- Halal Snack Packs on Smith St – the indefatigable Brian Ward rounds up the best places to eat the best halal sensation to hit Australia since Indonesian trepangers came for our delicious sea cucumbers.
- Erstwhile collaborator Austin Bush documents every Thai noodle soup for Lucky Peach
- Latent symphorophilia? Then like me, you’ll be obsessed with Thermomix disaster journalism. I wish JG Ballard was alive to see this.
- If you have a spare $135,000 lying around, why not blow it on a Rene Redzepi-fuelled private jet tour of the world’s fine dining.
- Zomato: in 23 different markets and profitable nowhere.
- Fish: still doomed.
The Yelp Elite Party Kiss of Death
In Melbourne, online review platform Yelp holds parties to reward their elite users, freebies where their high performing members get to sample the wares of Melbourne’s restaurants. Yelp’s elite are their best users who are handpicked for the frequency and quality of their online reviews, Yelp’s unpaid labour that earns each elite member some degree of influence.
The parties are replicated by Yelp the world over and for businesses have the same basic premise: that having these influencers in your business will improve the business’s prospects on Yelp. There’s good data to suggest that in other markets, a change in average Yelp scores has a causal effect on the profits of a business, so in theory, it should work well for restaurants.
In Melbourne, it marks a restaurant for death.
Senoritas, Joe’s Cafe, Virginia Plain, Orto Kitchen and Garden all closed post their Yelp parties. Happy Palace changed from offering an “ironic”/racist take on Chinese food to a paint-by-numbers burger bar. I’d hardly say that the Yelp parties are causing the closures and the correlation may have to do with a restauranteur having reached a point where they’re willing to try anything to market their business. The problem is that they’re not changing the status quo nor giving restaurants a boost that ensures their long-term viability. The failure rate is probably close to industry average which would mean the long term impact of this form of influencer marketing on a restaurant is zero.
Influencer marketing for food and travel either does nothing or its impact is so marginal that almost any other form of marketing is vastly superior.
The best travel bloggers money can buy
Over the last four years, I was social media manager at a destination marketing organisation, Tourism Victoria. I was the person that upon whom every travel blogger pitch would eventually land. As a social media manager, every travel blogger that you see is up for sale. About a year in, based on a huge body of research and a few campaign successes, I decided not to support any influencer marketing at all. No more freebies from my pocket, and as much as I could, discouraging it from everyone else in the whole state.
Over that four year period, international arrivals grew by 7.8%, outpacing the Australian national average of 4.3%. Domestically, it was a similar story. It’s unlikely that the decision not to do influencer marketing caused this but it certainly didn’t hurt. It also meant that I could focus on things that had more easily measurable results.
There was an inevitable backlash from bloggers. I particularly like this post from Caz and Craig Makepeace, who after I refused to bankroll their family holiday to Wilsons Promontory complain that:
But why haven’t I, or almost everyone else I’ve spoken to from NSW and other states out of Victoria, been there or heard of it?
For one, Tourism Victoria does a crap job at promoting their state. That’s evidenced by the fact that we only planned on being in Victoria for one month because we thought the state would be boring besides Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road, and possibly Phillip Island.
Tourism Victoria were doing such a crap job that where they were planning on staying in Wilsons Promontory was fully booked when they arrived.
We were super-annoyed that we didn’t plan better and book ahead for accommodation. We just turned up expecting to get a camp site and pitch our tent.
But with Wilsons Prom being popular with Victorians we had no chance of getting a powered tent site.
I’ve paid attention to what other destination marketing organisations are doing. Room 753 in Queensland; where influencers were invited for a customised, all-expenses paid visit to the Gold Coast. They held the world’s biggest Instameet with a reach of 22 million which would be the equivalent of 10% of Instagram if it was reach to unique users. The Human Brochure campaign in ACT which invited hundreds of influencers to experience Canberra and frankly, I thought was a great campaign from a state with a small budget willing to back a big idea. At the other end of the scale is Thailand’s BFF mega famil, where 900 journalists, bloggers and travel industry types got the best international junket that a military dictatorship could buy.
