We all have to eat, however food consumption is far more socially significant than mere survival. Going out to eat is social, dining is an experience, and whether you’re grabbing a quick lunch or a 5-course meal, individual tastes and preferences are diverse. Those specific tastes have amassed a collection of people to whom blogging, pinning, posting, tweeting, checking in and reviewing cuisine in their cities is debatably more significant than the actual act of eating. It’s a part of who they are, a very public expression of their foodie tribe, and to some extent most of us participate.
Today’s food and beverage climate is much transformed, similar to big business, experiencing its own changes as strategy, culture and conduct are all vastly more transparent in the court of public opinion. This increasing demand for authenticity has become an expectation in most (if not all) industries.
Only a few years ago Zagat was known as the “burgundy bible” in New York. Gastronomic enthusiasts would pour over its reviews of restaurants and traditionally trained chefs. The Zagat of the recent past wasn’t the interactive website it is now.
The significance is more important than the transition from paper to computer screen for a number of reasons.
1. Platforms like Yelp and Foursquare put opinions shared by any motivated diner at the hungry masses’ fingertips.
Everyday foodies are the new experts and restaurants have taken note. In cities like Seattle, in 2009 only about 5% of local restaurants were listed in the Seattle Times. Cut to 2012 and right around 70% of them were listed on Yelp. These channels aren’t just limited to dining either. Just two years ago Yelp’s biggest category was shopping. Friends check-in on Foursquare everywhere from hiking trails to their offices.
2. Organic social is trusted messaging and it’s becoming significant in business communications and reputation management.
Last year, Yelp.com was averaging 78 million visitors a month, with 40% accessing it from their mobile devices. Foursquare has a community of over 30 million users worldwide with over 3 billion check-ins. Over a million businesses use its merchant platform. A resentful employee, an ignored blogger or a disgruntled client now share power over your brand value with more traditional media. The numbers tell the story with Nielson reporting that 92% of consumers trust WOM (word of mouth) and 70% trust unsponsored organic online messaging.
3. The social landscape is changing influencers, but the ultimate goal is real-world action.
The shift in consumption of media has made diners savvier, utilizing user-curated reviews as resources that often impact their dining decisions. Influence is transitioning from only traditional media food reviews to shared spaces with legitimized blogs like Eater or the New York Times’ Grub Street. Bloggers, traditional reviewers and diners alike have become trusted resources. If that isn’t enough reason for business owners to care about online review sites like Yelp, a recent Harvard Business study shows that a single star improvement in an independent restaurant’s ratings on Yelp translates into a 5-9% increase in revenue.
4. Influencers are democratizing food.
Foodie is a term that can be applied to culinary explorers in a much larger inclusion of ages, budgets and lifestyles. Only a short while ago, it was an elite term reserved for those who could afford fine cuisine. Now, food trucks serve up delicious morsels. Respect in the industry is now shared alike between Michelin Star restaurants and mobile eatery enterprises done well, both receiving equal attention.
What does it all mean for big business?
Big business can acknowledge the changes and adapt, or be sidelined by younger, more innovative companies that understand the new landscape and how to utilize it to their advantage. There are real, bottom-line results in identifying and measuring the activity of influencers who are just at the conception of utilizing WOM online. Businesses across industries need to assess their online presence to determine authenticity and real-world value. Reputation is now shaped, in large part, by shared and earned media and public perception effects revenue. Cultural communities such as foodies demonstrate trends and evolutions that provide valuable insight. Big business should be asking how it can create its own tribe, and whether it’s fully leveraging WOM across channels, online and offline.