How influential are Australian food bloggers?

Apart from that mythical beast return on investment, the hottest topic in social media measurement is influence. Does anything that happens on a blog or in Facebook or in 140 characters or less drive people to change their behaviour?

I’m banking my current career on it – so I have a small vested interest in saying that it does. While it is easy to make the argument that the totality of social media consumption causes behaviour changes if only due to the volume in which it is consumed, it is currently impossible to judge the influence of any single tweet or blog post with accuracy. There are a few tools out there that claim to be able to do this but they’re extremely easy to game.

Just to separate out food blogs, at a rough guess, there are less than 30,000 people in Australia who actively read a food blog. By actively read, I mean read the homepages and news feeds, revisit a blog at least once a month – rather than visit them as the result of a Google search. Around a thousand of these people are the food bloggers themselves. There are a small handful of Australian blogs with more than 30,000 Australian readers but those visits are certainly not all active readers.

30,000 is just my educated guess: I came to that number by pouring every blog in my list of Australian food blogs into Google Ad Planner, which lets you see an estimate of the traffic to most websites on earth, and looking at the reach figures that were spat out the other side. Ad planner is not accurate: it tends not to measure blogs with less than 15,000 unique visitors a month, which is almost every Australian food blog.

Active readers are important because they’re the people most likely to be influenced (to some degree) by everything that a blogger writes. Everyone else does not see everything. This is of the utmost importance if you happen to be in public relations and prone to throwing out freebies to bloggers. If the blogger does not have an active readership, you may as well give your free meal ticket to a dog because even if the blogger in question writes a ten thousand word dissertation on the power of awesome contained in your generic stock cubes, if their post doesn’t rank in Google then nobody will read it.

Almost 80% of my readers come via search, thanks to me ranking well for a few very generic words in Google. It’s not to say that they’re a worthless audience (and if I started running ads again, I can use them to take cash from indiscriminate and international advertisers) but they are an audience that is very unlikely to convert into an active reader. They arrive, service whatever question that they need to answer or laugh at some of my deep-fried stupidity, then bounce off into the wider Internet. Traffic from restaurant aggregator Urbanspoon or Tastespotting behaves in a similar fashion: a once-off visit that makes the most cursory scan of the photos and then leaves.

Most often the question that the Urbanspoon/restaurant searcher is looking to answer is “What is the restaurant’s phone number or address?” because restaurants tend to have appalling websites where this vital information is not readily apparent. I AB tested this on my Dosa Hut post after getting a number of phone calls to my personal mobile phone asking for Indian street food.

Put the address at the top of the page instead of the bottom and average time spent on that page drops by around 30 seconds. In either case, none of these visitors have ever returned to my blog and read another post. A handful returned to the Dosa Hut post, possibly to get the phone number again. It would only be possible for me to influence these people’s behaviour if I had something extremely negative to say about Dosa Hut. At the point that they’re visiting my website, they have already decided to contact the restaurant. It’s altogether possible that they have already been there.

Influence in blogging relies on attracting an audience who is in a state of mind to be influenced, not one that is looking for confirmatory advice or whose intent is already set. It’s not to say that influencing that thirty thousand is not important as they’re the people who influence others food choices, have higher incomes and spend more than your average person on eating out. It does however suggest that Australian food blogs are a bad fit as a vehicle for most mass market food products.

12 Comments How influential are Australian food bloggers?

  1. Simon Food Favourites

    so how does the Google Ad Planner work? i couldn’t seem to work out how to put in my website to get a result. didn’t seem to recognise it. do you have to run google ads to get a result from it? i’m curious to know what my figures might be from it in terms of estimate of traffic :-)

    Reply
  2. Fitzroyalty

    Great post – Australian food blogging is to an extent a scene that celebrates itself. The vagueness of traffic statistics and the inability to easily measure influence does seem to drive some PR types to exaggerate the influence of some blogs.

    I agree that the mass audience is the swarm reading multiple reviews, found via searches, of the same new place they are curious about trying.

    I think the aggregate of multiple reviews is greater than the sum of its parts in terms of influence. A single review may inform but, as you say, real influence probably requires more than a single impression or some other context, such as comparison to similar reviews.

    I feel somewhat resentful that people who think they are doing something worthwhile by promoting stock cubes can even be grouped in the same category as me. How embarrassment! They’re not bloggers, they’re merely underpaid freelancers http://indolentdandy.net/fitzroyalty/2011/06/21/a-conflict-of-interest/

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  3. Amanda

    Excellent post which deserves some serious consideration. I can’t help but agree with the previous comment about the self congratulatory nature of a great deal of Australian food blogging, but I would like to suggest that some clarification is necessary. Not all food bloggers merely review food products and/or restaurants – there are a few of us who try to provoke some serious discussion about food related issues in Australia. Although, given that we are often “preaching to the choir”, I guess that just reinforces your conclusions about our relevance as well.

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  4. Phil Lees

    Amanda – I don’t think food blogging is at all irrelevant (although I did call it “dead” a few years ago) – it’s just small and it matters plenty to that small number of people. I think if you were keen to directly influence the discussion about food in Australia, your time would be better spent on the taste.com.au forums than writing a standalone blog.

    Fitzroyalty – A good deal of the food blogging (this post included) is talking amongst ourselves and about ourselves. The lack of accountability certainly fuels PR: it’s an easy win to say you’ve received X number of blog posts or tweets for a client without the necessity of following this up with whether it means anything at all.

