The future. That’s a daunting concept, no? It’s at once a predictable and an uncertain idea. In other words, as much as we can set our world up for a future that we feel prepared for, there’s only so much we can do and only so much we can know. For as many foreseen successes there are, there are just as many mind boggling failures. Things happen. Things change. But it’s still fun to play the guessing game.
Food. Who doesn’t love food? Seriously, nobody in the history of the world has ever not eaten and loved food. It’s vital to our existence as humans, and that’s not something I will ever complain about. We cook our own food and we go out to restaurants for our food; we eat alone and enjoy meals surrounded by our loved ones. Food is a universal necessity and source of joy. Some people struggle with their relationship with food, sure, and there are areas of the world where food is hard to come by. But the universal enjoyment of food is something that connect, as well as differentiate, cultures. In the US, a country with the international reputation for eating too much, this obsession with food has been documented extensively in our culture and media. We LOVE food. And we’re proud of it.
Social media. Social media, as we all know, is a relatively recent creation from the last decade or so. Following the rise and demise of sites like Xanga and MySpace, we now have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr and Snapchat…the list goes on. Each one, generally, serves a different purpose, or at least allows its users to post differing kinds of posts. Instagram, founded in 2010 and later purchased by Facebook, is the most purely visual of the most popular social media platforms, and, as such, it provides an amazing platform for people to share the most visually appealing moments in their lives. Of course, one of the visually appealing things that we experience as humans is the food that we eat.
The video above, produced by CollegeHumor a couple of years ago, parodies our use of Instagram and the ways in which we pick and choose what to post, but we all end up posting the same general things — food, beaches, plane wings, food, selfies, throwback photos, food, etc. The opening lines, “Look at this Instagram, eggs benedict and a side of ham / Started as a lemon tart, then my phone went and made it art” pokes fun at our #foodporn obsession first. It’s a thing and everyone does it. When I go to meals with my friends and our food comes, everyone takes out their phones to take a photo — for Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook — of what they’re about to eat. Our mindsets are that food is meant to be shared.
So why talk about these three things: the future, food, and social media? Yes, people Instagram their food, and they’ll continue to do so in the future.
When Instagram initially blew up in 2012 (when it first reached 100 million users), sharing pictures of food was already something people were doing. In an article on Mashable published in 2011, they coined a term that a grand total of zero people ever use (“foodtography”) to describe something that millions of people do every single day: take photos of their food. Though the article has a lot of irrelevant statistics (it’s four years old and trends have surely changed), there are still some things they highlight that are probably still applicable and stress the ways in which people share their food: 10% of photos containing food on Instagram have humans in them; 25% of photos posted with food in them are posted for “no particular reason”; 18.3% of photos with food in them are of desserts or sweets. It’s an early observation of a trend that had only barely taken off.
Fast forward to two years later, and Business Insider begins to highlight the true significance of the foodstagram trend: brands. Restaurants. Food producers. Bloggers. The fact that people love posting photos of their food — and seeing photos of other people’s food in their Instagram feeds — is a huge opportunity for businesses in the food industry and lifestyle bloggers and chefs and restaurants to take advantage of. The article notes that people aren’t just posted photos from expensive, trendy restaurants in alluring, big cities like New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, all known for the innovations in food. Rather, people are going to establishments like Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang’s and posting photos of what they’re eating lower level restaurants. It has trickled down, and it’s accessible.
The article also notes that, though other apps like Foursquare and sites like Yelp and OpenTable also allow its users to share photos of their food following a dining experience, Instagram has by far the fastest growing rate of food-sharing. Not only that, but it also has by far the largest user base, so the potential for even more food-sharing is all but guaranteed. Also, Yelp and OpenTable and FourSquare are more reviews-based, and people tend to gravitate towards visuals.
Brands can, should, and are taking advantage of this. I look at the top food brands on Instagram proves that marketers in the industry are milking this growing audience and their potential engagement for all it’s worth:
Not only that, but they aren’t high-end brands. Actually, they’re remarkably low-end: fast food chains, cheap snacks, television channels. That being said, smaller/growing brands in the same arena are benefiting equally from their own capitalization of this trend. Shake Shack, a rapidly growing burger chain out of New York City, has a way higher percentage of followers per system sale (1,808 to McDonald’s 11). Granted, McDonald’s has infinitely more locations than Shake Shack. But that fact makes that number no less staggering.
So what about local brands? Are they able to leverage Instagram and its users’ obsession with food as well?
