Setting up a franchise can be a mark of success for your brand. While setting up procedures, documenting processes, drafting franchisee agreements and developing training material for your future franchisees, there is of course, also the website development to consider. Your single-company website just won’t do anymore – you now need to give your franchisees more ground on your site, while appealing to the target markets of each franchise location.
It’s easy to want to hand this part over to a web developer who will just ‘get it done’; and that web developer may just follow your instructions. But as I have found, there is a lot to consider at the executive level when setting up a website to deal with multiple franchisees.
To start, let me say that your franchise website is not ‘just’ going to be your marketing tool. You don’t want to ‘just’ say: “hey we have franchise locations!” on the Internet. The nature of having franchisees is going to make your website planning process fundamentally different than any run-of-the-mill business website set up.
Here are things, for example, you are going to need to ask yourself:
- Will I use sub domains of my main site to display franchise location websites?
- Will my franchise locations have separate domain names? Who will own and manage the domain names associated with these sites?
- Will design be different on each franchisee website or location page?
- Will my franchisees have to pay an Internet marketing and web development fee, or will that be included in their franchise purchase? Or will that fee be covered under the ‘marketing’ umbrella?
- And, above all, how much control will my franchisees have over their web content? Will they be given login access to the company website, or individual websites to upload their own content? If so, what will they be allowed to see or change in the back end?
Note: Though franchising with social media won’t be covered in this article, all of the above are also questions to ask about your social media accounts and any online account profiles (including directories). For example, if your franchisee sets up their own Facebook business page under their personal account, you will have a problem retracting ownership for it later on.
All of this needs to be considered in great depth before you embark on a website design or project for your franchise business (hint, don’t rush your web developer and web designer! You won’t be happy with the results if you do!).
Not only that, while you are hiring a lawyer to draft up your franchise agreement you will want to make sure you include clauses that cover the above points, so that if your franchisee later decides to go rogue on you, you will have legal ground to protect yourself (i.e. imagine a situation where you innocently let a franchisee purchase their own domain name containing your company trademark, and they decided not to hand it over to you after ending their franchise agreement. Do you really want to go to court over this? Or do you want to make it clear up front that they can’t do this? Or let’s say they wanted to continuing using their @my-franchise-location.com e-mail address even after peacefully ending their relationship with you – should you let them?).
Now that we’ve covered the questions to ask and the reasons why you need to ask them, let’s delve into the options you have for setting up franchise website scenarios with WordPress (which, in my opinion, would be the CMS of choice to make life awesome and easy for anyone involved in your franchise web marketing and online content management).
Franchise Website Set Up Option A: The Single WordPress Installation
Internet marketing considerations: Easy to perform SEO, to blog, to set up newsletter subscribers, etc.
Back end admin and organization: Difficult
Longevity: 1 to 3 years max, depending on business growth rate
In short, this method will involve a single WordPress installation, with no more than custom post types, blog categories and regular WordPress pages to set up information on the site. For example, location X will have a WordPress page in this one install, and location Y will have its own page. If either location needs more pages, they become sub pages of the parent page. This is going to be the most budget-friendly for startup-phase franchises that don’t have a lot of money to get going.
Yes, the back end will eventually become hard to manage, you won’t know where your pages have gone unless you search for them in the WordPress dashboard, your forms will get confusing (‘who’s e-mail does this form lead to again?’), one little thing you do on one part of the website will affect other locations, and so on. Granting franchisees access to the website will have to be done by a user-role plugin manager that can ‘hide’ most of the WordPress dashboard from them, only allowing them access to their own location pages. Under no circumstances whatsoever would you ever (never!) grant your franchisees administrator access to your entire site! (Ever!)
This option is certainly not going to be the most ideal for the long run but the important thing is to realize that it is an option, and that in some circumstances, a franchise business will need to start here. WordPress may be new to the business personnel, investors may be coming on board who will have opinions about the website, the company may have very little content developed to warrant anything bigger (no sense in setting up empty sites) and there simply may not be enough sales or franchisees to provide the cash flow for anything more complex.
For new startups, I am a fan of letting the cash flow of the business’s success provide the investment funds for higher levels of marketing, including web development. When a business is starting out, the main investment into the website is likely going to come from the owner’s pocket or savings account, which makes the risk personal. When you don’t know how far this business is going to go, and how many franchisees you will have in a year, or two, or ten years, then it’s best to be conservative. Wait until your company net worth (after tax) can afford to re-invest into a larger-scale website.
