03 January 2013

Hospitality: A New Breed of Food Reviewers

Photo by vmiramontes

To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. Aristotle

What’s Eating People?

Have you noticed that everyone has an opinion on food - Informed or otherwise? Food opinion is everywhere, which is particularly pertinent as hospitality businesses have typically thrived on word of mouth. 

For venues, opinion via reviews was once vaguely manageable. There was a time when certain restaurants flexed their right to refuse to serve newspaper food reviewers. 

A Sydney a venue went as far as to sue a publication over a scathing review by Matthew Evans said to have ruined their business - a case that was in the courts for nine years. Such was the influence of the traditional food press.

But the status quo has changed. In today's world, opinion is not black and white and in hospitality - no matter what the facts - the customer's personal experience underscores whatever they express online about a venue.

Understandably, publications now run shy of potentially litigious opinion pieces. Readers don’t necessarily trust editorial content any more, citing hidden agenda’s warped by the need to draw advertisers. The trend is reflected by newspaper and magazine sales that have been in freefall against online news, resulting in the number of printed pages devoted to the hospitality industry diminishing. 

The public has turned to a new breed of reviewer - the online reviewer - and while some may be the darlings of the public, they too are beginning to be loathed by some F&B operators. 

This angst is the flow on effect of society being in the reality show era, a time of ‘warts and all’ citizen journalism, where everyone has an opinion and can publish it online without checking their facts or even revealing who they actually are.

Sure, not everyone takes this stuff seriously, but a few voices speak louder than others which is why they are considered online influencers.

Who’s making the most noise?

The people identified as online F&B influencers interact regularly with local diners. Not all come with the gravitas of knowing what they’re talking about when it comes to cooking or service but they are trusted for being someone their readers can identify with.

Some of them blog about food or review venues, some mostly tweet food. Amongst these are freelance journalists, other professional writers, culinary professionals, photographers and enthusiastic amateurs. 

Slipping under the radar are those who are simply known as ‘the go-to person for food’ by their friends on Facebook, Pinterest or Tumblr. Or they may simply post photos of every meal they have on Instagram.

In a category of their own are the self-promoters - those that come with a chain of linked social media accounts for wider bandwidth of communications. Often these opinion makers participate in PR or Marketing sponsored events, using their social tentacles to flood online communities with duplicate posts. This activity has been seen lately to erode their gravitas, which may be perceived as more of a curse than a blessing for venues.

In that mix are those that post reviews of a single meal at a venue, which is then linked to a review aggregation network, to Google+ Local or a street publication such as Gram

Younger food writers have been contributing to Australian online journal subscription sites such as Agenda, The Thousands and Broadsheet. These publications have been criticized for being the first over the threshold rather than posting in detail once a hospitality venue has hit their stride. But they specifically attract a certain type of clientele, the one that will queue to be at the ‘hot new place’.

And let’s not forget that now Joe Average - who doesn’t consider themselves a critic - can post a few sentences on a local geospatial review website and app such as UrbanSpoon, Yelp, FourSquare or YourRestaurants, plus global travel sites like TripAdvisor, or even as their Facebook status.

Like it or not, it’s now part of our culture. When the public want a food recommendation, they go online for suggestions first. Today Google can be the friend you turn to for a dining suggestion.

Staring it down

You can’t prevent people from talking about your venue. So how do you address all these online opinions?

As I mentioned in my last post, this falls into the category of reputation management. It is critical for businesses where there is heavy competition so time should be allocated regularly to see what is being said.

It can be as easy as doing a search for your business online. Don't forget to also search Google Images. What you find may surprise you. You may also see what your staff are saying about you. At the very least, consider it as a gauge of how you are publicly perceived.

If there is a common thread to the criticisms or compliments, use that to further shape your business. It's possible that you may become more aware of the demographic and nature of your core customer, which should assist in determining your prices and service offering. 

Consider also that it may help to define your creative parameters. This could result in your generating a unique offering or finding a new niche where you have less competition.

When mentioned in social media communities, the correct etiquette is to acknowledge and thank the customer that has mentioned you. Should you not have social accounts with which to do this, consider linking to their review or comment on your venue’s website. This may start a long term relationship with your online advocate that could assist in building loyalty and further word of mouth benefits.

Dealing with an unflattering review

When you see something that you feel is inflammatory my best advice is to take a deep breath, and look away for a moment. In this time you can briefly pause to see if your fans respond and speak out on your behalf. Often this will happen.

By no means impersonate a customer with a retaliatory or an anonymous hyper-positive comment, nor should you vent in rage anywhere online. A chef, FOH or proprietor tirade is a stain on the business' reputation that is difficult to erase. 

