Attendees of the International Franchise Association's (IFA) annual convention in February in Orlando, Fla., jammed themselves into a conference room to hear presentations on social media. A morning Technology Summit has been a fixture at the trade group's meetings for half a decade, but this time things were different: Both Google and Facebook sent emissaries to speak at the convention, announcing a new age in social media tailored just for the franchise world. It didn't make a blip in the technology news media, but for franchisors it was as exciting as if Steve Jobs had released an iPad just for them.
Not long ago many franchises were on the fence about the value of social media. Today, it's all they talk about. "The biggest change has been in attitude," says Jack Monson, vice president of Engage121, a Norwalk, Conn.-based firm that develops social media management software for franchises. "Two years ago there was a reluctance by franchisors to get involved in social media. Flash forward to 2012, and there's not a franchisor at the IFA who didn't think they needed to do something. There's been a huge turnaround in the way people perceive what social media can do for them."
There's also been a huge turnaround in social media itself. As platforms like Twitter and Facebook mature and become more conscious of their user groups, they are working to make their services more relevant to the unique characteristics of various types of businesses, including franchises. At the same time, as use of social media becomes more sophisticated, the franchise community is finally understanding the value beneath the hype.
Franchisors have moved squarely away from wondering, "Is social media even necessary?" to not only accepting the new technologies, but actually embracing them, asking, "How can we make social media work better for us and our franchisees?"
The biggest lesson franchisors have learned is that there have to be real people behind all that posting, and more often than not, the personality needs to be that of the franchisees. "Social media is inherently local. Customers don't have a relationship with the corporation, but they do see their local franchisee every day," says Jon Carlston, a partner at San Diego-based Process Peak, a social media management and software development firm that serves more than 150 franchisors. "Consumer interest is with connecting to local business. So the social media opportunity lies with franchisees. But from an execution standpoint, getting all your franchisees to agree on a new campaign or discount is a nightmare."
That's why Carlston and other tech-savvy members of the franchise world have set up multiple meetings with Facebook to discuss their needs. The result is a suite of tools released earlier this year that changes the way franchisors use social media.
Facebook's Reach Generator gives companies a way to finally capitalize on their "fans." The Generator puts a sponsored post into each fan's feed, increasing weekly eyeballs on advertising from 16 percent of fans to about 50 percent.
The most important change, however, involves the "parent/child" or "national/local" management tools, which were previously available only to companies with a minimum advertising purchase. Now free to all, these tools give franchisors administrative control over franchisee pages and link all the brand's pages together. This gives franchisors more say in how their brand is presented, and gives franchisees more access to corporate images, tools and copy.
"Franchisees are just running their businesses day to day. They can't be masters of everything," Carlston says. "Unless you give them some hand-holding guidance, you can't expect them to do anything, or they may come up with their own harebrained ideas that don't reflect well on the brand."
Providing that guidance is where companies like Carlston's and Monson's come in. Instead of forcing franchisees to struggle to produce offers and interesting posts each day, such companies have implemented sophisticated management tools that provide interesting posts, offers and tweets and have them lined out on a monthly calendar.
In fact, some new franchise systems are so heavily invested in social media that it's a required part of the business. Cathy Deano and Renee Maloney's 64-unit franchise, Painting With a Twist, which offers painting parties and wine tastings, has invested heavily in social media. The Mandeville, La.-based company's Facebook pages now average more than 3,000 fans each.