Franchise Development 2016: Your Online Presence is a Critical Component

Franchise Development 2016: Your Online Presence is a Critical Component

Marketing isn't what it used to be. Your once tightly controlled brand identity is a thing of the past. We live in an dominated by social media, where literally everyone can share their opinion on what your franchise brand stands for. Supporters, detractors, activists... like them or loathe them, if you want to grow your franchise system you must know how this model works.

One of today's most critical keys to growing a franchise system is evolving into a brand that can honestly demonstrate the answer to the question: "Do they love you, or just know who you are?" The difference has proven to be critical in providing a franchise candidate with the confidence needed to move to close--as well as in improving metrics from historically lackluster closing effectiveness rates (typically about 1.5 percent of total leads generated) to levels more akin to those reserved for when a brand has been "referred" (typically at and above 5 percent of total leads generated).

A case in point

As part of a recent keynote speech on behalf of an emerging brand in the category, we set out to demonstrate how traditional content on franchise websites fails to demonstrate brand superiority (if it ever could). We took the online language describing how the brand differentiated itself from its top competitors and stripped it of all of its branding and references to who specifically said it by name. We presented it to the audience, asking executive management and franchisees alike to identify which was theirs. Among the 50-plus franchisees, all corporate executives, and team members in attendance, fewer than 3 in 10 (28 percent) could identify their brand from the competition in this simulated test. This raises a critical question: If you can't identify yourself out of a lineup, how can you expect your customers and prospects to do so? This illustrates our point that it's no longer who you say you are, but who they say you are.

The truth is that your brand promise is no longer owned by corporate marketing. It is instead molded, refreshed, and propagated daily by your customers and others. Online reviews, smartphones, and social media are not passing fads. But can they be useful to your franchise recruiting and development efforts? Or are they just distractions from the true work of sales and recruiting, and best left to the marketing department?

We believe that effective management of your online presence, including social media, is a critical component of your franchise development strategy. Why? Your franchise brand will be made or lost based on its local and network's "social proof." There also is no better way to illustrate that your organization knows how to get found and manage customers at the local level, which is where it really counts.

At the conference mentioned above, we found a very marketing-savvy CEO and founder looking to accelerate the brand's growth of new licensees, as growth had stalled in recent years. We offered to conduct an analysis of the strength of the brand's online presence to determine influencing factors. To that end, we were offered approximately 10 franchise performers to study the effectiveness of their online campaigns and social presence. Here's a sample of what we discovered.

  • Of the online sites where they desired to have a presence (e.g., LinkedIn, Instagram, Google Maps, Google+, Yelp, Facebook), they were missing from 20 of their 30 preferred online social sites and search engines.
  • Significant issues and errors in their franchise listings, with a rating of 23 percent out of 100.
  • Brand inconsistencies from location to location as franchisees either had their own websites or multiple sites, given that the franchisor had provided microsites in an effort to create brand consistency.
  • Keywords that showed very little symmetry or consistency.
  • A search engine share of "voice" versus that of local competitors showed that they were barely being discussed in social media circles in their own markets against keywords they hoped to dominate.
  • Content that failed to be maintained, and n
  • No responses to comments made by customers who posted reviews (good or bad), demonstrating an apparent apathy in listening or responding.
  • Finally, in most cases, a sheer lack of any online reviews. The top franchisee in the system had a total of only 40 reviews.

These statistics should be viewed from the perspective that franchisors who can't demonstrate that they can generate interest and passion from their own customer base will fail to convert prospects that otherwise initially bought into the brand's marketing propaganda. After all is said and done, these metrics can be the best predictor of what potential franchisees might experience in terms of the effective management and leadership from the support center.

Expanding the loop

Gathering customer insight has traditionally been a marketing function, but your franchise development team cannot afford to be out of the loop in regard to socially driven customer intelligence. Look at it this way: a well-defined and properly executed sales process is critical, but there are many other data streams you can leverage to improve your franchise recruiting and provide your candidates with the certainty that you "get" today's consumer.

The most prominent of these data streams are the online reviews available to everyone through Yelp, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Angie's List, and many other online sources. Being able to see and understand what your prospects and customers think about your products, services, and employees at the local level is the ultimate leg up for successful development--if you put this data to use.

According to the 2015 Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising report, online reviews rank third for trust, behind only personal references and branded sites. The report also found that 83 percent of respondents said they are likely to take action on recommendations from people they know, followed by consumer opinions posted online at 66 percent.

What you can do

We are witnessing a massive shift in consumer buying behavior. The smartphone has become a "recommendation engine" that virtually everyone carries with them throughout the day. What does this have to do with franchise recruitment? Simple: lacking any other information, would you be more inclined to buy a two-star cupcake or a five-star cupcake? The same logic applies when people shop for a franchise to buy.

Still not convinced that bad reviews cost you money? A Harvard Business School study found a one-star rating decrease can reduce revenues by nearly 10 percent. It literally pays to stay on top of all reviews posted about your business.

Branding and are customer-focused functions that belong to the marketing department. But your candidates are watching, too. They will notice if your brand is connecting and engaging with prospective customers. To do that and compete effectively, your brand must now be prepared to do the following on a regular basis:

  • Optimize local directories (to get found).
  • Monitor reviews at the local level (to be in the know).
  • Respond appropriately (to show you care).
  • Leverage customer insights throughout your organization.
  • Illustrate to candidates you know what it takes to be successful in 2016 and beyond.

When your brand executes well on all hese points, your candidates will see that and know that: 1) you're going to help them connect with prospective customers in their location, and 2) you do other things right too. If you want to be seen as a brand on the move in 2016 and beyond, then show up as one. Demonstrate to your customers and candidates that your brand isn't just known. It is loved.

Keith Gerson, president and chief client advocate of FranConnect, has more than 40 years of franchise executive experience. Tim Johnson is the former founder of and CEO of Process Peak, which was acquired by FranConnect, where he now serves as president of brand development. Visit to learn more.

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