It hasn’t shifted the underlying problems anywhere whether they be dated tourism infrastructure and experience, the underlying wrong perception that a destination is boring school excursion territory or beachside murders during the first military coup that looks to have worn off the teflon. I can’t find any destination that has shown a measurable improvement over the past 5 years as a result of giving away free travel to anybody with an above average social following.
Both ACT and Queensland have lagged behind the other Australian states for tourist arrivals and expenditure. The states that are more heavily invested in influencer marketing are going backwards roughly proportional to what they’re spending on it.
What if they all picked the wrong influencers?
In social media, there are no right influencers, insofar as somebody’s past performance is not predictive of their future performance and the most cost effective strategy is to target a massive number of average- or below average influencers(pdf) rather than cherrypicking from the top. This looks more like traditional mass marketing than influencer marketing.
But we got a lot of Likes
This is the end slide of every case study in social media influence in the travel industry. A number in the millions followed by a measure unique to a social media platform and a giant blue thumbs up. A reach the size of a medium sized nation-state. It’s rare to see a solid measure of effectiveness like sales, arrivals or even something vague but measurable like brand awareness or sentiment. It is straightforward to measure this with independent pre- and post-trip surveys of an influencer’s audience and thanks to Facebook and Twitter, it is cheap to target those audiences with a survey. But virtually nobody does.
Influencer marketing is a grand distraction for the tourism industry but at least it is one that seems mostly confined to industries that don’t traditionally hire people who study maths. There’s a reason that you don’t see many finance bloggers getting a free home loan. It is probably illegal.
Thomas the Think Engine takes on an economic analysis of food trends and the growth in American barbecue in Melbourne, and it’s really quite wrong.
The whole city is suddenly buzzing with American cuisine – and just a few short years ago, that would have seemed like an oxymoron.
The reason is one restaurateurs almost grasp.
“Alabama-born, Dallas-raised Jeremy Sutphin, chef at Le Bon Ton, attributes it to adventure and awareness. ”I’ve been here eight years and the palates are searching for something different – and people are becoming more aware.” “
He’s right about that awareness. Australia’s knowledge of America is now a lot deeper and wider – we’ve now been to America enough that we’ve ventured beyond LA and New York.
He draws a link between travel to different countries and the perception of increased interest in their food. The problem is that the food trends that get written about in the Australian food press from Broadsheet to Epicure bear absolutely no relationship to how the vast majority of Australians eat in restaurants. They bear something of a relationship to how a minority of inner city urbanites eat in the short term, but even then, they’re a terrible guide. Claire from Melbourne Gastronome and I have had a running joke that every year since 2004 someone in Epicure has announced that this will be the year of Peruvian food, but that never happens. I’m still waiting for my plate of delicioso cuy con papas.
Actual food trends are long term and driven by a huge number of factors. If it was as easy as tracking overseas departures, I’d be rich after my investment in an L&P distribution deal. New Zealand is Australia’s biggest destination for short term departures but it’s still pretty tough to get a paua fritter in Melbourne. There probably is a link between Australian travel and interest in foreign food but it isn’t a sufficient condition for it to become popular in Australia.
Here’s a better representation of Australian restaurant trends in Google search data: searches in Australia for different national cuisines in the Restaurants category of Google.
Italian is still dominant with Thai breaking away from Indian and Chinese in mid-2005. Interest in American food has stayed relatively static with some growth in interest since 2011, but not nearly as much as the hype suggests.
For another confirmation of the difference in scale, Urbanspoon lists 1228 Italian restaurants in Melbourne and 131 American restaurants excluding McDonalds, Hungry Jacks, KFC, Subway and Pizza Hut (which should probably also go in the Italian column). Including the chain restaurants, there’s 233. American food is really quite marginal.
When food writers talk about food trends, they’re really talking about a game of cultural capital to distinguish themselves and their readers from others, rather than what most people eat or will be eating in the future. Food writers are talking about American food because it distinguishes them from the mass of people who still love a creamy carbonara and Hawaiian pizza from their local Italian joint. The easiest way to predict what food writers will call a trend next is to see which restaurants open within walking distance from their house or office.