Remember it’s the current nature of society that an embarrassing episode will spread virally faster than civil exchanges, so keep your crisis contained.

In many online instances you have the right of reply via a comments section, a business owner response, a contact form or an email address. If it is a clear case of bullying or trolling by a competitor most of the popular review sites will remove the offensive item on request.

Best practice for a bad issue is to privately take it up with the reviewer, site or publication and ask for constructive criticism and guidance on how to make their experience better, regardless of whether you disagree with their point of view. The fact that you acknowledge their opinion will be appreciated.

These steps are basic customer service translated for the internet. The game plan has changed significantly since Matthew Evans was a reviewer, but it represents new opportunities for hospitality businesses. Working with customer reviews can demonstrate that you are open to using feedback to nurture your business and it has the potential to turn the reviewer and their friends into long term advocates. 

So when it comes to opinion, be hospitable. That after all that is the name of the game.

A version of this piece first appeared in Espresso Italiano magazine and online for Lavazza. More social media advice from me can be unlocked by Lavazza customers on that website. In the current issue, I talk about Yelp for the hospitality industry.

21 November 2012

F&B Social Media. The Art of Being Social

Photo by HomelessHub

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. 
If you think about that, you'll do things differently. Warren Buffett

What is Social Media for the hospitality industry?

What have you heard about Social Media Marketing for restaurants? Was it, “It’s free but it’s all too hard”? They could be right, but the first thing to consider before discussing this topic is ‘What actually brings new customers through the door?’ 

If a venue has a good reputation, you don’t need to advertise it, right? Your customers come via recommendation from their friends, or after reading a positive review. That's what most assume.

Australians are skeptical of cafes or restaurants that advertise. Only 14% trust ads, but most will trust and respond to a recommendation from within their personal network. So the solution for growing your market share is to tap into opinion.

Social media marketing is the new word of mouth recommendation, amplified much further than ever before.

But if your venue is not particularly hospitable, it’s not clean and not passionately run - well, social media is just not your friend. And that’s because online opinions are like applying a magnifying glass to your operations and accountability, then spreading that to a huge audience.

So for the Hospitality Industry, Social Media is a tool for reputation management.

What to consider before using Social Media

Once you start using social networks, there is no turning back. You will need to allocate some time to read and sometimes to talk online, and for some that’s most days that your venue is open. With reputation as a key factor to your success, finding the time should be a priority.

If you choose to do it, then use social networks as a point of customer service, for inspiration and to share your enthusiasm. For venues, it is not a place to brag about how much you spent on the place, bitch, shout or even broadcast like it’s an advertisement. It’s networking in a community space, so be friendly and polite.

Consider if and how your staff use social networks? Remind them of their responsibility to the venue’s reputation in their personal interactions online. This includes the etiquette of making online comments about their employer or colleagues, not publishing confidential information or images and how they can help with customer service.

Where to begin?

Social media networks range from review sites to photo apps on smart phones, blogs and online scrapbooks. And of course about 50% of Australians stay in touch via Facebook. Most of it can be updated easily from a smart phone, so won‘t tie you to a desk.

Start by looking at the online review sites to take the pulse of your business. Act on suggestions made by public reviewers.

Consider what is the best and strongest feature of your venue? If your place was a person, what would that person sound like? What would they like to talk about? This will help you find the right social platform for you and assist in choosing the things your guests will enjoy reading about from you online.

Then decide who will be involved from your team. Behind the scenes photos are very popular and help the public develop a more interested and understanding relationship with the business. Snippets of news from certain staff can also spread the social work load.

Use platforms that link to each other that can help to economise on time spent online. For example, some platforms like Instagram and Pinterest will allow you to post a photo to other social networks at the same time. 

Hootsuite will allow you and your team to share updates to a few other social media platform accounts as well as schedule posts into the future. And you can use your phone to push notifications to you if an enquiry has been made via Facebook or Twitter. That way you can respond quickly whether there is a customer issue or a compliment.

The elephant in the room

Crisis Management is the Voldemort of Social Media. Well, until you think of online criticism as an opportunity to improve your product and to create a more loyal customer. 

They key is to be polite and to listen. That is the art of being social. 

Acknowledge both compliments and negativity with grace, publicly. If you feel the need to be combatative, take a deep breath and step away from the internet.

Most often, your loyal customers will step in on your behalf and call foul of the person who is badmouthing your business, which will circumvent your need to speak defensively.

Should you feel you are being harassed, in a calm and polite manner invite the person to speak with you offline. The reason for this is that you are leaving a trail of online footprints that will remain there for others to see and to judge long after the fact.

