One of the participants in an internal social media workshop I taught in Chicago raised an interesting question. He worked in employee communications for a nationally-recognized auto service brand and wondered about the use of internal social media among franchisees.

It’s not unusual for franchise operations to set up extranets that let them establish communication with franchise owners. It just makes sense to distribute new pricing information and marketing materials digitally, and to answer questions asynchronously; it can reduce calls to the call center. Companies like Burger King and Ben & Jerry’s have set up just such resources (shown below):

Burger King Franchse Network

Ben and Jerry's Franchise Network

Communicating with franchise owners is great. Some companies are even taking it a step farther, encouraging franchisees to innovate. Domino’s Pizza leveraged one such experience into a 30-second spot after a franchise owner came up with a product idea—Parmesan Bread Bites—that is now being offered nationwide. The product is getting a 4.2 average rating (out of 5) on the Domino’s website from nearly 3,500 customers. From what I hear from franchise owners with whom I do business, it’s a rare thing for the company to give serious attention to ideas for improvement that come from the store owner.

But there’s an audience for interaction that is largely forgotten as companies apply social media to their franchise operations: the employees working in the store.

It’s not hard to imagine why companies shrug off store employees. First, they’re not our employees; they work for the franchise owner. Second, they’re not generally high-ranking, high-paid or even full-time workers. They’re often young, short-term and not highly engaged. These are the folks who change the oil at Jiffy Lube, flip the burgers at Wendy’s, tape up boxes at Mailboxes Etc. How much value could there be in dedicating resources to connecting them with the company or with each other?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

I recently judged the social intranet category for Ragan Communications’ annual awards competition. One of the entries recognized was Domino’s Pizza for its Domino’s LIVE store employee intranet. According to Kim Huston, the Domino’s staffer who submitted the entry, “Domino’s LIVE was launched in 2008 to improve employee collaboration across more than 4,800 locations.”

That’s right. The network’s focus is the uniformed employees who bake pizzas, ring up purchases and deliver pies.

Creating a network that lets owners, managers, workers and the company communicate with one another, the fundamental nature of communication underwent a dramatic change. “Franchisees, store team members and corporate employees are not only sharing best practices, but also addressing each other’s problems and concerns,” Huston wrote. “Store team members do not stop at helping each other; they also take pride in highlighting inefficiencies from both Corporate and Supply Chain Center to help improve processes and products alike.”

LIVE includes two forums where franchisees, store employees and corporate staff can ask and answer questions, one focused on business and one on tech. The site also includes a wiki (shown below), where store workers can create pages to troubleshoot and share ideas. There are blogs from the company’s leadership council members, franchisees and store workers.

Dominos Franchisee Wiki

All of which is nothing more than interesting if it doesn’t produce measurable results. The results are why the social intranet got an award. Huston notes that “1,138,035 visits from 50,413 unique visitors in the past year, with an increase of 147 and 170 percents for those two metrics respectively since 2009. The Business Forums have a total 107,423 posts and 3,727 unique participants.” Again, that’s fine, but what did the company get out of it?

To start with, how-to calls to the comany help desk have dropped by 75 percent. That’s huge. If you work in a company with a call center, you know how expensive it is to maintain and how much it costs to handle a single call. That result was achieved by employees answering each other’s questions in addition to finding answers quickly and easily online.

In addition, according to Huston, “Users, known as ‘peeps,’ have been supporting not only sales and quality assurance but also building friendships across the country. Peeps collected money to help another team member attend the annual Domino’s Pizza Worldwide Rally. They’ve helped each other through personal crises and made groups to play video games together outside of work. LIVE has truly built a community that encourages ‘Sell more pizza, have more fun.’

It doesn’t matter what kind of franchise operation you work for. Tune-ups, shipping, burger joints, tax preparers, it just doesn’t matter. The fact is that the vast majority of the information one employee needs, another one probably already has. Letting the find each other to share that knowledge—and archive it so it’s instantly available to the next employee who needs it—can save the company time. It also makes it possible for the next Parmesan Bread Bite to come from a cook or cashier instead of a franchise owner.

Is there a social network that connects employees at your franchise operations?