Elizabeth McGee had a problem. In late 2009 McGee, the chief financial officer at Apple Gold Group, a 70+ franchisee of Applebee’s Restaurants in Raleigh, N.C., was browsing through the organically grown Facebook pages of her company’s network of stores. While she was excited that the managers had taken the initiative to build connecting points with their customers on the growing social network, she was also concerned at the lack of brand continuity in messaging, logos and the like.

“It was a hodgepodge,” she told me. “In the beginning our biggest concern was around oversight and governance.”

McGee says, “in the beginning,” because a little over a year later her company is light years ahead of late 2009 in terms of social media awareness, preparedness and action. They’re live with over 20 of their stores now, each with individually managed but franchisee controlled Facebook presences. In 2011, Apple Gold Group plans to roll out more Facebook pages for their individual Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bars.

“What a better way to create a sense of community around our ‘neighborhood’ than to have a Facebook page for each location which then has its own set of fans in each community?” McGee asked.

Around the same time Cathi Chuck also identified similar problems with The Rose Group‘s 59 Applebee’s restaurants. Chuck, The Rose Group’s director of marketing, was very concerned about how she would be able to manage the governance and oversight for her stores and their social media efforts, but also how she could connect Applebee’s customers with company-wide events, deals and the like, while also having some local control for store managers to do the same. It’s a ‘neighborhood’ bar and grill, after all. But that wasn’t the only challenge Chuck identified.

An example of Expion in action for Applebee's Pottstown (Pa.)

Applebee's Pottstown (Pa.) shows two local management posts sandwiching a corporate post in a recent screen capture.

“The amount of time it takes for one person to oversee 59 restaurants and their use of social media is overwhelming when you’re not ready to hire a dedicated person,” Chuck said. “Teaching the restaurants how to effectively post, not be too ‘corporate’ and localize the messaging then becomes imperative, but then also a big challenge.”

Both McGee and Chuck turned to the existing cadre of social media services and tools to help solve the problems of social media management. And both found Expion.

We first visited Expion in August when I reviewed five tools that might offer franchise-level social media management options. Since then, Expion has become a client of Social Media Explorer. You will get to see more about what their tool can do periodically in 2011. We will also be able to share some interesting research and information both that their tool generates and that they and I collaborate to produce as well. Stay tuned for that.

When McGee and Chuck found Expion, they both started with a problem to solve with a tool. They both ended up focused less on the mechanism and more on the communication.

“We’ve been sending out weekly updates to the stores on the platform,” Chuck explained. “We’re reiterating to all our participating stores what we thought the best posts of the week — those that were most engaging, got the most response, etc. — and asking the other stores to think about bringing those types of posts to their pages. Expion also helped us build a list of recommended posts we can have there for the local store that either isn’t sure what to post or doesn’t have time to customize something on a given day.”

McGee looks at the switch from mechanism to communications from a different angle as well.

“We started out thinking it would be a great mechanism to drive people to our store events,” she explained. “We’ve come so far from that. The tool takes care of our event postings in an automated fashion so we can actually spend more time creating an understanding with our store staff that success here is really about the conversations.”

McGee also told me since the tool allows store managers or local activation teams to communicate in real-time on Facebook without actually having to login to Facebook (Expion presents the full Fan Page experience in the Expion tool by using the Facebook API), the Apple Gold Group’s management’s initial concern about remote access to sensitive information was addressed.

“Because our store computer systems are also used with our customer’s credit card transactions and locked down from visiting many sites like Facebook, our bank that manages credit card compliance was quite relieved to learn how our Facebook management works,” she said. “It passed their test.”

Safe to say that in December 2010, at least two sets of franchisees are much farther along in the world of social media than they were just a year ago. Both are planning expansion of Expion’s solution into more of their franchise groups in 2010. Sure, the tool has something to do with it, but the initiative and focus of the franchisees in question is the real driver. It’s easy for people like Elizabeth McGee and Cathi Chuck to say, “no.” It’s hard to say, “Let’s figure out how.” They did and their guests are all the better for it.

Turns out, when you’re facing social media management problems, there’s an app for that.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.facebook.com/tammykahnfennell Tammy Kahn Fennell

    Interesting read. I wonder if i can tempt you to check out MarketMeSuite. Offers a great geo-targeting feature so it's perfect for franchises looking to connect with their local audiences :)

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Tammy. Email me some details. (Address is over there on the

      sidebar.)

      • http://www.facebook.com/tammykahnfennell Tammy Kahn Fennell

        Email just sent :)

  • http://mytwittertoolbox.com David Perdew

    How true Jason, there are endless apps available for individual social media needs, for business and pleasure. This was a nice example of how companies in general are evolving with social media, using it to benefit their customers and expand their brand's influence on the web, as well as in local communities. Expion is one tool I hadn't seen thus far, and it looks like a great one. Thanks for sharing this information.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      You're very welcome, David. Glad to be of service.