If you are genuine, professional and run a business that cares for its customers, then social media will be a fun way to engage positive opinions and reviews. And because magazines and newspapers surf social media to find out what’s hot, it could be a way for you to get your business into other publications.

So, can you really afford not to be social?

A version of this piece first appeared in Espresso Italiano magazine and online for Lavazza. More social media advice from me can be unlocked by Lavazza customers on that website. In the next issue, I talk about Yelp for the hospitality industry.

26 April 2012

Making Money from your Food Blog

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... 

...It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."

Albert Einstein

Do you wish that your blog made money?  Monetizing your blog is known as pro-blogging.

Conferences that claim to teach you how to do this are an increasingly common money spinner. It reminds me of Pyramid schemes. Make money by teaching others to teach the same thing. Follow the hashtag streams from some of these events via twitter and it is evident that they’re not saying anything new or mind blowing. 

So here are my genuine tips. For free.

In life, if you want to make money, you either become an employee or you start an enterprise. Deriving income from a blog needs to be approached in the same way as beginning an enterprise. There are some blogs that have evolved seemingly naturally from being a hobby to an enterprise but they have a few things in common:

  • ·         The blogger was filling a popular yet unexplored niche
  • ·         They put in very long hours to achieve it
  • ·         They made sure they stood out from the crowd
  • ·         They are very credible and well researched
  • ·         They were good at self promotion beyond the blog

Early in my career I was fortunate to have mentors and in return, I do the same for others, including assisting with business planning and helping my clients to stay on goal. I also help with self promotion and personal branding. 

Some of this knowledge is what you need to build a blog that is a commercial enterprise.

In any enterprise my golden rule is “It’s not about you”. Every business services a customer. Therefore it is all about the customer’s needs and their point of view, not yours. This must permeate every decision you make.


The first step for anyone considering starting out is the business plan.
  1. Set your goals – what are you aiming to achieve? What amount of income do you realistically expect to achieve in the long term?
  2. Set your exit strategy – when you have achieved your goals what will you do next, sell out, merge with another or evolve to another level? In some cases the exit activity is to become a Blooker (to self publish a book based on your blog or secure a contract from a publisher)
  3. Define your focus – every business needs a specific focus. Every commercial blog needs a set theme. To have too many themes in a blog will not serve those who could monetise it. To stand out you also need to discover and fill a unique niche. If your blog does not offer a point of difference it becomes just one in the crowd
  4. Define the personality of your brand, ie. The look, the style of writing or ‘The Voice’ you use to communicate. Imagine your brand as a person, not necessarily yourself, in order to be objective about how it comes across to others
  5.  Identify your typical reader, what they want to read, find out how frequently they read blogs and how they discover them in the first place, find out what else they read and what social networks they use. Knowing this will ensure your content always has meaning and value for the reader
  6. Select a revenue stream by looking at how you can monetise your blog. This may come via eCommerce, subscription services, syndication, advertising or writing for brands and other websites. Decide what your fees will be, create a rate card of what you will charge. Use a system that measures your online influence/reach so that you can quantify your fees
  7.   Create a marketing strategy, no blog is going to attract readers or income in isolation so publicity is very important
  8. Create a calendar of activity for posts, marketing, advertising and publicity. This not only keeps you on track but is invaluable for showing investors or advertisers that you mean business
  9. Cost out in man hours and dollars what it will take to set up and to acquire the tools to achieve a high readership and interaction with followers. You may find that you need professional help in some areas which could require a financial loan or venture capital
  10. Ascertain whether you have the time and commitment to see it through, based on examining the previous steps of discovery

In this process, Step Ten can be the biggest hurdle of all. Many enterprises fail early on because they haven’t bothered to go through the groundwork of the business plan. Working on a plan can save you a lot of disappointment.

Remember that your plan is not cast in stone. Your blog can, and will, evolve organically, but make sure you take time to revisit that plan periodically to see if you are still on track.


Probably the hardest question in a business plan for bloggers is determining Step Six, identifying a revenue stream. The answer usually will stem from the kind of niche you aim to fill.

There is the obvious such as advertising on your site, placing Google, FoodBuzz or Nuffnang ads etc, but this will not earn you a great deal. Another consideration is that the CMS of your blog needs to be flexible enough to allocate adequate real estate to ads while still maintaining easy navigation. If viewing is hampered by ads you will surely lose readers.

There is already a successful commercial model in subscription services. Essentially the blogger offers their site as a paid advertorial space, with notification of updates distributed via a subscription email service. This model makes money from advertising and from commissioned advertorial posts. 

