Should Franchisees Be Permitted To Operate Their Own Websites?

I just came across this blog post, which asserts three reasons why a franchisee should be permitted to operate his or her own website.  The author asserts that, in addition to an individual website (which I presume to mean a separate URL, independent from the franchisor's corporate site, using the franchisor's marks), a franchisee should be able to have a separate social media presence. 

The three reasons given by the author essentially boil down to two: (1) that your brand can expand its reach through individual franchisee websites; and (2) you can tailor your communications to a local audience, rather than have your "generic" brand marketing which may fail to connect with local audiences, who are more likely to respond to locally-focused messaging.  These are certainly good points — it's undoubtedly true that, with a dramatically expanded base of websites featuring information about your company's franchise, your brand will be that much more likely to be "found" as a result of searches conducted through Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.  It's also widely accepted that marketing through social media sites can help to expand someone's brand as well as their web presence, increasing the likelihood (once again) of being found by local and national customers.

I am hesitant to endorse this view.  There is an important negative consequence to having multiple franchisee websites for a brand: the presence of many websites can result in customer confusion resulting from inconsistent messages.  The problem is that the world wide web is just that – world wide — and, when a customer has to sift through dozens or hundreds of websites just to find the location nearest them, the customer may be more likely to give up and just go to a competitor.  Also, when your franchisees feature special deals or locally-focused products, it can be extremely confusing and upsetting for a customer to find that the deal mentioned on the website for the operator in Salt Lake City is not available at the location nearest them in Los Angeles. 

Moreover, speaking from a legal perspective, it becomes exponentially more difficult to control the way in which your brand is being represented online if you have to monitor all of the individual websites owned by your franchisees.  And, if it becomes necessary to terminate or otherwise have a franchisee removed from your system, allowing individual websites creates an additional administrative burden because you must ensure that the site is assigned back to you when the former franchisee has left the system. 

That being said, many franchisors do permit franchisees to establish their own social media presence (but not their own individual websites).  But, before you take this step with your franchise company, it's important to have a focused, well-thought-out social media policy to establish the rules for social media use by franchisees to ensure that your brand is being represented in a manner consistent with your overall brand message and strategy. If you would like assistance with creating a social media policy for your company, please don't hesitate to contact me; I can refer you to one of the members of my firm's Social Media Practice Group. 

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