How to Digitally Transform the Franchise Customer Experience

Every franchise wants to better connect with their customers across digital channels.

But franchise businesses face a unique challenge because they must produce a unified brand experience on two (or more) distinct sets of digital properties — those belonging to the franchisor, and those controlled by each of its franchisees.

If a franchisor and its franchisees deliver inconsistent content and marketing messages on their digital assets, the whole organization suffers.

To prevent franchisees from going off brand, franchisors must create a unified experience that establishes brand consistency but also gives its franchisees the brand messaging architecture to customize their own digital assets.

Building an effective digital and content marketing platform allows franchisors and franchisees to meet the digital-first expectations of today’s customers. Digitally transformed franchises are equipped to sell and market their products, generate leads, and drive positive customer experiences.

If a franchisor articulates an effective digital communication strategy, it will empower its franchisees to:

  1. differentiate themselves locally
  2. establish guidelines for how to use the brand identity and brand communications
  3. develop a toolkit for digital communications and marketing, as well as demand generation
  4. implement a clear protocol for increasing discovery for core products and services

In order to avoid the zero-sum struggle that can arise from a non-unified brand experience, this report examines and recommends how franchisors can build a digital brand experience that will connect them and their franchisees with their end users.

Franchisors are ultimately responsible for creating demand for products and/or services.  The must provide franchisees with the tools, the technology, the processes, and the literacy to capture leads and transform them into customers.

Customers now discover products and services with a digital-first mindset. Therefore, franchises should adopt a digital communication strategy that allows all their digital assets to be syndicated, published, and edited with content governance on brand strategy.

  • A franchisor has an obligation to leverage its digital assets in a way that empowers everyone to succeed.
  • An effective brand strategy on the corporate level should give franchisees the tools to generate leads at the local level. By growing and bolstering marketing channels, the franchisor will generate leads that it will then funnel down to its franchisees. Challenges can arise depending on whether the franchise sells a product (Dunkin Donuts), a service (Dale Carnegie Associates), or a hybrid (H&R Block).
  • The onus is on the franchisor to create a website that articulates its vision, values, product, service, and aesthetics. The franchisor gives guidelines to its franchisees, enabling them to customize their local websites within reasonable limits.

Franchises and Digital Channels

In 2015, there were 781,991 franchises in the United States, an increase from the previous peak in 2007, after which a dip ensued during the recession, but since 2011 here has been a steady recovery. Estimates predict continued growth for franchise businesses in Automotive, Business Services, Commercial & Residential Services, Lodging, Personal Services, Quick Service Restaurants, Real Estate, Retail Food, Retail Products & Services and Table/Full-Service Restaurants.

According to a report from the IHS Market Economics, the franchise sector grew faster than the overall GDP in 2016 and is expected to do the same in 2017. It is estimated that the number of franchise stores grew by 1.7% in 2016 and will grow by 1.6% in 2017.

Though franchisors will continue to grow, digitally-enabled businesses will continue to challenge older franchises to adapt to digital platforms. These factors affect a number of organizations that did not start out at the advent of digital. Digital transformation refers to the various connected tools and technologies that are now available to empower businesses.

A big challenge for franchisors is to create a unified brand experience for the company and its franchisees on its website. Tension between the corporate goals of the franchisor and the local demands of individual franchisees have been known to create friction. Such friction can spill over into online experiences when individual franchisees attempt to over-customize their website to make them stand out.

For example, a high earning franchisee that accounts for 5% of the franchisor’s overall revenue might compromise the brand’s website guidelines by over-customizing their website to cater to their local market. Additionally, local franchisees know their local customers and communities, and have been known to create versions of their websites that are out of sync with the brand’s website guidelines.  

Good examples of franchise websites that avoid these problems are Merry Maids, H&R Block, and Midas. The corporate website seamlessly guides visitors down the funnel from corporate to local.

Franchisees are correct to emphasize that they need to address the concerns and buying habits of their local customers. For instance, a local gym franchise in Jackson, Mississippi will market its services to a 30- year-old, single female customer in a different way than a local gym in Santa Monica, California for the identical customer demographic. Businesses such as Starbucks have incorporated ideas generated from customer feedback reports by using Salesforce’s technology. One of the best customer-feedback ideas was the Starbucks straw that went into their cups. Franchisees should have a mechanism for submitting feedback requests that go into one queue that can be pattern-matched by the parent franchise.   

