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Social Media: Redefining Our Relationships With Food

By Steve Bryant and Laurie Demeritt

Social media has changed how Americans cook, shop, plan meals and share culinary secrets. However, it’s not enough for brands to simply build legions of followers or make a presence in social spaces. For long-term payoff, brands should instead take cues from how we develop and cultivate these personal relationships.

Study results show almost half of consumers are now learning about food via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and 40% are learning via websites, apps or blogs. A new online culture of food has profound implications for how marketers can use social and digital media to build meaningful and profitable relationships. Our joint study “Clicks & Cravings: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture,” found that social and digital media is now replacing mom as the go-to culinary source.

Consumers search online for what to cook, without ever tasting or smelling. As a result, digital food selection is becoming less of a sensory experience and more of a visual and rational process. In the past, when consumers listened to the opinions of a few trusted sources — mom, as well as other family members — in deciding what to buy, cook or eat, modern consumers “crowdsource” the opinions of many before deciding what to buy.

Social media, a mealtime companion

What’s more, the infiltration of social media into the food experience goes far beyond purchasing and preparing food; it now includes the meal experience as well. While eating or drinking at home, nearly one-third of Americans use social networking sites. Among Millennials (18-34 years old), this figure jumps to 47%. The “table for one” rarely exists anymore, even among single people eating alone at home. If you’re eating solo, chances are you’re also texting friends who live miles away or posting food photos to a review site.

Fundamental changes in food culture

Social media changes food culture by influencing how consumers think about, talk about and experience food. With the clicks of our fingers, social media alters the entire lifecycle of a meal from planning, to buying, to cooking, to eating. As consumers use social media to discover, learn, and share information about food, they quickly become more active participants in food culture. They look to bloggers and the opinions of others online to expand their culinary horizons and make purchase decisions. Today’s consumers increasingly prefer to learn about products based on the experiences of “people like me,” rather than directly from brands. Social media allows them to do this with ease. Social media engages consumers in a constant conversation. However, they must do much of their socializing alone, in front of a computer or in the palm of their hand. This leaves consumers craving contact with real people, even if virtually.

For consumers to take notice, companies must use social media to communicate in ways that are authentic and personable. The good news is that when used correctly, social media is an excellent tool for companies to build personal and lasting relationships with their customers.

Traditional resources still relevant

This media transformation has taken years to evolve and it remains in flux. When asked if they spend more time reading about food from print or online sources, 46% of online consumers said they spent more time engaged online, as opposed to 31% who said they’re equally engaged with both online and print. While 31% say they are inspired by food shows they watch on TV, 25% are inspired by recipe websites or phone apps, and 17% are inspired by restaurant review websites or phone apps. Pointing to the future, Millennials now regard online media resources as their most valued sources of food inspiration— more than print (such as magazines or cookbooks) and food TV shows.

Consumers look to public communities

Some online food behaviors are less personal and therefore brands have more direct access to their food choices. For example, 47% say they’ve searched for online/digital coupons/specials, while 42% say they’ve consulted online recipes before shopping. Brands can also be encouraged that consumers are open to better and more highly specialized tools for shopping and meal planning. Moms, primary cooks and shoppers want easy-to-use apps that can make shopping, meal planning and saving money easier for them.

Influence is personal

But brand influence goes only so far. People look to stylish people, not stylish brands for food and lifestyle advice. Today’s consumers want to hear from people who eat and cook food more than they want to hear from the entities who sell. They follow people on Twitter, become friends on Facebook and read blogs of people with authentic voices, sincere posts, and meaningful content. Marketers will do well to recognize the limits of their direct influence in social media. They will succeed best by operating synergistically as part of the social culture of food and beverage online. Consumers are willing to engage with food brands and companies in this space, but only if the interaction promises to enrich their lives in some tangible way, whether through useful information, money saving deals or entertainment. While an exceptional product and a great deal will initially attract consumers to you, this is only the starting point of a truly meaningful social media relationship.

To leverage the opportunities offered by this evolving platform, food and beverage brands must also: craft a distinct online personality, enlist the support of other authentic social media voices, reflect their customers’ values, reveal their true personalities and be generous and humorous. Even with small changes in approach, companies can better use social media as a tool to create more personable relationships with consumers. That said, major gains may require a fundamental rethink about how consumers are willing to interact with brands online over the long term.

Steve Bryant is President of Publicis Consultants USA. Laurie Demeritt is President and COO at The Hartman Group. Bryant and Demeritt collaborated on the study, “Clicks & Cravings: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture.” To obtain the complete study, contact blaine@hartman-group.com.

This post originally appeared on MSLWorldwide and O’Dwyer’s March issue.

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