David Behrens: Cheers to JD Wetherspoon boss who’s called time on social media networks

Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin
Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin
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IN an age in which businesses are run by jargon rather than instinct, Tim Martin is the biggest breath of fresh air since Sir Ken Morrison.

The chairman of the pub chain JD Wetherspoon announced this week that he was closing down the Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts of all his 900 bars and his head office. It was, he said, going against conventional wisdom but he doubted that it would make the slightest difference to his business.

Now, I know that Wetherspoon’s is not universally popular; that many traditionalists think it’s the McDonald’s of the brewing trade – but McDonald’s never sympathetically restored the interiors of lovely old buildings in Harrogate, Skipton or Otley and turned them into thriving centres once more.

Besides, you have to admit that they do a darned good full English breakfast.

But irrespective of your views on Mr Martin’s empire, or his public stance in favour of Brexit two years ago, he has hit the nail on the head when he says it has become increasingly obvious that people are spending too much time on social media.

He is half right, too about defying conventional wisdom: it’s certainly the convention for businesses to throw in their lot with these networks, but it was never founded on wisdom; just the knee-jerk reaction of lots of managers who didn’t know what they were doing but who were afraid to stand on the kerbside shouting that the king had no clothes. Instead, they jumped in head-first and invented some cod science about engaging with customers.

Sir Ken wouldn’t have stood for any of it. Listening again to some of the radio commercials his supermarkets ran in the 1970s, he drew the line even at home freezers.

The obsession by companies with the likes of Facebook is out of control. There is a carton on the cereal shelf in my kitchen whose marketing puff implores me to “follow us on Facebook”. Why, exactly? What benefit to me is there in following a box of Quaker Oats? Are the makers going out of their way to make me look silly?

And even the most casual glance at the social media feeds of most companies makes one despair for the future of humanity. Here are a few real ones from Wetherspoon’s own Twitter account, with the original spelling and punctuation left intact.

Megan Smith contributed this: “Not to be dramatic but wetherspoons are taking my southern fried chicken wrap off the menu after it has consistently been my order of choice for years and I am not ok. I just want to talk.”

Rin Wilson from Glasgow asked: “I’m currently in the John Fairweather and have just realised you’ve taken the haggis bites off the menu???? Why is this???”

And someone called Stacey Retter wrote: “Hey, are your jacket pots deep fried before getting to you guys? I know you guys don’t but a bit of a debate going on!”

You don’t have to be Jamie Oliver to know that if potatoes are deep fried they’re chips, not jackets. Hiring teams of people to “engage” with drivel like this has nothing to do with marketing; it’s time-wasting, plain and simple.

That’s because contrary to Ms Retter’s assertion and its own marketing hype, Twitter is not part of the national debate. It’s not a debate at all; it’s an argument in a pub in which everyone shouts at once and a fight eventually breaks out. If the pub in question were to be a Wetherspoon’s, Mr Martin would show them the door. Which, in effect, is exactly what he 
has done.

All this is quite apart from the behaviour of the so-called trolls who have turned these networks toxic, and from the insidious practices of the social media companies themselves – appropriating your fondness for porridge, for instance, and attempting to use it to influence the outcome of the next Scottish independence referendum.

And is the absence of a Facebook account likely to dissuade anyone from visiting a particular Wetherspoons? On the contrary, I’d run a mile from any pub if it looked as if it was going to be full of people like Ms Retter, blubbering about jacket potatoes.

I hope that more firms follow Tim Martin’s flight from social media. It will take only a few to create the kind of traction that will be impossible for me-too managers to resist. It was traction, after all, that got them on board in the first place.