18 April 2019 Bec Derrington

Lush UK has done something it appears many would love to have the courage to do – abandon social media.

Well, not entirely. But by refusing to feed their branded pages and pushing customer enquiries to a conversation thread, email or (SHRIEK!) phone, they’ve tried to wind back the clock to a simpler time. A time when social media wasn’t the main vehicle to connect with customers. And only time will tell if their gamble will pay off.

The reason? They’re sick of feeling they need to pay their way into their customers’ newsfeeds.

Personally, I feel this is less of an algorithm tug of war and more an effort to get customer conversations centred around a hashtag, ie. #lushcommunity.

So why is this brave? Because they’re opting out of feeding a highly coveted community of more than one million users across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Perhaps they’ve thrown their hands in the air and thought that at best, customer engagement could go up… and at worst, stay the same.

I’m keen to find out, but in the meantime, I’ve invited some social media experts to share their insights on what they think of Lush UK’s approach and more importantly, what they think will happen next.

Their insights may surprise you, or just reinforce what you already think.

The one thing they all share are strong beliefs on how an organisation should navigate this minefield of social media disruption: 

1. They’ll be back

Bestselling author of The 1-Page Marketing Plan, Allan Dib doesn't believe this is a long-term strategy for Lush UK:

Considering that Lush has experienced several controversial campaigns recently, I don't believe that this is a long-term strategy. Give it a few months and Lush will reopen their social accounts with a revised strategy in place.

"It's easier to log into Twitter or Facebook and leave a scathing review than to send an email. Let's assume they've removed their social channels to take negative conversations offline. It's not going to stop it. These conversations will still take place online, except now Lush won't have a dedicated account from which to respond immediately. The benefit is that they'll have more time to formulate a considered response. However, their turnaround time will be slower, and this could result in a lousy review escalating into a social outcry.

"Silence is bad for business. Piss off enough customers, and they'll take great pleasure in dropping you for a competitor.

"I'm sure that we will see Lush reopen their accounts within the next few months." 

Founder of Trusted surgeons, Patient Advocate and Digital Marketer Nicole Montgomery agrees this is not something Lush UK can sustain in the long term:

This is a bold move, especially from a company that has such a large social following. Digital marketing is tough (and getting tougher), it is nothing like traditional marketing because it is rapidly changing. One minute you have a killer campaign driving sales sky high, the next day you can’t reach a single soul without paying top dollar.

"Lush UK have a great account, the content creators deserve a medal, the content is powerful, it provokes emotion and it’s more than a bath bomb shop. These guys have spirit, they stand for what they believe in and they have a great account. Sadly, anyone who has a great account and stands for anything will inevitably be trolled. Lush has certainly suffered negative backlash over posts.

"Communities unite on purpose and divide on values. Although Lush is for everyone, some of their content has resulted in a divide within their community only limiting their audience and potentially tarnishing the brand. I believe this is a kneejerk reaction and will be short lived. In 12-18 months, lush UK will go back online because they will have to meet the customer and unfortunately the customer is all over social.

"It is interesting to note that Lush Australia will remain online and continue with their digital word of mouth. Business simply cannot reply on google search alone, especially with the raise in AI and influence of social media. In any event what a great PR move.” 

Prosperity Media's Daniel Cheung also thinks this is short-term move:

All it takes is a bus or train commute to see that social media use is still very much an Australian lifestyle staple. What has changed, however, is how we as a collective, have become immune to bland advertising messages from brands on these social platforms.

"Facebook has definitely made it more difficult for brands to reach their fans organically. Mark Zuckerberg, founder & CEO of Facebook, said in a statement, "One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent." Brands across the platform including Lush UK saw less than 10% reach from their social media efforts so the frustration is understandable.

"Each business is different and as such, the customer journey and the multi-channel touch points that exist will differ. Despite the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there has been a nine percent year-on-year increase in Facebook monthly active users. Therefore, the users are still there. The method of reaching them, however, has shifted from a free model to a pay-to-play one.

"A brand's success with social media will depend on how they understand the buyer journey. The days of repeating the same message across multiple channels are long gone. Attention spans are lower and distractions are only increasing. Ultimately, the marketing strategy is the cornerstone for any brand.

"Specific to social media platforms, one of the biggest mistakes that brands make is thinking that it is still a one-way street. After publishing a post, brands fail to engage with the very users who take the time to interact with them. This dump-and-run strategy no longer works. Consumers expect to see a representative engage with comments (both positive and negative). They want to know that there are people behind the brand because people buy from people, not brands.