The reason the email subscription is involved is to assist in establishing who your readers are and demonstrating your reach online, by quantifying return on investment for Advertisers spending money on your blog. If you have associated social media accounts also with a large following or reach, this can further bump up your fees but you will need to be using an effective monitoring engine in order to measure the reach of your influence.

Some Pro-Bloggers are also charging readers a subscription fee. But as per the experience of newspapers moving into paywall territory, this model will impact on the numbers of readers. If you follow this path, the quality of your content ought to be professional magazine standard, and your site should not appear amateur in structure. There should be a pay-off for subscribers such as access to exclusive or premium events and non syndicated material.

For Bloggers whose focus is solely reviewing, a potential revenue stream can come from aligning yourself with a cluster of PR agencies. By negotiating an annual retainer from the agency, you agree to place product reviews on your blog. This can be for products, services, events or venue reviews. 

First you must do your homework and look at the PR agencies and especially what their client list is like. Only approach agencies where there is synergy between your point of focus and their clients. By law you must also state if your posts are sponsored or advertorial.

Another alternative is if you already have a large following on your blog, you may be able to bring your klout to a brand by writing paid content for online journals and branded websites. The aim is that you will drive traffic to these other sites in exchange for payment and a backlink to your blog.

In the cooking niche, you may have hard goods that you wish to sell. There are many e-commerce solutions available for your blog, as well as offsite, such as selling via Facebook or eBay. Small businesses are able to tap into a younger market and regional markets, where customers have the desire to find unique items outside of usual business hours. 

Appeal to their desire for convenience, offer good customer service and follow up on your sales to maintain cordial contact without the hard sell. This will increase your chances of repeat purchases and grow your reputation. If you’re involved in food selling, be mindful of the law, for example in OH&S, permits, licenses, transport and other handling regulations.

This is just a handful of examples of deriving revenue from food blogs. In all instances of the above, by law you must make it clear to readers if a post on your blog is sponsored or can be considered to be an advertorial. Of course there are also the usual business finance details to manage such as having an ABN, tax implications including charging GST. That’s best discussed with your Accountant.

Getting Known

Self promotion is the other major stumbling block for new businesses. After all, marketing and self promotion is a specialty area. The basic premise is utilising your personal brand for reputation building.

An analogy I use with my own clients is ‘wallflowers don’t get invited to dance’. Don’t expect to get discovered without any effort when there are billions of blogs online.

The first step is to write a short bio that introduces you. Use it as an opportunity to share your credentials and build trust. Next create a photo avatar or brandmark that people will associate with your personal brand. Create an email address just for that brand.

Publicity is super important – you need to let as many people as you can know that you exist online. Use personal networks, social networks and press releases. Build a profile on LinkedIn that will show your credentials. Join and participate in relevant LinkedIn professional groups, from Food Writing to Blogging.

It is also important to interact with fans through your comments section and social media. Chat is vital, as opposed to just broadcasting a link to your latest post. It is also vital to comment on other blogs. Use genuine interaction and contribution in your comments. Resorting to sock-puppetry is taboo and can destroy your reputation. Link farming isn’t as important as it used to be but it can be helpful to appear on blog directories and lists.

Guest posting is important. This is either via inviting other popular bloggers to post on your site or to submit a post to another site, community or blog with a very large readership. It’s basically all about discovery. Submit pieces to traditional media - you may not be paid, but if your content is used, request a byline and a backlink to your blog. Also comment on traditional media stories that have relevance to your blog and always include a backlink to your own site.

If you use multiple social media accounts ensure that your avatar and bio, as well as the tone of voice, are consistent across all of them. Make it easy for readers to follow your other social accounts by adding social media buttons to your blog and always add share buttons so that you content can easily be distributed by your readers to a wider audience. Facebook plug-ins are also a great way to get your content noticed around the web.

If you are a food venue review blogger, you can publicise yourself by having a presence on social platforms that specialise in reviews, beyond the obvious Urbanspoon and Foodspotting sites, consider travel review and booking platforms, Local Area Marketing sites such as TruLocal, Restaurant booking platforms and geo-spatial social platforms such as Yelp and LinkedIn.

Non-review food blogs or product review food blogs should consider submitting posts to Food aggregators such as Tasteologie, Foodgawker and Tastespotting. Also consider having a photo offshoot on Pinterest if it is relevent to your subject matter.

Remember to maintain the same avatar and bio wherever you post on social networks so as to be recognised. In this way you are not only discovered by more people, you also build your reputation.

