Opinion: social media in the on-trade

Opinion: social media in the on-trade

When I read Carole Cadwalladr’s jaw-dropping exposé on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in the Guardian in mid-March, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that the perception of social media was about to take a substantial blow. The combination of the imminent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the worldwide revelation that some 50m Facebook profiles had been harvested unbeknownst to those online users was more than enough to send an unsettling wave of distrust and caution throughout the social media stratosphere. The patterns and preferences of online activity are now so valuable that they are either being immorally obtained or legally protected. Think about that next time you’re posting a boozy Instagram story. Savage.

It’s fair to say that these prominent portrayals of social media’s dangers and downfalls don’t exactly help the platforms ‘lighten up’. Indeed, topics and posts on Twitter and Facebook are all a bit heavy these days, with oh so many people using the websites as a form of the often dubbed ‘antisocial media’ – complaining, warning and whining until the dopamine hit kicks in or they realise that no one is really listening to what they have to say. Even so, the online world can be a murky, dangerous environment, but is this true for pubs and bars?

The majority of pub businesses have a social media presence. Yes, there’s the odd exception – Ei Group, for example, has no social accounts, but plenty of its sites do. However, most on-trade organisations, large or small, realise and utilise the value of social media activity. So, it made for a curious Monday morning then when last month we received a press release from JD Wetherspoon informing us that it was to close down its Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts for its individual pubs and head office. It said the move follows the bad publicity surrounding social media, including the trolling of MPs and others, especially those from religious or ethnic minorities. Wetherspoon’s said the move also takes account of recent concerns regarding the misuse of personal data and the addictive nature of social media. On that basis alone, I found it hard to contradict the decision taken by Tim Martin – I often resent my addiction to posting pictures of my bloody dinner. But as a journalist whose career has spanned across the dramatic rise and utilisation of social media, I categorically believe that this contemporary avenue for sharing thoughts, news and real-time content can be a force for good across the on-trade.

If you’ve read Pub & Bar before, you’ll know that it is a magazine that exists to promote the positives of the market. First came the magazine, next came the website, then the Twitter account, then Instagram. Across all of these platforms, our mantra and ethos remains the same – offer ideas, share best practice, inspire creativity. As the new platforms arrived, we realised the different potential each one had to continue with our mission of modern on-trade promotion. It wasn’t the case of a new product being detrimental to the former, and it certainly wasn’t the case of digital killing off physical publications – each serves its own purpose and is complementary to our overall communications. This can be directly applied to pubs.

From many consumer perspectives, social media has become an egotistical platform to either show off or live a vicarious life through staring, sharing and screen grabs. It’s a funny ol’ world, but that’s where we’re at. The question is, how do pubs and bars capitalise on such behaviour? First and foremost, remember that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all communication tools. It sounds patronisingly obvious, but all of the content uploaded to each of these platforms should be treated as seriously as a face-to-face conversation across the bar. You should want any form of communication to make a positive impression, whether that’s promoting an event or showing off a new dish on the menu – it’s all about the quality. If your content isn’t engaging or visually stimulating, you may have lost a customer before they’ve even left their sofa. Your message should be attractive and in keeping with the style of your offer – all social media activity is an extension of your business. Its short lifespan and immediate deliverability often causes people to forget how consequential it can be.

In the past, pubs have been labelled as ‘the original social network’ – a place to meet friends, laugh, share, interact, celebrate and, on occasions, debate. With such a positive in-outlet foundation to build from, the infectious negativity of social media needs to be combated by pubs and bars across the UK. The service you offer is one of the most valued in the world – effectively marketing your own brand of hospitality through digital mediums is an admirable way of diluting some of the troll talk going on out there.

If used correctly, I believe the power of social media can do wonders for your business. But we all remember what Spiderman’s uncle said, right? Power = responsibility, and it’s worth carefully considering who you give this power to. In a best-case scenario, a digitally challenged member of the team may upload a tacky or imprudent post that raises a few eyebrows. In a worst case scenario, a disgruntled employee can anonymously take control of an account and post anything at will, something which happened to Wetherspoon’s on the morning it announced its social media shut down. It’s not for me to go into detail on what was posted, but let’s just say that changing the Twitter handle from jdwtweets to jdwtwats was the least damaging action taken that morning.

Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are at the on-trade’s disposal. The fact that it’s called ‘social’ media is enough to demonstrate the symbiosis these platforms have with pubs and bars. This is a social industry. If you use these digital outlets correctly and are able to convey the attractive sociability of your business through images, promotions and engagement, you should be able to convert that activity into visits.

The serious power of social media is there for all to see – its regular place in national headlines has proven this. But don’t let that intimidate you or your guests. If it’s part of your business, it warrants its own strategy. And through the right strategy and effective execution of positive content, these social skills could prove highly lucrative for pubs and bars for years to come.