using [social media] to participate in conversations, engage with brands, and find job opportunities,” says Gini Dietrich, CEO of Arment Dietrich, a communications firm specializing in franchise and business services.
Franchise companies are delivering on that expectation. Church’s Chicken tempted fans to join its Twitter feed by giving away $1 to every person who signed up during a 30-day period. Pizza Hut went on a hunt for a “twintern” — an intern who could use the Twitter lingo to keep fans up-to-date on Pizza Hut happenings. And Papa John’s launched its first Facebook-exclusive promotion in March.
Meanwhile, Computer Explorers is using social media tools to reach not only consumers but potential investors as well. The company has a franchise development YouTube channel where testimonies are posted from new franchisees, it has a Facebook page where announcements are posted advertising upcoming programs and videos, and it connects with others regularly via Twitter. “We have identified the profile of a Computer Explorer franchisee and are concentrating on social media search to engage those individuals,” says Deb Evans, president and CEO of Computer Explorers.
These franchise companies may be making headlines with their social media tactics, but they’re just leading the pack in what’s expected to quickly become a mass movement. “I think that social media will be adopted by 80 percent of the franchisors in the next two to three years,” says Joel Libava, aka “The Franchise King.” “But it won’t be called social media. It will just be the way we all do business.”
How can you use social media effectively? Here are some pointers to get you up to speed:
- “Prioritize your social networks and prioritize your time,” advises Dietrich. “If you are a business-to-consumer company, use Facebook — both fan pages and groups — and Twitter to meet your social media goals. If you are a business-to-business company, use Twitter and LinkedIn to achieve your social media objectives. Start with easy-to-achieve vehicles and build from there.”
- Stay informed by staying active. At the IFA’s annual conference in February, several sessions focused on technology and social media.
- Join forces with other franchisors. Evans at Computer Explorers conducts monthly conference calls with a small group of franchisor CEOs. The topic of conversation over the last few months has focused around social media.
- Just jump in. “Social media is not an exact science, so to engage, you need to jump in,” says Harrison. “It is such an evolving medium that it is hard to know all the answers before launching. Franchisors need to accept the idea that this is a ‘learn as you go’ frontier of communications and marketing, much like the Internet was not too long ago.”.
- For those franchise companies that are still a bit intimidated by the unknown of social media, Dietrich stresses that getting on board sooner rather than later is crucial. “If you’re not monitoring real-time conversations, if you’re not participating in the conversations, if your messages are still canned PR talk, if you’re scared of your general counsel, or if you just don’t have time, you will not have a business in a few years,” she says. “Social media is not a trend. It is the way we’re going to communicate into the future.”
Sara Wilson is a freelance writer who specializes in issues related to small businesses.