By Marcus Leach
The opening event of Social Media Week saw a panel of food industry experts, including Michelin star chef Tom Aikens, discuss the impact of social media on the food industry.
Aikens was joined on the panel by Head of Online at Square Meal magazine, Ed Butcher, James Wallman journalist and trend forecaster and Mecca Ibrahim of Great British Chefs, as they looked to answer the question 'Is social media making or breaking the food industry?'
Chaired by Karen Fewell, Digital Consultant @digitalblonde, the debate started by looking at #foodporn and what that one handle was doing for the food industry.
TA: "There are a lot of young chefs today and it's quite amazing as all of them have Instagram," Aikens said. "They way they communicate with each other, they will post pictures of dishes using that hashtag. I'm quite amazed at how brilliant they are at using social media.
EB: "We see the hashtag all the time. It's quite interesting how the 'porn' suffix is used across the board now, not just with food. It's great as it is mind candy.
JW: "Why put a picture when it says 'this is all right', when you can put a tag that says this is brilliant. It's about saying I'm doing something interesting and here it is."
MI: "For us food porn is about people wanting the food after seeing the photograph. It's about making that food leap out at people. We also want people to think they can replicate the dish themselves, so it is about promoting excellently presented food. Food porn is about our community taking pictures of dishes they have created and saying 'Look at what I have just created!'
According to research that Fewell did for her new book the main reason people share their food images is firstly they are proud, secondly they want to share an event and thirdly it is because they see it as art.
TA: "Even for myself I take pictures of food. I am aware of the chef who has created this, the time and effort, so I don't want to portray a bad dish and I want to take a good picture.
So how has social media helped the food industry?
TA: "I actually use Tweetdeck so when I am in the kitchen I can see who is coming in to the restaurant. Social media has helped me identify food people who are coming into the restaurant. I'm a bit of a control freak like that though.
"Social is also a great way for us chefs to keep in touch. I think chefs prefer Instagram because it is just a picture, it is all about visual, not the words. I make sure all my pictures are very visual."
As part of her research for her book Fewell asked the question 'How many people thought they were a 'foodie'?' 81% of people said they were.
TA: "Ten years ago a foodie was someone who ate at two and three Michelin star restaurants all the time and drank champange. But now a student can be a foodie who cooks from scratch and takes time and effort on his food. It is someone who recognises good quality ingredients and who is passionate about what they do. We are all foodies on different levels."
MI: "Bloggers to me are really passionate, and it's the passion that overrides what they do. It means they can write about any topic within food, and as long as that passion shows through that is what's important. We look for bloggers who are passionate, be it on a specific topic or food in general. As long as they have that passion, that's what matters.
"If other people amplify issues that shows there is obviously a problem there in the first place. We shouldn't therefore criticise the person who first blogged about it. It has the power of taking them outside of their own little world, they can look outside and hope they can do some good."
For chefs though comments from amateurs can sometimes be a little frustrating.
TA: "I think food bloggers are fairly new, and a lot are not trained chefs, they are just doing it as a passionate hobby. There are two sides to it. On a platform of social media they are only a good thing, as they are PR-ing your food, be it good or bad comments.
"A food critique is paid to write about your food, they will like it or they wont. Chefs should embrace food bloggers as they are going to be about as passionate about it as we are. The only thing that frustrates me is sometimes the quality of pictures people put up, as I put so much into this and then someone puts up a bad picture of my dish, which is why I offer our own images.
JW: "I don't see why there is a debate here as at the end of the day the audience is always right. That's what social amplification does. It's a good thing if you are doing well, it's a bad thing if you are not cooking well. That's your challenge as a chef to make it better.
TA: "I'm well aware that a new dish could be loved or hated. You can never please everyone. Some critiques will love a new dish, but others might not. It's not the right thing to engage with a critique.
MI: "You can engage with bloggers on a better level than a critique.
TA: "I think blogging is great as it shows how fascinated people are by food. Food connects so many different people from different backgrounds. I think the lesson everyone needs to learn is that you need to be careful what you say as in an instant it can be in the public eye."
Whilst all on the panel agreed that blogging can have it's good and bad side, Mecca highlighted the impact that blogging can have on people's lives.
MI: "Jack Monroe is a single Mum in her early twenties, and she has brought budget cooking to the fore. She has shown that great meals can be produced for just a couple of pounds. She has now got a book deal with Penguin. She has found herself propelled into the spotlight thanks to this. She started thinking how much people spend on coffee every day. Why not take that money and buy food and take it to a food bank. She tweeted this out and she had thousands of followers who did this. It just goes to show that someone with a lot of followers they can make a difference."
What then has social media done for the communication between chefs themselves?
TA: "I think because of our world communication can be pretty poor. I think people are now seeing how valuable social can be. If you look at Great British Menu we [all of the chefs] have all kept in touch via social. We would never pick up the phone and have a chat, but now over social we are a lot more communication. The younger chefs coming through are hugely engaged already with social, where my generation have taken a little longer to take it up."
JW: "Food has become so much more about our status. We are moving away from material things impacting our status, and more towards what we do setting our status in society. Social media has connected us as a wider community again. And ultimately that makes us happier, to have that community engagement."
MI: "People are definitely trying to cook more based on social media, as they see inspiration and want to try and equal or emulate that. Then when they have a dish they want to share it, which is only a good thing. And within the blogging community there is a huge amount of experimentation and people charting that."
TA: "For me it is about connecting with people. I go to some places where I know people can't afford to go, so it is opening that world to people and they connect with me on that level."
What then are the panelists top tips for social media then?
MI: "Try to make your content to be as shareable as possible and make sure you are using Google+."
TA: "Getting as much traffic as possible and that starts with your website, both online and on mobile. Make it as user-friendly as possible."
JW: "You need to put the share worthy factor at the heart of everything you do."
EB: "You must remember to be sociable. Don't push, engage with your audience."
So, is social making or breaking the industry?
EB: "Inevitably social media is making the industry better. My experience, from the restaurant industry, is how it has changed the dining world in London so much for the better.
JW: "I think in terms of transparency it is brilliant. The bad will be found out, and the good will be found out.
TA: "The quality across the board over the last few years has improved dramatically, and social has done that. It has forced everyone to raise their game, due to the fact that everything is out there for people to see."
MI: "It is definitely making it, and that is not just the food industry, but every industry and we all need to embrace social.
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