16 August 2011

Food Bloggers as Marketing Puppets | Part 1. Evolution

Photo Marialuisa Wittlin

This is a food blog that encourages readers to not only think but to ruminate. This will not be a short post.
There will be two additional posts on similar subjects.
If you want pretty food pictures t
his isn't your kind of blog. Go directly to Stickifingers instead.

Online food media is a rapidly growing space.  

When I started the Deep Dish Dreams food blog in 2007, the number of food bloggers in Melbourne was sparse. After a meet up at VegOut Community garden - where we shared a meal cooked together in the garden’s wood oven - a core group of us grew into a tight knit community, that when Twitter began to grow tentacles was transferred into ‘The Melbourne Food Mafia’ or ‘Food Twitterati’.

I really enjoyed the interaction of this emerging community because our hearts were in it merely for pleasure. For the most part our blogs were read by friends and each other. There were no financial motivations involved, nor popularity contests, just a genuine sharing of the common interest in topics related to food. I was buoyed that I had found some kindred spirits beyond my family and professional networks.

At that time we bloggers were low on the local media radar. While in the USA, known bloggers were beginning to be refused entry into venues by chefs who felt aggrieved by them and threats of lawsuits were emerging. Back here, we were quietly minding our own business and enjoying each other’s food, company, blog comments and repartee. Just as in a sports or social club, blogging was our mutual hobby. 

After a while, some of the group stopped blogging but still remained in touch. There were some debates between the ‘What I ate or cooked last night’ Bloggers and the amateur ‘Restaurant Review’ bloggers. The Mummy cooks graduated over to new parenting blogger communities and a bunch of the Generation X bloggers bonded over ethical food philosophies, preferring more academic or opinion driven posts. My own blogging style evolved into storytelling and I went on to create other niche blogs too.

Smart phones and Twitter

Since then, the rising popularity of smart phones and Twitter in Australia has significantly changed the food-blogging landscape.

I have read speculation that there are now over eight hundred food blogs in Australia. I see that many of those initially connected to each other using Twitter. It certainly broadened the Melbourne Food Blogging scene, sparking a growth in semi-professional niche review blogs that felt more like magazines in their focus.

Twitter started a rise in physical connections  beyond our mere start up session at VegOut. And as more bloggers came on board we all went on tweet-ups to chew the fat, literally.

Now a number of the blogs also now have associated Facebook pages and some of the Melbourne Food Bloggers have joined a discussion group on Facebook. Food bloggers have increasingly become savvy at driving viewership by using multiple social media platforms, organising events and by appearing in traditional press articles.

For me that’s no surprise. It is a natural evolution. The internet is now rich with resources on how to capitalise on RSS and viral sharing tools, which blogging platforms to use, plug-ins, link sharing and how to choose a hosting platform, domain name, hook into smart phone apps etc. There are webcasts and local social media events detailing how bloggers can monetise their hobby, draw readers and get freebies.

The culture of food blogging

In the space of four years, the culture of food blogging in Australia has shifted significantly. I’ve noticed that the content of the newer blogs has a different format. For my part I find the posts of many reflect the global trend to diminished substance, lack of concepts and a starvation of rich language. I recognise that the popularity of this style has resulted from an overall lower attention span by readers in the first world. Some would argue that this is because we are suffering from information overload and media saturation.

In professional writing, this current trend in blogging could be considered an offshoot of the dumbing-down of traditional media – ie. blogging as parallel to tabloid forms of news entertainment. Many newer blogs are flush with more pretty photos than actual opinion or insight, and it is now not unusual to witness people pointing DSLR cameras at their food when dining out to fuel vapid but pretty posts created as soon as they return to their computer. 

For the most part, these blogs are dining diaries and cooking journals, online brag pages if you will. Some merely repost imagery from other blogs; vicarious blogging - a style that has developed in a world where intellectual property rights are increasingly blurred by link sharing.

I myself have also created a photo-centric food blog on Tumblr. It’s an adjunct to this blog, which connects to my Twitter and personal Facebook networks as the main audiences. You’ll see a widget for it in my sidebar. The language is rich but the posts are short. 

