Many franchises are operating their online marketing programs in a manner that gets them into trouble as they grow, or when they have turnover in franchisees.  The Franchise SEO programs designed for the Internet as it was in 2005 are no longer effective. Not only have users changed, but search engines and social networks have dramatically evolved.   As a veteran of this industry, and a witness to these changes, I decided to take a few minutes to create a list of how I’d structure a national franchise website, SEO, PPC and Social Media program, if I had complete control and was tasked with succeeding in modern search engines and social networks.  Let’s go.

Franchise Websites Usually are Faced With These Issues.

  1. Two main business goals for the site
    • sell more franchises (business development.)
    • Second, to accomplish whatever the franchise does – sell sandwiches, clean pools, etc.
  2. Local franchisees are often not web savvy, super busy, and impatient.
  3. Disgruntled and non-compliant franchisees pose a national disparagement risk to the brand online.
  4. Brand dilution due to confusing brand signals for Google’s entity-based index.

Let’s run through some of the components I think would help a franchise achieve goals and overcome risks.

Main Service Franchise Website Development and SEO

This is the customer-facing website, running on the franchise’s main domain name, which accumulates the ranking authority for local and national rank.

  • A beautifully-built website CMS working equally well on all modern formats (responsive) including mobile and tablets.
    • A mobile-first approach may be appropriate for service-area franchises.
    • All blog and article sections should be part of the main domain name, such as domain.com/blog, not set up on a separate domain.
  • Local branch locator should be a primary focus for the consumer experience.  The website is not the destination, the connection between a customer and local franchisee is the #1 goal.
  • The toll-free national phone number to the call center should be large and clear, with the click-to-call function enabled for mobile devices.  Dynamic number tracking should be utilized for PPC
  • The phone number setup should allow for call tracking depending on the campaign.
  • The call center should transfer phone leads to the appropriate local office as quickly as possible, making the customer feel that “something is happening” via status updates, such as email or text messages.
    • cloud-based call routing solutions can be set up to transfer based on closest-zip models with fallback numbers.  All can be transparent to the customer
  • The best structure for a franchise website’s content area is the FAQ model.  In priority order, you must build the visitor’s confidence and reduce their worries by competently answering questions and making them feel important.   Google is moving towards voice/question-based searches which further amplifies this recommendation.
  • All of these sites need fast hosting with page load times in the fastest 20% of the web.  Google has repeatedly warned about using site speed as a ranking factor.
  • Broken websites risk everything, from customer confidence to search rank.
    • Hosting should provide 100% uptime and redundancy.
    • Nightly incremental backups should be done with full up-time monitoring, such as that provided by WebsitePulse.
    • A scheduled security audit should be conducted on the site to search for malware or other compromises.  Customers should never be the ones to discover a website compromise or outage. All CMS patches should be applied after they are released.
    • An un-patched CMS is a vulnerable CMS.  Backups must be done before any update is performed.
    • Utilize a 3rd party malware detecting and cleanup firm such as Sucuri.net, and follow their recommendations.
  • Full connection to Google AnalyticsGoogle Webmaster Central, Google Tag Manager and other diagnostics tools so that email is sent to a decision maker when things go wrong.  These allow you to set up alerts that catch problems quickly, ideally before any customers notice.
  • The mobile-facing website should be fat-finger-friendly and possibly GPS-enabled, with a task-centered design model not just a mirror of the main site.  Mobile users are focused on accomplishing a task, not loitering through all of your site’s pages.  Google is moving towards a mobile-first search index, so you can’t provide partial content to the users.
  • The mobile experience should be tied into social networks to encourage and facilitate sharing and check-ins.  Encourage customers to take photographs and tag them to the facility.
  • The main website and primary domain should be friendly to inbound links.
  • Weave link building and citation building into everything you do as a company.
    • Link scouting should be performed regularly, especially when major conferences are held or related news events happen.
    • Many discussions with partners, customers, and business associates have link opportunities if you look for them – but make sure they’re relevant.
    • Citations (with or without links) are also gaining in importance in the search engines for local rank.
  • Most links and marketing activity will send traffic to the home page of this site by default, so any manual effort should balance that by acquiring “deep links” directly to content inside the local site (such as a blog post.) .
  • National content authors should be passionate with diverse backgrounds.
    • The blog posts should incorporate emotional hooks and storytelling vehicles.
    • Content should be written with customer empathy – focused on how-to and Q&A themes.
    • In short, they should be irresistible packages of information that steer clear of the typical, and ineffective promo-post mentality.
  • Monitor for Brand and Local Crisis and Have a Plan
    • Set up review monitoring software (much more about this below.)
    • Be ready to own-post about a crisis so that your domain name will drive the post to the top of search engines. You want to be the source that appears in Google, not another site.
    • Franchises are subject to online reputation issues like most businesses, but the implications can be much broader.
    • A disgruntled or angry franchisee can do great damage on Social media while representing the brand.
    • The national team should monitor the brand digitally and provide reaction checklists to avoid escalation of issues.
  • The URL for local franchisees should be kept as short as possible, making it work well on printed medium.
    • http://www.franchisename.com/xxxxx  is ideal, where “xxxx” is the city name or office number.
    • This URL consideration needs to be engineered into the CMS information architecture.
    • This makes it easier for customers to remember and use your website, and it makes QR codes and printed marketing better.