"I don't think large brands will abandon all their social accounts. I have a feeling Lush UK will be back. What must change, however, is how brands use social media platforms to add value to prospective customers. And this has implications for digital marketing agencies as well - they must lead the charge in educating brands on how best to achieve conversions with social media.” 

2.  So bold. I wish I could too!

Some have heralded their bravery and wished they could follow suit, given the insecurity of the medium and the ‘inevitable’ trolling experienced as a by-product of social success.

Garden Beet's Felicity Waters:

There are times I have thought I would turn my back on the social media world too. Garden Beet has been under digital attack since July 2018. With VPN's, fake profiles and poor police powers between Australia/UK/USA, brands can find themselves operating in a lawless environment - if someone has a vendetta, they can certainly cause strife - it's very hard to prove who did what.

3. It’s a dumb move.

The Mum Central Network’s Belinda Jennings believes it’s a mistake:

Social media is still hands down one of the most effective marketing strategies for brands to reach consumers. As frustrating as it can be for retailers, the opportunity to deliver content directly to consumers in real time still beats traditional advertising channels.

"Of course, this comes at a cost, as does all marketing initiatives, however, when done right delivers tremendous value.

"In an increasingly fast-paced world, where society dictates the way that we interact with brands, I think it's a bold move by Lush.  That said, it's not one I'd be fully endorsing across the retail sector. 

"They do have some fairly niche products however I wouldn't be putting all my eggs in the one basket. Consumers have become lazy when it comes to seeking information and are looking for instant gratification - you'd be hard-pressed to deliver that through traditional marketing channels for less. 

"By all means move your focus away, but don't cut it out entirely.” 

Marketing Bee's Sharon Latour agrees, but doesn’t think they will really boycott the platforms:

I think that switching off from all those customers who have ‘opted in’ to hear from your brand is a bit strange to say the least, however I do not think this will play out to be a complete stop from social media.

"They might turn their efforts towards influencers who represent their brand essence instead by going for a more 'organic' approach. They have made a lot of comments about advertising costs, however digital remains the lowest advertising denominator for the most eyeballs and direct customer interaction.

"We will have to see how they play this one out.”  

The Revery's Nerissa Atkinson believes this move is “off-brand” (and I agree, just quietly): 

Lush UK's decision to close all of its social media presence is explained as a response to the platforms' algorithms that are reducing the reach of organic posts. That's a recognised pain point - businesses that spent time and energy growing a community now find that unpaid posts are likely to (by some estimates) only reach 1-3% of their followers.

"So, on a financial basis I can understand why the company might want to explore other paid opportunities such as influencers instead.

"But social media has two purposes; one is to get your message out, and the other is to allow your customers to connect with you in a way that builds a sense of community – a loyal tribe.

"So in asking people to contact them through email, phone or their website, Lush UK is effectively shutting off any opportunity to have a 2-way conversation from their customer base. While this may make controversy or complaints easier to control, it stands in the way shared knowledge and of customers becoming public advocates. Perhaps most significantly it means no longer allowing younger customers to connect with the brand through their channels of choice.

"For a business that prides itself on personable staff and openness in its business processes, shutting down its social channels completely seems a decision which feels off brand – which may explain why Lush in the US and in Australia are choosing not to follow the UK at this point.” 

4. Show some stamina

District32 CEO Lorraine Garvie thinks Lush UK should hang in there: 

We believe that Lush UK may have pulled the pin on social media too soon.

"The goal of any marketing is to be visible on a regular basis so that potential customers know, like and trust us prior to them entering the buying / evaluation cycle – we want to be visible everywhere.  Different platforms work better for different industries but as a whole, we’ve seen social media help many new businesses grow and that includes ourselves.

"We don’t see social media as a middle man but as a bridge to reach our customers and prospects - 15% of our Members don’t use social media but they don’t read emails either – we have to communicate with our customers with where they are at and if used correctly e.g. polls, data collection, driving traffic to the right medium then social media is still a very powerful tool. 

"Social media is a way for our prospects and customers to not only connect with us and our brand, but to connect with each other and if we can execute that correctly, we’ll have long-term loyal customers who’ll move with us to the next trendy social interaction platform.” 

Social media commentator Ximena Santibanez doesn't hold back in her agreement

Yet another case of "I don't understand how social media works".

"Yes, many businesses may find that conventional marketing and communication practices are more efficient for them. It is true, social media has failed many of us, users and advertisers equally.

However, the biggest flaw in the system is ignorance. Social media stopped working when the disconnect between using it "just for fun" and using it "seriously" appeared.

