My Thoughts on Tastecasting

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?

30 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Tastecasting

  1. Well I've never heard of this group but it seems like a win-win for the establishments. They get exposure and the group doesn't say anything negative about them. It is by no means of an objective review, just a giant social networking commercial. I wouldn't call it exploitation – both parties wants something (tastecasting wants $$ and food, the establishments want exposure) and they're working together to meet each other's needs.

    I do wonder though if this will end up a bust like the old 'rewards for clicks' sites. Remember Milesource.com? Where you just clicked on sites, joined different sites, etc and earned reward points. At first they were giving loads of good gift certificates and such that were easy to earn but then it trickled down to crap and finally went bust. I think it became obvious that there wasn't as much value in those forced clicks as they thought. Sure, sites got exposure but if they were garbage sites, it didn't help their bottom line and if they were a good site, they didn't need that sort of help anyway.

  2. Pretty much agree totally. It's just more online astroturfing with a cute fluffy veneer. And once you've determined that people are dishonest or just partially honest, why care about what their opinion is? Online information is effectively unlimited, so why waste my critical time with non-critical waste?

  3. I never heard of them either. Checking out their site I see that they actually reviewed Dunkin' Donuts. That's not even food! You're right, it's all about getting free eats.

  4. To be totally honest ….. I understand your frustration with some, if not most of the concept that TC is putting forth. There is no need to over-saturate the social media outlets during an actual TC.
    I have always admired your reviews due to the fact that you are forthcoming – not biased and those who have read your blog over the past 4 years – we know that reviewing establishments does come out of your own pocket (unless you tell us ahead of time about press passes and such). There are numerous people that you have affected in a positive way outside of the Cbus zip codes…..and we/they have tried the restaurants that you have reviewed. You most certainly have earned all merits on your own. I look forward to each and every review that you do for "us" – the people that may not take the chance on their own without a voice of reason :)
    On a side note…there have been bloggers that I quit reading a long time ago….as they seemed to have a side job as getting establishments/merchants/people to sponsor and/or support their endeavors.
    I have always respected and trusted your knowledge of the food industry….and will continue to do so.

  5. "I, as a general rule, accept no freebies."

    And then you go on to list the exceptions. Well, most of the real press folks don't take freebies, period.

  6. You missed the "as a general rule" part there, Paul. And you're forgetting – I'm not real press, and have never claimed to be.

    By the nature of their jobs (having the media company that employs them provide them with an expense account), they aren't paying for their own meals. But the restaurants they're reviewing aren't paying for them – it does make a difference.

    Are you saying that I should not accept press passes for events that I usually cover anyway, or participate in blogger events that are subsidized by the location that's holding them?

  7. So many good ideas. I had never heard of tastecasting till I read this blog and I have to say at first I was aghast and appalled at the concept. However, I realize that it's just another marketing gimmick for the 'tweet' generation. I personally don't tweet because I think they're idiotic, I don't need to know you're petting your cat or watering your geraniums. Blogs are just the modern version of letter writing except you get to notify all your 'friends' at once.
    In this respect, I think the tastecasters should be more upfront about the fact that they are a paid marketing team hired by the restaurant or event in question to promote their events. Whether they are paid by $$ or food they are still being bought, especially if it comes with a pre-planned dialogue or script or ordered comments of a positive nature only.

    As for your press passes to events I don't see a problem. We used to get press passes to MacWorld and the NextSTEP events because we were programmers & developers. Did that encourage us to bow to the whims of the host company, heck no. If it was crap, we were still free to say it was crap. I think your press passes are completely legitimate and should be garnered for the job you do as a community reviewer 'of the people, by the people, for the people." You are in no way directed to respond in a certain manner although I'm sure the event coordinators hope for a good review, I think in their hearts they should know that you will give an honest review. And I think that's far more important than being bought and sold.

    Enjoy your reputation, you've earned it. You do alot of hard work for it.

  8. Thank you, thank you. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way. It's become something of an issue in Cincinnati as well– I honestly turn off TweetDeck when I know people are Tastecasting– and haven't been to their website since I posted about it (I just checked and I thought you had commented). I am REALLY dismayed that first, they're reviewing chains (World Market? Donato's? Qdoba?) and that the folks behind it are not really backing up their "must disclose" rule. I've seen reviews on Yelp that were from Tastecasters, with nothing mentioning that they got their food for free. That's just wrong. Dan said that he was going to change the policy so that it didn't say "no negative comment"– but obviously that's still implied. I really think it does a disservice to bloggers (and even mainstream media reviewers!) by having opinions diluted so much.

  9. Food bloggers often get the same freebies sent to them that the media gets. If I get one more PR rep trying to send an energy bar to me I'll scream– but that *is* a freebie. Is it wrong to accept something the MSM writers would get as well?

  10. So I got unlazy ;) I set up an OpenID account so I should show up cross posted everywhere from now on, although it's currently importing my blog.

    There were things I forgot to add. The first is that there are FAR more people that won't try a new *anything* without a friend/coworker/family first saying to them, "hey I tried out XXX and it was great!" Whether that's for food or a place to buy shoes, it doesn't matter. Far too many people are in 'herd mentality' and will only go where it has been deemed 'safe' in advance of their arrival. I know far too many people like that. These are the same individuals who will order the same thing from the menu every time they visit instead of trying something new.