  • http://www.TheFranchiseKingBlog.com The Franchise King

    Great job, Jason.

    This tool sounds cool.

    I can't wait to see how it goes as more of the chain's franchisees come on board with it.

    JL

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks Joel. Figured it would pique your interest.

    • http://www.expion.com EricaMcClenny

      Joel, someone from our team would be happy to give you a tour of Expion. Anyone with such royal franchise blood should have the inside scoop of what we have coming next!

  • http://www.scottgulbransen.com/ SDGully

    Thanks for the post Jason. Our franchisees are doing a great job of bringing neighborhood – Applebee's brand strength – to life. 2011 will be a big year for us at the corporate level and at the franchisees level.

    Scott Gulbransen
    Director, Social Media & Digital Content
    Applebee's

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Hey Scott! Thanks for stopping by. Honored you'd chime in. And I hope the

      best for the brand as you add more stores to the social media fold. Always

      been a fan of Applebee's … you guys poured my favorite beer on tap long

      before many others (Killian's Red).

  • http://www.facebook.com/marymcgrathabrams Mary McGrath Abrams

    Jason, great post as usual. I struggle with this topic. I would like to pose the question is one strong brand fan page more effective than many individual pages?

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good (and often asked) question, Mary. It really depends on what you're

      trying to accomplish. Applebee's obviously has a brand purpose that is more

      locally focused. When you have “neighborhood” in your name, you can't drop

      the ball and not be the neighborhood grill and bar in your online efforts,

      so multiple location marketing makes perfect sense.

      However, a large brand that isn't retail or location-focused … say Pepsi,

      UPS or even a health care company (Humana … former client) … multiple

      locations for them may not make sense. Even a retail brand like The Gap,

      which has retail stores, and could certainly have some interesting

      location-based plays with Foursquare, etc., doesn't, on the surface, seem to

      need multiple Facebook pages for their locations. Certainly diving into the

      market research farther would be a better indicator, but I wouldn't say,

      anecdotally, that The Gap needs a multiple presence effort.

      So, it depends. And each company needs to ask itself what's right for them.

      Fortunately for brands with multiple locations, geo-focal points, franchises

      or even segmented sub-brands, there are tools out there that can address the

      management need.

      Thanks for asking!

  • http://twitter.com/neilcrist Neil Crist

    Great article Jason. Valuevine is seeing similar things. Among our 60+ Franchise and multi-location brands can attest, these are fundamental challenges to allow local engagement yet stay brand aligned. We are also seeing important trends that are vertical specific, i.e. a 400 location health & beauty may have better success with a specific strategy while a 97 location wine retailer may have to employ other tactics. Looking forward to a great 2011!

    - Neil Crist
    CEO Valuevine Inc.
    http://valuevine.com

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Figured you'd swing, by Neil. Thanks for doing so. As I answered with Mary's

      question above, you're right … the need depends on the brand, audience,

      etc. I'm glad tools like Expion and ValueVine are out there … and that

      you're pushing each other to be better. Thanks for what you do, my friend.

  • http://www.expion.com EricaMcClenny

    Jason, thank you for taking time to speak with a few of our clients. I've been the account manager for each of these groups as they've expanded through 2010. It has been a pleasure for me to watch their corporate social media strategy blossom and all of the insight gained from the local employee participation is priceless for Expion.

    I personally wanted to thank Elizabeth and Cathi for their willingness to trust in their employees to speak for each restaurant. Employee involvement is crucial to build a unique personality for every location.

    Erica McClenny
    Director of Enterprise Engagement
    Expion

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Keep kickin' ass, Erica. Can't wait to get down and see the team in person

      at some point.

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  • http://twitter.com/EscobarDigital Escobar Digital

    Jason.

    How would you approach the process of convincing franchisees to engage on a social media tool that brings brand alignment but at the same time allows them to have control over their local conversations? any tips? Specially franchisees who have been managing independently their social media presence (facebook page) for a while 2-3 years?

    Thanks

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      That’s a good question. The convincing really lies in the reason and setup
      for franchises in the first place. Franchisees buy in to franchise
      businesses so they don’t have to focus on marketing, branding, etc. The
      brand should own that. But social media marketing challenges that notion
      because the franchisee often needs to be the one with direct communication
      with customers since people are ambivalent about “Wendy’s.” They are
      customers of the Wendy’s on Brownsboro Road down the street from their
      house.

      I would encourage the franchisor (or franchisee management group) to use
      those already managing their local presences as case studies and examples of
      what the brand wants to do, position them as best practices and let those
      local stores help train and educate the others. That sense of empowerment
      will only make the good stores continue to stand out, but also help educate
      the others and bring them up to speed.

      You should also make sure your technology helps you get there. Expion
      (client) has some awesome content management and library abilities that
      allow a new store to see what is successful for other stores in the network
      and even borrow that content for their operations.

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