What are Franchise Buyers looking for? A takeaway from the IFA Convention

Marketing is in the midst of a revolution. The internet, and social media in particular, has wrested control of the conversation away from companies, turning traditional top-down marketing messages into quaint dribbles amid a tide of information being shared and commented upon by the public.

How do you navigate the maelstrom? By moving beyond slogans, logos and disclosure documents to tell the stories that make your company compelling.

Last week I attended by first International Franchise Association Convention. The gathering in Las Vegas drew 3,600 people eager to find ways to grow their franchise systems by boosting profits; improving their training, support and supply chains; and, critically, appealing to people who are considering buying a business.

For decades, franchise systems were able to use tiny brochures, bullet point messages and the phrase “call us to learn more,” to reach investors. But the Great Recession, which devastated many businesses and wiped out assets, left buyers wary and eager for a lot more information about companies that they are considering for an investment. Now, before people pick up a phone to talk to a salesperson, they go online to do research.

What do they find when they Google you?

For a lot of companies, they find little or nothing — and then potential buyers assume the worst. If nobody is talking about your company, it must not be very healthy, right? You must be on your way out of business, right?

Wrong. You’re probably just not doing a very good job of telling your story online.

That is a huge problem for franchises. To grow a franchise system, you have to attract new people to the business. For franchisors, one of the best ways is to tap into a marketing gold mine in the form of their existing franchisees’ stories. As franchisors compete to attract new franchisees, they should ask: What drew current franchisees, especially top performers? If you ask, they will tell you. What do you like about your day-to-day business? If you ask, they will tell you. What are the sore spots that could be smoothed out with better support? If you ask, they WILL tell you.

Every franchisee has a story about what led them to the business: a laid-off marketing executive who turned a hobby into a profession as a kitchen remodeler; a mother whose search to help her ill daughter led her to a healthy smoothie franchise; a woman whose experience watching a beloved uncle succumb to ALS led her to a company devoted to compassion, caring and helping seniors live life to the fullest.

There are 3,000-plus franchise systems, so what attracted peak performing franchisees to yours?

How do buyers define your value?

Simon Sinek, author of “Start With Why,” gave a great Ted Talk in 2010 explaining the thought process that separates world-changers from also-rans. In describing both Apple Inc. and Martin Luther King Jr., he pointed to a thought process that centers on the “why” rather than the “how” or the “what” — two questions that dominate most discussions about what makes a business different.

Sinek argues that most companies (and people) try to inspire action by telling people what they do, how they do it and then, perhaps, why — in that order. Apple, on the other hand, starts out with the “why:” We want to change the world. How? By empowering people through great design. By making what? Computers.

It’s the “why” that inspires.

What is your company’s “why?”

For the past year, franchisees of smoothie and juice franchise Robeks have been telling me their “why”: They want to make communities healthier. For PostNet — whose business model encompasses printing, shipping, marketing and a broad range of services within those categories — the mission is tied together by an overarching desire that franchisees share: to help small businesses, especially those in their own backyard, grow. Cafe2U, a mobile coffee concept still new to the United States, delivers coffee (the what), and uses vans tricked out with high-end barista equipment to bring a café menu to underserved workplaces (the how). But the “why” at the company’s core? They deliver joy to workers who would otherwise forgo a delicious daily coffee break.

Share your “why” with the world

Getting to the “why” is a deeper conversation than what you’ll find in an Item 7 or an Item 19. Obviously startup costs and earning potential are important, and profitability is a key to happiness for any business owner, but franchisees who are happiest are those whose passions align with their work. If you can get them to share their stories, they will add a human dimension to your brand that will make it easier for franchise candidates to understand the culture and the values that set your business apart from competitors.

Don’t you want to attract more franchisees who see your business the way your peak performers see it?

Getting your current franchisees to open up, and then telling their stories online, is a key to unlocking your brand’s growth potential. Whether someone is buying a car, a boat, a house or a business, they want to be able to mentally try it on and imagine how their new life will unfold. Your new franchisees can be the guide for people who are Googling to find franchise opportunities. If you listen well enough to learn your current franchisees’ stories, have the skill to tell the stories, and know how to reach your intended audience online, your brand can experience a breakthrough.

While there are technical aspects to the work we do with our clients, the basic philosophy is simple: Ask questions. Listen. Share.

Why you should hire a brand journalist

Ferreting out great stories and retelling them in a compelling way will attract people to your business, but a lot of companies don’t have anyone with the right skills to pull it off.

Here’s the thing: it takes a story worthy of sharing and re-telling — one that targets a specific audience and answers questions — to cut through the online clutter. It takes rich details that help the reader inhabit the world being described. Great storytelling is immersive — it’s not just a recitation of basic facts.

As luck would have it, the Great Recession freed up a lot of people with the skill set companies need: journalists.

The media industry has been shrinking for the same reason that the sales funnel has been changing — the collapse of top-down communications. Advertisers can now communicate directly with their customers through the Internet, just as your customers can now research you online. As companies shifted their money from print media toward the internet, media revenue collapsed and reporters were let go. The irony is that the same reporters who lost their media jobs are ideal candidates to help companies navigate a world in which the media no longer intermediates.

Online readers have the power to turn your brand into a star or consign it to the dustbin, and the difference is great content.

Is your brand connecting with people online?

If you don’t know how to ask the right questions and tell the right stories, ask for help. The March issue of Entrepreneur advises companies to “hire a brand journalist,” and it’s sound advice.

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