The relationship between social media and food

What happens when you get served food at a restaurant? Do you look at it appreciatively and tuck in, or do you rummage in your bag or pocket for your phone to snap a picture and share it online?

KarenIf it’s the latter, you’re not alone. I’m delighted that my friend Karen Fewell, @digitalblonde (pictured) has published the results of her food, psychology, science and social media experiment and thought I’d share them with you. I was invited to attend the event during London Social Media Week a couple of weeks ago, but unfortunately couldn’t make it.

It was conducted by Artizian Catering and Digital Blonde and designed to explore the relationship between social media and food.

I’ve included the results at the end of this article so you can see them for yourselves – and get a glimpse at all the yummy food on offer during the experiment. Plus there’s a Storify showing all the Tweets from the event.

Karen is the author of a forthcoming book, #foodporn, and we both have the pleasure of being social media ambassadors for Beat, an eating disorders charity here in the UK.

What do you make of the findings? You’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.

P.s. In answer to my own query above, see my recent Tweet, as I’m currently working with the Jamie Oliver Group (only the delicious pasta in the top right hand corner was mine):

Further reading:
I wrote about the psychology of sharing online back in December 2013.

How big is this market?

There are now over 36 million images tagged as #FoodPorn on Instagram alone and food themed social media content often receives very high levels of engagement. The experiment sought to understand how these reactions, emotions and experiences compared to the real thing.

#FoodPorn can seemingly generate very real emotions of desire, happiness and surprise – do these come close to, or are they as powerful as the real-life experience of eating food?

THE EXPERIMENT: Experiencing dishes on and offline – how does it compare?

Digital BlondeFor part one of the experiment boutique caterer Artizian Catering showcased their unique Foodology® concept to a packed room full of guests including leading food writers, consultants and guest of honour Antonio Carluccio.

The seven course, fairytale themed menu, devised by Artizian’s award-winning chef Richard Skinner, saw guests treated to a series of dishes each designed to provoke different emotions, including Hansel and Gretel’s Baked Bread Surprise, Goldilocks and The Three Bears Pea, Anchovy & Cured Ham Porridge and a Cinderella inspired Pumpkin Parfait.

For each course guests were asked to rate and record their emotions both before and after tasting the dish. This data was then collated and compared with an online study, where participants who had not been at the dinner recorded their emotions after viewing images of the Artizian dishes.

To give a further comparison, two separate versions of the online survey were distributed; one displaying only the food images and one showing both the food images and a description of the dish.

The Results: Research Confirms it – #FoodPorn can’t compare to the real thing

A Social Media Week panel event on Thursday 25 September (pictured) unveiled the experiment’s findings, with experts from both digital and food industries debating the findings.

Digital BlondeIt was hosted by Karen and featured experts from the fields of psychology and social media as well as catering and hospitality. On the panel were: Chef Phil Howard – Two Stars Michelin Guide since 1998, Nathalie Nahai – The Web Psychologist, Ed Butcher – Head of Online at Square Meal, Sam Michel – Director of Chinwag and Artizian’s own Rob Kurz – Foodologist® and Tracey Fairclough – Commercial Director.

The experiment found was the more the user is involved in the story of a dish, the stronger their emotional reaction to it. With the ‘story’ often lost online, a neutral reaction is far more likely
Storytelling, digital media and food

A scale of one to five measured the strength of participants’ emotions for both the offline tasting event and the online surveys. The results showed conclusively that people’s emotional reactions to the dishes were stronger offline, averaging a sore of 3.6. This fell to 2.7 for people viewing only the images online and interestingly, increased to 3.0 for people who view the images accompanied by a description of the dish.

Adding descriptions to the online images also increased participants’ feelings of desire, disgust and surprise and made food appear more appetising than the images alone.

The scores suggest the more consumers can know about and be part of a dish’s story, the stronger they feel towards it.

Prompting the question of whether restaurants should be doing more to help consumers describe dishes, such as leaving menus on tables or having staff explain the dishes to diners.

Ultimately, the research highlighted there was no substitute for multi-sensory experience of eating food.

While images of food receive high levels of engagement online and food with descriptions even more so, feelings and emotions were heightened across the spectrum when it came to actually eating the food. In fact, the study found that online people were more likely (29%) to have a neutral emotional reaction than in the real world, where the score was 11% for the same dish.

Having already undertaken considerable research for her forthcoming book #foodporn, Karen felt the findings of this experiment started to uncover some important issues for caterers to consider: “The initial findings and panel debate are purely the start of our journey into exploring how food, science and technology fit together. Over the coming weeks and months I will be delving further into the research and talking to chefs, operators, food brands and marketers about how this research impacts their marketing strategy, menu planning and even serving procedures.

“Just minutes after the data was first released, it raised concerns that encouraging diners to share more accurate descriptions with photos meant operational changes. But if the industry wants more people to share their dining experiences, then restaurateurs, chefs, front of house staff and food brands must create a story that sparks a strong emotion so consumers remember to relive and share, whether that’s online or via word of mouth.”

Further insights

Want to know more about the relationship between digital media, food and human behaviour? Contact

Post author: Rachel Miller
First published 15 October 2014.
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