Stupid PR Tricks – Yep, Still Getting ‘Em

Since I stopped writing for the Toronto Star, the number of emails from PR people flooding my inbox has dried to a trickle. It helped that I deleted my TasteTO email address completely so the PRs who just refused to remove me from their mailing lists just got bounces. A few somehow made it to my personal email account but for the most part, I am delighted that I no longer get inundated with junk about birthday cake flavoured vodka, cheez whiz or chain restaurants anymore.

So imagine my surprise when I get an email pitching “content suggestions” for a “fat fashion” article.

Now… I am fat. And I wear clothes. And I think I am stylish. But I don’t write about plus size fashion. And as Adam Ant says, “We don’t follow fashion, that would be a joke.” I have almost zero interest in mainstream fashion. Nada. I am a cranky old Goth. I don’t want to look like everyone else at the maul. I certainly wouldn’t be caught dead in any of the “5 Pieces That Will Carry Your Spring Wardrobe” suggestions the PR sent to me, hoping that I would write a piece on this blog about the company he represented.

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Blogging 101 – Do You Need to Make Money at Blogging?

Allow me to direct your attention to my sidebar momentarily. What do you see there? Your standard archives, search option, a link to my Twitter account and one single solitary ad, for my own publishing company. What don’t you see? Ads for anything else. And that’s because this blog is not a business. I do it for fun, and to promote my own writing and other projects. I don’t expect to make money at it.

For many years, I ran a professional, blog-based website that was a business. It was done with the intention of making money. We ran paid ads in the sidebar. It was registered as a business; we paid business taxes, we had a business account at the bank. But this site, my personal blog, is not something I expect to make money on.

I point out this difference because I think it gets lost on a lot of bloggers. The project that they started out for fun, as a hobby, suddenly becomes something they feel they must make money at. They see a few high-profile bloggers get book deals or report massive traffic and high ad earnings and suddenly doing it for fun doesn’t cut it anymore. They attend blogging conferences where so-called “experts” give seminars on how to “monetize” their sites and all of a sudden they feel entitled to be paid for their time and effort.

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Critics vs Bloggers (Again), with an Evil Twist

There’s yet another article making the rounds on the differences between professional food critics and bloggers. It mostly trots out the same old arguments; ones that we still haven’t been able to find a solution for, and mostly skewers bloggers for all of the same old things we’ve been skewering bloggers for all along (visiting too early, not being informed about the cuisine, not doing research, not writing well in the first place, being shills for the restaurant in exchange for free food), but there’s a new allegation I haven’t seen before…

Quite a few publicists double as bloggers to raise the profile of their clients.

Uhh… I am boggled by how seriously uncool this is. I mean, this is a huge conflict of interest, and makes all publicists and bloggers look suspect. How is a reader (and potential customer) supposed to know the difference between a fair and unbiased opinion and a blog post by someone who is not just getting paid to write about the business, but who is getting paid to promote the business to other writers? I can’t believe that people are allowed to get away with this.

If I was approached by a publicist who did this,  I’d refuse to work with them.

The question is, do I have to start checking out every PR company that approaches me to find out how ethical they are? Or is the hassle of that why they’re allowed to get away with it in the first place?

Not cool, folks, really not cool.

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The Restaurant Website – What the Hell Are You Doing?

I just rebooted my computer.

Who cares, you might ask. But I had to reboot my system because I was visiting the website of a local restaurant and the PDF file of their menu caused my operating system to freeze. This would be mildly annoying if it was the only time I ever encountered it, but it actually happens on a regular basis. Between the PDFs, the crap flash websites and sites that are just never updated, restaurants make my job of writing about them like pulling teeth, only with a lot more tears and crying.

Look, I get the fact that not everybody is good at (or interested in) everything. Cooks wanna cook, they don’t want to waste their time mucking around with computer stuff or marketing campaigns or anything that isn’t, well, cooking. I get it. Just about everybody who works in a creative field, making things to sell to other people, feels the same way. Farmers hate dragging their produce to market, craftspeople hate dragging their wares to shows, authors hate doing book tours, and chefs hate taking time out of the kitchen to deal with paperwork.

