The Danger of Silencing Your Enthusiastic Crowd

IMG_0081I read with interest a recent article in the New York Times about restaurants that forbid patrons from taking photos of their food. Taking pictures of food has become a part of our collective cultural language. From Facebook to Instagram, we love to document our meals and show others what we are eating or drinking at any given moment. While some users hate this, I admit that I’m a food-shooter. And I like looking at pictures of food that my friends have posted. It’s certainly much better than being bombarded with pictures of duck-faced teens looking in bathroom mirrors.

But the article made me think more about how we treat the crowd; our customers and potential customers. The ubiquity of the Internet and social media has not only changed the way we live our lives, but the way we do business. Gone are the days of completely controlling your own brand. You must be willing to cede some portion of that to the crowd.

Now back to these restaurants that won’t allow their patrons to take pictures of their food. I understand the frustration. My cell phone picture of something the chef loving prepared and slaved over won’t do it justice. It will pale in comparison to something taken by a professional photographer with proper lighting. In fact, my picture posted on Facebook or Instagram might even make it look downright unappetizing. I get that. But…

Yes, but.

Why am I taking a picture of the food? Because I’m a happy customer who wants to show the world what you have prepared for me. I want to tell the world that, yes, I am eating at YOUR restaurant, and the food looks and tastes amazing.

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That’s called word of mouth, otherwise known as your best friend.

I also understand from the article that my taking a picture of my food might be an annoyance to the other customers. Perhaps, but doubtful. Most picture takers are going to be fairly discrete, and remember: picture taking of food has become the cultural norm. Boorish behavior in restaurants is related to the particular customer, not the fact that they are taking pictures. It has existed since the dawn of restaurants. Don’t throw the Instagram baby out with the bathwater.

In the end, it’s about control. Yes, it is your restaurant. Yes, you can dictate most of what goes on there. But should you?

As my friend Liz Jostes noted on Facebook:

Anyone who is that eager to share a photo of food with their network will be even more eager to let everyone in their network know that that restaurant said NO. Brands dream about customers doing exactly what these restaurant patrons are doing: promoting their brand for them. The missed opportunities of having a bunch of brand ambassadors promoting your business themselves, coupled with the potential for very negative PR… I have a hard time getting my brain around that.

It’s akin to businesses that create Facebook pages and turn off the ability of users to comment or post on that wall. Or bloggers who won’t let readers comment. Businesses that think like that are operating out of a culture of fear.

One of the best examples of how the Internet and mobile technology have changed the way we do business is the music industry, specifically live concerts. There was a day when we were forbidden to take cameras or other recording devices into concert venues. Bands and musicians feared that bootlegged material might saturate the market and reduce their revenue. Plus there was a concern over the quality of the recordings. A band like the Grateful Dead, which actively encouraged recording and trading, was the exception.

But when everyone has a smart phone, which also allows for picture taking and recording, it’s kind of hard to police something like that. You can tell people not to bring cameras into the venue, but can you block them from bringing in a cell phone? So rather than fight it, musicians have decided to let their fans shoot and record. In fact, smart bands have embraced this technological change and actually encourage fans to take pictures and video, urging them to post them online. They understand that there is marketing value in this sort of behavior, and they want to tap into the power of their fans and word of mouth.


Yes, it is important to maintain the integrity of our brands, but we need to pick and choose our fights. We need to think the through the potential outcomes of shushing the crowd. If we gag them, it doesn’t prevent them from talking about us. On the contrary, it causes them to talk about us, but not in the way we might hope. We need to figure out how they’ll react; how they’ll respond. And yes, there might be times when preventing certain types of behavior might be the smart thing to do, but I don’t think that’s the case in this specific situation.

If your customers are eager to talk about you, let them. In fact, encourage them! I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, working on ways that one of my restaurant clients can take advantage of the many photos taken by customers and posted online. We’re going to come up with a plan to encourage this behavior, and use it to our advantage.

So go ahead: let your customers take pictures of your product. Ask them to post them online. Find ways to encourage them to talk about you and share their thoughts and pictures. The benefits will usually far outweigh any negatives.

What are your thoughts on the idea of restaurants or other businesses prohibiting photography of food or other products?

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