Consumers' online revenge

MY wife, who art in Europe, has just sent me photographs of pizzas served to her and my eldest daughter in an Italian pizzeria. She took the photographs with her phone, pressed a few buttons to send them to me with a short message, they arrived at my phone in an instant, and the sending via the internet cost nothing.

Her purpose was to show me an Italian pizza in Italy, as opposed to an Italian pizza in the Corbetts’ backyard, and I must say that, just as the world’s best Chinese is in Sydney, the world’s best Italian pizza is straight from our pizza oven. The toppings on ours don’t look as though they’ve been thrown from a distance of several metres, and sparse is not too sparse, but the Made in Italy bases do have a scorched bubbling that we haven’t been able to master and so she’s investigating.

The internet is indeed an amazing thing, and because of it the world is an even more amazing place. The photos of the Italian pizzas are here today, on this blog, and so they’ve gone from an ordinary old consumer, my wife, to thousands of people almost effortlessly. Not quite viral but you get my point, I hope.

Yesterday in the Herald I read of a powerful use of this technology, and like many uses of the internet, an unforeseen one. According to an American Express survey in Australia almost a quarter of bad dining experiences are posted on Facebook and Twitter within minutes of the unhappy diner leaving the restaurant. Others share their misfortune while they’re in restaurant. And since social media is largely the domain of the young it occurs to me that people of an age whose opinions are often discounted or disregarded are, suddenly, the people whose opinion matters most!

The panning of a restaurant reaches more young people first hand within a few hours than word of mouth could ever reach second and third hand over weeks, and the panning on social media is likely to be around long after a word of mouth panning has petered out. Increasing the impact is that an unhappy account will reach more people of other age groups as it bounces from network to network. Not that the oldies are silent. While 40 per cent of Gen Y’s teenagers and twenty-somethings say they share their dining experience on Facebook and Twitter, which doesn’t surprise me, a quarter of the Gen X crew in their 30s and 40s say they do, which does surprise me, and a fifth of the over-50s do, which surprises me more.

It is conceivable that an unusually damning posting of a restaurant experience, especially one with damning photographs, could destroy a business. I will never forget the immediate impact of a report in this paper of a Thai restaurant being fined for a filthy kitchen – it went from being packed pretty well every night to empty in the space of a day and it has not regained a quarter of its custom in the years since. I expect that a lurid damning on social media could have a similar impact.

I’m not an active user of Facebook or Twitter but I have had in Newcastle unfortunate, even shocking, restaurant experiences that could prompt me to become more active. I’ve used my phone to photograph a few of the more photogenic offerings with a view to taking it up later but, later, I’ve decided merely to put the encounter down to experience. A result is that I now refuse to go to restaurants I see as pretentious.

Posting such a picture and a few words to Facebook or Twitter could be tempting revenge. And the restaurant staff will know whether the diner is snapping the meal because it is good or bad. While those who share their restaurant experiences online are almost as likely to post a good encounter as a bad one, the fact is that a negative account is much more damning than a good one is rewarding.

This new power for consumers flows from our evolving use of the internet. What next?

Have you posted a restaurant experience online? Would you? And where next for consumers' new online power?

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