Commentary: Food e-vangelists provide ‘golden audience’ for farmers

Issue Date: November 6, 2013
By Robert Giblin
People identified as food e-vangelists tend to be action-oriented. They learn about issues and influence others by sharing what they’ve learned, both online and in person.
Robert Giblin

A recent study by Ketchum, a leading global communications firm, points to the emergence of an increasingly influential group of consumers: "food e-vangelists." For agvocates—those involved with advocating on behalf of agriculture—food e-vangelists may be the most important group to engage with on agricultural and food policy issues.

Ketchum's third "Food 2020" survey was conducted among 1,800 respondents in early 2013, in the United States, United Kingdom, China, Italy, Germany and Argentina. In every country studied, food e-vangelists were identified as a vocal set of people who are speaking out on food issues. They drive dialogue on hot food topics and are influential.

Historically, agriculture has focused its messages and policy efforts on a top-down approach, relying on influence from government, scientists, policy makers and traditional media. The Food 2020 study concluded that power is shifting away from the traditional, top-down influence to bottom-up, with food e-vangelists as the leading group influencing policy, product choices and food purchases.

Food e-vangelists tend to be young, female and, in particular, mothers who are financially secure. However, they are not defined by demographics, but by psychographics. They are action-oriented and regularly take it upon themselves to learn about issues and influence others by sharing their findings, both online and off-line: Two-thirds conduct online research to inform their opinions when they see a news story about a banned food item; 40 percent share opinions about eating and food purchasing habits with friends and family; and 38 percent frequently recommend or critique a food brand. They are not experts, but others listen and respond because they see food e-vangelists as "people like me" who share information by word of mouth, either in person or through social media.

Food e-vangelists are driven by values, ranking values-based food attributes as more important than price. The study concludes that earning their trust is based on a formula: Health + Transparency + Cause. More than half—54 percent—want ingredient information on labels, including source, processing, production techniques and names of farms or suppliers. They also want food to meet their "healthy" criteria; transparency throughout the food chain; and to make food more accessible to families in need.

They also say that food companies are not meeting their expectations of transparency. They dismiss "messaged" information, preferring to be engaged with as partners. They say there is less information than they want in grocery stores about how food is grown and raised. Retailers are the front line for consumer interaction and are thought of as credible, unbiased, neutral third parties in the buying/selling process.

They use blogs and social media to share opinions about food issues. They expect companies to engage with them using social media for direct and open communication. They have high expectations that global food companies will work with them interactively on product improvements and new products, communicate transparently about sourcing and manufacturing processes, and answer questions.

As power over food and agriculture shifts to the food e-vangelists, they will exert influence not just on friends, families and other in their close circles, but also the retailers, restaurant chains and food manufacturers who drive agricultural policy through procurement and marketing directives. Agriculture must work closely with retailers to provide information and tools to help them engage on food production issues, but in terms that relate to everyday consumers.

Because of their desire to learn, willingness to act on their positions, ability to influence others and values-based decision-making, food e-vangelists are a golden audience for farmers, farm families and agvocates to engage with directly.

While many agvocates are making great strides in social media with their own blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and other forms of outreach, it will be important to reach out to the food e-vangelists: identify them; listen to their concerns and perspectives; build trust and relationships based on shared values; and share agricultural information and concerns with them, in person and through their social media outlets.

For agriculture, it will require a shift from being just agvocates, to becoming ag and food e-vangelists.

(Robert Giblin, who is based in Wisconsin, writes, speaks and consults about agricultural and food industry issues, policies and trends.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.