JD Wetherspoon founder has no regrets about social media blackout

Tim Martin at Ceda Conference 2018

JD Wetherspoon’s decision to come off social media was taken “over a few weeks” and with the approval of senior pub managers across its estate, its founder Tim Martin revealed this afternoon, as he reiterated his stance that it will cause no financial damage to its business whatsoever.

The 900-strong pub chain deleted its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts earlier this month in a surprise move that left some questioning how it intended to communicate with customers.

But speaking publicly on the matter for the first time at today’s Ceda annual conference, Mr Martin branded the perception that social media is absolutely essential for business as a “myth”.

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“I personally don’t use social media so I am coming at it from a marvellous position of ignorance!” he said. “And just before we did it, my nephew came to stay, who’s 18, and he stayed for a few months and he’s forgotten how to f***ing talk! He’s always on his machine! And I think there’s something wrong – if you speak to people they are frustrated with other people being on it a lot, but a lot of people are really frustrated with the amount of time they personally spend on it. And so I thought encouraging pub mangers to contact customers through social media is a slippery slope, isn’t it – so if you just get one company that says, ‘concentrate on clean glasses and good beer’, it’s got to be a plus.”

Mr Martin, who was being interviewed on stage by industry analyst Peter Martin, also reaffirmed reports that quitting social media had been influenced by the trolling of MPs.

“We are living in a democracy, democracy needs MPs, we all depend on them although we like to slag them off, and if they are frightened by anonymous people on social media, that’s really bad for us all, for economy, for freedom, for everything,” he said.

Mr Martin arrived at the conference in Burton-Upon-Trent having spent the last two days visiting JDW pubs in Scotland. A staff member at one pub which had been using Facebook to promote events told him it would lose out as a result of quitting social media “but overall as a company I don’t think we will lose anything”, he said.

JD Wetherspoon founder, Tim Martin, on stage at the Ceda Conference during an interview with CGA’s Peter Martin.

Mr Martin also commented on the pub chain’s sudden decision last year to delete its entire customer email database, admitting he didn’t even know it contained 600,000 customer names until he was told. He said that owning such a large amount of data presented a hacking risk that was just “too high”, adding: “People were slightly suspicious as to why we’d done it, but we didn’t lose one pound of sales.”

Despite quitting social media, JD Wetherspoon is still reaching customers through its website and app. Asked how he decided to go down the app route, he replied. “Well, I didn’t! I said, ‘this will never work, it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen!’ You go the pub, you go to the bar, don’t you! But I decided to indulge them – and it has worked very well, actually.”

He said it was “vital to be wrong” sometimes and referenced the founder of Marriott Hotels, who once said that the most valuable words in the English language were ‘what do you think?’

“We have a meeting with pub managers every week in our office – copying off Walmart – and the initial idea to come off social media was mine, but I said, ‘guys, what do you think about this – can we do it?’ So the company was behind us and what we actually said to the media as well was what the company said we should say. So that is an idea that I came up with, though many ideas come up from our people, like the app.”

Mr Martin famously spends at least two days a week visiting the chain’s pubs. And he said there were no plans to stop that.

“I think it is vitally important whatever business you are in to speak to people on the frontline because the collective knowledge of the people on the frontline is much greater than the people at the top, and where businesses go wrong is they think it’s the other way around.”

Reflecting on the scale of the business he has built, he said: “We have got just under 900 pubs and a turnover of £1.7 billion, starting from one pub in 1980 with a turnover of £150,000. So it’s gone okay so far, but we are only as good as our next pint!”

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Andrew Seymour

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