Beef industry social media analysis – January-March 2010
Posts related to nutrition and recipes drove the greatest volume of conversation during the January- March 2010 monitoring period. The most popular discussions centered around New Year's diet resolutions and meals centered around holidays, including Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day.
During the first quarter of 2010, antibiotic use in beef and livestock production became even more popular than in previous monitoring periods, as several high-profile mainstream media stories drove discussion about whether antibiotic use in food animals causes antibiotic resistance or health problems in humans.
"Clearing the Air," a study by Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D. and associate professor of Animal Science at University of California, Davis, was introduced in traditional media and trickled through into the social media space. The findings of "Clearing the Air" challenged conclusions put forward in the United Nations (UN) report "Livestock’s Long Shadow."
The volume of social media coverage pertaining to the beef industry's specialized search terms from Jan. 1-March 31, 2010 totaled 176,447 posts. This number represented an increase of 10,509 posts compared to the prior monitoring period (Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2009), or a 6.3 percent change.
In January 2010, several new keywords were added to the report, some of which have since been removed. The additions drove a slight increase in the overall volume and could be partially responsible for the continued increase in the number of posts from quarter to quarter.
Background and Methods
The Internet – specifically social media – is changing the lives of consumers in many ways. It is influencing where consumers get news and who they trust. Consumers looking for information on myriad topics will often inquire with social media sources, because they consider social media authentic and reliable from like-minded people. According to a study published in January 2010 by Nielsen, the amount of time Americans spent participating in social networks and reading blogs increased 210 percent and the average time per person grew by 143 percent year-over-year in December 2009. Furthermore, when a single blog can have a hundred thousand followers, average people can influence others in a way never before possible.
Conversation about beef on blogs and other social media outlets has exploded, making social media monitoring a key component of the beef industry's Checkoff-funded issues management program. The following report examines social media coverage of beef and the beef industry as compiled using a special tool called Radian6.
Radian6 is a Web-based program than scans more than 100 million websites, as well as other sources such as comments, photos, forums, public Facebook groups and videos. The data collected from Radian6 is reviewed and analyzed on a daily basis, which helps the team anticipate issues and shape national and state-level response to critical misinformation on a variety of topics. The monitoring data also guides proactive engagement and relationship-building online.
The issues management program commissions this analysis to track and respond to beef and beef industry social media coverage and identify proactive opportunities in the following issue areas: nutrition, beef safety, modern beef production, environment and sustainability, animal care and recipes.
A single post can address more than one issue, but it is always assigned to only one main category.
Social media coverage pertaining to the beef industry's specialized search terms from Jan. 1-March 31, 2010 consisted of 176,447 posts. Figure 1 below demonstrates the prevalence of posts in each issue area.
When compared, Figures 1 and 2 offer a direct comparison of the coverage volume in each issue area between the fourth quarter 2009 coverage and the most recent 2010 time period. The 6.3 percent increase in overall volume is largely a result of keyword changes made in early January 2010 and the constant growth of the social media network and increase in the number of users participating. However, the current volume also represents the continuation of a major increase in volume seen last quarter. When comparing the relative volume of the categories against each other, all remained consistent with the previous monitoring period.
Social media conversations about nutrition in January, February and March 2010 totaled 89,129 posts, an increase of more than 21,198 posts from October through December 2009, or an increase of 31.2 percent. Quarter after quarter, the majority of discussions in the nutrition category cover the role lean beef plays in losing weight, why beef may aggravate symptoms of chronic medical conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and gout and the suggested reasons that consuming beef can cause cancer. These discussions remained consistent in the first quarter of 2010; several sub-issues continue to drive discussion and most often the topics were relatively neutral in nature, providing little new information on the role beef plays in nutrition.
One of the more popular topics in this quarter was the idea of going meat-free for health benefits. Discussion kicked off immediately in January 2010 with the advent of New Year's resolutions to lose weight. While some bloggers suggested that lean protein should be incorporated into a healthy diet, others mentioned they would try to remove red meat from their diet to increase consumption of vegetables and help remove junk food from their diets. The Taco Bell diet, supported through a major advertising campaign by the restaurant, was also a minor topic of interest in the New Year. Some menu items made with beef were included as healthier options on the Taco Bell menu.
The new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) MyPyramid
nutrition guidelines were closely monitored during the first quarter of 2010; these posts were almost always neutral in nature and referenced the MyPyramid
in terms of how it might help consumers lose weight or live a healthier lifestyle.
