Clerkenwell Boy’s alluring food photographs have earned him thousands of followers keen to discover the dishes he snaps. Emma Lake asks the anonymous influencer how to engage an audience and promote your business, and experts explain what to do when it all goes wrong
Under the cover of anonymity, social media sensation Clerkenwell Boy has spent more than five years scouring the capital in search of beautiful pastry, the perfect pie or a great jam. The food lover documents his travels in carefully curated and artfully shot photographs that have earned him a legion of almost 200,000 social media followers.
His images of doughnuts bursting with custard, plump dumplings clutched in chopsticks or oozing scotch eggs are a starting pistol for hoards of hungry diners to sprint through London’s streets, so The Caterer caught up with him in one of his favourite haunts, St John in Spitalfields, London, to find out how to convert followers to footfall.
He says: “The key ingredients are passion and consistency in the way you promote that. You can have someone solely focus on social media, but it has to have an authentic voice.”
He advises businesses to develop a social media style and to stick to it. It’s OK to “mix it up a bit, but have an ethos and a brand”. He stresses the importance of focusing on a unique selling point and emphasising strengths.
He explains: “Create a niche – some chefs are great at pastry, and if that’s the case, show off your pastry, show off that dish everybody will be talking about, then people know you have to order the doughnuts or the fish with the amazing batter. Help people curate not just where to go but what to order too. Sometimes you get so overwhelmed by the menu it is nice to look through someone’s feed and be inspired.”
The pictures that have gained Clerkenwell Boy such a following are choreographed at a restaurant table or on the street outside and taken using a smartphone camera, something he says anyone can do.
He explains: “I use a Google Pixel, sometimes a Samsung. The cameras on smartphones are amazing – you just need to make sure you have really good natural daylight, but not direct sunlight, and a table by the window. Keep it really simple, not too over-stylised. You want to showcase the simplicity of the ingredients or share a photo of the environment, or a texture showing where you are; maybe some beautiful handwriting on a board.”
He suggests tailoring your posts to the day of the week or the time of day, bearing in mind what will appeal to your audience, such as focusing on healthier options on a Monday, a cocktail on a Thursday, brunch on a Saturday or roasts on a Sunday. The social media star also advises inviting followers behind the scenes and sharing posts about suppliers or what’s happening in the kitchen. The invitation can extend to engaging with followers directly about developments in the kitchen, such as asking what flavours they prefer. He says: “I think of the pictures as pages in a magazine – you want to be able to tell a story in a way that is natural and not forced.”
Clerkenwell Boy similarly believes that it is his passion and love for food that has made his social media feeds a must-read for the capital’s foodies. He says: “Initially, I was just sharing with friends and family – I don’t really know why people started to follow me. I love food, I love to experience things, I love travel, but I also like to go back to my favourite places. I like to visit a new place or a pop-up once a week, just to be in the flow of information, but increasingly a lot of my posts are about places I go back to time and time again, or something I have cooked at home. It’s a mixture of all of those things, and hopefully that’s what resonates with the people who follow me because I think that’s how most people live. We want to discover new things, but we also want to go back to our favourite places.”
Clerkenwell Boy has come a long way from posting updates for his family in Australia. Years have passed since his posts gained the attention of celebrity chefs, including Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver, which, when combined with features by the likes of Time Out and the Evening Standard saw both his list of followers and level of influence skyrocket.
He has since been named in The Daily Telegraph’s Food Power List and the Evening Standard’s Progress 1,000 list of London’s most influential people, as well as being invited to advise everyone from start-ups to luxury brands. He has also co-founded the #CookForSyria charity campaign, which has gained the support of some of the country’s best-known chefs.
The social media star, who also has a full-time day job, shares his breakfasts, brunches, lunches, snacks, dinners and late-night drinks through Instagram and Twitter. He does not have a blog or website and says the alter-ego that made him a household name remains a hobby.
His posts are always positive and although he acknowledges he often eats meals he doesn’t enjoy, feedback is offered discreetly. He says: “Critics do a great job – they are there to tell you where to eat or where not to eat. For me, I just like to put a spotlight on my favourite places.
I have had a lot of meals that are not great, but they won’t feature on my feed. I want to champion businesses rather than be negative.” Clerkenwell Boy repeatedly emphasises his desire to celebrate London’s diverse food scene and he is as likely to post a picture of a beautiful vegetable found at a local greengrocer as he is a Michelin-starred meal.
“I want what I post to be as accessible as possible, such as to where to go for a Sunday roast, or a great brunch, a romantic date night or a cheap lunch – it’s nice to be able to highlight all those things,” he says. “Simple things, like where to get the best custard tart, or where to find amazing blood oranges or a sausage roll – it’s showcasing different places around London that people can explore in their own way.”
Clerkenwell Boy’s followers – 173,000 on Instagram and 19,600 on Twitter – pay close attention to his travels and often follow in his footsteps.
From brand to business
Clerkenwell Boy will continue to surreptitiously snap away at that table by the window, although he has a lot more on his plate these days. As well as his day job he uses his expertise and passion for the London food scene to advise young start-ups about how to get their foot in the door as well as suggesting collaborations and brand possibilities for established names. On top of this he has co-founded the #CookForSyria charity campaign, which has raised about £500,000 for Unicef’s Children of Syria Fund.
The campaign has seen more than 100 restaurants and cafés develop a Syrian-inspired dish to add to their menu, with the profits from the dishes donated. As well as this, supper clubs have been hosted for the cause around the world and the publication of a Cook For Syria cookbook, which features recipes by chefs including Angela Hartnett, Yotam Ottolenghi and Fergus Henderson, is soon to be followed by a Bake for Syria cookbook.
