Earlier this week, pub retailer JD Wetherspoon unexpectedly deleted its entire social media presence, ironically announcing the news on its now-deleted Twitter page. Citing a number of reasons for the decision, including "trolling" and concerns over the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data breaches, Wetherspoon's owner Tim Martin also declared, "We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business."
Such a statement could be seen as sacrilege in a world where a digital presence is often regarded as a necessity for any business, whether a start-up or an established name.
"I don't see many firms moving away from social media. I can see that B2B firms may favour Facebook less than LinkedIn and Twitter, but I don't see many of them coming completely off it," Stuart Fenton, QuantIQ
Could this decision see other companies and brands - including those in IT - following suit and abandoning social media for fear of data leaks, particularly in the light of GDPR?
Richard Cook, managing director of PR firm Champion Communications, doesn't believe so, stating that he's a little "cynical" of the motivations behind the pub retailer's decision. "I think he's blaming the vehicle rather than the plan," he said, adding that social media is a very powerful tool when used properly, but that it's "just noise" if not used effectively.
Part of Martin's decision to close down the brand's online platforms was due to their being a "distraction" for pub managers and because it wasn't receiving a sufficient amount of engagement on the platforms to justify the time and money spent on it. "If you can't see a tangible return on that investment then the answer isn't to stop using social media, it's actually to look at the plan and the objectives behind the plan and then figure out the right way to use this mechanic," explained Cook.
According to a recent survey conducted by Lithium Technologies, 73 per cent of consumers feel more comfortable now than they did two years ago with reaching out to brands via digital channels to get their customer service requests handled. By abandoning this channel of communication, a company risks alienating a large number of its customers.
B2B brands are just as susceptible to this as public-facing companies such as Wetherspoon. "I think B2B brands increasingly are finding that while sales, in many cases, are done face to face, follow-up sales, referrals and incremental purchases are reliant on digital channels," said Cook.
Darren Spence, founder of Sales Gym 360, a channel-focused IT B2B sales training business, believes that poor social media use is a problem among resellers.
"Resellers just don't know how to properly use social media. They broadcast communications but don't engage their audience," he said, adding that social media is an "essential" communications tool in the B2B world but that it is imperative that resellers know how to use it effectively.
Companies have become more reliant on social media as a way to engage with their peers and clients, so to abandon it completely is "detached from the reality of today", according to Stuart Fenton, CEO of Microsoft Dynamics partner QuantIQ.
He states that a lot of companies see enormous benefits as a result of social media and have cut off much of their traditional advertising and marketing in favour of a digital presence, attributing 25 to 35 per cent of QuantIQ's business to social media.
"In our business, we have found that social media is enormously effective, but we favour LinkedIn and Twitter because they are more B2B platforms," said Fenton. Considering it "utter nonsense" to abandon social media altogether, Fenton thought it unlikely that Wetherspoon's social media shutdown would spark a trend for businesses to delete their online platforms. "I don't see many firms moving away from social media. I can see that B2B firms may favour Facebook less than LinkedIn and Twitter, but I don't see many of them coming completely off it," he said.
Emma de Sousa (pictured right), senior vice president UK & marketing EMEA at Insight , agrees with this assessment of social media.
"Clients today want to engage with us through many different platforms," she said. "I think if we were to do that today [delete social media accounts], there would be some communication challenges, but it's an interesting world right now and you have to be very careful. Data security is a hot topic."
The Facebook data sharing scandal comes on the eve of the enforcement of GDPR next month. Although it has caused serious concerns about how social media is used to process data, many in the industry see social media as a sword against GDPR. Ian Moyse, sales director at cloud telephony vendor Natterbox, said: "In the light of GDPR, social media actually has its benefits."
At a recent event Moyse attended, he recounted the worry among companies about how they were to engage with their customers if they could not hold their data. Moyse explained how "social selling" is the answer to this problem. When a person puts their profile on LinkedIn, that information is then in the public domain and that data can be used to contact them directly.
"You can also use newsletters and ask them to subscribe to your social channel. If someone chooses to follow you they have now opted in and given their consent," he explained, adding that online social mediums that lend themselves to "self-consent" by users will become more important under GDPR.
Spence says that the Facebook scandal has raised the issue of privacy from "the basement to the boardroom", with many resellers concerned about the issue. Spence believes that there is a lack of understanding on the issues of privacy and the GDPR among directors.
"A general lack of understanding on both of those areas means that organisations are limiting their communications and marketing opportunities," he said. "People are reacting to situations without understanding them. For example, there is a concern with resellers that they can no longer communicate with their customers in the way that they used to. That's not the case; you can still communicate via good, effective email marketing campaigns and you can still use your company client data effectively."
Whether Wetherspoon's decision heralds a brave new world for business' communication channels remains to be seen. It is, however, clear that it has brought about a necessary conversation in the industry about strategic use of social media platforms and how companies can use they to ensure they are complying with GDPR while engaging with customers and peers.
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