In the mean time, this scenario will allow you to build your brand, and to do many powerful things that are inherent in WordPress, namely, blogging! Yes, blogging will help your exposure online and will garner traffic to your website to help build your business and marketing efforts. The benefit in this case is that you will only have one blog to worry about, and all your franchisees, as they join your team, can contribute to a single blog, which will further help its traffic and SEO. Speaking of SEO, your Internet marketer will be able to focus on ranking only one domain, and your investment and efforts will remain manageable. You can still run Google Adwords to your site’s pages, set up conversion tracking, set up an e-mail newsletter sign up form, and many other fun things.
You won’t ‘lose out’ on this scenario because…
WordPress can grow with you!
The great thing about using WordPress is that if you start with a single WordPress installation, you can always implement WordPress Multisite later (see below). In other words, WordPress can scale with your business. You won’t lose your design work if you invest in it properly up front and you won’t have to start from scratch. You will simply pick up from where you left off (but you might have to re-arrange a bunch of content, admittedly).
Franchise Website Set Up Option B: WordPress Multisite
Budget: Moderate to high
Internet marketing considerations: Each franchise location will require separately-allocated marketing efforts. It will be hard to avoid duplicate content, which can hurt SEO.
Back end admin and organization: Easy for franchisees, more sites to manage for the mother ship but control remains in-house. Owner can use one login to access all franchisee sites.
Longevity: 3 to 5 years, depending on how well design, content architecture and future growth was taken into consideration at the start of the project (i.e. you have to plan this stuff!).
As the business grows, and more franchisees are added, you will want to consider setting up a ‘network’ of sites for all your locations. If you have the budget and resources (and lots of unique content) to start at this stage, then do so. With WordPress Multisite, a web developer can set up multiple ‘copies’ of your main site to allow for ‘mini’ sites within your main site. I know that sounds confusing, so let me explain. Let’s say you originally started with your head office central location at:
Later you started franchising so you decide to set up WordPress Multisite. Now your locations can have either of these formats within your domain:
When people visit either of the above two examples (you will have to pick one format or the other at the start of your website set up), they will land on the ‘mini site’ that is focused on the territory they are seeking information about.
The cons in this area are that if you want each franchisee to have their own ‘mini site’ you will need to consider how much content they (or you!) will need to write. Content is probably the most overlooked aspect of setting up a website, and yet it is the most time consuming and most project-delaying factor. It will be utterly useless to have a territory website that says nothing new about your company than what can be read on your ‘head office’ page, or that has an empty blog in it. These sites also will cause ranking problems because they won’t provide any value to users. So first and foremost, consider your content schedule and your capacity for managing content for an entirely new network of sites. And no, you can’t copy content from other pages, or you will end up with duplicate content penalties, which will hurt your SEO.
DON’T use this method just because you think it’s got cool capabilities. Only go this route if you are really ready to ‘own it’; that is, to really put the time and resources, not to mention the budget, to maintain an entirely new site, with entirely new information and updates. Your franchisees will likely need to be as committed as you are to their web marketing to manage this long term.
If you do grant your franchisees access to their own ‘mini sites,’, this can cause problems if you need to censor what they write, in case your brand will get tarnished. This may also raise some discussions about franchise fees from franchisees who feel you should be taking care of this all for them.
This is useful in marketing because your company information will likely be different from region to region. Take for example, a health store franchise company. Each of their territories may have different store hours, different vitamins available on their shelves, different provincial or state requirements for labeling or shipping, and so on (that is a made up example – I know nothing about vitamin store needs!). So it helps to ‘talk’ to the customer in a way that is hyper-localized to their own needs and not to sell the company overall by a generic home page, and certainly not to distract someone by information that applies to other territories only.
This will also allow franchisees some control over their own content. If your franchisees are active marketers, and you have decided at an executive level (i.e. not merely a technical level!) that you want to allow them to have access to their location websites, they will each have their own WordPress area to login to and manage content, without affecting the other franchisees. They can blog, update their phone numbers, change their monthly specials, and so on, all at an individual level.
As the “Super Admin” of your website in WordPress Multisite, you (or more realistically, your web developer), will have access to the controls that manage the really techy stuff running your site, such as the software, the plugins, and so on. When it’s time to update across the entire network, the Super Admin capabilities will allow your web developer to do this for all the ‘mini sites’ all at once, with no need to manage multiple sites one by one.
Franchise Website Set Up Option C: Individual Domains
Budget: High, but divided between each Franchisee.
Internet marketing considerations: Franchisees will handle their own Internet marketing, including costs.