Local Franchisee SEO and Internet Marketing Program Management

Consumers have zero patience, and are task driven.   They are using mobile devices and deluged with marketing messages all day.

I say “subsite” very deliberately – having separate domain names for franchise locations vastly increases the work required and also dilutes the brand structure within Google’s entity graph..

  • Compliance with the national franchise’s rules should be compulsory and spelled out in the FDD and Franchise Agreement.  Firm rules and compliance criteria are essential.
  • No “rogue” websites or domain names are allowed under any circumstances, or the franchisee is out of compliance and in violation of trademark rules.   Franchise Facebook pages should be allowed for sharing of corporate content or other approved messaging.   The Franchise should provide an individual, centrally controlled subsite for each location that is really just an information page on the main domain name, but with specific local information.   The subsite can be reached through the office locator of the main site, or through internet searches.   The franchise corporate marketing team should maintain control of franchise subsites and all SEO, remaining on the look-out for problems such as duplicate content, poor brand portrayal and trademark issues.
  • The local subsites must be optimized for local searches and language.  Franchisees can submit text suggestions for their subsite to the corporate office for review and insertion.  If the subsite has more than one page, all informational content should use canonical links to point search engines to the “original” content to avoid duplicate content penalties.
  • No Local paid search or social media advertising should be done by individual franchisees.  No rogue facebook pages, twitter accounts or other social profiles should be set up.  The only way to get these taken down in case of a franchisee leaving the system is often with a trademark claim, which can take months – and this can impact your franchise development in the area.
  • Structured markup should be used on the subsite to ensure that local information such as address, phone and regional references are communicated clearly to search engines and tested using Google’s structured markup testing tool.
  • For territory based franchises, owners should give out the national brand URL in all marketing, not a local URL or another domain name – the “find an office” feature should be sufficient.   For non-territory models they may have to give out a local URL.
  • A clear photograph should be available of the business owner with a contact email address.
  • Training videos should be available to the franchisees for web marketing concepts, such as how to get reviews, rank in local search, interpret analytics, etc.  Having breakout sessions at corporate annual meetings are fine, but the concepts tend to be forgotten quickly.
  • An idea that’s worth considering:  Franchisees should be subject to a compliance score on a regular basis to ensure they are following the brand guidelines.

Local Directories and Local Citations for SEO

The impact of local directories cannot be overstated.  Local listings in search results are prominent, and often have customer ratings scores listed.    Local SEO is dependent on local citations and is harder to manage at the national level.

