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As social media has risen and risen in recent years, so too have so-called influencers. But how can influencers work for small businesses? And what are some of the pros and cons? Baking Business investigates.

Theoretically, the idea of ‘influencer marketing’ has a solid basis in logic. People tend to listen to the opinions of those they trust and like. People often trust and like influencers, this is why they become popular.

Since the rise of social media, a slew of self-dubbed micro- and nano-influencers has flooded the internet the world over.

Many restaurants and cafes have enjoyed success in employing the skills of influencers to increase the foot and electronic traffic towards their businesses. But, behind the scenes, there are moving parts and wheeling and dealing that don’t always see the light of day.

A person takes a picture of their food at a cafe (influencer culture)

Image: Shutterstock

The Good

We all know the power of word-of-mouth marketing, and what better way to get your brand out there than to rely on the recommendations of someone who very clearly already knows how to do that.

Micro-influencers can be fantastic for small restaurants and cafes. Because they have such a small number of followers, they typically tend only to broadcast and post to people in the vicinity of the establishments they frequent.

This can sometimes be much better advertising for a small business than being promoted by an influencer with a follower count in the hundreds of thousands.

Now, while this sounds counterintuitive, there is sound reasoning behind it. The masses of people who are following these large-scale influencers don’t all live near the establishments being promoted.
This means that there is only a slim chance that any promotional material will entice them to visit the business.

When a micro-influencer, however, shares a positive review of a meal tagged with the location of the place they got it, their followers will have heard of the establishment in some way. They will be able to head there when they have a minute, sample the goods, and become repeat customers.

Organic social media advertising is another great way for businesses to drum up customers, and not all dealings with influencers have to be scripted and contractual. This avenue, however, is much harder to control and direct.

When an influencer offhandedly mentions, tags, comments, or posts about an establishment, that can have unforeseen effects. Urban legends and internet stories abound of small businesses that were briefly mentioned by a prominent influencer or celebrity and had their sales skyrocket as a result.

But restaurants and cafes are not without their own power. Many brands are taking to their own social medias to post content and reels and to generate their own followers and subscribers.

Some establishments choose to run competitions. This worked incredibly well for Queensland-based bakery, Kenilworth Country Bakery. The bakery, which is now almost 100 years old, rose rapidly to social media fame thanks to their 1kg Doughnut Challenge. Their follower count soared after the challenge rose to prominence.

Jenna Saunders, owner of Kenilworth Country Bakery previously told Baking Business, “If I could put anything out there to other bakeries and business owners, it’s get yourself online.”

The Bad

In recent years, the darker side of influencer culture has been brought to the surface. In the food and dining sector, this is being done using—what else—Instagram. The hashtag #couscousforcomment gathers screenshots and posts denouncing influencers for begging restaurants for free food as part of a ‘social trade’, in which the influencers ask restaurants for what amounts to bribes in order to put up positive reviews and social posts.

Former restaurant reviewer for The Australian, John Lethlean has not only jumped onto the ‘influencers are terrible’ bandwagon, he’s the one who built it. In 2016, John started #couscousforcomment, which has since swept around Australia and into the rest of the world. It takes its name from the idea that many influencers will reach out to restaurants and cafes to ask for free food in exchange for positive comments, share, reviews, and posts.

The hashtag, and John’s personal account in particular, names and shames the influencers. It has grown into a full-blown account, which takes things a step further, going as far as posting messages from influencers it has called out requesting the account remove its original mention of their names.

These self-declared influencers are typically armed with fewer than 10,000 followers across various social media platforms. This is often fewer followers than the establishments they target.

The idea that if the restaurant is giving food in exchange for the review it is likely to be positive is akin to bribery, and it reflects poorly on the restaurant. If someone has given you free food, you will naturally be biased towards them and, therefore, are more likely to leave them a positive review, even when it is not deserved or legitimately earned.

This notion undermines all restaurants that engage with influencers, even the ones that pay for their food and are genuinely objective in their reviews.

In an interview with radio personality Liz Sheehan, John Lethlean expressed his distaste for this practice, “Their opinions are not being generated in any kind of ethical sense; their opinions are being bought.”

“Hopefully the tide will turn, and people will start to question how all these pictures and so-called opinions have been generated.”

The Middle Ground

So, is there anyone left on social media whose opinions can be trusted? How can restaurants, bakeries, and cafes navigate the brave new world of the internet?

The unfortunate answer is that there are many different roads and no recipe for miraculous social media success.

It’s worthwhile for businesses that are considering engaging with an influencer to be wary. Do your due diligence. Make sure that you’re not paying for post engagement from a bunch of bots or people on the other side of the world who will never be able to visit you or buy your products.

When devising social media campaigns, innovation is the word. The sheer amount of information that comes across a screen in a day is overwhelming. Brands need to find an attention-grabbing point of difference that is going to divert potential customers’ attention their way.

This is definitely achievable without engaging the services of an influencer, as technology develops, it’s becoming easier and easier for brands to create their own amazing and marketable content.

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