Back end admin and organization: Franchisees are more likely to take charge of their own sites in this scenario. Owner can lose control if franchisees own the sites. Separate logins for all sites.
Longevity: Depends on the set up of each site. Each site will have it’s own peak and fall.
The final option we will cover is to use individual domains for your franchise sites, and to install WordPress and manage them all separately, even with different designs and themes, sometimes using different developers. Some franchisors do this and in my opinion there are only two reasons you would go this route:
- At some point you got the impression that if you owned a lot of domains you would ‘dominate’ the web in your industry. Not true.
- You want to offset your head office marketing costs by giving franchisees a lot of control over their own websites.
If you think that reason number 1 above is going to get you somewhere, it won’t. In fact, it will have the opposite effect. One thing to remember (seriously, make a sticky note and put it on your computer screen, or frame it) is that websites don’t rank. Yes, that’s what I said. Pages rank. So if you think about it, the following two URLs have an equal chance of ‘dominating’ search results:
BUT, I would argue that the former would have a better chance of ranking because it will have many other supporting pages, each performing their own SEO, feeding its page rank.
When you try to ‘divide and conquer’ on the web by setting up multiple domain names, you are only diluting your resources. Now you will have to multiply your Internet marketing efforts, and your Internet marketing budget, by however many franchisees you have. So don’t do it if you think it will help your SEO, because it won’t.
If however, your aim is to download the marketing costs of web development on to your franchisees, then that’s a different story. Now your considerations should be totally different. Yes, you will get to save money by not micromanaging your franchisees. In some ways this can encourage them to be as invested into the business as you are. They may really enjoy that they can hire their own web developer and web designer and make their own site creations that will meet their needs at a micro level. All the better if they like their site and want to take ownership of marketing their location online (think of all the resources you won’t have to hire on your end to do this for them).
However, with franchising, you can never be too careful. In this scenario, you will want to do the following:
Step 1: Make sure YOU own the domain names, not your franchisees. What happens if they jump ship, sell their license, or decide they don’t like you anymore? Don’t let them have this power over you! Own your trademark in every way you can, even if you’re not legally trademarked yet.
Step 2: Tell your franchisees that their content has to be approved by head office. This is important, because at head office, you are going to comb through their writing to make sure they aren’t a bunch of copycats. Duplicate content will hurt the SEO efforts of the other franchisees; so don’t allow it (if you want to get techy about it, there is the canonical rel link as a fall back…but I won’t get into that). Of course also make sure they aren’t going to cause you any libel lawsuits or disparage your brand.
I recommend you only micromanage the content on the more permanent sales pages of the site. Let them blog freely about hot topics in the industry so they aren’t discouraged from doing it by feeling like you’re too controlling, and just keep an eye on their blog posts for any red flags and do damage control later if absolutely necessary.
Step 3: You must be the host (or own the hosting accounts). I know your idea here is to save money, but this is not an area to try to save money in. You need to own these sites, and the only way to do that is to own the hosting accounts they are hosted on. Sure they can hire their own developer, they can make whatever WordPress site they want, and you can charge them for hosting, but it has to be on your server, and your terms, not theirs. If they sell or forfeit their franchise license, the deal has to be that they are also selling the location’s website with it.
Step 4: Make sure you have constant access to the back end of their websites. In cases like this, it is very useful to use a service like ManageWP, which will allow you to manage several sites from one dashboard. You also can make copies and keep backups of the sites in question, and perform restores, so that at any given point in time, head office has the files handy, should any need arise for a takeover. You also can migrate these sites to another URL if you want to start new ‘template’ sites for each new franchisee. Other users you set up on your account can also log into your ManageWP dashboard. This way your head office tech guy, or even your franchisees, can go in at any time to manage and keep things running smoothly.
To Conclude: It’s Not An Easy Decision!
The main fork in the road when deciding how to set up your franchise sites is going to be whether to stick to one domain or to do several domains. If you stick with one domain, you can start with a single WordPress install and work your way into Multisite later. If you go with several domains, you will need to consider the control and ownership aspect a lot more intricately. Either way, this decision doesn’t have to come at the start of your franchising endeavor. But when you know you’re at the tipping point – when a single WordPress install is just not going to do the trick anymore, you will need to make the major decision that will be more or less permanent.
It’s not that one decision is better than another, but whatever you pick, it has to work for you, and you have to know what it will look like for the life of your business. It’s not easy to switch URLs and domains once you have built up a following and SEO ranking online. So make your choice wisely!