The most prominent conversations in the nutrition category were posts about Meat Free Mondays as well as Michigan Meatout Day, proclaimed in March by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Debate over the removal of meat from Americans' diets was highly divisive and generated significant conversation among social media users. Michigan's Meat Out Day gained significant volume thanks to backlash from many agriculture industry members who came together to proclaim Michigan Meat Out Day as "National Ag Day." They asked consumers to eat a steak instead of forgoing meat. Figure 4 showcases the influence this backlash had upon overall conversation volume.
Trending for the nutrition category moving into the second quarter of 2010 will rely heavily upon mainstream news, as few stories gain traction in the social media space unless they are first announced in top-tier news outlets or coincide with major holidays, observances or events. The nutrition volume may continue to increase, however, as a surge of pre-summer diets and consumer commitments to become healthier in time for swimsuit season will likely include comments about beef 's role as part of a healthy diet.
During the January-March 2010 monitoring period, conversations about beef safety and foodborne illness appeared frequently in the social media space when compared to other categories. However, compared to October-December 2009 reporting, the volume of conversations about beef safety declined by 4 percent, which is similar to typical conversation volume for this issue area. In December-January 2009 reporting, high-profile articles in The New York Times
and USA Today
, as well as newly introduced legislation requiring companies to test beef trimmings for E. coli
, generated increased consumer attention. In the first quarter of 2010, beef safety conversations declined and straightforward news of beef recalls drove the bulk of conversation volume, as is more typical for this category.
Huntington Meat Packing Inc., based in Montebello, Calif., recalled a total of nearly 6 million pounds of beef and veal products as part of two separate announcements in Figure 3: Trends in Coverage - Backlash to Michigan Meatout Day vs. Meat Free Mondays January. This recall drove more than 407 conversations in the beef safety category; most were simply repostings of the announcement and little consumer chatter resulted. Another recall by Basic Food Flavors of Reno, Nev. issued during March 2010, drove a second major spike in chatter – more than 505 posts – during the monitoring period. However, it was short-lived and like the Huntington Meat Packing recall, generated little conversation among consumers.
Highlighting the difference between fourth quarter 2009 coverage and that seen in the first quarter of 2010, caused by the shift in beef safety conversations, Figure 4 illustrates that the volume of posts October-December 2009 peaked at more than 1,179 thanks to mainstream news articles that drove holistic chatter and tugged at consumer emotions, whereas the volume of posts in the first quarter of 2010 only peaked at 428 as a result of straightforward recalls.
Looking forward, there will likely be continued coverage of E. coli
related news items, as prominent journalist Michael Moss, USA Today
and other highprofile media have not issued any major followup articles on the state of the beef industry's movement on safety issues. As the spring season begins, attention around seasonal beef recalls may increase slightly, but should not add significant conversation volume to the category.
Conversations falling into the animal care category saw the least attention during the first quarter of 2010, but still increased by approximately 1,434 posts. Most discussed ways consumers could support legislation and change habits or purchase behaviors to advocate more humane treatment of animals, especially livestock.
A February HBO movie premiere and April DVD release of the film "Temple Grandin," based on the life and achievements of prominent educator and activist, was a popular topic among conversations in the animal care category during the first quarter of 2010. Such posts discussed her contributions to the livestock industry as an animal behaviorist and designer of animal handling facilities. Nearly all were positive and drew commendation from both sides of the aisle. For example, a post on Beefmagazine.com notes "the beef industry is front and center in this production, [but] the focus of the story is the truly remarkable and inspiring story of how Grandin was able to overcome her handicap to become the world-renowned figure she is today." In addition, a post that appeared on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (PETA) blog said the organization "admire[s] her work in the field of humane animal slaughter."
Another key issue in the animal care category centered on the meaning of purchasing grass-finished beef. Many bloggers claimed that buying grass-finished instead of conventionally raised beef is a way to show disdain for the practice of factory farming, where animals may be mistreated. For example, a blog post on Care2.com, an online resource for consumers interested in getting involved with issues like animal welfare, global warming and human rights, suggests that conventionally raised cattle undergo "stress and abuse." The post indicated that by choosing grass-finished beef, one can "protest" against factory farming.
In the coming months, peaks in conversation in the animal care category will likely result from any significant news, as is noted above, supported or distributed by activist groups like PETA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Modern Beef Production
During the first quarter of 2010, issues related to modern beef production increased by 1,143 posts. A review of relevant conversation topics during the monitoring period finds that as reported last quarter, the use of antibiotics in livestock production spurred a majority of the discussion volume.