It’s high time to reframe the food bloggers versus journalist debate.
Food blogging hasn’t been separate as a form of media from journalism since Conde Naste started food blogging in 2006. That’s the point that I argued that food blogging had died as a separate medium a few years ago. People like me who started as bloggers became journalists and got paid. Journalists tried their hand at blogging. Save for a few Luddites who write in the absence of the Internet, food blogging and journalism as practices have since been inextricably linked since the mid-00s.
The relative number of searches on Google for “food blog” is in decline. That peaked in 2010 which seems to suggest that for most readers, they’re just another form of web publishing, indistinguishable from any other online food media. If people are doing fewer specific searches for “food blog”, their relevance as a separate medium – one that readers value as something different from a newspaper or magazine website – is deteriorating. After just five years of corporate publishing, major publications are beginning to divest from food blogs.
Even though that shaky wall between food blogging and journalism as practices collapsed long ago, the debate about what divides food bloggers and food journalists as identities never ended because a third category of online food publisher grew: food marketers.
Food marketers write promotional copy on behalf of the food industry or to promote their personal brand in hope of remuneration from the industry. These are the people who attend the “make money with your blog” conferences, who are concerned with their brand; who want to build traffic to their blog to sell more of themselves. There is a fair degree of pride in the marketing work. They have media kits, show off successful collaborations with events and public relations agencies, ask for free meals, flights, hotels and airport transfers.
Much of the animosity between food bloggers and journalists is really between food marketers and journalists. Prior to the rise of food marketers, bloggers had little or no interest in getting paid; journalists drew a living wage. The decline of paid food writing work coincided with the willingness of food marketers to fill the content hole for next to nothing. Where being a journalist was a calling and a profession, being a food marketer was an aspirational lifestyle.
Like most marketing, food marketing is about an almost relentless positivity, happy words bleeding into the soft-focus cake shots; never eating a bad meal. Journalism is about truth and writing things that somebody doesn’t want to see printed, to paraphrase William Randolph Hearst’s maxim. It’s not to say that journalists have a monopoly on objectivity. The view from that particular tower is often the view from nowhere.
The big divide is around ethics. Journalists generally subscribe to an externally enforced code of ethics; marketers don’t because it could limit the size of their market or how they receive remuneration. Where journalism had a wall between editorial and advertising, food marketers are editorial and advertising. Food marketers also became the mould into which journalists are increasingly pressed, with the new demand to write “native advertising” alongside editorial work; and the idea that journalists themselves should be a brand.
The animosity between the remaining food bloggers and food marketers is that blogging seemed like more fun when there was no pressure for a success that was defined by traffic or cash or free meals; and that somehow food marketers are to blame for the cultural shift. Or at least, the expectation now on food bloggers from the rest of society is that they are all food marketers rather than a different sort of unique practice.
1950s and 60s restaurant postcards via SwellMap. Click left and right on the photo to scroll. So many white people.
According to the data: 2010.
Or at least, that’s when interest in them began to plateau as a search term on Google and it’s probably a good marker of when they stopped growing as a medium in their own right and simply became part of the regular food media ecosystem where supply of food media well and truly outstripped demand. What hasn’t ever peaked is the nostalgia for the past era of food blogging where blogs were more fun, a nostalgia that started to coalesce around 2005. From Amateur Gourmet, today, commenting that food blogging is over:
Don’t believe that’s happening? Consider this: Eater.com, one of the most significant food blogs in existence, just hired three full-time restaurant critics. Meanwhile, the most popular recipe blogs are looking more and more like magazines. Can you really detect a difference between the imagery and presentation on blogs like Smitten Kitchen and 101 Cookbooks from the imagery you find in Martha Stewart Living or, more aptly, Bon Appetit?
As food blogs grow more and more professional, I’m left with a feeling of nostalgia for the “anything goes” era of blogging. That looseness, that scruffiness, was why food blogs were such an appealing alternative to more traditional media.