Franchises Go Social

Can your franchise benefit from social media? Find out how the best franchises used this medium to their advantage.

In April 2009, after a buy-one, get-one-free e-mail promotion bumped up his business by 40 percent on a single Tuesday, Zpizza franchisee Michael Blank of Alexandria, Va., decided that he needed to do more digital marketing. As he started to look into social media, he realized that using Facebook and Twitter would give him an opportunity to inform his customers about deals and specials and allow him to begin conversations with them. He persuaded the company's headquarters to move forward with social networking, and now the Zpizza Facebook page has more than 1,700 fans while his region's Twitter presence has nearly 600 followers.

Although the return on tweeting coupon codes and sharing specials on Facebook hasn't reached the 40 percent mark he had experienced earlier, Blank is sure that it will as more people learn about Zpizza's presence. To get there, he's working with local mothers to encourage them to blog information about and reviews of the restaurant. "It's an incredibly cheap way to brand and market yourself," he says, because most social networking sites and blogs are free.

Franchisees are smart to take advantage of social media, says Paul R. Segreto, founder of FranchisEssentials, a franchise consultancy in Houston. But it has to be done strategically. "What you don't want to do is sell too hard. It's like walking into an in-person networking event and saying, 'Here I am. I sell such and such,' " he advises.

Instead, share information that your customers want. It may be specials and price promotions, but it also may be news about product offerings, industry updates or tips that will help them with their lives or businesses. That's what Mike Heffner, a Greenwood, Ind., Express Employment Professionals franchise owner, does. He capitalizes on the robust corporate website that Express has, which includes information for jobseekers and/or companies seeking employees.

But Heffner wanted to have a place where he could customize content for his local market, so he worked with an intern to build a website that includes area job listings. He also uses Twitter to tweet those listings and finds that his office gets an average of 50 job applications online, with a marked increase when a job listing is tweeted. Heffner is still trying to figure out how to measure the number of individuals he reaches each month through social networking--including a blog he writes about leadership--and his website. But the tracking of customer origins has shown him that 25 percent of job applicants found his franchise through one of its online marketing vehicles.

Express Employment's communications and social media manager, Tiffany Monhollon, says that marketing via social media is gaining momentum among her franchisees, but it isn't exactly mainstream yet. She estimates that, of the company's roughly 600 franchises, no more than a handful are on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Those who are benefit, she says. One franchisee used LinkedIn's question-and-answer feature to showcase her expertise on human resources topics and landed a job through the site. "That's unique in the staffing industry. But she got involved, answered questions and built trust," Monhollon says.

Tasti D-Lite is another franchise making bold moves in social media. When the company began considering a social networking presence, B.J. Emerson, director of information and social technologies, was surprised to find that one already existed. "Customers were already creating great content on different sites, like Facebook groups for Tasti D-Lite 'addicts.' So, it's just a matter of jumping in and joining those conversations," he says.

It's also been a way to seed the market. One of the company's franchisees launched a Facebook fan page a few months before its launch and scored nearly 600 fans before the franchise even opened its doors, which she says built a great deal of buzz in the market.

Emerson and his team have incorporated social media training into the overall Tasti D-Lite franchise training program. They teach franchisees how to use the vehicles available to them and instruct them in the social media policy, which ensures that franchisees maintain the brand's message and look.

The Tasti D-Lite Twitter account, which has more than 2,160 followers, poses trivia questions and awards prizes to followers. Franchisees send mobile coupons in text-message format that can be redeemed at specific locations for product discounts.

When FranchisEssentials' Segreto helps franchises develop social media strategies, he has a few secrets to success:

Diversify your messages. Go ahead and give coupon codes, announce sales or specials and the like. But also give your fans, friends and followers something more. For example, if you own a transmission franchise, you can talk about what's going on in your franchise, but also sandwich those messages between information about things like National Car Care Month and tips on how to maintain your car and make your transmission last. "Make sure your content has real value for the reader," he says.

Stay on brand. Social media may be a brave new frontier, but going rogue isn't a good idea. "You still have a brand to maintain and a franchisor to answer to," Segreto says. Some larger franchises, such as Tasti D-Lite and Express Employment, actually have managers working in social media. Emerson encourages franchisees to get involved in social media, but to repurpose content that is developed by the company's headquarters. The social networking policy details how to communicate on the sites, right down to the proper tone to use. "We've gotten a good response because there is absolutely zero tolerance for the hard sell in these communities," he says. By coaching franchisees in how to share deals and information in a way that benefits the customer, they don't encounter backlash.

Get in the game now. Unfortunately, Segreto says, too few franchisees are devoting the time to learn and use social media. And even those who are have been taking it slow and not aggressively testing new messages or measuring what's working best. But there are good opportunities for those moving ahead with social media, he says. By developing a presence, your franchise will be able to capture the audience that your competitors are ignoring.

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Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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This article was originally published in the January 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Franchises Go Social.

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