The North American Association of Subway® Franchisees (NAASF) uses online community to advocate for members and solve industry problems for fast food franchises. Franchisees want to communicate with each other and share resources and best practices, but they don't always want franchisors steering those conversations. NAASF recognized a communication challenge and set out to develop a better system for its franchisees to gather and share knowledge.
Moving from In-Person to Virtual "Town Hall Meetings"
NAASF realized its franchisee members wanted to collaborate in a private space that was easy to navigate and quick to participate in.
In NAASF’s early days, it used a basic website and email campaigns to reach out to members. The website included rudimentary discussion boards, but the platform posed a challenge for categorizing topics, and members were frustrated by the interface, the delay in posting and the inability to upload documents. Some members dropped off of discussions entirely. It removed the discussion board in 2007, after a significant number of members stopped using the feature.
Leading up to 2014, the best way for NAASF’s nearly 8,000 franchisee members to discuss best practices, industry issues and bounce ideas off one another was at periodic town hall meetings. It was a useful but sporadic opportunity for both members and NAASF to gain and offer input. Discussions ranged from equipment information (Who’s your preferred beverage supplier?) to management questions and kitchen advice (How does everyone suggest I proof my bread?). Franchisee members could talk freely and openly about nearly anything, without the worry of vendors, partners or corporate interfering. It was a literal comfort zone, where NAASF could help to handle issues brought up by franchisees.
NAASF asked itself: Is there a better way for franchisee members to ask questions and share best practices in a virtual safe harbor? The association needed an online forum where members could talk about problems in real time. Relevant, confidential conversations should be at their fingertips. It would be a huge member benefit.
"We identified a need for an online forum where members could talk about problems in real time. When I saw Higher Logic's community platform and thought about its potential for our Franchisee members who are spread all across North America, bells went off. We had to have this community."
-Illya Berecz, Executive Director at NAASF
Bringing Member Data and Engagement Together with Abila and Higher Logic
NAASF made a few changes following the dismantling of the discussion board. It found a new email host and contracted with Abila netFORUM for its association management software (AMS). This database was more robust and offered better membership management than NAASF’s previous platforms.
Shortly after implementing this new AMS, NAASF chose Higher Logic as its new online community platform. The netFORUM database was a reliable underpinning for member data, and Higher Logic’s community software could pull from that data and work in sync with the AMS.
Upon launching the new community in February, 2015, NAASF set a primary goal to get as many franchisee members as possible to begin participating. It conducted a few educational webinars to show members the benefits, the process of signing up and how to generally use the community.
The community has 6,690 total members since launching last year, with just under 20 percent completing the agree-to-terms document. It also boasts a total of 1,015 discussions in the first year, which is an average of 85 discussions posted per month. Overall, the metrics show consistent growth in member engagement:
- Total unique authors: 14.5% of community members
- Total resource downloads: 762 (average of 63 per month, or twice a day)
- Total unique logins: 23.5% of membership
- Average open rate (for Open Forum digest): 28% in 2015 and 29% in 2016 - higher than industry average
The Community Starts Crowdsourcing for Advocacy
The NAASF community has become a headquarters for both problem-solving and advocacy efforts. Many discussions center on legislative issues that are vital to most franchisees. These conversations and requests for information revealed a knowledge gap that NAASF could help fill through community webinars and education events. Without those community interactions, franchisee members would not have a reliable platform to voice these advocacy issues.
Two national issues especially caught both members’ and NAASF’s attention: the minimum wage changes with the Department of Labor and healthcare changes based on the Affordable Care Act. In both instances, NAASF used the community to collect opinions and anecdotes from members about how these issues directly affected their businesses. Then NAASF hosted informational webinars to educate its members on the changes and regulations. This health care webinar was so popular among franchisee members that the platform ran out of spots, and NAASF held an encore presentation. Webinar content discussions continued in the community after the event.
"We had a flurry of members who renewed with NAASF based on one email we sent during our membership drive regarding access to the community. Once they realize how useful the tool is, they don't want to give it up."
It recently hosted another webinar in April and June in 2016 called “Understanding the Department of Labor Proposed Overtime Changes,” which included a partner as co-host and around 50 members in attendance (this equates to around 300 stores — multi-unit franchise ownership is common).
Storytelling Helps Franchisees Solve Problems
The lively discussions and knowledge sharing in the NAASF community has created a groundswell of crowdsourced customer support. Members now help one another while alleviating support costs for both NAASF and Subway®’s corporate entity.
Here are a few franchisee stories that paved the way for problem-solving within the community:
- One franchisee member is considered a Point of Sales (PoS) leader among their peers. The franchisee owns two stores and is always ready and willing to offer step-by-step instructions for other members regarding PoS processes and equipment. This saves members time and money, since they don't have to reach out to corporate or go through a service.
- No task or problem is too large or small for members to offer feedback. One franchisee member was having issues with his receipt printer at a store — what some would consider a tiny piece of equipment. Another member had figured out how to fix it cheaply, and posted a series of helpful resources for everyone, including step-by-step instructions, item numbers for the manufacturers, and a video walk-through of how they fixed it.
- Crop issues can greatly affect business for any food-driven franchise. The community recently talked through issues regarding two different shortages (tomatoes and banana peppers, very common ingredients for Subway® sandwiches). The platform helped members, NAASF and Subway®'s corporate entity all weigh in on how to deal with a temporary crop issue.
Using Community Features to Leverage Association and Franchise Goals
NAASF presents its community as a flagship benefit of membership, and member feedback reinforces that.
The association experienced a strong uptick in member renewal during its annual membership drive, after sending an email detailing the benefits of the community and how access is tied to membership.
Certain community features have seen great success. Discussions are the most popular feature, as it is easy for members to use and collaborate in different conversations. Sharing files is also popular. Members feel like they are receiving bonus documents for everything from PoS procedures and credit card issues to pricing on equipment.
NAASF sees great value in its largest community member subset, the so-called “lurkers.” Many franchisee members have signed up, filled out community profiles, and now log in to read content regularly. While not considered traditionally active, these lurkers find useful resources and value out of observing community activity, which happens to be very informal conversation conducted around the clock.
"Members post literally around the clock! They are constantly engaged, incredibly frank and respectful. The conversation is casual and informal, just like an in-person discussion. I think everyone is really pleased to have the tool, so they're consistently willing to share information that will help others within our Franchisee community."
Goals for Improving Franchisee Members' Community Experience
NAASF uses automation rules to reach out to members about updating profiles, posting discussions and generally increasing participation. It started customizing certain rules in 2016, and hopes to build out more campaigns targeted at lurkers and those who have been previously active but may have less activity now.
Since Subway® franchisees tend to be busier in the warmer months (common in the fast food industry), there may be more room for automation creativity once the weather cools down, more front line staff is hired, and those franchise owners have more flexibility to participate in the community.
The community also plans to continue its primary goal of converting lurkers to active contributors, and will work on increasing the accuracy of its member data between the AMS and the online community. It hopes to improve its mobile presence and expand its local ambassador program, as well.
Client Profile: NAASF
Founded in 1999, the North American Association of Subway® Franchisees (NAASF) is the official advocate of Subway® franchisees in North America. NAASF employs professionals to guide and advise in effectively representing Franchisees. NAASF endeavors to maximize franchisee profitability, and to strengthen the franchisees’ collective investment in the Subway® brand.