a peek inside the fishbowl

26 Feb, 2015

Daring dinners: is it a good social media strategy?

Posted by andrea tomkins in: The business of blogging

I’ve been thinking about THE TWITTER and the power of social media a lot this past week. Mostly because (a) I’ve had two meetings with two different agencies about working with social media influencers and (b) I attended an affair called The Secret Supper, which REALLY got me thinking about the intersection of social media and marketing, and how it’s increasingly taking centre stage for a new campaign.

Back in January I received an email from Blackbook Lifestyle – a local PR agency – asking for my mailing address. As soon as I sent it to them I wondered what I was getting myself into, as most people probably wouldn’t share their mailing address with any stranger who asks for it. Sigh.

The invite arrived in the mail in a sleek black envelope. It contained an invitation to a “secret supper” hosted by “one of Canada’s top food brands.” There was not much else, and the location of this event could be only be figured out by going to a website on a certain date and typing in an personalize access code.

The secret location turned out to be the Elmdale Oyster House, which I was happy about because it’s a close drive and I’ve never actually been before. So on the appointed night, Mark and I set out together. When we arrived we gave our names which were checked against the list, and were asked to sign a release form (although I was assured my image won’t show up on a billboard anywhere). We made our way in.

The Elmdale, all set up for #thesecretsupper

I thought the idea of creating and promoting this event as a secret was pretty smart. It was an easy way to create some buzz, and people were definitely buzzing, long before the event started. (“Who’s going?” “Are you going?” “Oh, I wasn’t invited, were you?”) It all taps into the same feelings that are part of elementary school birthday parties and high school proms, doesn’t it. :)

The invitation list was a relatively small one. Media people, and bloggers, love exclusivity of any kind, for starters, and the talk of the night was WHO. Who was hosting this event? I was worried it was going to be a company I could not publicly support, such as Walmart or McDonalds. In fact, I could not stop thinking about this food blogger related fiasco. Planning this kind of event was a risk, no matter how you sliced it. The very “live” nature of it can be a huge success or an abysmal failure, and to be honest, I was prepared to walk out at any time.

The emcee was a fellow by the name of Derek Fage. I do like Derek. He’s the host of a Daytime Ottawa on Rogers and is very amiable and outgoing, and great at connecting with people. He is perfect for this kind of gig. During the evening he walked around and asked us all what we thought about each course. He dropped hints about the host (“note the colour of the decor”) and kept us guessing. I had no idea what I’d say if he came over to me.

View of our place settings at #thesecretsupper

People speculated that the host might be Whole Foods or Sobey’s as both have green in their logo. Someone guessed Roots, because of the decor. I wasn’t sure what to think. But as he wandered around the crowded room, I wondered, what are my responsibilities here? I wrestled with what I should be saying publicly, especially knowing I had signed that media release. And what should I be tweeting, if anything? Tweeting all night while sitting at a table for six is anti-social, but it’s the unspoken deal here. This is ultimately why I was invited, right? How many tweets are too many from a social standpoint? From a social media standpoint? And what’s my responsibility to Twitter followers if something bad happens? What if it the food wasn’t good? Some bloggers have stated publicly that they never publish negative reviews. I decided long ago that I had to deliver the straight goods in a fair and balanced way, but is it my DUTY to tweet it all?

The way this event was set up, I was essentially tweeting out endorsements BEFORE I actually knew what the brand was. As someone who’s built her business around authentic and honest storytelling, this didn’t exactly sit well with me, I admit. What if I commented, on camera, about how good the cheese croquettes were (fried cheese will always get a thumbs up in my books) and then it was revealed it was a new menu item at McDonald’s? And then what if my tweet and image was used to sell them to other parents? Gah.

This is something I think about, because all I’m bringing to the table is my reputation, and it’s one that I’ve spent 15 years building in this community. So the optics of these kinds of highly public events are important to me.

In the end, the food was good and the host turned out to be Giant Tiger. This was a company I felt ok about tweeting about. GT, if you didn’t know, is a home-grown success story. In fact, Mark works right across the street from the first GT in the Byward Market.

The premise of the evening was to show that GT groceries can make a very economical “fancy” dinner. I should point out that The Secret Supper menu was prepared by Elmdale Oyster House and Tavern chef Michael Radford, and included those “croquettes au fromage,” baby scallop ceviche, herb roasted lamb poutine, grilled pork tenderloin and a deconstructed key lime and coconut pie. Every item on the menu, right down to the seasonings, was sourced entirely from  GT. Even the table decor was provided by GT.

I believe now that Target is pulling out, GT is working hard to remind people that they’re a contender in this particular category. And so far they’re doing a good job. So was the evening a success from a social media point of view? I would say yes. With about 40 media types in the room, many of whom were online before, during, and after, the word got out. #Thesecretsupper was a trending topic on Twitter. These conversations, whether they happen between neighbours at the bus stop or are amplified online, are what drive sales. Did you know that GT sells amazing sweet potato fries? Well now you do.