Moreover, high-earning franchisees may assert that since they bring in more revenue than some of the other franchisees, they are entitled to special attention and more liberty for customizing their local brand experience. But, if 5% of franchisees in a particular franchise focus exclusively on what’s advantageous for their local market, the brand consistency will be compromised.

The franchisor must allow for some degree of personalization and contextualization for its franchisees. But there is an optimal website architecture that will align the corporate website with its local franchisees. Obviously, the franchisees understand the needs of their direct, local marketplace better than the franchisor. The franchisor should give their franchisees enough flexibility and extensible tools that enable the franchisee to shape their experience under a global experience language (“GEL”). For example, franchisees that use a logo or any other aspect of their visual identity incorrectly on their website could harm the overall brand, decrease its credibility, and result in a user experience that actually hurts their ability to generate leads and opportunities.

 The corporate brand experience website must ask itself:

  1. How are people discovering the website?
  2. How do you build a rich data profile on the audience?
  3. Who is the brand’s audience?
  4. Is the brand using a data management platform (DMP) to connect with their audience?
  5. What is the audience looking for?
  6. How can the vision and values of the organization connect back to the users who are using the sight?

By answering these questions on the corporate level, the franchisor provides guidelines for how franchisees should build their local websites. A user-friendly website on the corporate level will benefit all franchisees’ website and enable localization (zipcode and city search, searching for specific features, products, or services offered at select franchisees, etc.…), and increase inbound and outbound tools.

People don’t buy products anymore. They buy experiences. Franchises known for experiences are building strong customer relationships. Franchises such as Crossfit and Dale Carnegie (full disclosure: Dale Carnegie is a client of Digital Surgeons) have crafted digital brand strategies that connect with their customers by leveraging their digital assets.

Aligning on Content Management Systems and Website Experiences

A problem that holds true for all franchises is how to create and syndicate content with the right amount of corporate governance. Especially for franchisors that have franchises in dozens of countries that speak different languages, creating a governance policy for content requires investment in building and managing a digital infrastructure.

A corporate franchisor should be responsible for establishing the website architecture that filters through its franchisees’ websites. Furthermore, the franchisor should delineate visual identity guidelines and principles for a franchisee’s website. For instance, an automotive manufacturer should establish guidelines for whether the brand name or the local car dealership’s name appears before or after the brand logo on a local franchisee website. Understanding the brand equity and consumer understanding of a brand is a core element to communication strategy and how it permeates throughout the other experiences.

If a corporate franchisor fails to outline website architecture guidelines, the franchisees may over-customize their websites, offer deals and coupons that aren’t approved by corporate, and even look distinct from the brand itself. The organization must think how the parts of a system (franchisees) operate within the larger system (the franchisor).

Rather than having to periodically intervene, the franchisor should develop a website strategy. Unless a franchisor develops a consistent brand architecture across digital channels, the franchisor and franchisees’ websites will lose out on SEO value, also known as search engine visibility, and its search engine marketing (SEM) strategy will be inconsistent. Take the analogy of a local CrossFit gym. If a local CrossFit in Austin, Texas targets certain keywords in a search engine marketing campaign, it must make sure that it is using keywords that fall under the corporate brand’s messaging. Otherwise, it will be deviating from the brand’s corporate keyword strategy.

Effective brand communication governance on the corporate level should lead to a smooth brand experience on the local franchisees’ websites. To achieve this, the franchisor should dictate what platforms will be utilized for publishing and syndicating content and online marketing materials. There are a number of enterprise level content management frameworks and platforms and marketing clouds that run the gamut. But when a franchise has over 200 plus franchisees, instituting content management guidelines, along with add-ons and integrations like Hubspot and Salesforce, can be difficult.

A unique challenge that franchise businesses face is to ensure that their franchisees use content management systems that can integrate with the franchisor’s CRM, ERP, payment system, website, etc... For example, if a restaurant franchise builds a one-off landing page that sends a coupon for a new menu item to a customer if he or she completes a call to action, the local franchisee’s website that has a similar landing page and coupon for the same item should also use the same platform. This will ensure that from an analytics and attribution perspective everything will be able to be congruent and tracked, resulting in a consistent and streamlined experience for the user while also ensuring that data is not missed at the point of redemption for said coupon.