  • Local directory participation should be outlined as a requirement for all franchisees and discussed in the FDD and Franchise Agreement.
  • The franchiser (not the franchisee) should build the Google My Business (GMB) and Bing pages for the franchisee for standardization and be set up as the “owner”.  Category selection is critical.
  • The franchisee, if qualified, can be set up as the “manager” giving them ability to answer questions, adjust hours, etc.,
  • The franchiser should monitor carefully the inbound review notifications and build a workflow for same.  Where possible add sentiment analysis of those emails.
  • Claim listings on the primary local directories, such as Yelp and yp.com, whichever are appropriate for the franchise industry sector.  Whenever possible, corporate should be set up as the “owner” of the page, with the franchisee an appropriate manager, just like GMB.
  • Corporate should coordinate the verification process, which can be tricky!  This is one of the most time consuming and frustrating parts of the process.
  • Many still rely on the BBB for their referrals.  Local BBB listing would be highly recommended (a powerful local SEO citation) with profile links to the franchisee’s local URL and the national URL (BBB usually provides two links.)   BBB participation, including responding to negative reports,  should be required part of the Franchise Agreement.
  • Coupons and local promotions can be powerful business builders.  Training videos and media should be available for franchisees to learn how to use these properly (Google+ Local, etc.)

upload.wikimedia.orgwikipediacommons22d2.5_starsConsumer Reviews, Ratings  and Brand Monitoring for Franchises and Multi-Location Business

Customers will use word of mouth and online reviews to decide who to work with in many cases.  Leaving this important element to chance is not acceptable.  

  • All franchisees should be aware of how to manage and respond to online reviews.   Training videos and screencasts are a good way to do this.
  • A goal of 20 high score positive reviews per location on a major site such as GMB should be mandatory.   No fake reviews or “bought” reviews.
  • Franchisees should work to acquire reviews from happy customers, but they must be kept up-to-date on the guidelines at Google, which have recently changed.
  • Deploy system-wide monitoring of social networks and consumer ratings sites – bad reviews are cause for alert.   If negative reviews are submitted, the corporate communications team should guide the franchisee through resolution as needed. This might be done with free tools or a more comprehensive enterprise-level system.
  • GMB page will email notifications of reviews to the owner of the page, but not the manager.  This allows the franchisor to coordinate review responses.

Franchise CRM and Consumer-Side Franchisee Lead Distribution

  • Any franchiser/multi-location corporation must invest significantly into their CRM solution.  Email marketing will be one of their highest performing channels, and these systems support this.
  • GDPR/CCPA and other rulings must be considered in the handling of any consumer data.
  • A Central CRM solution should be in place to send follow up content to customers and to monitor satisfaction, and all leads must be passed through this system for franchise compliance.
  • The CRM should be used for as many customer interaction/transactional emails as possible.
  • Leads should be captured in a CRM system that improves over time by incorporating conditions and triggers that email customers in a predictable manner.
  • The franchisee should have “real time” access to their customers on mobile devices if possible – especially if the business involves doing business at the customer location.  The central CRM should support this type of ad-hoc queries and field work.

Franchise and Multi-Location Paid Search Marketing (Adwords/Bing Ads) and Conversion Optimization

  • Paid search and national campaigns should be created at the corporate level, with appropriate geotargeting in place for local campaigns.  Accounting and charging franchisees for paid search spend can be difficult, so must be carefully engineered.
  • Optimization tools, analytics and bid management should be applied at the national level, with some reports sent to franchisees via the franchise portal/intranet.
  • Learn more about our Multi-Location PPC management offerings – the ROI can be incredible by letting pros handle it.
  • Geotargeting call tracking, SMS messaging and other items can be incorporated as appropriate.
  • Location-specific “learning” can be syndicated across the network to maximize the impact of optimizations.
  • Google Ad customizers can offer scalable efficiency in some cases – including adding city names based on searcher location and other mechanisms.
  • Google my business profiles can be connected to Google Ads via Locations and phone Extensions, streamlining the presentation on the search results.

