With more than 250 million blogs out there, and more than 3 million food blogs, it is becoming harder and harder for readers to find quality content on the internet and for bloggers to stand from the crowd. Most of them range from pretty good to downright excellent: at 2015 Saveur Blog Awards there were more than 50,000 nominations in 13 different categories. This has accompanied the rise of independent food blogging, which runs the gamut from the low-key, infrequent sharing of recipes and tips written by individuals, to larger-scale online food magazines.
But what separates blogs that end up with a few hundred readers a month to those that catapult beyond the magic threshold of 20,000 unique monthly readers, at which point they can be monetized and exert a real influence on how and what people eat?
To answer this question, Fine Dining Lovers interviewed a pair of food bloggers as quasi-random case studies. There are hundreds of thousands of food blogs out there to choose from, but we were curious to look at one that has blossomed into a large-scale magazine with hundreds of recipes researched and prepped by a team, and one that is successful but completely run by a single person.
Three French friends started 196 Flavors in 2012: the title comes from the number of countries in the world. “I had this crazy idea in my mind for a while: cook at least one recipe for every single country on this planet,” says Mike Benayoun, one of the founders. With the encouragement of friends Vera and Joanne, they began a blog, which had good early momentum because they were already active members of a recipe sharing Facebook group. They made the key decision to be bilingual, which helped, since the vast majority of the internet is in English. In the first month, they had 7500 readers, with 85% French and only 13% English. In the early days, they took photos with their phones, and things really started to happen for them when they invested in semi-pro photography material, like DSLR cameras and some lighting. Great photos are the key point of entry. Now they have around 90,000 readers per month, and have found that traffic doubles with every passing year.
“We think this is a good number for bloggers to aim at to start attracting sponsors, advertisers or just attention in general,” says Mike, though 196 Flavors has opted not to advertise or run sponsored posts. He explains that normal income for blog that is just starting (without a particularly influential position or readership) is about $2 per 1000 page views for general ads, so not exactly a full-time salary. Working out deals for sponsored posts, or developing a demonstrable influence among readers are the ways to generate a more gracious income. Mike agrees with Kelly that Pinterest is where it’s at, for food bloggers: “The main difference with Pinterest is that the time you invest for your pins to be visible is never lost. Your pins are “evergreen” content that could show up in searches months after you pinned them” Mike suggests that niche blogging is the way to go.
“More than 90% of culinary blogs out there are generalists and not very focused. The authors tend to post whatever they feel like, and a number of them also follow trends, like the star-shaped Nutella bread or the apple rose tarts. There is definitely a place for all these blogs to succeed but I would argue that it is more difficult to stand out when you are a ‘me too’ food blog, that is trying to be everything to everyone. It is not easy to get noticed when you have not found your niche yet.” He considers 196 Flavors to be niche since it has a specific mission—at least one dish from every country in the world. Regarding when to post, he suggests sticking to schedule, whatever it might be, so regular readers can look forward to the next entry and know when to expect it. After 18 months, 196 Flavors had covered their recipe world tour and since, have expanded to publish four thematically-linked recipes every few weeks. Mike tends to write shorter pieces than Kelly, at 500-1000 words, but both agree that it is “high-quality photos or videos that will attract traffic.”
If you’re just starting out, the general rules of thumb are: take high-quality photos, be active on Pinterest, post regularly at least once a week, write 500-1300 word posts, but most of all, pick a specific niche. A blog like Karismatic Life, which focuses on cooking for young children (with an Indian twist) is much more likely to find an avid readership than one which attempts to grab at existing trends and throw together a generalist approach.
Tasting Page is run by Kelly Page, who knows a thing or two about publicity, having turned to food blogging after a 15-year career in marketing for the Discovery Channel. “I had gone through a credentialed cooking and wine program while working there and started writing about food and wine on the side,” says Kelly. “The Discovery job was too demanding to have much time for side projects, so I had a life is short moment, right when they were offering me a big promotion, and I ended up quitting my job to pursue my culinary passion by moving to Paris.” Kelly spent two years there, before heading back home to LA. She wasn’t sure that a blog could be here primary income source, but thought it was worth a shot, to translate her marketing skills to the culinary world. It worked. After a few months, she was able to monetize the site, and then started to get requests to write recipes for sponsors, like KitchenAid. Cookery companies recognize the power of blogs, which often have more dedicated and loyal readers than newspapers and magazines—the feeling of a personal connection to the author, the fact that there is often a friendly dialogue in the Comments section, all this makes readers more likely to take the advice of the blogger, who is almost like a friend (which might include buying a KitchenAid Cuisinart), rather than the equally good or even better advice of columnist X at a large newspaper.
So how did Kelly get enough traffic to make a living off Tasting Page? “Pinterest is the number one source of referral traffic for food blogs,” she says. She recommends bright and enticing photographs, because people first will judge with their eyes, seeing a photo of something they’d like to eat or cook, and only then reading the story behind it, and try the recipe. “Also looking for Pinterest group boards is a way to share your work to a bigger audience. Sites like Pin Groupie allow you to search for high traffic boards within your niche.” It’s also a good idea to share the blogs of others, who may share your work in exchange to return the favor. People who enjoy reading food blogs will enjoy reading many, so there’s plenty of audience for all. As for how often to post, and how much text to include, Kelly has good advice that is echoed elsewhere: “2-3 times a week is a decent rule of thumb, and I’ve heard that a 7 minute read is ideal, which comes in around 1600 words.” That’s actually on the long side (most online articles are half that length), but if you want to provide a story, not just a recipe and photo—and the stories are what keep people coming back for more—then you can try the long-read format.