Franchise Social Media Tools: The Customer’s Perspective

by Jason Falls |

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 the Author

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).