When it comes to a successful social media strategy, Valerie Kinney's advice for franchisors is succinct. "Stay focused, yet nimble," says Kinney, vice president of marketing for CertaPro Painters.
No longer on the fence about the value of social media, the franchise world is flocking to digital platforms to build, validate, and nurture business. While everyone may be doing it, most still grapple with how to best use digital content to connect with customers.
"Organizations often can get caught up on the new shiny social media object and lose focus on why they are doing social," says Kinney. "You are doing social to have a deeper engagement, to be where your customer already is, and to develop that relationship in a meaningful way with value-added content."
If you want your digital strategy to be a powerful part of a well-rounded franchise marketing program, consistency in the look and tone of every consumer touch point is key, and every social media move must be true to the brand promise, she says.
Any franchisor's online conversation begins by connecting with its customers in the places those customers are spending their time. On the consumer side, CertaPro has a presence on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter, and for franchise recruitment efforts turns to LinkedIn.
"For us, it's all about where our customers are. We aren't going into channels where our customers don't exist," says Kinney. While she is willing to innovate or test different channels, "It's simply that we only have limited time and resources, so we need to stay focused on where our customers are consuming social media."
With so many ways to be in touch online, social media has become a key factor in the customer buying cycle, and its influence stretches far beyond sales. Digital content, used wisely, can spotlight a brand as an industry authority and show the world, through peer reviews and validation, the loyalty of its customers. Blogs, reviews, video posts, and sharing can influence a buying decision or provide instant feedback on the quality of a product, service, brand, or location.
Social media's power to build business resides in its perceived credibility as a source of information. Current and prospective customers turn to their online peers to confirm what they think or know about a service or product, "to see if their perception of you as a brand is true," says Rosemarie Reed, vice president of marketing at Dream Vacations A Cruise One Company, CruiseOne's recently launched spinoff brand.
"If you aren't putting attention, resources, and advertising dollars into social media you are missing out on whole opportunities to reach and communicate with your customer," says Reed. "It is a layer within your marketing plan that has to be there, and it has to be cohesive and refer back to other layers."
Social media strategies are evolving as quickly as the applications and technologies behind them. Content is still king, but the look and feel of the information has changed drastically, even in the past year, says Reed.
Initially, consumers sought their education through articles published by what they viewed as a trusted source (such as a media outlet), rather than content presented directly from a perceived "biased source" (the brand or company website). Consumers now expect and trust user-generated and original online content.
In addition, lengthy text has been replaced by visual elements and strong imagery, says Reed. "If content is too long, they will tune out. They are skimming and don't have time to read a long article and draw a conclusion," she says. "Quick content video is being consumed at the highest rate among all content."
CertaPro generates social media based on users' interests and needs. Loyal customers will see content ranging from design and household tips to décor suggestions for specific spaces and trendy color combinations. The house painting brand uses "edutainment" to introduce itself to potential new customers with service offerings that educate in an "attention-grabbing manner," says Kinney. Her team uses video and movie and television parodies, color transformations, animated gifs, and blog articles with tie-ins to holidays and pop culture events.
Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill used all of its social media platforms to successfully cross-promote last November's launch of a new mobile online ordering and reward program aimed at the brand's Millennial and Gen X customer base.
The fast casual chain employs Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Google+ in its social media plan and tweaks its messages based on the particular strengths and attributes of each medium, says Ashley Moody, Costa Vida's director of marketing. Twitter, for instance, highlights the brand in the moment, Instagram gives followers a personal behind-the-scenes look, and giveaways and promotions suit the Facebook forum and lead customers back to the Costa Vida blog where readers can read about holiday entertaining hacks or "10 Signs Your Soul Mate Is Actually a Burrito."
Engaging and relevant content is the goal to a winning social media strategy, says Moody. "If it is centered too much around the brand, it gets boring," she says. "You have to change it up."
Social media marketing is also making it easier for brands and their franchisees to present a united front with a consistent, yet locally customized message.
When CruiseOne rolled out a year-long automated social program at no cost to franchisees in 2015, more than 320 franchisees enrolled in the first 10 days. The program blends a flexible mix of inspirational quotes, exclusive offers, and general travel tidbits based on research about how its customers and franchisees use social media.
"What we heard is that franchisees wanted to have more time to actually sell the products we offer, and not necessarily become expert marketers overnight," says Reed. "We needed to help support them and make sure it was simple and easy enough to execute on, and also understand the customers we wanted to target."
CruiseOne's social strategy has been accompanied by franchisee education on the importance of interacting with customers to optimize and supplement a cohesive message, but in warm and engaging way.
"You have to make sure your personality comes through and to personalize your messages, not just continuously put out offers or saturate someone's newsfeed, or they are going to eventually unsubscribe and not want to follow your brand," says Reed. "Humanizing the brand and making sure your content is relatable with your customers was key in educating them."
And while more brands are providing social media programs and support to their franchisees, it's important for them to remember it takes time for a busy franchisee to get up to speed on how to use it all most effectively.
Measuring the success of a social media strategy can be tricky. Reed considers engagement, reach, and ultimate exposure. "You can have thousands and thousands of followers or fans, but if they aren't engaged with your brand it means they may not be seeing your stuff. Just liking a page is not enough.," she says. "Platforms will suppress consumers from seeing your content if they haven't engaged with your brand, so we have to be mindful and respectful of that and consider what we can do to keep those folks engaged."
No matter how well a franchisor uses social media marketing, it can't be done in a silo, says Kinney. Social media delivers the most powerful punch when integrated with a franchise brand's overall marketing strategy, she says.
The brand's recent television campaign, for instance, reminds viewers to rely on the home painting brand at every stage of life, from first home to first child to family milestones. The company's "We Do Painting. You Do Life" theme is featured prominently throughout the brand's social media channels using humorous and emotion-tugging posts.
Online content marketing, for example, is another opportunity to deliver more detailed, consistent messaging that complements traditional marketing avenues, such as direct mail, mass media, and promotions.
"Everything needs to work together to reach the right person at the right time with the right message," says Kinney. "In the majority of scenarios, it is a supporting channel that tells a deeper story of what consumers are seeing about our brand in traditional marketing."
After some high-flying years as the next "new new thing," social media's future for franchise marketers is expected to only grow even more sophisticated--as part of a comprehensive, integrated marketing program.
Try these tips from Valerie Kinney, CertaPro's vice president of marketing:
While a franchise can earn loyalty points with a sunny response to a customer's vacation Instagram post or with a comical tweet to a patron who loves that brand's burgers, subs, or chicken, thanks to social media everyone can be a critic. Even the smallest online gaffe or poor review of one franchisee can quickly damage a brand's reputation.
When social media goes sideways, franchisors must be prepared. "My best advice is to monitor what is being said about your brand in the social/digital world," says CertaPro's Kinney. "Respond to both positive and negative items."
Reacting swiftly and appropriately to a question, complaint, or to negative news or reviews can work wonders to let consumers know you are aware, concerned, and working to fix any problem.
"With any negative or industry-specific event, we craft a response to help franchisees take conversations offline and show responsiveness and not let them unfold on social media to avoid a disastrous scenario associated with a brand," says Dream Vacations' Reed.
Providing franchisees with the strategies, training, and tools to manage the positive and negative engagement on social media also will help communicate a consistent brand message.
"Educate franchisees on how to best accomplish this and provide them with social media guidelines so everyone is supporting the brand reputation pillars," advises Kinney. "While there are risks in the social and digital space, if you know and identify those risks and are prepared to address them, the rewards outweigh the risks."
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