But it’s a reality of life.

One that more restaurants should embrace, because your website is the most important tool you have in marketing your business. It’s a 24-hour-a-day business card that can make people want to try your food or never set foot in your place ever. More than Twitter, Facebook or any other online social networking site, their own website is where restaurants need to be concentrating their efforts.

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Reach Out, Reach Out and Touch Someone

Dear PR people,

Please, I am on my knees begging to you – stop using the phrase “reaching out to you” in emails where you really just mean “contacting you”.

I don’t know who started this trend, but it’s pretentious and, well, really fucking creepy.

Seriously. Reaching out has two connotations. We “reach out” to offer assistance to those in need. I’m not in need, you’re just sending me a press release.

The other connotation of “reaching out” is of a dirty old man trying to cop a feel. I get emails now that include the term “reaching out” and I picture the perfectly manicured claw of the PR person in question, coming at me as if to grab my tits.

Trust me when I tell you that this is NOT the image of yourselves that you want me to have.

Stop reaching at me! Just contact me. I promise that you’ll get a much nicer response. Because the next person that “reaches” at me is getting a smack.

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Square Pegs, Round Holes

It’s a cliche to say that the internet has changed the world, but in many cases it’s an important issue, because in terms of business, so many industries still haven’t caught up. In the writing/journalism/news industry, it used to be that the majority of writers headed to work every day, sat at a desk for an 8-hour shift, and generally answered to a boss of some sort.

With more and more publications moving online though, that is no longer the case. Whole publications are run from home offices, and newspapers and magazines realized that it was a heck of a lot cheaper in terms of benefits and overhead to just hire freelance writers as needed. From the perspective of the publication this is considerably more efficient, but when it comes to interacting with other industries, in this case, public relations firms, the old status quo no longer works.

Someone has to change how they do business. But who?

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Stupid PR Tricks – Pay Attention and Read What’s in Front of You

One of the flaws of the Internet is that, despite the great amounts of information out there available to make our lives easier, we don’t really read all of it before taking action. We have become a society of skimmers and at TasteTO we regularly get comments from readers that make us shake our heads. After a month on hiatus where we spent a bit of time cleaning up some back end stuff, I made a post about the changes we had made. We got a pile of comments complimenting us on “our new look”. But – we never changed the look of the site at all. Same layout. Exactly.

One of the things we did change was the manner in which people can contact us. Previously we had a variety of email addresses that were listed all over the site. And we got a lot of spam as bots hit the site and spewed out junk. We also got a lot of unsolicited press releases and attachments for stuff we couldn’t or didn’t want to cover. So we put in a contact form so the emails addresses aren’t out there.

Except that people don’t like contact forms. Especially people who want to send attachments. We could sense their frustration in the message “I need an email address to send you information about a new beverage product.” “Please provide contact info so we can send you a press release about an upcoming food event.”

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Jam-A-Lama

I haven’t bought jam in years. I’m one of those crazy people who actually makes their own, despite it not actually being any cheaper than buying it from the store.

However, back during my organic phase [1], I did buy a lot of organic jam, and the main brand I turned to was Crofter’s.

So when a box arrived at my door unannounced – that is, there was no warning that it was coming [2] , I was a bit perturbed and then intrigued by the collection of “superfruit” spreads.

Crofter’s is a company from Port Perry, Ontario that specializes in fruit products – from jam to juice, everything they make is organic. I’ve been a fan of their stuff for many years, and if I didn’t make my own jams and preserves, Crofter’s would most likely be the brand I’d seek out; their stuff is all certified organic, comes in a diverse range of products and is not overly sweet.

However, I’m not a real fan of the idea of “superfruit”, which is what this new line of spreads (they’re not technically jams because of the sugar to fruit ratio) purports to be. The line of four flavours all start with a base of morello cherries and red grapes and then also include “superfruits” (fruit thought to have anti-oxidant properties) from 4 different continents. North America is represented by a blend of blueberries and cranberries; South America by maqui and passionfruit; Europe has black currants and pomegranate, and Asian includes raspberries and yumberries.

