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October 18, 2022

The Influencer Trap

Much disgust has been directed at influencers behaving badly. How can restaurants navigate the complex world of social media, PR and #couscousforcomment?

Words: Dani Valent
Photography: Myles Pedlar

It’s almost 2.30 p.m. on a sunny spring Friday and the lunch crush at Hector’s Deli in South Melbourne has petered out. Owner Dom Wilton sits in the window bench and starts reposting the day’s shares on Instagram. “Hectic,” says one user about their fried chicken sandwich. “Highly recommend,” urges another about the mushroom melt. “Yum, look how beautiful this is,” says a toastie fan as they unwrap the day’s special.

“The influencer space is a legitimate category and a legitimate business opportunity.”

“My business would not be what it is without social media,” says Wilton. “We have a product and a brand that is a bit culty and we have a lot of people coming in and taking photos of our food. We repost every single person.” He flicks to his direct messages. As usual, there are requests for ‘collabs’: self-styled ‘influencers’ asking for free food in exchange for coverage on social media. “We probably get about three of those a day,” says Wilton. “We don’t take up the opportunity because we don’t need to, but we have a conversation and – almost always – I politely say ‘no’.”

Even though he tends to reject the overtures, Wilton welcomes the outreach. “The influencer space is a legitimate category and a legitimate business opportunity,” he says. “It has no prerequisites. It just requires work ethic and giving it a crack.

“Cooking and hospitality should be extremely inclusive. Any kind of gatekeeping rubs me up the wrong way.”

“The lines between editorial and commercial are becoming so blurred, and these practices help blur them.”

The influencer arena rubs many people the wrong way, though. John Lethlean, the just-retired restaurant critic for The Australian, has made a sport out of ‘exposing’ influencers under the hashtag #couscousforcomment. Hospitality businesses send him screenshots of influencer outreach and Lethlean shares them on Instagram, prompting a reliable slew of outrage that people dare to ask for free food. “I’ve reviewed restaurants for 25 years and I see this as another chink in the armour of old-fashioned objective commentary,” he says. “The lines between editorial and commercial are becoming so blurred, and these practices help blur them. Honourable traditions are being eroded and that pisses me off.” 

He believes legitimate restaurant criticism is based on meals that are paid for and there should be no commercial relationship (such as the offering or solicitation of freebies or payment) between writer and venue. “I’m upset with these people for the way they erode my position and standing, and that of others who do the job properly,” he says. Declarations are key. “If we’re all clear that somebody is providing content for a client and it’s a commercial relationship, then I don’t have a problem with that,” he says

Aspiring influencers called out via #couscousforcomment have occasionally turned their accounts private or deleted them altogether in the aftermath of one of Lethlean’s posts. Some commenters, including Dom Wilton, have accused Lethlean of bullying. He demurs. “Life is full of tough lessons,” he says. “I worry more about restaurants that I might occasionally put down than about people trying to make some sort of living off Instagram and being exposed for what they are.”

Advertising in Australia must comply with Australian Consumer Law, which is administered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. At its heart are two rules: you must not engage in conduct that is likely to mislead or deceive, and you must not make false or misleading claims or statements. The ACCC does consider influencer posts advertising (as seen in an August 2022 issues paper calling for submissions to its Digital Platform Services Enquiry) and it can prosecute, but it’s fair to say it’s chasing more serious and dangerous defrauding than asserting a dinner was delicious when it was truly dire.

Other than that, the industry is self-regulated by codes of practice and complaints channels. The Australian Association of National Advertisers has a Code of Ethics which offers guidance to influencers. It states, in part: “Where an influencer or affiliate accepts payment of money or free products or services from a brand in exchange for them to promote that brand’s products or services, the relationship must be clear, obvious and upfront to the audience and expressed in a way that is easily understood (e.g. #ad, Advert, Advertising, Branded Content, Paid Partnership, Paid Promotion).” There’s also an Australian Influencer Marketing Council code of practice which urges “clear, unambiguous advertising declarations”.