Brands don't understand that they should have organic engagement if they build brand loyalty. Users feel like they're being sold to all the time. It makes sense that people run away from this, instead of learning how to use it, and helping users to use it better too!” 

5. They’re doing it WRONG

Craig Mack - Speaks and talks Social Media, R U OK Day & Mental Health, LGBT Life & Advocacy, is confused by their approach: 

Lush say they are quitting social media because they are "tired of battling algorithms" and want to "cut out the middle man and bring their community closer together" and not "have conversations in one place".

"They're not the first brand to close their accounts, but what's different here is that the reasoning, and the strategy, just doesn't make sense.

"It's also not as bold a move as they make it sound. Lush are closing their main brand pages, but store pages and accounts remain. This implies they are moving to a more localised approach but, with 105 stores in the UK who it seems will now be responsible for their own social media activity, you would hope that Head Office is building a strong support system.

"This decentralised approach opens big opportunities for risk, errors and inconsistencies through the content created and published, customer service, crisis management and the costs and hours spent managing social media, all from what will essentially be the retail floor.

"Customer service on social media, unless centralised, will also be impacted simply because it's hard to be present both in store and online effectively. In the event of a crisis, like Lush's disastrous #spycops campaign in 2018, instead of one clear channel of communication they're actively opening a large network of them. None of which or run by, or have a direct and immediate line to, crisis management experts. This is a bold move and interesting (and confusing, overly complicated) move by Lush.

"By decentralising channels, giving the keys to people with little expertise, refusing to spend an ad budget, and "fixing" something that isn't broken, I can't help but wonder if Lush truly understand the role, purpose and potential of social media. Interesting one to watch.”  

Business Coach, Strategist & Speaker Nancy Georges smells a stunt: 

WOW! A large brand actually did this!! Ok shock over, now my business brain has kicked in and thinks 'Silly', 'Short sighted' or 'Deliberate stunt'.

"I have been commenting for a while that Social Media is losing its strength as engagement is dropping. We are getting fed the same OLD posts as more businesses chose not to spend to 'boost' posts, ie. get their posts in front of more than 50 people who follow them.

"We all feel like we are talking to ourselves sometimes and the same handful of people comment and like but that's not the point! The thing that Lush UK is failing to realise is that Social Media has always been important to businesses because IT IS WHERE CUSTOMERS ARE. 

"We are there because the model has turned from being business driven to being customer driven. NEW: direct customer pathways to products, OLD: customer pathways to businesses then products.

"In the same way that retailers who decide to close their stores and simply trade online find that their sales decline because customers don't have a touch point and feel a little 'rejected', businesses who choose not to be in the social space are telling their customers that they don't want to play in the same sand pit and want customers to play by their rules will also be rejected." 

Romance Your Tribe's Janet Beckers feels this move might disappoint their customers:

The reality is, social media has moved beyond brands publishing messages and even beyond the power of Infuencers. We're now seeing the rise of The Tribal Business and the Tribal Business Leaders who people find irresistible.

"Tribes online form around a brand when they can say "this is what we believe around here" and 'this is where we hang out' and 'this is our language we use so you know you're part of the tribe'.

"The 'where we hang out' is still going to be on social media, because that's where their customers are already gathering, often for hours every day (just check how many hours per day your phone records you spend on each social media platform).

"Lush is the core brand but, like a large tribe, they have multiple tribal leaders and these are in the form of their numerous shops.

"For their new strategy to work I expect they will need to really invest in helping their individual shops to market and engage on social media and take the place of lush UK in building a buzz around their products and missions.

"Otherwise they won't just be letting down their tribe of customers and fans, they'll be letting down their leaders too." Founder Laurence Gude won't be following suit:

I understand exactly why Lush have done this. I can even empathise with diminishing organic reach for brands on social media, but I think there is more behind this decision and it is perhaps more rational than a lot of people may have thought at first.

"To start with Lush are all about their high street stores. Yes, I know they have an online presence, but they have approximately 900 stores in 49 countries, with an exceptional instore experience and that is what their business model is all about. 

"They have only shut down their UK social media profiles and provided alternative ways of engagement, leaving their other accounts active (for now at least) whilst making it very clear they are not paying for advertising to appear in people's newsfeeds. This simply tells me paid ads have not resulted in a satisfactory return for them and or they are not interested in paying for online traffic, whether that be cold traffic, or warm traffic from retargeting campaigns. 

