What the public sector can learn from Wetherspoons: you don’t need social media

By Roger Christie

Monday April 30, 2018

Bangkok, Thailand – March 23, 2018 : Facebook user deleting Facebook application on iPhone 7.

Organisations want their investment in social media to pay off, especially in the public sector where any costs are sensitive. Should government ditch social media if its channel metrics are low?

The number of senior government figures questioning their investments in social media reached a new peak in the wake of a major UK pub chain’s decision to ditch social media.

Just as Mark Zuckerberg’s senate-enquiry-induced sweats were getting under control, they were dealt another cruel blow when a beautiful ‘pinging’ cascade lit up inboxes around the globe last week. With the headline ‘Wetherspoon pub chain shuts its social media accounts’, the BBC gave every social media sceptic who ever was the opportunity to send a smug note upstairs and beat that final nail in the Facebook coffin.

While at first it might seem strange coming from a consultancy so closely aligned with social media, I am incredibly thankful they did. Let me explain.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Much has been said about the Wetherspoons decision and comments made by its chairman, Tim Martin. But whether you side with the conspirators or critics is for another forum — I am solely interested in unpacking his views on social media and the decision to switch off the firehose.

Martin was openly critical of social media’s negative qualities like trolling, addiction (…somewhat strangely) and diverting pub managers from “the real job of serving customers” – a rationale I often hear when talking to public servants who see social as a distraction from helping citizens.

One particular comment struck me for its timely, real advice: “We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business.” I couldn’t agree more.

Why are social media channels considered a vital component for success? Perhaps more importantly, why is that view even considered ‘conventional wisdom’ when so many are yet to show value from the many billions thrown at social media content and campaigns around the globe each year?

Social media channels should not have right of passage into any government agency. Like other channels, if leaders aren’t questioning the purpose, strategy or impact of their investments in social media, they are destined for disappointment. In the case of Wetherspoons, Martin’s seemingly done the numbers and has an answer: “I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever.”

Supporting his decision, marketing industry thought leader Mark Ritson provided a straightforward ‘Twitter business case’ to explain the link between Wetherspoon’s target audience, the performance of its social media content and resulting sales. Since January 1, 2018, the average Wetherspoons tweet garnered just six retweets and four likes, yet Wetherspoons still serves three million pints a week. If, as Ritson suggests, Martin is a “master of customer orientation”, then social media has nothing to do with his customers or beer sales, and the ‘vanity’ metrics many tout to senior leaders are worth nothing.

The number of reasons Martin has listed to justify closing down Wetherspoons social media channels easily outweighs the number most organisations put forward to invest in the first place. For this deliberation alone, I applaud his decision.

Social media channels are just tools.

But here’s where Wetherspoons, Martin and many other organisations have missed a key opportunity. Social media channels are just tools: simple, tactical, executional.

My fear in this whole saga is many public sector leaders will read the headlines and throw the baby out with the bathwater – anything with the word ‘social’ attached will be treated with new-found scepticism or contempt. ‘Wetherspoons didn’t see any value from social media channels, so how will we?’ Dismissing social’s value based on Twitter engagement levels is like buying a smartphone, then throwing it away due to call quality. A huge opportunity wasted.

Listening, not merely broadcasting

We’re willing to criticise the industry-wide obsession with social media channels. Not because the channels themselves are the problem, but because many organisations invest without consideration of purpose, strategy and value to the customer. The value of social isn’t in the retweets or likes garnered on content; the value of social is understanding customers’ needs and using real-time data and technologies that equip public servants to make better decisions.

That’s not social media channels. That’s a social business mindset.

Measure organisation and customer metrics, not social media channel metrics.

I can’t be 100% certain Mark Ritson was intentionally provocative with his Twitter engagement-business value formula (though maybe I should be when he valued Wetherspoons resulting coverage at “eight million tweets that no-one was reading anyway”…). But suggesting retweets and likes are solely responsible for beer sales is about as reliable as suggesting ice creams are solely responsible for drowning deaths. Social measurement needs to change.

What his formula highlights is an all-too-common practice among social teams who hope to demonstrate value to senior leaders. Organisations invest so much in social media channels they want to see impact, and rightly so. But these leaders have been preconditioned to believe what happens in social media channels is what’s important. What’s our community growth? What’s our engagement? What’s our reach? This focus on channel performance forces social practitioners to find any evidence that portrays the channels as the valuable commodities.

What if we look at this situation differently? What if we start by asking three simple questions?

    1. What is our organisation trying to achieve?
    2. What does our customer need or expect?
    3. What role can social data, technologies or channels play to help meet these priorities?

By asking these questions (in this order), we reframe the role of social from a media channel to a mindset and means of supporting organisation and customer priorities. We also measure the performance of social initiatives in line with other organisation initiatives – not channel metrics.

Thank you, Facebook. Thank you, Wetherspoons.

Four years ago I thanked Facebook for forcing us to pay for reach. Up until then, it was simple: create Facebook page > build community > post content > ‘profit’. Public sector organisations were laidback when it came to strategy, but why overcomplicate things when your social ‘investments’ were pretty much free?

The rest is history. The rules changed and, subsequently, internal expectations and the need to justify expenditure suddenly increased. Facebook made social ‘grow up’.

I sincerely hope Wetherspoons actions spark a similar ‘maturation’ of social among public sector circles. But this will only happen if conversations focus not on the merits of social media channels and content, but on the role these technologies play in helping public servants better understand and service customers.

Roger Christie is the Managing Director of Propel, a strategic consultancy that helps public and private sector clients build social capability. Propel has worked extensively with a range of federal and state government agencies.

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