Examples of items that drew attention to the antibiotics issue included several highprofile mainstream media stories. Specifically, the debate about whether antibiotics should be used in livestock production was featured in a heavily promoted two-part special segment on CBS's "Evening News with Katie Couric." More than 147 posts mentioned the broadcast segment and consequently helped bring the debate into the social media space. Generally speaking, influential consumer blogs like Chow.com (2.3 million visitors per month) and The Huffington Post (22.7 million visitors per month) criticized the use of antibiotics in livestock production. On the other hand, beef industry bloggers and Scott Hurd, long-time veterinarian and former Deputy Undersecretary Food Safety at USDA, adamantly supported antibiotic use to keep animals and humans free of disease and infection.
As the year progresses, we expect this issue will continue to drive significant debate in the social media space, especially if legislation in Congress advances to a point of Congressional hearings and/or votes.
Environment and Sustainability
The environment and sustainability category saw a moderate jump in conversation volume during the months of January through March 2010. The volume increased by 3,393 postings, or more than 12.8 percent, as compared to fourth quarter 2009 monitoring.
Many positive conversations emerged in this category during the January-March 2010 timeframe to help refute negative myths about the beef industry's role in harming the environment. Most notably was the dissemination of "Clearing the Air," a study by Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., and associate professor of Animal Science at University of California, Davis. Its findings, which introduced strong evidence to refute the United Nations' (UN) report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," were published on top blogs from the world's largest media outlets, including TIME.com and TheGuardian.com (UK). The data included in "Clearing the Air" was so compelling that UN representatives noted they would review the figures included in "Livestock's Long Shadow" and investigate further to establish a more accurate number to quantify the impact livestock may have on the environment. The blogosphere, especially "green" bloggers, were very interested in this news – nicknamed "Cowgate" – as they had been previously citing the disputed findings from the UN. For example, Mother Nature Network (MNN.com), a leading outlet in the blogosphere covering sustainability issues, posted an Associated Press article covering Mitloehner's study.
Another positive series of conversations in January-March 2010 coverage was a study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and released by Cranfield University (United Kingdom), which found that many meat substitutes require a large amount of energy to produce and may be even more harmful to the environment than meat production. Many social media users accepted this news as evidence that the idea of consumers "going green" via veganism or vegetarianism is a myth. For example, GreenLAGirl.com (12,500 visitors per month) writes that "vegans are not always greener than locavoring omnivores."
Interest in the role that food plays in environment and sustainability is on the rise among consumers and media. The volume of posts debating the issue is likely to increase steadily. In particular, coverage surrounding the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, (April 22) will fall within the next reporting period and we expect a drastic uptick in postings about livestock and the environment.
The recipes category was a moderately prominent issue area for coverage volume during the fourth quarter of 2010; there were 23,551 posts from January-March 2010.
Due to holidays that fell during the first quarter of 2010, a large amount of coverage centered on beef recipes to use when entertaining family and friends. Most were neutral or positive in nature, citing beef as a great option for a romantic Valentine's Day dinner, or, discussing corned beef meals to celebrate St. Patrick's Day and one's Irish heritage.
The beef industry's "I Heart Beef " campaign was another item closely monitored during first quarter of 2010. Conversations about the campaign were included in several posts each day for the duration of the campaign. Such discussions were extremely positive in nature and driven largely by the Omaha Steak giveaway hosted by several bloggers as part of the campaign. For example, Chefdruck Musings, a popular blog written by a mom, writer and admitted foodie, hosted a giveaway and asked her followers to send in their favorite beef recipes and memories of beef dinners. More than 360 users posted positive responses about the giveaway to provide their favorite memories and recipes.
According to the 2010 report by Nielsen approximately 300 million users are now participating in discussions online, doing so more often on social media networks and blogs than any other forms of engagement and interaction. It is critical for the beef industry to track and communicate with this audience to continue to dissolve misconceptions and combat negative news about beef.
The biggest issues for the January-March 2010 period included the role beef plays in weight loss and nutrition, increased buzz about the use of antibiotics in food animals and the ongoing debate about whether beef production negatively impacts climate change. Each topic experienced sustained debate and analysis among social media users. This is something that, especially for the arguments around antibiotics and the environment, will likely continue into second quarter 2010 conversations and beyond.
Overall, it is recommended that the beef industry continue to proactively engage itself in the social media space, as well as monitor and manage issues to ensure consumers receive timely and effective responses to myths and negative stories about the beef industry at large.