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.