- According to a National Coffee Association survey, 63% of people use social media to learn about new coffee brands
- As the sector has grown, roasters have changed their focus from social media to other forms of D2C marketing
- This direct communication has its benefits, but does it come at the expense of a sense of community?
IT’S DIFFICULT to imagine a time before social media. Specialty coffee roasters used to rely heavily on word of mouth to promote their brand, and direct mail and email campaigns were used with far less sophistication than today.
Since the late 2000s, social media has unequivocally become the primary method roasters use to communicate with their audiences.
During that time, Instagram has arguably been the most valuable platform for many specialty coffee roasters. Its focus on image and video allowed brands to showcase a particular aesthetic and sense of culture, as well as helping customers engage in the “beautiful” elements of coffee – like latte art and pour over brewing, for instance.
More widely, social media has also been essential in elevating the reputation of specialty coffee and increasing the size of the community around it. A research from 2023 even acknowledges the inextricable link between the popularity of specialty coffee businesses and their “Instagrammable” qualities.
The evolution of social media
“More roasters and coffee businesses than ever have started marketing on social media, taking on more of an active presence and running catchy paid ads,” says Katie Burnett, creative director of Bluebird Coffee Roastery.
“At the same time, consumers are becoming more educated and not being seduced by buzzwords as much as before. ‘Fair trade’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘exclusive’, even the word ‘specialty’ has become diluted to the point of near-meaninglessness.”
In more recent years, other platforms (namely TikTok) have changed the landscape for all social media – and how consumers interact with them.
This can be seen in the rise of the short-form video, where businesses now have seconds to grab their audience’s attention – in comparison to longer-form video content, which was dominant less than a decade ago.
In the coffee industry, for example, content creators like James Hoffmann are increasingly pivoting to meet this shift. Many are now “cropping” sections from their long-form videos to make them suitable for Tiktok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts.
Ultimately – all this means that how coffee roasters can communicate to their audience has changed, as the audience’s behaviour has diverged. This may form part of the reason why many coffee roasters are embracing other means of direct-to-consumer (D2C) communication.
Newsletters and email marketing
In recent years, more and more roasters and coffee brands have turned to email marketing as a method of directly engaging with consumers.
This is representative of wider change in digital marketing in general. For example, Mailchimp, one of the world’s most popular newsletter platforms, went from being a part-time project in 2006 to being acquired for $12 billion in 2021, with more than 14 million paying users.
“[Newsletters] allow for longer format content to be shared and ensure it is shared to an audience who is actually interested,” says Katie. “It’s proven to be a much more effective and successful way to convert fans or followers into customers.”
“There’s an obvious, rudimentary advantage to email communication and blogging on your website because there is a direct link to your store, creating the path of least resistance for your customer,” says Katie.
Newsletter marketing has also proven effective for specialty coffee roasters who want to share more detailed information such as coffee origin stories, brewing tips, and product updates – content which would have been ripe for social media a few years ago.
Beyond this, a focus on email marketing also reflects the consolidation of the coffee industry. Social media was a perfect platform for the sense of community which characterised the early days of specialty coffee.
Fast forward a decade, however, and it becomes clear that email marketing is a far more commercial technique geared towards converting engaged coffee consumers. In other words – the widespread adoption of newsletter marketing reflects the wider commercialisation of specialty coffee.
Katie adds that newsletters are also a more effective way to share longer-form educational content – something many smaller roasters are still passionate about.
“Not too long ago, your local specialty roastery or café was home to snobby baristas and drinks you couldn’t pronounce, so I think there’s been a massive surge towards openness and education,” Katie says.
While this in-depth information was previously shared through social media, these platforms became less suitable for such detailed content as users’ attention spans diminished and roasters and coffee brands no longer had the space to convey their message effectively.
This may well have been the catalysing factor for more educational content to switch from social media to longer-form channels.
Sense of community
This isn’t to say that social media is set to play a lesser role for coffee brands, however; on the contrary, a strong social media presence is now considered a requirement – a mark of genuine legitimacy – rather than a differentiating factor. It will categorically continue to play a vital role in reaching younger audiences.
Having said that, how social media functions as part of a coffee roaster’s communication strategy is changing. Platforms such as Instagram historically offered a means to facilitate engagement with audiences and foster a sense of community – but the dynamic is shifting.
“The conversation is still happening, but it is slowly moving off of social media as Instagram posts become broadcast messages rather than conversation-starters,” Katie says. “There is definitely still a strong sense of community, but it isn’t happening publicly on social media anymore.”
This transition in how specialty coffee roasters communicate may be a result of how much the sector has grown. Generating conversation and offering personalised content to specialty coffee’s audience ten years ago was at least somewhat achievable; today, there are simply too many people to accommodate in this way.
“I don’t think this necessarily means a loss of community, it just means the industry is growing out of only existing for the inner circle: the audience is bigger now, and it’s becoming impossible to engage with every customer like a friend,” she says.
“Perhaps there’s a loss of intimacy, but I think that the sense of community is alive and well as the industry grows. On the final consumer level, the specialty coffee industry remains an environment of friends and open conversation.”
Ultimately, the customer base that coffee roasters were engaging with a decade ago has grown – and as it has grown, their focus has changed. In the early 2010s, the specialty coffee community was tight-knit – now, it is becoming more commercialised with every passing day. So, as the sector consolidates and social media changes, it only makes sense that roasters’ communication does, too.
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