What started as a group of friends helping each other learn to cook at university (‘we made it simple enough to fit on the back of a beer mat’) has grown into SORTEDfood, a ‘social media movement’ dedicated to cooking.
SORTEDfood now has almost 3m YouTube followers, 270k Instagram followers, 180k Twitter followers and a paid membership option that has grown over 300% in the last year.
“SORTED started as that conversation. How can we improve our own food lives? At some point it felt like a fun idea to film ourselves and put them onto YouTube. That’s where it started to catch on,” co-founder and head of comms and partnerships, Jamie Spafford, reflected.
“That was 11 years ago. Nothing much has changed, except it has continued to grow. The community is now over 3m strong around the world. It has become one of the largest and most engaged food conversations on the internet.”
Listening to the community
SORTEDfood’s content is shaped by this diverse community, fellow co-founder and chef Ben Ebbrell explained.
“We started creating content for students when we were students. As we’ve grown up our audience have matured with us, but there is still a skew to younger [people] and all sorts of different lifestyles and budget restraints,” he told us.
“The community always shaped our development – we know there is an audience for our content because the audience have asked for it and helped shape it. We very quickly realised we sat at the heart of probably one of the most dynamic and interesting and inclusive food communities across the world. It was less about the four of us you see on screen, the 20 of us that work in the studio, all of a sudden we had millions of people contributing.”
This dynamic has proven an interesting one for SORTED’s brand partners, which have included the likes of KraftHeinz and BASF.
“Typically, winding back the clock a few years, working with brand partners on content was a way of taking key messaging that they wanted to share, us wrapping it up into entertaining and inspiring narratives… and then sharing that with our audience. The more we did that, the more we realised everything the community were talking about, the brand was really interested in.
“The industry works to data, which is historically in the past. This was a live conversation. You could find out exactly what people wanted right now… It became this cyclical way of working in partnership,” Ebbrell said.
This facilitated a shift away from traditional marketing and key messaging and towards a discourse between brands and the audience. In this context, social listening is important – but Ebbrell stressed it isn’t all about the data.
“We use a lot of social media tools, polls, questionnaires, Word Cloud data. But we also work on the qualitative level. Conversations that happen. We are always amazed at the time people put into responding to the questions we put up, sharing their opinions. There is a vibe towards the insights and opinions and motivations of this demographic, what they believe in and understand about food.”
Three issues shaping food attitude
So, how has the conversation evolved over the past decade? The social influencers note that the shift has been ‘threefold’.
“One is skills and developing a level of understanding about food. When we started the whole point was you don’t need to know how to cook, trust us we’ll get you through this. Now that demographic continues but at the same time you have people who are much more savvy. Foodie used to be a niche but now everyone is a foodie, everyone has opinions on food,” we were told.
The second ‘big’ change is how people approach food and nutrition. Ebbrell – the chef of the group – said this is particularly noticeable when it comes to people’s attitude to plant-based recipes. “When we started, we would very occasionally, very hesitantly use the ‘v’ word. And I’m talking about vegetarian let alone veganism. We knew that would put off such a huge swathe of our audience ten years ago. Now that’s a huge driver of what we are doing. How can we be more plant-based? How can we be more understanding of animal welfare and animal husbandry? That wave around meat consumption and nutrition – understanding that balance is everything.”
Nevertheless, he continued, his audience isn’t laser focused on healthy foods and there is still an appetite for indulgence. “A lot of our audience love seeing the sweet stuff, the naughty stuff, the fast food… That’s cool too because that’s part of what food is. Food is pleasure and we can allow it to be that. Those conversations we have very openly and transparently on the channel now whereas I think 8-10 years ago we’d have tip toed around those.”
A final shift is a significant increase in the discourse around sustainability and a rising interest in where food comes from and how it is produced. “Sustainability is one of the things we have learnt more about – where does it come from and what effect does it have past what I am purchasing – from a personal perspective that’s definitely grown. But it has been very much prompted by the community telling us that’s a conversation they want to be having,” Spafford told FoodNavigator.
This topic is one that SORTEDfood’s brand partner – and ag business giant – BASF is particularly keen to gauge the direction of travel on, Ebbrell added.
“We work with BASF to understand more about where our food comes from. So often a lot of conversations stem around the very top level organic, premium range – but the majority of the population eat food that comes through a largescale agriculture movement.
“BASF are interested to know what our audience think about those buzzwords ‘sustainability’, ‘ responsible’, and some of the words that people shy away from like ‘pesticides’. What does that mean? What is smart farming, what is precision farming? They want to understand what the audience already know and feel about it and maybe we can start to shift behaviour based on new technology and new information that’s available.”
If these are the big-picture issues informing how people tick when it comes to food choices, how is this playing out in terms of current trends?
Ebbrell responded: “Fermentation is still massive, it has been for the last couple of years. Some of those habits that started during lockdown – half of them have fallen by the wayside because people are getting back into their normal routines, and half of them have become the normal routine. People want to do more with fermentation – the home brews, kombuchas, sourkraut, kimchi.”
He also sees people becoming more adventurous in their cooking and eating choices. “There is a hunger for travel – we haven’t been able to do it much recently. People want to travel the world from their kitchen. Exploding cuisines they may not have even heard of before. How can we learn something new every time?”
Building on the audience insight it benefits from, SORTEDfood launched a subscription-based meal packs app in 2020, which serves up recipe inspiration to members.
Spafford explained: “We now find different ways to help people improve their lives around food, whether it is providing them with the practical tools such as our meal packs app, which will help people create incredible dinners with a small budgets, with no time at all in the kitchen [while] reducing food waste – or through entertaining, inspirational, aspirational videos.”