Clerkenwell Boy may not have set out to be a social media sensation but he has managed to harness platforms and use his passion to engage thousands of people, even motivating them to support the causes he campaigns for, and all through mouthwatering pictures of his favourite food.
How Pho gets it customers to share content
Vietnamese restaurant chain Pho was crowned the winner of the 2017 Catey for Best Marketing Campaign and is well-known for its quirky and engaging use of social media.
Libby Andrews, head of marketing for Pho, says: “We create the content inside the restaurant. We do all the social media and the ideas are created in the moment as we visit sites.
“We do not do anything that’s too corporate, we make sure pictures are taken with an iPhone, not a professional camera, and the caption is something we would hear ourselves saying to each other and our customers.”
She stresses the importance of keeping the tone consistent, adding: “In a perfect world it would be great to have people inside the restaurant posting stuff; in reality, it would just be a mess of tone, voice and content.”
The brand’s latest campaign, #eatmorepho, asked followers to post about why they love the restaurants’ food with a lifetime of free Pho on offer.
Andrews says: “We encouraged people to send in artwork or poems or raps, whatever it may be, to explain why they love Pho and why they should be the one to have the free Pho for life. I always try to get our customers to join in on the hashtag – #eatmorepho – because then it’s not just us sharing the content out, it’s our customers who then become brand ambassadors.”
An earlier campaign had sought to subvert the usual Christmas offering by pitching Pho as the perfect cure for festive hangovers. The result was a like-for-like increase in December sales of 11.4%.
Andrews says: “Social media is great for awareness but it’s one element out of the ways we talk to our customers and increase sales. With the Christmas campaign we had media coverage, social media coverage, we partnered with Uber Eats, which was obviously a massive database of people, we did A-board posters and we created a print menu. The social media was fun and viral and got people talking, but it was one element.”
Influence the influencers
Social media influencers are increasingly being used by brands to reach new audiences and Sara McCorquodale has developed a platform to foster mutually beneficial pairings.
McCorquodale, a journalist and digital consultant, founded Corq in 2017 and outlined the potential benefits of working with influencers.
She says: “What an influencer can bring is a youth audience that you may have not tapped into through your own marketing or print activity and they can bring context, which is important for any brand.”
She continues: “Coming from the lens of a human being is always more relatable and there’s an authenticity there that a brand does not always have.”
Hiring an influencer can cost anything from a few hundred pounds to several thousand and McCorquodale stresses the importance of finding someone who shares the ethos of your brand.
She says: “You want to make sure their association with you is not going to damage your brand. You really want to make sure there’s a connection there that would exist whether or not they had all these followers.
I would invite them to meet you first; if they are interested, they will come.”It is important to ensure that an influencer’s previous posts or collaborations are not in contradiction with your brand.
McCorquodale explains: “If you’re a brand you want to think what the tone of voice of that brand would be, and when you arrive at that, look for an influencer who is already doing that. It’s about feeling comfortable with someone’s style of writing; how someone speaks to their audience.”
It is also important to ensure the influencer’s followers reflect your target market. Several million followers may look more attractive than several thousand, but if a niche influencer has a small but dedicated audience who would be attracted to your product, the reach could be far more beneficial.
When social media goes wrong
Social media can be a fantastic tool, but one misguided comment can see storm clouds quickly gather, as two restaurants in Shropshire discovered last month.
In January, Russ Cockburn of Cucumber PR received a call from the owners of Carlini restaurants in Shifnal and Albrighton asking for his help after comments made to a closed Facebook group by co-owner and head chef Laura Goodman hit the national press.
Cockburn, who had offered support during the launch of the restaurant close to his home, describes “landing in the middle of a storm” as the comment, in which Goodman said she had “spiked a vegan” was reported across the country.
Cockburn, whose daughter is a vegan, says he grilled Goodman for an hour, only agreeing to help after he was convinced that no dishes had been “spiked”, and that her comments had been made in frustration after a vegan and vegetarian party chose to eat from the standard offering rather than a specially prepared menu.
Cockburn explained to Goodman and her partner and Carlini co-owner Michael Gale that “there was zero chance of it blowing over”, and convinced Gale to speak to a news agency and local reporters.
As reports gained momentum, the restaurant’s social media feeds were inundated with angry comments, fake reviews were left on Google and TripAdvisor, and Goodman even received death threats.
But over the course of the week, as Gale’s clarification was reported along with details of the threats received, the local community began to rally around, filling the restaurant for the two weeks following its reopening.
Goodman resigned following the reports and Gale has since also chosen to leave the business, which continues to operate under the ownership of their investor.
In the weeks since the uproar, meetings have been held with the Vegan Society and the restaurant is working on a series of vegan dishes to add to the menu, as well as planning a vegan event.
Cockburn explains: “While we can’t go back, what we can try to do now is turn it round and make a positive of it. I don’t think the restaurant will ever be overly reliant on vegans because where we are in a village and our local custom. What we want to do is give people that choice.”
He continues: “They will be rebranding. It will still be called Carlini, but there will be a new brand. It’s almost to put a line in the sand and to say OK, this is unfortunately what happened, but this is us going forward.”
The PR expert said that TripAdvisor had been “fantastic”, vetting all posts relating to the restaurant while preserving comments made previously, but Facebook has refused to remove a fake page set up for the restaurant, which has posted spoof offers and graphic images.
Cockburn adds: “The social media element has got to be important, but at this time they’re trying to focus on making sure everything is sorted, the restaurant is right and the branding is done. There’s a new website to be launched, then we will look again at social media. It will be restaurant managers that post and they will be trained. There’s a social media protocol in place now for staff members and measures have been taken to ensure nothing like this happens again.”
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