Online Food Communities: Joining the Conversation

The role of online communities is a strong and often underappreciated driver behind the growth of smaller food brands. Online communities deserve the attention of any company producing food products that are close to the consumer from a value-chain point of view. In this RaboResearch report, we describe what an online community is, what its benefits are, and how food companies can get involved.

people taking picture of food on the table

Report summary

Consumers have changed dramatically in the past few years, and so have their preferences for food and food brands. They have become much more interested in what food brings to the table: not only does it need to be healthy and nutritious, food also has to be an experience as well as a statement about who consumers are and what they stand for. Consumers care about where food comes from and whether ingredients are sourced sustainably. 

Changing consumer preferences cause a shift towards newer, more innovative, and smaller brands, at the expense of big food. There are many reasons behind (and much has been written about) the rise of smaller brands, but Rabobank believes that the role of online communities is often overlooked and is crucial to companies in or near the food retail and food service space. 

E-commerce has already wreaked havoc in traditional retail and the same is now happening in food, with meal delivery and grocery delivery companies showing spectacular growth rates. What’s tricky for food companies is that the discussion about food and food’s properties has moved online as well. Today, the biggest influencers are digital advertising (to a degree) but especially the online neighbours: other consumers online. These new neighbours leave reviews on products and services, engage in conversations about food and health, and follow bloggers, vloggers, and experts—with or without actual expertise. 

Online communities are where online neighbours meet. They’re virtual communities whose members share common interests and values and interact with each other primarily via the internet. A community may be built around a brand, a common interest, or a shared set of values. An online community is more than just a social media group (like Facebook), a blog, or an informative website. For a space to be considered a community, its members need to have a relationship with one another.

Traditional brand websites versus online communities

Websites vs community_source

Consumers become involved in these communities for different reasons, such as their educational, social, or entertainment value. For companies, online communities can bring them all sorts of benefits, ranging from a direct communication channel or a great place to test new ideas to direct rewards such as an alternative source of income or heaps of consumer data. 

Food companies looking to get involved should take heed. Starting your own community is possible, but certainly not straightforward or without risk. To get in on this new way of customer interaction, brands can partner up with an established community or buy an existing platform.