The Michigan Advertising & Marketing Club (MAM), pairs its student members interested in marketing with local businesses and lets them work together to come up with innovative marketing ideas in an effort to reach more people and gain more customers. And, it being 2015, social media is obviously a huge part of the work that MAM does. I talked to Jamie Goddard, an Account Director in MAM for the local gelateria, Iorio’s. I asked her some questions about the work that MAM does, the work that she’s done for Iorio’s over the past year, and her thoughts on how local businesses can reach customers through social media:
So, clearly, taking advantage of the power of Instagram to connect brands and businesses with their customers and allowing new customers to discover that they even exist is something that companies at all levels are focusing on. It’s important for them to remain relevant in a world where online audiences are becoming increasingly fragments and where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out amidst a landscape of endless content. To stand out, brands have to have original ideas. They have to be posting things that others aren’t. There was that Oreo’s post from the Superbowl a couple of years ago that immediately went viral on Twitter. There’s the #HotDogsOrLegs trend. There’s @foodintheair and #EEEEEATS (created by a very prominent Instagram-based food blog, The Infatuation.
So it’s not even just brands but websites and trends based around food.
Last summer I worked at AOL as a social media intern for their AOL.com and Lifestyle Brands team. Their Lifestyle Brands include popular websites that are dedicated to style, weddings, female leadership, and food. Their food blog is called Kitchen Daily. A big focus of our work last summer was to come up with social-first franchises. So, essentially, things that each individual brand could be doing on their social media accounts to increase user engagement and, thus, spread brand awareness in those niche social media markets. Something that I came up with was #brunchies (brunch + selfies = brunchies). The team loved the idea and decided to test it out.
The campaign was slightly successful, not a runaway success, but still worth the effort of throwing it out there. What it did do, though, was prove that the foodstagram universe demands creativity. There’s a lot of the same out there, so for people looking to capitalize on the more-than-just-a-trend of sharing food photos on Instagram, it means that doing something new and original is necessary to stand out. And it’s only becoming more and more of a necessity. Brands know this. Food blogs know this. To succeed on Instagram means to catch people’s eyes.
Another important factor to consider in analyzing how brands can take advantage of Instagram are the very people they’re trying to reach. If users aren’t into it, if potential customers and followers and likers aren’t buying it, then what’s the whole point? Instagram skews young, so brands on Instagram are presumably trying to appeal to young consumers. How do Instagram users feel about branding on the social platform? How often are they posting their own food photos? Do they follow any food brands or bloggers or blogs? Have they ever discovered a restaurant or food item through Instagram and gone out to go to the restaurant or buy the item?
I sent out a survey to a couple of listservs that I’m on on campus, as well as to friends of mine, to ask them these questions. The respondents were 70% female and 30% male, with an average age of 21. They’re mostly not from the state of Michigan, with a majority from large cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC (or suburbs outside of those cities). I compiled their answers into an infographic below:
So, engagement was surprisingly high. Admittedly, the respondents were probably more likely to pay attention to food accounts and trends on Instagram than the general population or college population, but still. People are spending time on Instagram and they’re exploring food establishments and food hashtags. Perhaps it’s out of an subconscious desire to live vicariously through an Instagrammer or simply oggle at delicious food. Who knows.
All of this comes down to what it means for the future. And, based on my research, I’d say that it means more of the same in the short term. Brands are going to become increasingly creative and attentive and engagement-focused as expectations become higher, as standards become higher in the midst of a content clusterfuck online. As advertising ramps up on Instagram, this will help brands reach more people. Instagram’s increasing integration into the Facebook landscape will also help, as well. People will be able to connect brands’ Instagram accounts to the information on their Facebook accounts, helping them to learn more about the things they’re curious about.
The future is all about the consumer and brands’ catering to that consumer. People want content that feels personalized, that adheres to their interests and desires and goals. The internet has become an increasingly consumer-driven space and brands, as I’ve mentioned, are recognizing that.
Looking further into the future, though, what do we expect? What do I see? I see the discovery aspect of Instagram becoming even stronger than it is right now. People love clicking on location tags and seeing the photos that have previously been posted from those locations — looking at other dishes on menus and what they look like, deciding what they might order if they ever get to go to the restaurant. Yet, you can’t even search location tags on Instagram. That will change, surely. But it will go even further. Platforms like Instagram want to create an ecosystem that is equally beneficial to the consumer and the brand. It has to be a platform that at once makes it easier for brands to connect with consumers without losing the trust of their users by making brand integration too obvious, too ad-heavy (a line that Facebook has, sadly, already crossed).
The future is exciting. So is Instagram. So is food.
Let’s see where it all takes us.
[DISCLAIMER: I contacted a handful of people that work at local restaurants that are popular on Instagram with the hope that I would be able to get more first-hand information about how local businesses are explicitly using Instagram and influenced by social media, but nobody responded to me. So my project didn’t go the direction I initially planned on, but I love where it went, regardless.]