However, since established franchises have built their websites over a number of years they have accrued dozens of pages that have been built on different platforms. Though the process of rolling out a new franchisor website is painstaking and lengthy, it’s an opportunity for the franchisor to add value to the franchisees’ experience. Cooperative marketing is a core concept of any franchisee based marketing strategy. We see this in the way that successful restaurant franchises have a uniform style for displaying their cutlery. The ultimate beneficiary will be their customer since they will see a seamless, cohesive unity between the franchisor and franchisees.

Midas is an excellent example of this. The franchisor guides the customer from its corporate website down to the local service site. But building this type of franchisor website will require buy-in from the franchisor and its franchisees through many iterations and commitment to allowing web developers to a different way minimum viable products (MVPs) over the stretch of months.

As we reported in a digital transformation paper, the five questions that every executive should ask to effectively lead innovation strategy are:

  1. Are you playing offense, defense, or sitting on the sidelines?
  2. Are you disrupting or being disrupted on digital channels?
  3. Do you know what your customers are thinking and doing?
  4. How sensational is your customer experience?
  5. Are you evolving as fast as your customers and competition?  

The digitally transformed franchise website unifies the franchisors’ franchisees across continents and language barriers. The MVP approach will enable the franchisor to constantly test and iterate new website designs. Ultimately, some content management systems will serve a website’s goals more than others.

The franchisor’s website should also include a section with clear guidelines for how franchisees should build their websites. This section will amount to a website operations manual. If the goal of an operations manual is to guide the franchisees on how to run their business, then the same should apply for operating their digital assets. This should also detail what content management systems are available for local websites. If the franchisees use different contentment management systems from the one used by the franchisor, they will look disjointed and distinct enough that they could harm the integrity of the brand.

Discovery and Understanding the Micro Moments That Matter

Equally as important as content management alignment is making sure that the franchisor and franchisees implement a progressive search engine optimization (SEO) strategy that is advantageous for the whole franchise. SEO value comes from utilizing unified, effective keywords and language on a website with a consistent use of internal linking to build connective tissue on a web domain. Therefore, when a franchisor builds a website, it will need to generate a hierarchy of content that permeates the franchisor and franchisees websites. Critical for its success is ensuring that the franchisees’ website content includes backlinks to connect to the franchisor’s website. This strategy will optimize the franchisor and franchisees’ goals of appearing high on organic searches on Google, Bing, and other search engines. The franchise must also understand the language of intent in search engine marketing, since users will search for both brand and unbranded terms. When a customer is looking for unbranded related terms, it is important from both a paid and organic perspective that the visibility of a franchise brand is present.  

But unless a franchisor outlines an SEO strategy for its franchisees, the latter will seek out SEO assistance from local marketing agencies. While these local shops might optimize for local keywords, it can result in competition between local franchisees as they try to snag business. But franchisees cannibalizing revenue from one another will ultimately harm the brand and engender resentment among the competing franchisees. Furthermore, this will lead to a poor user experience. A healthy customer experience will push the buyer down the funnel from corporate down to the relevant franchise location.

But if a car dealership in Austin, Texas is publishing lots of content and customers end up on their website even though they were searching for branches in Hartford, Connecticut, then the customer is receiving a poor experience.

The brand must create an SEO strategy that will connect the customer with their goal while also increasing business for its franchisees. The franchisor can assist its franchisees by giving them a toolkit that tells them “how to produce the best content to drive sales.”

Global franchises face the additional challenge of establishing an SEO strategy that translates into multiple languages.

Conclusion

Buying a franchise website is more than just a digital platform. It’s a vehicle for driving a business forward for itself and all its franchisees throughout the world.

When the corporate digital experience controls the ecosystem, the marketing, and the governance of the top of the customer journey funnel, the franchisor and franchisees’ websites are much more likely to optimize the local goals of the individual business owners, and, consequently, the overall brand resulting in a realized, demand generation strategy that drives shareholder value for the franchisor and franchisee. Everyone wins.   

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