So You Want to be a Successful Food Blogger? Here’s How.

by Sarah Henry on May 23, 2011 · 41 comments

in bay area bites,food events,food flotsam & jetsam

Now that I have your attention, let me start by saying that “success” in food blogging terms can be measured in many ways.

Some see success in terms of traffic in the millions, others in an audience of two. (Hi mom, thanks for finding my “blob.” True story over at Rabbit Food Rocks.) Some want to turn their cyberventures into cookbook or cooking shows. Still others eschew all the talk of numbers (both dollars and page counts) and firmly believe that success can be measured in building a bona fide community that keeps coming back for well-written words, known in the blog biz as (wince alert) content.

Then there are the rock stars of the food blogging establishment, peeps like Ree Drummond who writes under the persona The Pioneer Woman. Check out her impressive stats, courtesy of a recent New Yorker profile: 23.3 million page views per month, 4.4 million unique visitors, a new memoir, The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels–A Love Story, a bestselling cookbook, ad revenue for 2010 at the cool one million mark and counting, oh, and a movie deal, with Reese Witherspoon signed on to star. All this for a gal who chronicles the minutiae of everyday life on an Oklahoma cattle ranch, where she home schools four kids, cooks, and dishes about cleaning out her closet.

Curious about this medium and the food folks who thrive in blogland, I’ve attended my fair share of blogging meet ups in the past couple of years, including BlogHerFood, International Food Blogger Conference, and, most recently, Camp Blogaway, the second annual sleepover for food bloggers held in the San Bernardino mountains in Southern California. I’ve also sat in on blogging panels at conferences that include old-media scribes such as the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the Symposium for Professional Food Writers.

What I’m struck by at these sessions is how much the attendees are looking for the keys to success in cyberland. It reminds me of a time, not so long ago, when new writers would pepper panelists at journalism conventions for the one right way to write a pitch letter to break into print magazines, as if starting with “Hi Joe,” “Dear Mr. Yonan” or “Yo Joe Yonan” could make the crucial difference between landing a freelance assignment and getting overlooked.

Of course, there are missteps best avoided (if you spell an editor’s name wrong you’re likely sunk). But the truth is while talent and ideas count, so does experience, connections, timing, and, frankly, a bit of luck. I feel similarly about how things shake out in the food writing world on the Internet.

That said, I offer up five key ingredients gleaned from these long weekend food blogging bashes that may help pave the way to success in the blogosphere, however you define that term. And, thanks for asking, I think I’d choose Cate Blanchett to play me.

5 Keys to Food Blogging Success

Tell stories: Might seem obvious, but having something to say and telling it in an informative and entertaining way is crucial. And, as bloggers like Camp Blogaway keynote speaker Joy Wilson of Joy the Baker exemplifies, it need not be on weighty matters. She writes frequently about the antics of her cat and in two short years saw her readers jump from around 32 to 2 million. (It doesn’t hurt that she bakes mouth-watering treats and takes stunning snaps, too, see my next point.)

I’m partial to the prose dispensed by pals Cheryl Sternman Rule (5 Second Rule), Molly Watson (The Dinner Files) and — rock star alert — Molly Wizenberg (Orangette, but then savvy blog readers knew that already, right?) Consistently well-crafted tales told with wit and wisdom, typically just once a week, from each of these gals. Newsflash peeps: Pumping out blog copy every day doesn’t necessarily make for a great read. Oh, and I’m a food policy wonkette at heart so I read Civil Eats pretty consistently too.

And, here’s an interesting tidbit: You know how food blogs are largely about food and frequently contain recipes? Duh. Here’s what I’ve heard confessed recently at these soirees: Many readers gush about being a huge fan of blogger XX, while at the same time confessing to have never, ever, made a single recipe on their site. Wow. Who knew? And what to make of that fact?

Take pretty pictures: It’s not enough to have something to say. Food bloggers need to be food photographers and stylists too. I’m no fan of the term food porn, but I get it, and I like a beautiful image of something scrumptious as much as the next voyeur. Judging by the popularity of such sites as TasteSpotting and foodgawker, I’m not alone. Every blogging conference includes panels on how to perfect your happy snaps. Locally, Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks gets props for her photography; check out BAB contributor Megan Gordon’s 5 Beautifully Photographed Food Blogs post or Saveur‘s recent top picks of pics for more. Speaking of rock stars, at Camp Blogaway there was much twittering (both in the new and old sense of that word) about the appearance of Sarah Gim, founder of TasteSpotting, who seems like a perfectly pleasant person to this visually-challenged photog but was treated like royalty by many of the way more camera-savvy scribes at this event. Clearly, image matters in this medium. Get a pic on TasteSpotting, considered the gold standard of food porn sites, and watch that traffic climb.

Build a genuine community: A well-received panel addressing this very subject occurred at the recent Camp Blogaway, co-presented by my role model in this matter, the consistently generous Cheryl Sternman Rule, and the similarly welcoming Susan Russo of FoodBlogga. In a nutshell: Think about your readers, only promote products you truly value, reach out to new readers and bloggers, champion others, and say thank you. Susan talked about paying it forward and building an authentic following beyond cyberspace (clue: in the real world). Cheryl walks her talk; for a taste, try this bite. My favorite take away from their talk: “Measure your success not in clicks or traffic, but in how well your blog fulfills your personal and professional objectives. Most of all, be kind to yourself.”