    Simon – Here’s the Google Ad Planner help page

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  5. Steve

    Hi Phill, as always you headline grabbed my attention! In my own amateurish way I always try to hook the readers interest with my leading banner.
    To answer your question I think yes food bloggers do influence. How long this reach is and for how long is questionable.
    The impact on chefs and restaurateurs has been profound and in many cases print journalists would be at a loss without the scoop that food bloggers get first.
    Like all clubs, their are factions and splinter groups. I dont regard myself as a food blogger which I understand this has been interpreted as a person who reviews restaurants and cafes- I dont do review. I write about food and related topics but would never just say I’m limited to this alone, yet I’m categorized as one.
    Whilst I agree in part with Brian and Amanda about the ‘clubbiness’ of this specific genre its important to understand that for the vast majority of people certaibly in Aus, food is not something they think much about. The world of good food is a very small one and there are about two degrees of seperation so its little wonder that there is some feelings of an insular nature.
    Ask any chef, food journalist or interested person who Rene Redzepi is and you’ll get the correct answer however ask random people in the street and it will soon become apparrent that most people dont know who is is or do they give a toss!

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  6. Eat, drink and be Kerry

    Great post Phil! Those who complain loudly about food bloggers, often food journos and restaurateurs who have gripes for different reasons, should sit back and take a deep breath after reading your post. Blaming bloggers for all their problems might seem even more unreasonable than before.

    Reply
  7. Phil Lees

    Steve – I think the influence of food bloggers on print journalists is very interesting: it’s pretty rare to see an article in print that wasn’t blogged (or tweeted) about first from exactly the same angle. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing on the part of food writers because (in theory) it should connect a well thought out article with a wider conversation. It tends not to happen that way because newspapers generally don’t link out or have real mechanisms to connect their readers to a conversation that started elsewhere.

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  8. Stickyfingers

    Some interesting points there Phil. I know that this area is really hard to measure, it’s something my traditional advertising clients find hard to grasp as they try to apply traditional media ROI as a gauge on where to spend their marketing dollars.

    In my studies of social media I also have found that a small number of the population read food blogs and yet the most consistently googled items are recipes. Some of that must be contributing to the traffic on Australian food blogs.

    As the early adopter bloggers get more media savvy they are taking their blog posts a wider audience via feed readers and other social platforms such as facebook, Tripadvisor or Urbanspoon where there is already a captive audience. Threading blog links into twitter, instagram, tumblr, posterous, and perhaps google+ gives even more scope for influence. Some hope that paid posts scraped by Gram magazine will also attract more readers.

    But in my mind influence is not about page views but referrals. However we can’t measure the most important referral that begins by reading a post/tweet/update and is spread verbally through a network of friends, family and colleagues. We can’t measure an untagged facebook status update by a member of the public that raves about a product or venue. We can’t measure comments in all the private web forums that exist etc.

    I feel that businesses wanting to use this space for marketing need to identify people online that are likely to influence others via trust in their opinions over the long term. How they work with them depends on the product but it requires a basic synergy and a novel approach, not a typical, traditional PR response. That way the online influencer is still credible and avoids endangering the relationship of trust that they have established with their network.

    With an increasing amount of PR events, free cookbooks, packaged goods, dinners, cookware etc being offer to food bloggers, there is actually a danger that those who regularly write sponsored posts/tweets will actually lose the ability to influence others. Already in Australia there seems to be a schism developing between the traditional Weblog writer and ‘The Flogger’ who has turned their blog into an advertorial interspersed with link farming posts that are littered with trackbacks.

    It is my belief that clumsy marketing to bloggers could in fact be destroying what influence some may have had. Where once blogs were read for honest, unpaid opinion, some readers are turning away, becoming aware of sponsored posts which don’t necessarily ring true. In the meantime curated content in the form of online magazines like Broadsheet, The Thousands and LoveBento are picking up as influencers instead.

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  9. John

    Well I’m one of the 30,000 and I read food blogs every day, but if the bloggers want me to read their work, then they have to put the blog up there. I’ve lost count of the number of Australian blogs I’ve bookmarked, then finally deleted when two or three months go by and there’s no update. I’m happy to read news about places to go and things to try, but the material has to be there for me to read. I have enough intelligence to distinguish between the blogger and the flogger, so that’s not an issue for me. I check the blog and if it’s not much more than advertorials I drop it and never go back.

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  10. jess☆

    Wow, great post… I too am one of the 30, 000 who read food blogs daily, and I’d completely agree with StickyFingers comment (“Where once blogs were read for honest, unpaid opinion, some readers are turning away, becoming aware of sponsored posts which don’t necessarily ring true.”). I’m fairly new to the food blogging world, and it certainly took me a while to get involved, I am thoroughly enjoying it, and am slowwwwwly starting to get my family and friends involved too – firstly, by reading my blog, and then secondly, by recommending others to them. I believe that in today’s society where we want everything immediately, the internet is obviously our best source of information, meaning that bloggers have great potential to influence such a huge audience; while I may not be banking my current career on it, I think that blogging will get more and more popular. Great to hear so many opinions and thought on the matter though!

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  11. liz

    I love reading blogs, I have my own that people follow. We don’t have any advertising, our following is small. Which is people who are interested in Bahn mi in Brisbane or our friends following us around the world. Blogs are personal, do we have a sway in advertising? Yes, we do, a simple mention to a few good friends and of course things start rolling for that business. Blogs are for pleasure.

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  12. Y

    Interesting post. And would be equally interesting to see where things are at now, two years on from when this post was written!

    Reply

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