The Gristle

My character ‘Sticky of Deep Dish Dreams’ - aka Stickifingers - has been a great way to engage with other food lovers. One of the best aspects is meeting people offline, some of whom read my internet musings and a few have become firm friends. Blogging is a great hobby.

Over time I have achieved a wide reach of influence by using multiple social channels, including Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, Tripadvisor and LinkedIn to name a few, and am regularly asked by commercial interests why I don’t monetise this blog. 

The answer is that I already have a career in Social Media Strategy that keeps me on my toes with its daily changing processes, etiquette and platforms. To monetise a blog is to create another career path. And I prefer to use what I know, to get others on a happier path.

So if can leave you with one thing to chew over, if you aim to monetize your food blog, to achieve success it will cease to be a hobby and become a job that requires a great deal of concerted effort.
Do you have the courage to take that step? Only you can know.

If you wish to check my credentials or to discuss professional matters,
you can reach me at this link.
Please note that press releases and promotional material sent to me there
will be treated as spam in accordance to Australian legislation, as per the statement in the sidebar on this blog.

26 October 2011

Food Bloggers as Marketing Puppets | Part 2. Marketing Tricks and Psychology

Photo by Sean Bonner

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.
Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”
Carl Gustav Jung
Swiss psychiatrist, Psychologist and Founder of the Analytic Psychology, 1875-1961

Hook, line and sinker

In Australia if the traditional Food Media want to incite an online riot of opinion, they merely need to criticise Food Bloggers. It’s a story guaranteed to hit a raw nerve that is common to all bloggers: the validation of their medium. The provocation will result in debate and a frenzy of hits and backlinks to the article from bloggers, tweeters and readers who subsequently comment across many social media platforms.
But what many amateurs in the online space do not realise, is that they have deliberately been tricked into rage. The whole exercise may have been calculated to create a spike in online newspaper readership figures, to lift the number of page-views, organically boost the paper’s SEO and online influence figures. So the respondents involved will have played right into the hands of the newspapers for marketing purposes.
By publicising the story and spreading the word in social media, the bloggers and tweeters have unconsciously created sufficient free PR to yield above average traffic to the newspaper. The resulting online figures now look great to advertisers contemplating whether to pay for ad space in their publication, iPhone app or online edition.
Some might consider this calculated emotional abuse. For the paper it’s an easy win, requiring no financial investment, and with their readership looking reinvigorated, they can potentially rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars from brand media buyers. Thanks to bloggers, the sales and marketing team will likely have hit their projected targets.
These stories are known as link bait. It’s a controversial marketing ploy and is not the only time that Aussie food bloggers fall for commercial tricks.
This works through psychological manipulation. The technique in this case is known as ‘shaming’ and ‘vilifying’. Think of it as the overbearing parent who tells their children that their grades aren’t good enough. It’s bound to get a reaction from most on the receiving end of the criticism. And yet the same result can come slyly packaged as flattery, for the same purposes.

Modern Marketing Ninjas 

As long time readers of this blog will know I have spent a quarter century in the business of advertising and marketing. My profession has been to make all manner of things desirable to the general public via a mixture of manipulative psychology, beautiful imagery and by generating hype. My technique uses a combination of strategy based on psychographic manipulation and lateral thinking combined with creative input. 

Today anyone marketing a product, service, venue etc, faces tough times. The general public are now more sceptical of marketing imagery on TV and in print than they ever have been. They can filter their entertainment to avoid most advertising that they find intrusive or annoying. Some products have even been banned from traditional advertising media. So with marketers facing increasing sales targets from their employers, the search has been on to find a way to advertise surreptitiously. 

And what exactly is this hidden advertising or guerrilla marketing? The most common ninja deployed is product placement. Take Australian Masterchef for example. The products you see being used have been provided by the brand advertiser in exchange for six figure sums to the TV production company. 

This may be reinforced by advertising around the show, costing millions, paid to the TV network - whether aired on TV or their magazine’s ads or even on the Masterchef website and recipe fact sheets. The aim is that the general public will subconsciously identify branded products as being desirable or necessary next time they stock their pantry. The wealthiest brands also use product placement in Hollywood movies and popular drama or comedy TV series, reaching significantly larger audiences.

But shows like Masterchef are not on TV all year, so food brands in particular - and especially those with smaller budgets - are forced to be more creative in finding their target market. 

The trending buzzword for advertisers is ‘Word of Mouth Marketing’. The power of recommendation by a friend or trusted source is now recognised as the ultimate way to convey a marketing message that will generate sales.

