Stephen Jardine: Was social media goldrush for fools?

Tim Martin, founder of JD Wetherspoon.
Tim Martin, founder of JD Wetherspoon.
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JD Wetherspoon’s decision to quit Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will prompt other firms to think again, says Stephen Jardine.

“If your business isn’t on social media, you are missing out.” For the past five years that has been the mantra behind internet marketing as new media replaces old. However this week pub chain JD Wetherspoon called time on that.

In an industry first, the company announced it was quitting social media and closing down its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Wetherspoon’s blamed concerns around privacy, online toxicity and the drain on time and resources for a move that goes against so much newly conventional wisdom.

Of course the brand is familiar with controversy. Chairman Tim Martin has been a cheerleader for Brexit and a blunt-speaking critic of those who disagree. When the founder of Innocent drinks accused him of junking the UK economy, Martin’s response was simply: “Go get a job.”

The brave new world of likes, posts and shares might have always have been an uncomfortable fit with Martin’s approach to business. But the decision to dump social media wasn’t his alone. The firm consulted managers across the 900-pub chain and a staggering 90 per cent felt using social media wasn’t helping. They claimed it often side-tracked them from the job of looking after customers.

When asked if he hoped to start a trend, Martin’s reply was typical: “I hope not. Currently we’ve got a massive commercial advantage because everyone else is wasting hours of their time.”

So will others now follow this brave move? Some businesses will certainly be watching the impact with interest. In the modern-day social media gold rush, companies scrambled to set up platforms but few stopped to question whether it was necessary.

For some, it is a natural fit. It’s hard to imagine beer brand BrewDog in a world without social media. With 200,000 followers on Instagram and 122,000 on Twitter, these platforms allow them to speak directly to consumers.

For others, their business model might not lend itself to the world of retweets and emojis. That said, some of the most eye-catching social media activity comes from brands you wouldn’t expect. Greggs have 140,000 Twitter followers who are devoted to the company’s cheeky output of sausage roll jokes and pie charts featuring pies. The problem may not be a lack of effectiveness of social media itself but a failure of some brands to engage effectively. If you have a product that is unglamorous, you are going to have to try harder to attract followers than Kim Kardashian.

A lack of strong content can mean social media becomes a platform for complaints and customer rage. With less than a year to go to Brexit, concerns about a backlash from consumers may be a key reason behind Wetherspoon’s decision. Time will tell if the pub chain suffers as a result.

Some other firms have built a business that would not survive without social media. However, increasingly the social channels demand spend to let companies access consumers. On that basis others may conclude for them, it is a lot of sound and fury for very little return.