I’ve been aware of Tastecasting for a while now. Since the whole concept started here in Columbus, there’s a fairly active group of individuals that belong and cross my path in a myriad of ways. Some are even readers. Most that I’ve met face to face or traded tweets with are really, really nice people. For the longest time, I had a “live and let live attitude” with the group – it wasn’t my thing, but more power to them if that’s what they wanted to do.
But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve got a really big problem with Tastecasting. If you’re not familiar with the concept, essentially what it entails is that a team of tasters, led by a team captain, visits a local business and is provided free food in return for good publicity for the business in the form of blog entries, tweets, etc. I’ve even seen tweets recruiting people with the mantra “want to tweet for food?”
As a group, though, my experiences with them have been less than pleasant. I’ve been to an event or two that they were covering (in return for free food and drink, naturally), and they show up as a group, clad in blue “tastecasting” shirts and with their own printed credentials, totally dominating the event and not allowing others that aren’t part of the group to get a word in edgewise. These are, mind you, events that I’ve covered for years out of my own pocket. At one event, I overheard a Tastecaster talk about how she was just there for the $80 in free booze she just drank.
Online, it’s been a little more annoying. The members are people I follow, because 95% of the time, I really enjoy their tweets. During an event, however, they tend to flood my Twitter feed with bite-by-bite steps through whatever it is they are tasting, retweeting each others insincere (and yes, it does show) tweets over and over and over again. I must’ve seen 50-100 Tweets all saying the same thing come from the same people within an hour. It was #donatos #handtossed this, #donatos #handtossed that, etc. So I made a snarky tweet, something to the effect of “when will the #tastecasting event at #donatos be over with – all the #handtossed tweets are coming across like a #handjob” – even followed it up with a comment that I was joking. The next day, I get a direct message from one of the Tastecasters, someone whose tweets I read regularly and enjoy, asking me to “delete the comment because the client will read it and get upset” – I politely told her I wouldn’t, and why, but I’m kind of bothered that I, someone who is not a member of their group, was asked to censor an opinion. I was so annoyed by the Twitter spam that I was very tempted to unfollow anyone who had been tweeting about #donatos #handtossed that evening, even though I really enjoy their posts the rest of the time.
So, with that in mind, I’m doing this blog entry explaining my thoughts on Tastecasting. If nothing else, hopefully this will generate some discussion on what the rest of you think, and for my readers that are Tastecasters, maybe you can explain what the draw is. (BTW, Tastecasters – know that I have no problems with you as individuals, just Tastecasting as a concept).
First things first – I’ve built up my network the old fashioned way. I’ve been blogging for 4 years now (come next month), and in that time, I’ve posted almost 1,000 posts, visited and reviewed 100+ restaurants, covered numerous events, gotten to know many restaurant owners and community leaders through crossing the same paths over and over via various channels. I value the network I’ve built. So much so, that when something comes out of my mouth, they know it is sincere. My big mouth has gotten me into trouble more than once, but I’m one of the most transparent people you’ll ever meet. People joke that my nickname should be “WYSIWYG” – because that is true – what you see IS what you get with me. All of my opinions, thoughts, etc. on restaurants and establishments are completely, 100% organic. I share them with my network because I truly believe that there is some good reason (the food, the service, the owners, etc) that you should be spending your money there. Because I pay for my own things, I know the value of the meal in real world $$ terms. Knowing that people will take me at my word, I respect them enough not to direct them to dreck.
I don’t think Tastecasting reviews, by their very nature, can be objective. When I review a restaurant, I do it completely incognito. I look like Jane Average. I don’t call ahead, I don’t demand freebies or favoritism. I try to be as low-key as possible when taking pictures. I try my best not to let any restaurant employees see me taking pictures. I pay full price like everyone else, and leave a good tip like everyone else. I know, when I’m reviewing a restaurant, that I’m getting the exact level of service that everyone else is. Not being recognizable like the reviewers from mainstream media works to my advantage. Tastecasters, on the other hand, show up to a Tasting event in uniform, cameras and iPhones and video cameras ablazin’, with the restaurant fully expecting them and pulling out all stops to please them. When a restaurant knows they will be on display, it goes without saying that you are getting the best food and the best service possible. Your experience will not necessarily be representative of everyone elses. These favorable reviews, skewed by the lack of anonymity, dilute the effect of REAL reviews.
I, as a general rule, accept no freebies. The only exceptions to this are press passes to major events (like the Apron Gala & Taste the Future) and the Blogger Getaway (which was a coordinated event). The fact of the matter is that being recognized as “press” has only been a recent development, after a few years of covering the events paying for the tickets out of my own pocket, and taking pictures that the organizers felt really captured the event in a way they enjoyed. In other words, I paid my dues the hard way – lots of money out of my own pocket to establish credibility and a repuation, lots of time covering events and writing blog entries, lots of networking and talking to and developing relationships with the right people. I kind of resent the fact that Tastecasters waltz in expecting the same level of respect that it took many of us several years to earn.
When Tastecasting was first developed, the point was supposedly to bring exposure to independent businesses, ones that many people didn’t know about and that could really use the traffic. However, this appears to have gone by the wayside, with recent events at Donatos, Hoggy’s, and an upcoming event at Qdoba, to name a few. Chain restaurants get plenty of exposure – it seems the only reason they are doing the events lately is for the free grub.
I don’t like the groupthink mentality of Tastecasting. As part of the group, you are expected to tweet positive experiences only. There’s a certain amount of peer pressure that erases all individuality from the participants. People who are normally extremely pleasant to communicate are reduced to being sycophants who post what is essentially a press release. Looking over someone’s shoulder, I saw that they actually had a handout on what they were supposed to post on Twitter. Where’s the integrity in that? Are you really comfortable in selling your soul for a slice of pizza? Are you really willing to subject your network to that, therefore diluting your credibility and stature with them? Is being a “social media expert” worth being devoid of anything that makes you an individual outside of your brand?
I also have a problem with the financial aspect of Tastecasting. It appears, by their own FAQ, that eventually they will be charging both the tasters AND the establishments a fee. With the concept of Tastecasting already having spread to 22 cities in less than a year, the Tastecasting founder stands to make a fortune, exploiting both the need of the establishment for exposure, and the participants want of a free meal. So honestly, the participants will be paying a fee for providing PR that they SHOULD be getting paid for? Nice racket, that.
I’m also curious as to the effect that a Tasting has had on a business. Businesses (and I know there are a few readers who are business owners that have hosted an event), have you seen an increase in business because of the event? Has it played out in real world numbers, sustained long after the event is over? Have you run into negative reactions such as mine?
There are lots of other reasons I would never be involved with such an organization, but lets start with those. Thoughts?