Magazine or newspaper Advertorials are a word of mouth option. It looks to all intents like a magazine story, it has been composed by a journalist and the staff photographer, but it’s actually a sponsored piece, a revenue stream for publications. It costs the advertiser in design, photography and media placement fees.

Advertorials are designed to trick you into thinking the ‘discerning Magazine Editor’ prefers that product/brand. Advertorials state ‘advertising feature’ or ‘promotion’ at the top of the page revealing its true nature. But even this is wearing thin with the public. So where else can advertisers create hidden influence?

There is a marketing term, “Hitting all the consumer touch points” and that now also includes product placement and advertorials or infomercials on blogs. So bloggers who have appeared in mainstream media stories, who have released details of high page view numbers, or high Twitter follower counts and a track record of influence, are the new target for marketing. 

They are known generically as ‘online influencers’ and are now subject to heavy lobbying by PR companies and advertising agencies. Many of us in food blogging know it as the dreaded PR spam in marketing circles it is known as Blogger Outreach Programs and Blogger Bribes.

The attraction lies in the notion that an advertiser can covertly target the exact demographic required through a food blog. Just as they can in the food press, but with possibly an even narrower skew – such as Baker blogs having a high readership of those who also love to bake, or venue review blogs that back-link to Urbanspoon and attract people who regularly go to restaurants. Plus bloggers are more adept at using multiple social platforms including Twitter, Digg, Stumbleupon and Facebook in their broadcast mix than traditional food media, which equates to even more publicity hitting the target.

Your new BFF 

So, in Advertising strategy, bloggers are now seen as cheap and easy puppets for marketing messages as compared to traditional forms of advertising. By example, many food bloggers have already shown a predilection for going to events and receiving freebies in exchange for a blog post on their attendance or promotional item, so why not cosy up to them? Brands now aim to be your BFF.

 After all, most who write blog review posts, will happily spend their own money trying venues and unsuspectingly giving free PR to the venue, so in advertising terms, why not extend that to products, loyalty clubs and services too? The potential is there for a brand’s new online ‘friends’ to generate free blog advertorials and extended social media broadcast too.

For brands, blogger outreach is significantly cheaper than paying publications for the same. Plus the blogger does all the design work, copywriting and photography for free - services that cost tens of thousands of dollars to commission professionally. Giving away samples, organising an event or junket to bloggers can be much cheaper by comparison.

It’s also a way for PR agencies and Blog Harvesters such as Nuffnang, Technorati and Foodbuzz to farm bloggers in order to make money on the back of this free resource. Typically it works by charging brands for harvested email databases or for permissions received from the bloggers. Some harvesters will potentially pay bloggers a small fee lower than market value for commercial digital insertions in return. 

Others companies to farm bloggers are market research companies and new hybrid harvesters who charge bloggers to be part of a directory that will build page rank and SEO plus marry your blog with advertisers and PR agencies.

Trust issues 

It is a given that journalists’ salaries are derived from publications’ advertising revenue, and hence edited opinions can be biased. So blog readers typically cite their interest is due to content being unrestrained by editors, advertisers or a commercial publication’s particular values or politics. Marketers are aware that many of the public have eschewed papers and magazine for blogs, in search of the truth. 

So blogs appear to have integrity. It is generally supposed by the public that they are not affected the way that news has been tainted. They represent Jo Average’s opinion. So when a blog broadcasts about brands, the reader assumes it is a personal and unbiased opinion and recommendation that has not been initiated by an advertiser or fuelled by supplied content. 

But this is increasingly not true. A blog post can be a ‘Stealth Marketing’ brand ninja, especially where many amateur food bloggers have not publicly declared their shift to becoming professional salesmen, or pro-bloggers in exchange for gifts or money.

This is compounded by the fact that bloggers seem to be unaware of the ACCC Advertising and Selling standards stating advertisers should “ensure that consumers are aware of the fact that a commercial message is being presented”. 

Bloggers are required to clearly mark that the post is a sponsored piece, as per an advertorial or infomercial is transparent about its bias. It’s possible that many PR agencies and marketers seem not to know this either or perhaps are happy to parlay the deception and puffery?

Since some food blogs have already fallen under the spell of the PR machine, the term Flogger-Blogger has emerged. By this I mean when a blog that feels to all intents as though most posts are actually subliminal ads, designed to have your friends share the good word and generate publicity for a brand by spreading the post across the internet, conversations and by email. Ultimately this is the goal of marketing through amateur bloggers.