Be a man: Okay, before all the guys start rolling their eyes here, let me say this: I’m no man hater. I’m a daddy’s girl who adored growing up with four boisterous brothers. I was married to a man for a very long time and we remain firm friends in the Ellen Barkin-Gabriel Byrne kind of way (versus the Ellen Barkin-Ronald Perelman way. No idea what I’m talking about? Take a little pit stop through this New York Times Magazine piece on same and then come back here.) My only child hails from planet XY. Some of my best friends are men…you know where this is going.

Got no issue with the other sex. And yet: Why is it in the blogosphere and at these food writing affairs, which, let’s face it, are afloat in a sea of estrogen, do so many men seem to be disproportionately represented in the ranks of speakers and award winners? I’m not the only one who notices. I can only surmise that they simply stand out in an overwhelmingly female field. In true rock star fashion, like Sting, they need only one name to be recognized. Think: Lebovitz, Leite and Ruhlman.

Keep current with social media: Twitter is the new Facebook. StumbleUpon is the new Digg. Video is the new photo. That’s right: It’s not enough to take fab photos. You have to shoot and edit your own mini-movies now too, another take away from Camp Blogaway, a fact that was echoed at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference in New York the same weekend, according to food writer friends who attended that event. To which I can only say: Shoot me now.

Speaking of that ASJA conference, the other take-home advice that stood out to me on the Monday morning I scanned email messages coming out of that meeting: Don’t let blogging get in the way of your real work. Go figure.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites and was featured on Food News Journal.

You might also like:

Will Write For Food, Payment Preferable
Photographer Sara Remington on Shooting Food
International Association of Culinary Professionals Conference, Portland, Oregon
What’s Cooking with Julie & Julia
Eat, Pray, Love: Still Hungry

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara | Creative Culinary May 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

Nice post Sarah. I try to do as much of what you suggest as I can; although I really should have thought through number four. I just changed my blog identity; why didn’t I consider also making myself a guy. Drat.
Barbara | Creative Culinary´s last [type] ..Maple Bourbon Bacon- Grits and Eggs – Charcutepalooza meets PennyPalooza

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Sarah Henry May 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Welcome, Barbara, curious to know what the shift in blog identity was (since we know it wasn’t gender). Do tell.

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Henway May 23, 2011 at 3:39 pm

For me, if your blog has beautiful food pics, that’s seductive enough for me to be a loyal fan… I’m all about the food porn :)
Henway´s last [type] ..Medifast Review

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Sarah Henry May 23, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I dare say, Henway, you have a lot of company on the food porn front.

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Marcia May 24, 2011 at 7:05 am

I love love love the pretty pictures and food porn. While my photos have gotten better, I am not a food stylist, and I don’t have an awesome camera, so I’m okay with the fact that 80% of the photos on my blog are just so-so. The food’s good.

I’ve always wanted to go to one of these food conferences. Maybe some day.
Marcia´s last [type] ..Green dinner

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Sarah Henry May 24, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Conference are a great way to connect with kindred spirits, Marcia, so I encourage you to check one out when you can.

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Kerry May 24, 2011 at 11:43 am

I think the point about telling stories is most important. I prefer stories with substance — such as you tell here, Sarah . I also appreciate you making the point that posting more often does not necessarily mean better writing or serving one’s readers better. That is an idea I’ve tried to convey to many who ask me about blogging, but that more is better plan seems to be rather firmly entrenched in many people’s minds.
Kerry´s last [type] ..Nod to Bob- and Carrie- Mary- Rose- Sarah- and Joanie- too

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Sarah Henry May 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Thanks, Kerry, you’re very kind. “More is better” is a phenom we all have to face in our own way in this culture, I just wanted people to think about that as a notion (not necessarily) set in stone when it comes to success.

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Emily (Roots+Platters) May 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Sarah, this is so helpful! I attended Camp Blogaway with you and found all of the ideas and strategies a bit overwhelming (as a new food blogger, myself). But this post sums it up in an easy-to-digest kind of way. Thank you for such interesting content and for so generously sharing your thoughts with us! :) It was wonderful to meet you at “camp” and I hope our paths cross again someday.
Emily (Roots+Platters)´s last [type] ..Top 10- Kitchen Tools

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Sarah Henry May 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Nice to see you here, Emily, and happy to help. As a relative newbie to blogland myself I know just how overwhelming those conferences can be. Look forward to crossing paths again too.

And, speaking of conferences, you may find this recent post by my pal Dianne Jacob on conference meet ups a worthwhile read too:
http://diannej.com/blog/2011/05/5-notes-to-self-for-coping-with-conference-anxiety/

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Lisa May 24, 2011 at 8:13 pm

I agree that telling a story always draws me in. I also understand about not actually making the recipes. They are fun to read, but then reality shoves its hard nose into your daydream and you realize you don’t have the ingredients, the gadgets or the energy to actually cook it!