Another aspect of the rise of mobile technology influencing blogging and social media, is through photos and instant blogging apps. Most of the images on my Tumblr blog, ‘Stickifingers’, have been taken on an iPhone and the phone is utilised to publish posts. By popular demand, I have also created similar blogs for my clients, as bite sized chunks of visual media to be viewed by time poor fans. 

Puppetry is Trending

In recent years, Food blogging has borne witness to sychophantic behaviour towards chefs. This mirrors the global trend toward entrepreneurial chef as rock-stars and product endorsers. It’s a wave of mass media that now also has an outlet in food blogging. While I feel personally disquieted by this, I do acknowledge that these blogs have their place in society as the generators of hype and publicity for venues. Essentially, they have become puppets in the food marketing machine.

Marketing has also given rise to the food blogs for which most posts are paid for promotions. These blogs also use link farming - online blogger contribution events - as a way of building viewership statistics. This is vital if you want to attract paid promotions, as brands want to monitor the blogger’s reach, influence and effectiveness.

Sadly, on these food blogs, back to back posts seem to be a roll call of sponsored items: from pushing a food product given to the blogger, some cookware or an appliance; a sponsored cookbook review; a PR event; a soft opening, discounted or free meal; sponsored travel; an advertiser created competition, meet the chef, etc. For some this has crept up softly so the question of manipulation by promoters is only just now arising.

When promotional posts are interspersed with link farming recipe swap events, it sends a clear message of the blogger’s motivation. That is, they’re in it for as much free stuff as they can get; it’s an embarrassment of greed. The really ugly side is, that for some it has become competitive accumulation between rival Australian food bloggers, as though those with the most toys ‘wins’.

I’ve witnessed this bring a spot of joviality at the expense of bloggers in marketing circles. In fact some bloggers of this calibre, have been referred to as "Cheap Brand Whores" who will "Fall for Blogger Bribes". It has resulted in companies such as Nuffnang and FoodBuzz jumping in for a slice of the money by wrangling bloggers as a commodity. The blogs are then traded as being willing pawns to the service of selling brands.

To me, these sorts of food blogs lack interest or entertainment. They’re rather like watching hours of poorly written advertisements – no one likes that. I wouldn’t read a food magazine if it were composed solely of ads, so why make a blog like this? 

It has occurred to me that some readers may not have realised what is going on behind the scenes of these blogs, but I also have seen plenty of discussion on twitter deriding this blogging direction. I believe the trend has coincided with the decreased average age of food bloggers and their readers. It may also be a matter of ego or a subconscious desire by a certain type of personality to fill an emotional void.

The millennial generation’s adoption of food blogging is a natural progression, given that the early adopters here were Gen X, but the popularity has gained momentum via the broad and rapid adoption of social media. So it is with this in mind that I feel the growth of food bloggers as ‘Floggers’ of venues, brands, chefs, products and events, may be the result of being naive to the machinations of marketing ploys.


With this comes harsh criticism of bloggers from the traditional media for making a poor show at mimicking journalists and for eating into the press junket scene. Admittedly I have become weary of the injured refute from bloggers. Because to some degree, I think that we food bloggers may have left ourselves open to being niggled by jibes, by not clearly staking our ground. 

What do we actually stand for now? For many it is no longer a mere hobby. And for the food bloggers who wish to be considered professional, isn’t it time they behaved as a business and defined their brand values? 

Right now their credibility is brought into question by their willingness to disguise branded selling as candid, amateur posting and they’re dragging the opinions of others down in their wake. And those bloggers who believe that they are deserving of the same public status and remuneration as professional restaurant reviewers, isn’t it time they learnt more about the venue and the industry before posting commentary that could endanger the livelihoods of those in hospitality venues?

I expect that it’s the rapid growth of food blogging that has seen us all lumped together regardless of the style of our weblogs. But I think that will change. It will become evident that there are those for whom blogging is an online journal or amateur review, others who will fall into a commercial stream and some who will tenuously attempt to blend the two. 

Schisms have emerged in our culture. Aussie Food Bloggers, I believe it is time to nail your colours to the mast.

In the next post, Part 2. I look at marketing tricks and branded blogger bribes.