The Seduction of Eve 
I think that most Australian food bloggers have innocently entered the media as a place to air their thoughts, but appear vulnerable to the potential traps of that space. The traps I refer to are those of potential loss of integrity and falling victim to commercial manipulation. And I sense that some Food Bloggers are falling victim to Fox and Crow syndrome.
So what are the tricks to look out for? Behind most modern marketing tricks is psychology - the study of human behaviour - and how to take advantage of these insights to assist selling things. 

"According to George K. Simonsuccessful psychological manipulation primarily involves concealing aggressive intentions and behaviours. Also, knowing the psychological vulnerabilities of the victim to determine what tactics are likely to be the most effective."
The most fundamental aspect that is taken advantage of by marketing and advertising is the human desire to feel good. It is thought that we tend to see our life as judged against other people and that our happiness is relative to this.
We compare our lot against others. Richer people do get happier when they compare themselves against poorer people, but poorer people are less happy if they compare up. That is why Marketers target our self esteem when aiming to seduce us for their purposes
Nathaniel Branden in 1969 defined self-esteem as "...the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness". According to Branden, self-esteem is the sum of self-confidence (a feeling of personal capacity) and self-respect (a feeling of personal worth).
He also claimed that any positive stimulus or incentive will make a person feel comfortable, or, at most, better with respect to themselves for just some time.
So when a PR company, brand or Marketer approaches a blogger to promote their cause, they will – like Eve’s serpent – cajole and flatter us, tell us that we are deserving of special treatment and offer a sense of personal exclusivity that will make us feel a step ahead of others. They will talk it up with honeyed terms such as “You have been especially chosen to become a Brand Ambassador” or appeal to your desire to have something you can’t afford.
Society has been warned against this behaviour for all of time. Religion and the arts play it out as an enduring theme, cautioning against allowing our shallow desires to trip us up. Yet it proves constantly irresistible to this day, the tactic of ‘positive reinforcement’ is one of the most powerful to encourage Bloggers to generate income for others with no significant remuneration in return for their services.

A mere pat on the head
I like to think of the next trick as summed up by the adage ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts’ the ‘Trojan Horse’ analogy. While we may warn children not to go with strangers offering gifts, bloggers seemingly also neglect to take that advice. Instead, they are fooled into dropping their guard.
A blogger’s vulnerability in this case is typically coined in psychology as using ‘reciprocity’. The trick is, when given something for free we feel obliged to return the favour. So in our circles when offered a free meal, product, event, book etc, we feel indebted to write a blog post about that gift, often without criticism or significant insight.
Like a dutiful child, we write a public thank you note on social media platforms, which form free publicity for the marketer, brand, service or venue. We take photos, design and cultivate a post – often giving away our intellectual property rights in the bargain – and with theoretically even better results for the brand than ads, because blogs communicate to exactly the right consumers for the promotion.
So the marketing goal is achieved. For virtually a fraction of the cost spent on advertising or loyalty marketing, the blogger has obligingly become a puppet, as a brand salesperson.
In return, the blogger likely receives a regular deluge of press releases with the expectation of future publication each time, with little or no further reward or remuneration for giving away many thousands of dollars of free PR.  In the psychology of persuasion this is known as ‘consistency’.  People want to be consistent with previous actions. If they said yes to something in the past, they’re more likely to say yes in the future.
Meanwhile the PR agency that approached the blogger in the first instance will be receiving a monthly retainer for their services and possibly project fees – but who really is doing all the work here? Who has generated the sales? Who deserves to be paid?  It is the Blogger.
In some other blogging circles – particularly pro-blogging and the influential fashion, beauty and parenting blog communities – this has begun to change, with some bloggers receiving fees directly for their publicity.

Sex and greed, and power
The adage ‘Sex Sells’ referring to scantily clad women in advertising is an old cliché. But sexy is not always so literal. The psychological equation for using sexy persuasion on a blogger for the purposes of converting them to brand salesmen is greed + power. The tactic used appeals to their materialistic impulses, to narcissism and to jealousy.
The technical psych theory is sexual attraction arises when the person is stimulated through the vanity mode of narcissism. It engenders admiration for compatible personality characteristics. Excitement arises when the person is stimulated through the self-pity mode of jealousy, engendering physical intimacy and passion, which theoretically will result in eager and enthusiastic broadcast.

Relative to bloggers, for the social type person, power is channelled through jealousy. For example subconsciously: “This blogger junket will make me feel good and my friends, colleagues etc, envious – they’ll likely find me even more fascinating”, hence the blogger may unconsciously feel sexier for there is social approval and admiration from others.

For the self focused person, power is channelled through narcissism, eg. “They’ve spotted how good I am, so they’ve given me a ‘money can’t buy’ experience, I’m getting something huge for nothing”. The subconscious perception of social reinforcement makes the blogger feel powerful and that in itself is sexy to many.

