The power of social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others to connect friends, family and colleagues is well established. But as the media develop, food and beverage industry executives are learning more about the influence and usefulness of the data being generated. The information being communicated has the potential to alter consumer perceptions of foods, brands and companies as well as serving as a rapid response mechanism when public health events occur.

Data provided by The Nielsen Co. show that social media platforms have grown quickly, with nearly 4 of 5 active Internet users employing the technology. Fifty-five percent of US adults have more than one social networking profile, and they spend far more time communicating using blogs and social networks than via e-mail. The influence of social media is expected to grow further as mobile technologies such as smart phones and tablet devices surpass personal computers as the leading method of accessing the Internet.

For most companies, social media represent marketing opportunities. They allow companies to engage with customers on a more personal level and to interact. These interactions give marketers the opportunity to analyze and divide consumer groups in ways that were once considered not cost effective.

The interaction among users is just one area where the impact of social media is being felt. Earlier this year The Hartman Group, a market research firm, surveyed social media users to gain understanding of how the technology affects consumer perceptions of foods. The survey results show almost half of consumers learn about food and beverages via social networking sites, and 40 percent learn about food via web sites, apps and blogs. The study organizers said social media had helped transform the process of learning to prepare and cook food from an activity that involves a few trusted sources, such as family and friends, to one that is impacted by the concept of “crowd-sourcing,” which involves the opinions of many.

The process is also circular, because numerous times after a consumer decides to buy, prepare and eat a food after being influenced by social media, they then communicate their experiences using the same technology. The Hartman study also found that during an eating or drinking occasion nearly one-third of Americans use social media. Among the Millennial demographic, which comprises people between the ages of 18 and 32, the share using social media while eating or drinking rises to 47 percent.

But the power of social media is not just limited to interactions and opinions. Public health authorities are learning that by reviewing large swaths of Internet data they may be able to more proactively react to public health crises. Called “infodemiology,” which relates to the use of Internet data to identify disease clusters, public health authorities posit that if they were reviewing Internet search traffic and social media during the E. coli outbreak related to sprouts in Germany and the cantaloupe event associated with Listeria in the United States this past year they may have been able to more proactively react to the crises.
When consumers are reacting to an outbreak of a foodborne illness they tend to first do Internet searches about their symptoms before visiting a medical professional. These consumers also may communicate through social media that they are not feeling well.

By reviewing these data public health authorities have the ability to see illness clusters form before consumers begin visiting their doctors. This, in turn, gives them the ability to alert public health officials in identified regions that an illness may be emerging.

As the already amazing pace of personal electronic innovation quickens, new uses for social media and the data being generated will be identified. While it may be impossible to identify which new applications and platforms may succeed, there is little doubt the influence of social media will continue to grow and impact the food and beverage industry in ways that could not have even been imagined a few years ago.