How Bath Ales grew its online sales using social media

Reviewed by Luan Wise

Two different glasses containing Bath Ales beers on a wooden table

Bath Ales is a well-loved West Country brewery with a loyal following. But by engaging with them on social media sites, the brewery has got closer to its customers and sales increased dramatically as a result. Rachel Miller reports

Social media has not just become accepted as a marketing tool - it is now at the heart of many firms' marketing strategies. It's not just one way to connect with consumers - it has become the core method of communicating with people. And yet, while proponents sing its praises, many businesses don't actually know how it has impacted on their bottom line - many firms are still doing it because everyone else is.

Social media expert Peter Kay of consultancy Not From Bolton - to distinguish him from his comedy namesake - has worked with one of the West Country's best-loved breweries, Bath Ales, introducing Twitter and Facebook to its marketing strategy. And, from the start, he has measured the activity.

This monitoring has demonstrated the power of social media. Peter started by analysing online sales in one time period and then compared the results with a second period in which the company was engaging with its customers on Twitter and Facebook.

Improving online sales for Bath Ales

"The result was that Bath Ales saw an increase in online sales of 56%," he reveals. The work took place in the pre-Christmas period between October and January. Sales were compared with exactly the same period a year earlier. The only variable was social media activity.

The secret of the success of Peter's approach was to use social media to listen. He explains, "With Bath Ales I taught them to use social media tools to listen to their customers and to show that they have heard them."

Peter cites the social media guru Trey Pennington as a source of inspiration. "I met Trey Pennington before he passed away and I was impressed with his philosophy," he says. Trey died in 2011, but he has left an important legacy for social media marketers. "Trey had three fundamental lessons to teach us - everyone wants to be heard, everyone wants to be understood and everyone wants to feel that his or her life matters."

Using this approach, Peter worked with Bath Ales to help them listen to what people were saying about their products and services on Twitter and Facebook. "In simple terms, if someone would tweet that they were drinking a Bath Ale, like Gem, then Bath Ales would tweet back to say thank you.

"Very quickly it showed that Bath Ales cared about their customers," he adds. "So more and more people created content about Bath Ales on social media sites and it grew from there. What we didn't do was tell the world how fantastic Bath Ales are."

Getting closer to customers

"We feel like we have never been closer to our customers," says Karin Ashwell, senior marketing manager at Bath Ales. "For us, social media is a bit like being in a pub and overhearing someone saying something nice about our brand. On Twitter we can say thank you and mention other Bath Ales they might like. It's about being friendly and acknowledging when someone has taken the time to tweet about us."

Like many business, Bath Ales knew it needed to maximise the opportunities offered by social media. "We had identified as a company the need for social media - we felt it was a case of ignore it at your peril!" says Karin. "Peter started by giving us a training session that was very inspirational and full of good ideas. It was very motivating and he became our mentor for six months to get our social media strategy off the ground."

Karin and the Bath Ales team are delighted with the results. "It has been great for customer service and the result is that we have significantly increased our followers and the number of subscribers to our newsletter and that has definitely had a positive effect on sales."

While Peter worked closely with Bath Ales, he did not do the tweeting on their behalf. It was all about creating direct communication between Bath Ales and their customers. "I feel adamantly that tweeting on behalf of a business is wrong," he says. "You need to convey passion from the heart of the business. Also, social media delivers a huge amount of information and intelligence that a business needs to collect - it should not be filtered through a third party."

Delivering a return on investment

"There are many that evangelise the benefits of social media in business and of course I count myself amongst them," says Peter. "However there are very few that can point at meaningful figures that demonstrate the impact of the opportunities these tools provide to a business - otherwise known as the return on investment or ROI.

"I worked with the marketing team at Bath Ales to develop and integrate social media into their business and that has delivered a great result. In my industry these tangible and recordable results are like hen's teeth, extremely rare to find. And it is very clear from the results that their customer base appreciate the attention too."

Communication in a crisis

The coronavirus has undoubtedly put thousands of businesses and jobs at risk and the hospitality sector was the first to feel the impact. The Government closed all pubs and restaurants with immediate effect on 20 March. This effectively removed all trade business from brewerys like Bath Ales overnight.

The company was quick to react. Draft ales were taken off the production line to be replaced by bottles which could be sold to the public via its online shop or from the supermarkets that remained open. But desite this hasty 'pivot', it became more important than ever that Bath Ales kept in touch with its tenants and customers. Bath Ales needed to let the public know they were still open for business and to update them on a wide range of issues from stock collection, credit notes, deliveries and online ordering.

The company regularly updated customers and tenants via its website and social media channels on what they were doing to assist their customers. They shared good news stories, such as the donation of all perishable food to local food banks and they lauched a charitably initiative where you could 'gift a pint' to a coronavirus hero. Tenants were also assisted in the creation of takeaway services and community building events such as online pub quizzes and streamed live music.

This has been crucial to the survival of the business and will help them bounce back when business returns to normal. 

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