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Sarah Henry May 27, 2011 at 12:24 pm

I admire your honesty, Lisa, and can assure you you’re not alone.

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Living Large May 26, 2011 at 8:24 am

I love your site. It’s pretty and has good content. And, you made me laugh this morning with “HI, Mom, thanks for finding my blob!” :)

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Sarah Henry May 27, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Why thank you, Living Large, so kind of you to say so. And welcome, please make yourself at home here.

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Susan May 28, 2011 at 10:12 am

I enjoyed that comment, too! My Mom reads my blog and (having trained to be an English teacher) emails me corrections to typos or syntactical errors, which I appreciate.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi May 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Mom can’t find my “blob” on her own, but Dad helps her. Fortunately, the odd other person drops by. I do the occasional recipe, but find GOOD food photos exhausting and don’t want to do it all the time. I’ve had a number of photos accepted on the “food porn” sites, but what they accept and what they decline seems to be maddeningly random, to tell you the truth. But when they do accept a shot, the numbers DO climb like mad.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..A Curbside Hongi

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Sarah Henry May 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Thanks for the intell, Melanie, I see photography classes in my future.

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NoPotCooking May 27, 2011 at 12:18 pm

These are really great tips. The male thing is weird and I’ve noticed it too.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Grilled Pork Chops and Asparagus

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Sarah Henry May 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Thanks, NPC, and curious to know more about what you mean on the male matter.

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ruth pennebaker May 27, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Good points, Sarah. I know I need to tweet more, so thanks for reminding me, even if I’m not a food blogger.
ruth pennebaker´s last [type] ..Color Me Indignant

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Sarah Henry May 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Ruth, I find Twitter a valuable research resource. And I suspect you’d be as funny in 140 characters as you are in your columns.

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Sheryl May 27, 2011 at 5:52 pm

These are all great reminders, even for those of us who are non-food bloggers. And the guy thing…I see it all the time at writing conferences. The men are just…scarce. There are so many great male chefs; I wonder why they’re not drawn to food blogging?

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Sarah Henry May 28, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Perhaps because only a tiny percentage of food bloggers make any real money from their blogs? Just guessing here.

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OlyS May 27, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Sorry but I think Pioneer Woman is about as authentic as a three dollar bill. She never credits the original creators of her ‘recipes’ and her description of life on a farm sounds equally hokey.

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Sarah Henry May 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Hi OlyS, thanks for chiming in. Have you read the New Yorker piece on the Pioneer Woman? I don’t think the writer found her particularly authentic either. Folks who know her well says she’s the real deal, regardless, my point was simply that she’s done well with the personae she’s created on her site.

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MyKidsEatSquid May 27, 2011 at 7:50 pm

I’m fascinated by the male point too. I was reading up on Twitter–yes in a real book, not ebook or otherwise–and it mentioned that when researchers took a look at Twitter it was more men than women in the Tweetland and more women in FB. Go figure.

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Sarah Henry May 28, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Fascinating, MKES. I wonder why? Is it perhaps the brevity of Twitter that appeals to the guys?

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Jennifer Margulis May 27, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Wow. An impressive list of how to be successful in the blogosphere–and a daunting one too. I am still trying to learn the ins and outs of the Internet. Now that I no longer have a paid blog gig, it’s hard for me to put time and energy into something that is not remunerative. At the same time, it’s a place to advocate for what is right and what needs to change about current culture. I know this isn’t about food but it’s relevant to the whole To Blog (and How?) or Not to Blog question…

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Sarah Henry May 28, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I know what you mean, Jennifer. Lately my blog has become mostly a home for my paid posts which appear elsewhere in cyberspace first. And then there’s the magazine work I do, which pays the bills, and sometimes (but not always) ends up online as well. So it can be tough to carve out time to write just for the blog. As much as I might like to, I’m doing it less these days and missing it too.

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merr May 28, 2011 at 4:34 pm

And, of course, follow your heart!

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Sarah Henry June 5, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Of course, m!

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Jane Boursaw May 30, 2011 at 8:47 am

What a great lineup of tips, Sarah. And your wise advice goes beyond the food blogger genre — things like build community, tell stories, and keep up on social media is useful for just about any business these days.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..The Hunger Games 101

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Sarah Henry June 5, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Good point, Jane, and thanks for your kind words, which mean a lot coming from someone who teaches peeps the fine art of blogging. As a former participant, I can highly recommend your online course:

http://www.blogging-for-passion-and-profit.com/blogging-for-passion-profit-outline-faq/

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cherry September 27, 2011 at 6:41 am

I’m thinking of starting a food blog because I absolutely love to cook and try new recipes (& sometimes they have funny stories with them) but I’ve never gone to cooking school and don’t really know how to start up a blog… Any tips?… P.S. I’m on a very tight budget so I was thinking along the lines of budget friendly ideas.

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Jill Mant~a SaucyCook January 26, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Thank you for such a well written and detailed tome. I wish I had found this three months ago, but heh, better late than never! I also love what you are doing here. Cheers!
Jill Mant~a SaucyCook´s last [type] ..Soy-Braised Pork Country Ribs with Carrots and Turnips

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