Quitting Twitter and Facebook is a smart move for Wetherspoon

It makes business sense. Creating content is hard, and a good website is more valuable for them

JD Wetherspoon: ‘I don’t think they had a strong social media strategy to begin with.’ Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

JD Wetherspoon: ‘I don’t think they had a strong social media strategy to begin with.’ Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

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Wetherspoons pubs are perhaps better known for their cut-price drinks than their engaging social media output, but it’s not stopping the pub giant from talking what it believes to be a big stand.

A perfect storm of data privacy concerns, the addictive nature of social media and the trolling of MPs has given JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin pause for thought. With immediate effect, the pub chain is calling time on its social media accounts.

“We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business. I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever,” Martin said in a statement. “It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion.”

The trolling of MPs might sound incongruous, but there appears to be a method to the madness. Last year, the chain reportedly fell victim to a social media hoax after a fake tweet announced that employees wouldn’t wear Remembrance Day poppies. A social media pile-on ensued, so it’s likely that Martin, and Wetherspoon, have felt the burn.

That we’re spending too much time online is a given. Deloitte research estimates that Irish people check their smartphone 57 times a day on average (compared with a European average of 41 times a day), with many spending five hours of the day staring at phones.

And in a way, he’s right. A promotional post about free coffee refills and a new red wine added to their “cellar” isn’t likely to enrich our lives – or do much for the pub’s footfall.

Yet there’s an entire social media industry that would beg to differ with Martin’s contention that social media and business aren’t strictly hand in glove. Global spending on digital marketing and advertising in 2017 is estimated at €184 billion, and is on course to hit €270 billion by 2020.

Checking a smartphone 57 times a day? That classifies as a captive audience.

Others in the hospitality industry have used social media to wily effect. When he created Crackbird and Jo’Burger, restaurateur Joe Macken created #tweetseats, offering Twitter users who spread the word online the chance to eat for free.

Given that social media was in its relative infancy, it was a move that aligned him with an entirely new demographic of diners.

Paul Stenson’s White Moose Café would be just another Phibsboro spot jockeying in the great gentrification gold-rush were it not for his keen nose for a divisive tweet. Breastfeeding mothers, influencers, vegans, the gluten intolerant – he has taken a pop at them all, doubtless aware that salience is the holy grail.

“It really worked for us a few years ago but it’s not something we use as much, as it just became repetitive,” says Macken. “I personally have moved away from it. Actually, creating content for it is difficult and time consuming.

“I can understand why Wetherspoons did it – they have a huge brand, and 600 units,” he adds. “Do they even need social media? Is Facebook relevant to anyone under 21 anymore? I don’t think they care.”

“Social media is a nice to have rather than a must have,” asserts Darragh Doyle, head of community at FoodCloud and a social media consultant.

“I’d argue, given smartphone usage, that your business having a mobile optimised website appearing properly in search results – with opening hours, maps, services and, where appropriate, photos and videos included – are much more important and useful to customers than poorly updated social media accounts.

“Certain social media platforms are useful for bookings, enquiries, recommendations and reviews but it depends business-to-business and platform-to-platform.

“Too many businesses have been sold one-size-fits-all solutions by opportunistic social-media salespeople, without understanding the need or the opportunities each platform provides,” he adds.

“Certainly, in Ireland, if a business is on more than Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and perhaps LinkedIn, there’s either an excellent business case from an eager social media manager or a question that needs to be asked.”

On a practical note, social media has been a lifeline for other businesses – think how useful they were to disseminate information quickly and efficiently during Storm Emma and Storm Ophelia.

“Social media accounts add value if they’re used cleverly and if you use it as a platform to enable customers to converse with you,” says Tara Rooney, lecturer in strategic marketing at DIT.

“Think of the guy who tweeted to Virgin Trains that their toilet had run out of toilet paper. It went viral, and showed that they are good at listening to problems. Fáilte Ireland are also great at creating a dialogue, as they have a lot of user-generated content.”

Wetherspoons is effectively waving goodbye to 44,000 Twitter followers and moe than 100,000 Facebook followers, yet according to Rooney, the amount of likes or followers that a brand boasts (and boast they do) is barely worth mentioning.

“There’s a term called ‘shiny metrics’, and you can clock up tons of likes and shares but what’s behind them?” says Rooney. “Is it meaningful engagement just because someone liked the page to get involved in a competition for a free drink? If you’re looking at engagement, shiny metrics are at the lower end of the scale.”

On Wetherspoon’s decision to decommission their social media channels, Rooney adds: “I don’t think they had a strong [social media] strategy to begin with. When it’s not forming the pillar for your business, it’s a lot easier to get rid of. It’s a great PR exercise at any rate – they can turn around in another six months and charge everything up again.”

Yet there’s something about Wetherspoon’s stand against the toxicity of social media culture that seems an exercise in futility. Will other brands follow suit and clap back against online toxicity? Not likely.

“Social media is here to stay, and it’s all about how you manage that,” says Rooney. “A good social team will weather any storms that will arise, and if you have a target market in that Generation Z demographic, you need to remember that it’s a natural part of existence for them. It’s how they converse and engage.

“I don’t think there will be a deluge of firms following suit – this is one brand making one decision for strategic reasons.”

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