    So in that respect I can see why people would like to hear about the TC's as it lets them know what a place is like. (Although it's not necessarily the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.) The thing is, I'm not saying the tastecasters themselves are lying because I'm sure for those that are tweeting what they are seeing (not on scripts), it IS good food and service because they ARE being catered to for their every whim. I think I'd be more mad if I showed up and didn't receive the same 'treatment' that the TC's received, I'd feel like I was lied to, or swindled.
    I think in the end, it will likely be by their own abuse of the service, whether through massive spam tweets, script tweets, or other pitfalls that the TC's will be shunned in the end.

  11. I can understand your feelings on TC. I'm a some-time participant in Cincy, but I do so as transparently as possible. I don't generally do reviews on my blog, so it's not against the theme of the blog, but I also don't call the TC posts "reviews". They're simply a TC event, and I don't say positive things that I don't agree with. If I don't have something positive to say, I'll just state what was served.

    I also, though, have an issue with the chain restaurant bit. I will only participate when I can, and only if it's a local place.

  12. I think put in the right context a TasteCasting philosophy is not all that bad. I am put off with the major chain promotions, but looking through the eyes of a small restaurant owner, I can't imagine how this does them any damage….They do gift certificates and giveaways for the local community all the time, why not give away some food to a targeted group of people that have a good size network and are a highly influential personal brand?

    I would like to see more realistic perspective. If it's not your cup of tea, let people know that. I think consumers are smart enough to see through the 'fluff' and recognize a genuine response…..I personally only follow a handful of 'TC'ers' and i only find it as annoying as (if not less than) the 'spam' of follow friday promotions.

    But then again, I'm not a direct competitor.

  13. Becky – I wish I had met you the other night, we were both @dirtyfranksdogs and Liz mentioned you were sitting at the bar. I appreciate your comments on @tastecasting and whether it is food reviewing or marketing.

    I thought your comment about #handjob was hilarious and being asked to delete it by a tastecaster gives me a bad impression too.

    I just wanted to add this article that talks about the conflict of interest for Mommy Bloggers that get products to review, a very similar predicament. It will be interesting to watch this issue unfold as it becomes more prevalent and matures.

    'Mommy bloggers' vow to avoid ethical conflicts
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/08/10/mommy.bloggers

    (I do want to say I have been friends with Dan Harris over a year and he is a class guy. I am sure that this debate and backlash will be taken into account as the Tastecasting concept is further developped and refined).

  14. That's exactly what I'm saying – there needs to be a lot more transparency in Tastecasting. If I knew up front that they were just doing PR and marketing, and to see their content as just that rather than an honest personal review of the evening, I'd have less of a problem. The memos they have that told them what to write about clinched it for me.

    And the press passes I've gotten, have come after I've covered these events for years without them. I'd be there anyway, but luckily the press passes pay for the price of admission in years like this where I just don't have the extra money to spend.

  15. Someone told me that there's a Twitter application that allows you to block certain hashtags. Maybe if the Tastecasters all labeled their TC related tweets with a #tastecasting hastag, I could just block those tweets out and enjoy the stuff that they usually post.

    But the chain thing does rub me the wrong way, for a lot of reasons.

  16. That's exactly what I'm talking about – your content is not presented as a review. Many of the ones up here in Columbus are. What is Cincinnati's policies on chains?

  17. I'm not really a direct competitor to Tastecasting – it's like comparing apples and oranges. I do reviews, stuff about farmers markets, my garden, what I cook, etc. They talk about what the chain restaurant down the road is feeding them for free. Not even close.

    I'd have to hear from individual business owners who have hosted a tasting to see how it has affected their bottom line – hard to say whether it is a positive, negative, or if there's no effect without that information.

    And that's why I posted about it. To get it off my chest. It's not something I need to harp on. I've made my feelings known, so it doesn't need to be brought up every time they go somewhere. And I'm not into the #FF stuff either. Figure if people want to follow my Twitter feed, they'll find it on their own. :)

  18. You really should have come over and said hi. I was just waiting for carryout after a long evening of classes. I meant the #handjob comment in jest. After about the 50th #handtossed tag, #handtossed got a whole new meaning for me.

    I get approached all the time to get stuff for free, review it, etc. and I turn it down most of the time. When I accept, it is with the understanding that I'll try it and provide them with feedback at least privately, but no guarantee that I'll talk about it publicly. I have a Dining Out meetup group as well, and had Country Bob's approaching me wanting to give everyone in the group free bottles, but I declined b/c I didn't want to bring a commercial aspect into the group. Even though I love CB sauce, it seemed like a huge conflict of interest.

    I don't know Dan Harris personally – I've seen him at events, but he gave off a real unapproachable vibe. And the Tastecasters, at least at events, seem to be a bit cliquey. I'm sure he's a perfectly nice guy, with good intentions. Just think he needs to work out the flaws in the Tastecasting idea,

  19. Dot here again……. I'm a total foodie myself……. I just hate being called a "Foodie" and what others perceive the term to mean.

  20. funny that I read this article this afternoon, then just heard on NPR that all bloggers are going to have to disclose "freebies"– deemed today by the Federal Trade Commission. Guess they are as mad as you are :)

  21. I agree with your take on objectivity. If I know a reviewer is getting freefood in exchange for a favorable review, I won't eat at that establishment. That is, until something more objective comes along. The set-up of Tastemasters has redolence of payola in the 60's, when record companies gace DJ's money to play their records. Same scam on the consumer.

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