Steph Leung is an influencer at @misssteph_eatdrinkplay and also runs PR agency Shy Melbournean Media, which engages in influencer marketing campaigns for its food and beverage clients. “Traditional platforms are still important for the mainstream but kids these days go to influencers to decide where to eat,” Leung says. But she understands the #couscousforcomment type of furore. “Especially during COVID, asking for free meals left a sour taste for a lot of businesses,” she says. “Everyone was doing it hard and there are a few bad eggs that give influencers a bad name.” 

“It feels like you’re a carcass in the desert with vultures picking away at you.”

Most egregious are those who extort restaurants with the threat of bad reviews on third-party platforms. “We know of some that reached out to a business and when the business said no, they bought a meal on UberEats and said if you don’t comp my meal, I won’t remove [a negative review],” says Leung. “We know who they are and we’ve taken them off our lists.”

To those working in hospitality, unsolicited requests can seem like a misunderstanding of the industry. “When you look at how fine our margins are, it does seem pretty cheeky to ask for a freebie,” says Gareth Burnett, manager at Amaru restaurant in Melbourne, where a tasting menu costs $250. “It’s a bit hurtful. It feels like you’re a carcass in the desert with vultures picking away at you.” Burnett worked at high-flying restaurants in Singapore where influencer culture is well-established. He’s not against it per se. “The right ‘collab’ could actually be beneficial,” he says. “Traditional PR is a bit of a luxury at the moment so shouting someone a dinner to do media for you could work – but it has to be the right person, with the right audience.”

Many requests go the other way. Instagrammer, law student and legal assistant Jessica Phan (@dishh.out) receives up to five invitations a week from food businesses offering ‘collabs’. “Influencers gain a following based off genuine interactions with their followers,” she says. “Because the influencer has built trust with their followers, it takes the burden away from the business to gain a following. This makes the marketing side of things easier for businesses.” Part of that trust is disclosing invites, which Phan happily does.

Paul Kristoff publishes under The City Lane on Instagram and TikTok. He receives lots of invitations. “I accept those that look interesting but mostly I ignore them and it’s just me finding interesting stuff,” he says. He’s not a fan of people reaching out to restaurants and asking for free meals. “If you could put together a data-based proposal showing how it would benefit the business, fine, but not many people could do that,” he says. “It’s extremely hard to quantify.”

Claudia Nicolosi is Digital Account Manager at agency Harvey Taylor where she engages influencers, usually with a promise of a complimentary meal. “A trusted influencer helps to cut through the noise and put a brand front of mind for their followers,” she says. “They have a lot of weight in purchasing behaviour on Instagram and TikTok.” Vetted influencers are invited by the agency to visit venues for free,” says Nicolosi. Popular posts can travel widely, appearing on Google searches, for example, which adds to their reach. “We’ve had influencers visit a restaurant and put up an Instagram post and if you then Google the restaurant, the post comes up 4th or 5th. It’s powerful.” 

Direct metrics can be tricky to pin down but Nicolosi outlines the case of a Korean noodle restaurant which was popular with international students pre-COVID then wanted to target a broader, older Western audience. “We did 80% TikTok and 20% Instagram over a two-month campaign and the restaurant saw a noticeable shift to a new demographic,” she says. 

In the end, social media influencers are simply a new iteration of an old phenomenon, thinks Hector’s Dom Wilton as he reshares a few more “best chicken sanga EVER” and “absolute banger” posts. “I’m influenced by artists and musicians all the time,” he says. “This is just a different genre and it can be win-win. It’s a win for businesses, if they’re smart enough to take up the opportunity that influencers are offering. And if that means the influencer creates a business of their own, then great. It’s a total positive.

If you’re considering engaging influencers, here are some considerations:

  • Are your desired customers likely to be influenced by those you engage? Influencers that match with your target audience will work better for your business.

  • Ask influencers about their reach, audience, engagement and ethics (will they be clear this is an #ad?). Consider working with an agency who has pre-vetted influencers and can manage expectations.

  • Follower numbers don’t necessarily lead to engagement or outcomes. A micro-influencer with 4000 engaged followers in your city can work better than one with 100,000 fans spread around the world.

  • Most influencers will do posts in exchange for free food. Those with more hustle may charge between $350 to $1200 for a food post and three stories with a link to the restaurant.

  • Consider simply tagging food critics and influencers on your current social media posts. I visit (and pay for meals at) many restaurants through direct outreach.

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