Franchise / Multi-Location Content Marketing Ideas

By centralizing content development and syndicating it to the franchisees, quality and consistency can be improved on local-social publications, such as regional Facebook pages. Canonical links pointing back to a central core content on the main site will be used to avoid duplicate content when the content is shared on microsites.

  • Generally, I recommend running the entire social media program nationally, giving local franchisees syndication rights to the content from the national brand.  They should be equipped to easily share or repurpose that content in their local network as if it were their own.
  • Considering that content will eventually be shared on social networks should guide the style, images, headlines, and tone of messages.   Trying to create share-worthy content that is also sales content is difficult.   Few will link to a sales pitch.
  • Short URLs should be provided for all content sent to franchisees so they can share it on their Twitter accounts while keeping analytics intact. The franchisees are a great source for new content which reflects customer behavior, but franchisees tend to create highly promotional content.
  • The content created by the franchise content team should be pre-shared with all franchisees via RSS  or email as fuel for their own local content marketing and social media effort.   This centrally created feed should provide a steady diet of high quality content to the franchisees, ready to share to their audience.
  • High-quality stories/posts submitted from the franchisees should be considered for “promotion” to system-wide distribution (e.g. success stories in one region can be leveraged in many regions.)   Some franchises may want to incentiveize this content creation activity with monetary or other benefits.  Many very good authors may exist in the franchise system.
  • Don’t waste blogging talent at the local level – it usually dies there, while the national team is starving for great content.  In most cases their ideas applies to the entire franchise system and should be spread!

Improving Page Uniqueness for Local Websites/Pages

  • Look for customer-created content you can use that will help your page avoid duplicate content.
  • Reviews and ratings can be used (for the location in question, not global) so give the page more uniqueness.  Simple Javascript is offered by many review monitoring programs.
  • Recent jobs finished lists can be a great way to boost uniqueness and show productivity.
  • If local content is duplicate-by-necessity of other locations, utilize a centralized library with canonical directives to prevent duplicate content problem.

Social Media Tool Considerations for Franchisee Marketing

  • Profiles planning is incredibly important.  The owner-manager credentials must be clearly spelled out and set up in a scaled fashion.  This can get messy fast if you relax the requirements.
  • Facebook offers parent/child franchise relationships on a case-by-case basis.  This can be very difficult to get accepted into except for very large enterprises.   Someday they may expand this.
  • Abandoned Social Profiles can wreak havoc on a territory and damage a brand if the owner closes their office.
  • Build a “shut down sequence” for all social media profiles into your franchise agreement for cases where a franchise location closes.  This might involve just closing the profiles, or possibly transferring the profile to another franchisee nearby.

Next…The Franchise Opportunity Web Site (Business Development)

This is the heart and soul of your company’s expansion.  Your often asking someone to spend their life savings endorsing your brand.  It’s high consideration and probably best done in person or on the phone.  The website should make that phone call a primary goal.

  • A focused sub-folder microsite attached to the main domain name.  (e.g. Franchisename/joinus)
  • A short, step-by-step set of 5-7 pages that provides brief answers to top questions and lead you to contact the sales team.
  • Casual, believable testimonial videos should be created of actual franchisees.
  • Embrace Video:
    • Companies which overproduce their videos lose.
    • Informational videos are “you, you, you” information, not “us, us, us” promotions.
    • If you impress people with your information, the sales is built in.
  • A franchise kit/portal delivered after initial content that answers all questions a prospect would have.  Candidates receiving the franchise kit advance in the lead funnel.
  • The “FAQ” model works well as a vehicle for providing customers information on blog posts, webinars and especially videos.
  • A video FAQ series about the franchise (1 question and 1 answer per video) can be powerful tools.
    • You can string these videos together to create topical playlists.
    • Having one question per video allows you to easily link to these videos in blog posts, emails, etc.
    • Vary the staff member doing the answering – show diversity.
    • Consider including top franchisees as “answerers” in the FAQ series to mix things up.
  • Inbound franchise development leads should be verified, qualified and treated like 911 cal