The overall picture is most people, unless aware of the tactics, can be manipulated. In Blogger Outreach programs the brand they will promote is getting the blogger’s services and time for a fraction of the usual marketing budget, by making the blogger feel a bit sexier, giving them a sense of power and all by appealing to their vanity in order to make them brag. In return the blogger gets a temporary hedonistic head rush and feels an obligation to the brand when they come down off the back of their experience.

The Spin Cycle

So how do else do marketers appeal to a blogger’s deep human impulses for commercial manipulation? They use ‘Spin’.

Spin is “Making a silk purse from a sow’s ear” or “Spinning gold from straw”. It is a form of deception to make something more enticing than it may appear in the cold light of day. It takes the consumer’s aspirations and projects them on a product, venue or person.

Often putting spin on an item avoids facts and focuses on implied benefits. And when applied to politics, is termed propaganda. Using psychology to understand what pulls at the heart strings of the target market, an advertiser will know exactly how to project something to make it seem enticing and highly desirable to consumers.

Spin Doctors are primarily the creators of consumer zeitgeist, ‘future cool’, Cool Hunters and the initiators of global trends. They read public sentiment, understanding how economic movements affect public values and shape cultures. Now when something is suddenly ‘hot’ often it is because key community influencers, like bloggers, were persuaded by the hype, publicity and promotion generated by Spin.

As an example, consider the current Australian fascination for macarons. It started buzzing amongst sweet and bakery enthusiasts and was identified by Spin Doctors as a possible emerging trend within the culinary fashion for small indulgences, such as dim sum, mezze and tapas.

From here it began reaching into online food communities – sometimes via astroturfing, sock puppetry and link baiting.

Advertisers and journalists now typically eavesdrop on social media platforms, so once they picked up on the emerging vogue, the macaron buzz then made its way into commercial marketing and food media. And the coup de grace was an appearance on Australian Masterchef, which in turn exploded its popularity into popular mainstream appeal.

The concept has rippled back from the mainstream into blogging communities beyond food and across Twitter, Facebook and other popular communities. There have been a flurry of macaron shops, books, recipes and classes by those jumping on the bandwagon and finally, it has resulted in a demand for $400 macaron towers. That’s a purchase that three years ago would have sounded totally absurd and not at all enticing to the general public. And it was all in the Spin.

Nailing your colours

In my last post I stated that I feel it is time for food bloggers to nail their colours to the mast. I have witnessed the original integrity of blogging as being diluted by advertorials and product placement.

While I have my doubts about the value and quality of Blogger Outreach in Australia, it is not something that is going away. My stance with clients is that online influence and viral marketing reach in Australia comes voluntarily from bloggers perceived as having high integrity, not just whoever responds to a PR call.

Those who write commercially sponsored posts, have a duty to inform readers or subscribers that a post is an advertorial, which will allow them to determine bias.

Unless presented with a contract or express a commitment to do a piece, a blogger is not obliged to write about a Blogger Bribe they have received. And should a blogger consider publishing a sponsored post based on a product, event or reader giveaway, I feel that they ought to be entitled to ask for payment ahead of posting it. It is to all intents an advertisement for which the blogger provides the media and the content.

If you have no desire to engage with brands and no wish for your blog to be a vehicle for their sales pitch, you may already be annoyed by spam press release emails.

Because there are some grey areas regarding permissions, the ACMA recommends those who do not wish to receive commercial offers, put a non-solicitation disclaimer on your blog. Just as I have in my sidebar, under the subhead ‘email’. I placed it there because typically email is the key word a commercial email harvester is looking for.

When I receive PR spam in spite of this, typically I respond by drawing attention to the statement. In Australia, by law there should also be an unsubscribe link on the email, which I will use if I trust that it is a verified Australian PR agency. And if the spam persists, I am not above reporting the email as contravening the Spam Act 2003.

In deciding whether to participate in promoting commercial messages on your blog, consider the theory of the Hedonic Treadmill. “According to this theory, as a person makes more money, their expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness”.

After years of working with brands, I find I don’t need much in the way of consumer durables and hedonistic activities to be happy. Close ties to friends and family, plus good health are the things that count most to me.

I don't merit grinding away on the treadmill to generate money for brands without being paid for it. When I come across something I like, I will tell you about it and you can trust that it was not skewed or initiated by a third party.

Most crucially, I’ve learnt that keeping things simple ultimately makes you happier and better respected. With this integrity your opinion is trusted and well regarded. And unlike free gifts it brings lasting happiness.