The social media platform is influencing the way we eat, but just how much of a consumer's purchasing decision (and a restaurant's bottom line) is being affected?
On Instagram, food is sparkly, it’s colorful, it’s bulging and overflowing and overall, it’s no longer just a source of sustenance, it’s an aesthetic. On the road to photogenic feeds, there are over-the-top waffles, rotisserie chickens and crab legs in Bloody Marys, and mason jar mega-milkshakes with those candy-cane-striped paper straws that taste like soggy, well, paper.
Food thrives on Instagram. And it’s changing the way both restaurants and consumers interact and make decisions because this isn’t just a social media platform. It’s a lifestyle requisite with 800 million users. That’s one tenth of the world’s population. According to Instagram, 500 million of those are daily active users.
Instagram has been the de-facto platform for visual consumption since it began, but it’s now where users and potential patrons are going to decide where to eat. A few years ago (much simpler times), choosing a restaurant probably involved Yelp, word of mouth, Google. Today, Nashville visitors and locals digest content online and especially on local “influencer” accounts to help decide where to spend that food dollar.
Marisa Goldstein and Ari Richman are Vanderbilt students who started @Nashville_Eats four years ago. Today, they have 78,000 followers. “We would know better than anyone else that the eyes eat first,” says Goldstein, who has seen firsthand the platform’s effect on Nashville diners. “I think it’s definitely a reflection of the change in how people consume social media and use it as a tool in their everyday life. We use Instagram to check up on friends, see what people in the area are doing, but more importantly to scope out local businesses — and I think this last aspect is why
@Nashville_Eats is growing so fast. People from in and out of town come to our account for recommendations and help to plan their trips.”
According to Instagram, 200 million of its users actively visit the profile of a business every day. And two-thirds of profile visits to businesses come from people who aren’t following that business. For a restaurant, that’s a marketing goldmine.
On the @Nashville_Eats account, Goldstein and Richman post their own photos as well as those that are submitted. They’ll filter through images with the #NashvilleEats hashtag and they’ll answer direct messages, questions about where a dish is from and where to go for dinner. They’ll receive dozen of comments of people tagging their friends and bookmarking the photo. And lately, although the account is still a hobby, they’ve grown to monetize it.
“When we post about new restaurants, events or new menu items, the response from our followers is usually incredibly high. Our followers come to us as a guide for where to eat, so when we post new, exciting places or dishes, it’s exactly what they’re looking for. We reach up to 40,000 accounts with our posts, so any restaurant would get a huge boost with that amount of views.”
Instagram focuses on the visual, so once that diner has made the decision to sit at the table, they’re most likely looking for a reason (preferably aesthetics) to post about it. Restaurants have been at the forefront of this, call it “Instagramization,” where culinary aesthetics lead decision making — the uprise in white marble countertops is not a coincidence, it makes for a better photo backdrop. Neon-lit signs, murals, mosaic-tiled floors, whitewashed wood, these are all incentives for users to post from a well-designed and branded location.
“We’ve noticed that Nashville eaters also look for good vibes, so that includes décor, service, ambiance, etc. People want where they go to eat to be the whole package,” Goldstein says.
Some restaurants are making design decisions with maximum photography impact in mind, and the mobile culinary showmanship is leading to results. The #foodporn hashtag yields more than 157 million posts. #Food: 271 million and #foodphotography: 21 million posts from around the world. #NashvilleEats brings up more than 95,000 posts. And geotagging has the same effect. Users can search through all open photos that have been posted and tagged at a restaurant.
“There are places all across the city that cater toward this “food porn” mentality that definitely gets people in to their restaurants," Goldstein says. "However, this only goes so far … the food has to actually live up to the hype to keep people coming in. Not to name names, but some of those places that get huge crowds of tourists in because of their aesthetic and well-lit pictures are sometimes really overrated.” This new-found, pleasant culinary aestheticism is here to stay, but in Nashville, where locals still reign, unicorn-colored stunt food, however pretty, can only go so far.