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Innoculation – or, How Food Bloggers Can and Should Arm Themselves Against Viral Marketers

If you’ve never received one, then consider yourself lucky. If you’re a recipe blogger, you might never know the greasy, depressing feeling of opening up your email inbox to be assaulted with fake flattery and a patronizing cut and paste formula-based invitation. But eventually, because that’s their whole premise, the viral marketing companies will get to most of us, luring innocent food bloggers with flattery and booze, hoping you’ll sell your soul for a party and a gift bag, or some free samples.

While not a new phenomenon, in the age of the internet, viral marketing has become more and more pervasive. The original viral marketers used kids to inadvertently sell their products – put a pair of (free) fancy sneakers on the feet of the most popular kid in the school and watch as his classmates flocked to the store to buy the same gear. It works for clothes, technology (“hey, cool phone!”) and even vehicles – Torontonians should wonder any time they see a shiny new scooter parked on a sidewalk in front of a hip club or restaurant.

At its heart, viral marketing is about manipulation. This website outlines the six simple principles of viral marketing

  1. Gives away products or services
  2. Provides for effortless transfer to others
  3. Scales easily from small to very large
  4. Exploits common motivations and behaviors
  5. Utilizes existing communication networks
  6. Takes advantage of others’ resources

From the standpoint of the food blogger, it is important to be aware of these principles if you regularly receive offers of free products or invitations to promotional events.

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Why I’ll Never Be a Real Insider

I understand that, for a business, marketing plays a key role in achieving success. It’s fine to make a product or write something or make a piece of music, but unless people know about it, you tend not to sell much. I also understand that most advertising, as its basest level, is about manipulation – make people want what you have. Make them believe they can’t live without it. And it used to be that advertising was pretty straightforward – run an ad in a magazine or on TV, or maybe a big billboard. Free samples, gift with purchase and other  programs that made consumers feel as if they were getting something extra also worked well.

Since the Intarwebs became popular, marketing has kind of been thrown on its head. And while it may take longer than hitting a million viewers all at once with a TV ad, viral marketing directed at “community influencers” is becoming more and more popular. Recommendations from people in “the community”, under the guise of friendship, trust and camaraderie, pull more weight than an ad in a magazine, which can seem insincere.

Bloggers are a key target area for viral marketing campaigns. Sending a promotional product or book to a blogger with high site hits is a cheap and easy way for marketers to have the (usually positive) word spread about whatever it is they’re trying to sell. Marketers depend on the blogger to be naive about the marketing machine; to be flattered, and have feelings of obligation, and in turn write a glowing review of the freebie. Since getting free stuff is fun, most bloggers know better than to rock the boat by writing a negative review, or if they do share their true feelings on a product, it’s usually tempered with political correctness and apologies for not liking it.

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Two For Tea and Becoming an “Expert”

I’ve been to two different tea events in the past week. Both very different in scope and both of which left me with a curious little bug in my brain.

The first tea was an afternoon tea and lecture on the health benefits of tea at Toronto’s Casa Loma. Having never been to Casa Loma after living in Toronto going on twenty years, I figured it was high time to do so and tea in the gorgeous marble conservatory was as good an excuse as any. Casa Loma is, indeed, a big freakin’ castle, and was as marvellous as it had been made out to be. It would have been more pleasant had there been considerably fewer tourists, however, because nothing takes the charm out of tea in the lush conservatory of a castle than a bunch of people in ugly shorts and sneakers and ball caps peering through the glass doors taking your photo.

The meal itself was your standard afternoon tea fare – scones, pastries, fruit and sandwiches. Passable, but not outstanding on any level: California strawberries when local ones are still in season, too many super-sweet pastries that got left behind, clotted cream passed around in the jar (!!!) instead of in a dish (am I at someone’s house??), and, as is always the case, not enough vegetarian sandwiches, because inevitably, the meat-eaters will ignore the roast beef and turkey and scoff *all* of the egg salad before you even knew there were any there.

The actual tea for drinking threw us all for a bit of a loop. It seems that Lipton was a sponsor in some capacity because all that was on offer was different varieties of Lipton tea – in bags. There were prize baskets from Lipton given out at the end, and I suspect that the guest speaker was a shill for Lipton as well, so frequently did she tout their products.

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