The other day I received a copy of a press release which was titled: GIANT TIGER IMPRESSES UNSUSPECTING FOODIES WITH THE SECRET SUPPER. (And yes, it was in all caps.) I wasn’t included or mentioned (which is a-ok by me) but I think they’re walking a fine line between impressing and fooling. You know what I mean?

So, in each of those two conversations I had with agency folks this week, they each asked me: what kinds of things can brands offer, that will appeal to an influencer? I told them that this is different for everyone. Some bloggers will welcome a case of hot dogs or a box of cereal, and others will balk. Ultimately, I think, many influencers are looking for a unique opportunity or experience that they can’t find elsewhere. Exclusivity helps, as does fried cheese and bottomless glasses of wine. :)

So in effect, I guess I got what I wanted eh?

Edited to add:

I thought it might be interesting to see what other attendees wrote about the event so I’m listing them below as I become aware of them. If there are any Ottawa Secret Supper posts missing from this list, let me know!


6 Responses to "Daring dinners: is it a good social media strategy?"

1 | Kelly Rusk

February 26th, 2015 at 12:25 pm

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HMMM.. Don’t know how I feel about this. Particularly as someone who both works with influencers on behalf of clients and someone who has been invited as an influencer on occasion to events for brands.

On one hand, clever idea! Fun and funky and a good way to remind people of GT. ON the other hand, have you been to a GT lately? I lived near one and went often, love the store for what it is, but particularly the food is not inspiring at all to foodies. The produce rarely looked fresh and inviting.

So that’s a pretty big promise to deliver on. I’m not sure the foodie angle was the right way to frame it, but the whole package sounded like a fun experience.

2 | andrea tomkins

February 26th, 2015 at 3:40 pm

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Thanks for your comment Kelly. Good point about the foodie angle.

I wonder… did this event do a good job of raising awareness about GT, or not? And will it entice people to take the time to give it a shot? I can only speak for myself in that this event did make me want to visit GT again. I haven’t been in years and now I’m curious.

3 | coffee with julie

February 27th, 2015 at 8:12 am

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I received the “secret” invite and admit to being intrigued but also feeling anxious … what would I be getting myself into??! I immediately thought of the ConAgra event in Toronto (the same one you linked to).

In the end, I couldn’t make it due to a combination of sickness and work commitments and by the social media mentions I saw, it looked like everyone had fun.

But like Kelly mentioned, I don’t think anyone wants to buy “foodie food” at Giant Tiger. It’s more a “pick up some staples” place like well-priced milk. I think that promoting their clothing line could be widely successful since I know a lot of women who buy clothing there and it looks fabulous on them. For your sake, I’m glad it was GT and not Walmart, since GT is Canadian while Walmart is well … it’s not your favourite place, I know :)

4 | Glenn Allen

March 1st, 2015 at 11:01 pm

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A couple of disturbing thoughts on this. Three, really. First is that GT works the “one-way, all-the way” store layout marketing strategy (like IKEA) that compels you past every piece of merchandise in the store before you get to the cash. Drove me nuts the two or three times I went in – never again. I’d hazard a guess as well that they’re a minimum wage/zero benefits employer, but I’ve no direct knowledge of that.

Item two, I stopped patronizing Whalesbone and Co. when they took over the funky Elmdale Tavern and converted it to a froo-froo dining establishment. Another example of money chasing a thriving alternative scene and ruining it. At the old Elmdale you could bring in your own pizza, sub, burger, order a pint and enjoy the music/billiards. I quizzed the new owners at takeover time and was assured that could still happen, but I’m pretty sure they’d be most unhappy if I turned up with a next-door Hintonburger.

And finally, it was widely circulated about 3 decades ago that GT’s owner’s wife was the infamous anti-feminist, anti-gay founder of REAL Women, Gwen Landolt. Certainly put me and all my feminist friends off shopping at GT. Curiously, there are no immediately apparent google links between Landolt and GT, and the Wikipedia entries for GT chief Gordon Reid or son Scott, the seriously right-wing Tory (previously Alliance) MP, fail to mention the wife’s/mother’s name. Sure makes me wonder.

Obviously you had no knowledge of 1 and 3 in advance, and likely unaware of the Whalesbone perfidy, so I certainly can’t fault you for taking advantage of a night out. I respect your concern and hesitation about the optics, and you seem a level-headed sort on matters of ethics. Still, as Robert Heinlein warned in 1966’s “Moon is a Harsh Mistress” (and echoed by conservative economist Milton Friedman), TANSTAAFL.

5 | Glenn Allen

March 1st, 2015 at 11:03 pm

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OK, not disturbing, just bothersome!

6 | How bloggers get invited to special events (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t happen overnight) >> a peek inside the fishbowl

March 3rd, 2015 at 5:01 pm

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[…] other day I wrote this post about the Secret Supper, and then Marilou at 20 York Street wrote this one, and THEN there were a few twitter […]

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our two daughters Emma (18) and Sarah (16). I am the managing editor of our community newspaper, the Kitchissippi Times. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger, and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999... which makes me either a total dinosaur or a veteran, I'm not sure which! The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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