I’ll never forget the first time I was ever invited to an event as a “food influencer.” I had been running my blog and @newdenizen Instagram account for some time before a local PR person emailed and asked if I would like to come to an event at a new restaurant where a guest and I COULD EAT FOR FREE.
“Oh my gosh!,” I thought to myself. First off, I was flattered that someone had noticed the work I was doing and thought I was legit enough to actually come to an event. Second, I couldn’t believe that a real restaurant would be willing to give me free food in exchange for some possible social media coverage.
At the event, my husband and I were seated at a long table alongside other influencers and journalists. While we were digging into meal, the man sitting across from us, who was the plus one of one of the other invitees struck up a conversation asking me who I was and who “I was with.”
I explained that I ran my own blog and Instagram account focused on food. He immediately made a joke about how we must get sick of having to scuttle around to all of these events and all the free food we got to eat.
I was confused. “Wait a minute, these people get invited to events all the time?,” I ruminated to myself. Not wanting to seem uncool or inexperienced, I gave a non-committal toothless grin and sheepishly shrugged my shoulders. However, my husband was not so coy.
“How often do you go to events like this?,” he inquired.
“Oh, well she,” pointing to the woman sitting next to him, “writes about more than just food so we go to all sorts of events, but we probably get free food at least a few times a week. It’s a lot of work for her, but I love getting the fringe benefits!”
This was the moment when I begun to understand that the influencer world was serious business, and that I’d have to find my own path in navigating its murky waters.
My food influencer code of ethics
In the past I’ve written about my own journey to becoming a food influencer in Denver, but recent conversations with friends and family have made me realize that there’s still a lot more to be said on the topic.
People not familiar with the influencer world are perpetually amazed that its possible to get invited to events and eat for “free.” Although Denver does not have the same pace of new restaurants opening up as places like my hometown of NYC or LA, there is enough activity in area to keep one fairly busy most weeks of the year if you said yes to everything.
Being a food “influencer” can sometimes feel like a precarious ethical high wire act. But I always remind myself that running this blog and my Instagram account is not about getting free stuff, it’s about sharing my genuine opinions and thoughts to help others discover awesome food and events as well as build and participate in a community of likeminded people.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the ethics of being a food influencer and how I can maintain a high level of trust and transparency to meet my own personal standards and be honest with my readers and Insta followers. I understand that people who don’t know me personally might wonder how truthful I’m being with my coverage and if getting invited by a restaurant or being supplied with gifted products has an affect on what I say.
The best way I know how to do that is to just lay it all out there so we are all on the same page.
Below is my personal Food Influencer Code of Ethics – the rules and practices that I follow for the coverage on my blog and Instagram account.
When I eat for free, you will know it
Getting something free does not guarentee a gushing, glowing review from me. I pride myself on always being honest with my descriptions of restaurants and products and will never lie about whether something is good or not. When I do accept a comped meal, receive a gift, or financial compensation that is connected to my coverage, you will know it.
For every post that matches this criteria you will see one of two terms mentioned (usually in the first paragraph of an Instagram comment, as text on an IG story, or as an italicized disclaimer on a blog posts):
Comped: This means that the restaurant or company has given me food or product free of charge. Usually I am still paying my own tip (based on the full value of the meal) to the waitstaff.
Sponsored: This means that I’ve received a gift of material value (e.g. – gift card) or financial payment as part of the agreement in covering the restaurant or company.
I have been clearly labeling my blog and Instagram posts and IG stories with some form of this language for more than a year. Posts and stories that do not have this language mean they are 100% organic and no one has asked me to promote the restaurant/service/product.
I realize that there are many food influencers who do not mention when they’ve gotten something for free (despite it being clearly stated in the FTC guidelines). So why do I do it? Because I want make it clear to my readers and followers what’s going on – they never have to wonder about my motives.
As an avid social media user, I KNOW that readers and followers are not stupid, and they are tied of bloggers and accounts with zero personal point-of-view or discriminating taste, seemingly run by folks who just want to jump on the influencer bandwagon and will cover everything and everything because…FREE!
When an account is just one long undisclosed spon con, you can spot it a mile away, usually by a series of unappetizing food photos with captions claiming that each and every one is “OMG, BEST EVER [insert food]” followed by 15 emojis.
And if you’re like me, I begin to feel I’m being taken advantage of by these people who are abusing my follow by forcing me to watch their long grift day in and day out when they are not informing, inspiring, or entertaining me in any shape or form.
I never want to become that person. Which brings me to my next point…
I will only talk about places I personally recommend OR are of newsworthy interest to me or my audience
Although I pay for the majority of my own food on a weekly basis, as a food influencer I have the opportunity to eat for free a lot more than your average person. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something.
As my account has grown, I’ve continued to be amazed by the volume of review requests and meal and event invitations I receive on a weekly basis. Although I always have the initial instinct to say “yes” to each and ever person that reaches out to me (after all, it’s so nice of them to think of me!), more and more I’ve had to say “no.”
In addition to not wanting to feel like a full-time shill, there are several reasons for doing this:
First, every time I say “yes” to a PR person on restaurant, that means less time to work on other things that give me joy, like personal offline interests (e.g – reading, crafts, outdoor activities) or my own original projects and writing.
Secondly, even though there usually is never a hard obligation to write about a restaurant you’ve gotten a free meal at, there is a mutual understanding between you and the PR person that your free meal is in exchange for coverage.
It often means that when I go out to eat on someone else’s dime, I’m not just eating food, I’m working. I bring photo equipment to shoot the food/space, take photos while eating and asking staff questions about the dishes. Then, after I come home I sit at the computer and cull and edit photos, and eventually write a blog or useful caption. This entire process usually takes several hours, sometimes more. Honestly, it can be a pretty stressful was to “eat for free,” especially if there’s a hard deadline on when coverage needs to be posted.
Thirdly, not every consumable product or dining establishment is a good fit for me to cover. Not every event, restaurant, or product is something that my audience or I would naturally be interested in. I vow to only cover things that are legitimately cool, fun, or noteworthy. I’ll never say “yes” to anything just because they are offering a lot of money to promote it.
I basically have two criteria for accepting a restaurant visit, service, or product:
- A place/service/product that seems in line with a spot/item I would normally visit on my own
- Has a newsworthy or noteworthy angle that aligns with my normal editorial coverage and brand ethos
For example, I don’t drink alcohol, so covering a new bar or a liquor launch doesn’t really make sense for me. Also, I mainly focus on restaurants specific to Denver, so I might pass on covering the latest location of a national restaurant chain if there isn’t a compelling Denver-specific angle to the story.
There have been times when I’ve said yes to a restaurant/service/product because I think it will be a good fit but the experience leads me to believe it might not be as newsworthy as I orignally thought or I cannot promote the establishment/service/product in good faith. In the past I’ve insisted on paying for the meal/service/product myself so the restaurant/company would not feel like they gave something away for free and received nothing in return.
How do you you feel about the food influencer world here in Denver and beyond? What are some trends you’d like to see thrive (or die) in the influencer scene? Who are the influencers you trust the most, and why?
Would love to hear what you think! Please leave your two cents in the comments below.