"For a company such as Lush to run an array of social media profiles it requires an immense amount of resources that comes at a cost. For consumers social is easy but for big brands it has been made complicated, they need to hire 'social media experts' for each platform to give quick answers to customers questions, deal with whinging and petty complaints, engage with thousands of content pieces in the native language of that platform, and don’t go forgetting video posts!

"The decision to eradicate all of this, decrease expenditure and free up resources, boost live chat through their site, become more personal, focus on email marketing and conduct everything through their own medium does make sense when it comes to a business like Lush and their core values and as a long-term strategy will more than likely increase their bottom line, especially when factoring in they are relying on organic results as they are not willing to pay for ads.

"Everyone knows organic views have been crushed in recent years, but more to the point, consumers have changed, they are flicking through newsfeeds faster than ever and attention spans have rapidly diminished, all whilst social platforms such as facebook have been focussing on selling ads, but can you blame them? After all, that is their world of business and they know they are offering a valuable service that drives very targeted calls to action and can provide a very attractive return if you are willing to pay for it.

"Although I understand this audacious decision Lush has made and doubt it will even impact them the slightest, this is not something we will be following any time soon, the success of social media does not just boil down to appearing in customers newsfeeds there is still a lot more it has to offer from a brand and sales perspective in the bigger picture."

6. They’re doing it RIGHT

Online Prosperity Consultant at Livelong Digital, Prosper Taruvinga, believes this is smart and very viable approach for a brand as strong as Lush UK:

Lush has strong influencers, a strong search engine presence, and they will be using user-generated content to dominate. They might have "left" social media, but they have not left the building.

"People come to the internet to get information and if your brand is the one that is providing that information, your prospective audience gets to know, like and trust you. And we all know, people do business with those they know, like and trust.

"Lush have done that perfectly. They have created so much content and have so many writers that, their audience does not even need to look them up on social media to learn about what they do and who they do it for.

"All this content has helped them arm their influencers with "things to post" or share. This is why their active participation will only ruin user-generated content. They literally are getting out of the way of their active influencers.

"Lush has not fully left social, as they have an active hashtag which is a simple internet filing system where their audience can simply find them online #lashlabs. Also, they are like that friend that tells everyone they are leaving Facebook, and well, that publicity will draw more of their fans to them, it is a tactic.

"A simple SEO scan will show you that, they are already leading all categories in search, so they already have more traffic than they can use to their site.

"They are ranking for over 50 000 keywords which means any search about their products is definitely going to their site.

"This was not a light decision on their part and I would advise other businesses that want to follow suit to actually check themselves before they wreck themselves."

Fat Frog Media's Keith Lang agrees: 

This is a good move. Companies should always be looking for improving the marketing channels that work for them and killing off the channels that don't. Or at the very least they should minimise effort on non-converting channels.

"Most businesses are on social media because they feel they have to be. But the truth is that for 99% of businesses, social offers a very low ROI.

"If companies put more time into improving their products, UI, and creating content on their blogs (as assets), they will get more benefit.

"How can they get the time and resources to do this? Stop wasting resources on social media channels that merely add to the noise online." 

Thrivo's Jess Rodley believes other options would probably work better for Lush anyway:

Organic reach on social media barely exists anymore, and with more and more people using adblocking software, paid search is less of an option as well. So I'm bullish on organic search.

"Website visitors who come via search engines are generally having their questions answered and their needs fulfilled. This builds a connection with them, and people who feel connected to your brand are more likely to become repeat buyers.

"Compare that to social media, where people are barely engaged. They aren't on social media to do research, they're killing time. It takes a lot more effort (and marketing budget) to convince these people to become customers.

"In the digital realm it's easy to forget that marketing was diverse before Google and Facebook.

"It's entirely possible to do your marketing in online communities (like forums, Quora, etc), to get referrals from other bloggers (mum bloggers would be perfect for Lush!) and affiliate marketers, email marketing is still a high converting source of traffic, and there's a whole host of more traditional methods that most neglect (like print ads in newspapers and magazines, billboards, cross promotions with other brands, etc). 

"Think about all of the free exposure Lush are getting right now. If nothing more, leaving social media is getting them plenty of short-term promotion. There's a fair chance this is a PR stunt and nothing more! If it's a mistake they can always quietly walk the decision back in later on." 

7. Only time will tell

Ok, so while Lush UK is flying solo in their dummy spit, they HAVEN’T deleted their social media profiles completely, which might hint that this repreive is a temporary one and they'll soon be back in full force once the dust has settled on this (perhaps) PR exercise.

But only time (and the clairvoyants among us) will tell. Watch this space.

(Oh and please leave your weighty insights in the comments below.)

Images - Lush