It’s nearly impossible to keep up with its rapidly evolving landscape, but one thing is certain about social media: it’s increasingly visual. Facebook’s new Timeline format is image-driven; Foursquare, the location-based social network, now enables photos; Instagram – a mobile photo app that allows users to take photos, apply digital filters to them, and share on a number of social networking services – was recently acquired by Facebook.
Of all these images floating in cyberspace, those of food are among the most popular. Twitter and Facebook are laden with plates of food; the more than 26,000 members of the Flickr group “I Ate This” have uploaded almost a half million food images. And the most prolific “pins” on relative newcomer Pinterest – often described as a virtual billboard, now drawing nearly 18 million unique visitors monthly – are of food and drink.
“Restaurants can welcome, even encourage, customers to take photos – which is great for viral marketing – but shouldn’t let their brands be defined by them. It’s important to have professional-quality photos available as well.” – Matthew Sonnenshein, senior content developer, Gourmet Marketing
Enter Foodspotting, a mobile app where people share and rate dishes instead of restaurants. Users can search for and view the highest-rated dishes at local restaurants before they dine and/or place an order. (The app recently acquired Eat.ly, considered a Flickr for food, and partnered with Zagat.) Mobile app Ness is a hybrid of Yelp and Instagram (incorporating its more than two million photos into the personalized restaurant review system), and Fiddme, referred to as a Foursquare of photos, lets users show and tell what they are eating and where. Snapdish users take, enhance, and share photos of dishes while keeping records of location, rating, price, and calories. Its mission – to allow users to “communicate through food and record dishes as a life log with elegance and style” – resonates with a finding from a 2011 study by digital marketing agency 360i about online food and photo sharing trends. The most popular reason for consumers to snap photos of food (cited by 25% of those sharing food photos) was as a form of a food diary.
For consumers who appear to be obsessed with visually recording everything they eat, social media has become about showing, not just telling, which has some restaurateurs ready to snap. They complain that photo-taking is intrusive; they worry the results aren’t representative of their food. (As advanced as smartphone cameras have become, they don’t handle the low lighting in many restaurants.) It is worth noting the graceful solution enacted at Daniel, New York, NY. If staff becomes concerned that someone taking photos might disturb other diners (i.e., it goes on too long or a flash is being used), they will invite the guest to visit the kitchen to take photos at the end of his or her meal. “We try to turn a difficult situation into a positive one, both limiting photo-taking in the dining room and offering the guest unexpected behind the scenes access to the kitchen,” explains Georgette Farkas, marketing/PR director, Daniel/The Dinex Group.
So while a small number of restaurants forbid diners to take photos in the restaurant, most accept it as inevitable which, given the viral nature of photos in social media, has its advantages, says Matthew Sonnenshein, senior content developer, Gourmet Marketing. “A picture is immediate and people can respond to it right away, which is important because even image-driven social media is based on action, liking, comments. But it’s really important to have professional-quality images available too.” Matthew says their teams design websites around photo galleries, which are also used on Facebook. “Having quality images in your Timeline and available to post is significant; getting photos in News Feeds is more powerful than anything else at this point.” Matthew doesn’t discount sites like Pinterest, but urges restaurateurs, before participating, to assess the appeal to their target markets. Regardless, having quality (i.e., “pin-worthy”) images available on your website is a plus. “People are obsessed with appetizing photos of food and they are willing to share beautiful ones.”