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

| May 20, 2011 | 38 Comments
  • 38 Comments

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.

Pioneer WomanThen 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

Joy the BakerTell 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?

tastespottingTake 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.

5 second ruleBuild 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.”

David LebovitzBe 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.

Camp Blogaway. Video by Sippity SupKeep 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.

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About the Author ()

Sarah Henry hails from Sydney, Australia, where she grew up eating lamingtons, Vegemite, and prawns (not shrimp) on the barbie (barbecue). Sarah has called the Bay Area home for the past two decades and remembers how delighted she was when a modest farmers' market sprouted in downtown San Francisco years ago. As a freelance writer Sarah has covered local food people, places, politics, culture, and news for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, California, San Francisco, Diablo, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Berkeleyside. A contributor to the national food policy site Civil Eats, her stories have also appeared in The Atlantic, AFAR, Gilt Taste, Ladies' Home Journal, Grist, Shareable, and Eating Well. An epicurean tour guide for Edible Excursions, Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too.
  • http://www.campblogaway.com Patti at Camp Blogaway

    Sarah, it was such a pleasure having you at Camp, and this writeup is a spectacular roundup of great lessons presented (and your taking them all even further here) during our weekend in the mountains. Will hunt you down at IACP in Austin, too. Best to you and keep up the great work.

  • http://www.asweetspoonful.com Megan Gordon

    Great post, Sarah! Part about community’s so important, I think, and is really the main reason I continue to blog on my own.

  • http://lettuceeatkale.com/ Sarah Henry

    Patti, kind of you to say so, thanks to you for putting the program together. And feel free to hunt me down at IACP.

    Megan, thanks to you too, for chiming in. I consider you part of my community (in cyberspace and the real world) and we actually met at one of these gatherings, remember?

  • http://www.thishomemadelife.com Alison

    Thanks for this post. As a newbie blogger it’s been very helpful.

  • http://www.nanciemcdermott.com Nancie McDermott

    What a boon to have your insights plus ‘tickets’ to go check everything out in detail, when I sit down to absorb things. Your insights and these direct links give me a picnic to savor in one big sitting/reading, and it’s just what I want in this late-spring week where I’m finishing up proposals and Taking Stock. I’ll make stock with this trove of rich meaty stuff thanks to you. I’d put your blog and work on this list, but of course all who read it will get that right away.

  • http://www.rabbitfoodrocks.blogspot.com amee

    Thanks for the shoutout, Sarah!! (You know I read this in an Aussie accent? Funny how that happens!) So I do feel famous all of a sudden…I think my readership grew by 50% to 3 readers! :P I really really loved this summary of the learnings from Camp Blogaway. I did takeaway a lot of these lessons, but it’s nice to see it spelled out neatly in this piece rather than the spaghetti that it looks like in my head. :) You didn’t take any notes there, but you really got so much of this word for word….you were THAT girl in school, weren’t you???? :P

  • http://lettuceeatkale.com/ Sarah Henry

    Hi Alison: Glad you found this post helpful and welcome to blogland.

    Nancy: You are much too generous with your praise; I thank you anyway. And would you please send me some of the stock you make? I’m sure it’s delicious.

    Amee: Ha! I was surreptitiously scrawling notes when you weren’t looking. Does that make me THAT girl in school in your book? Here’s hoping your readership triples before the week is out.

  • http://www.frontroweats.com Front Row Eats

    This is a great article.

    Check out my blog called “Front Row Eats”
    Visit http://www.FrontRowEats.com

    Anything we can do differently? I am open to suggestions.

    Thanks!

  • http://twitter keith millar

    nice to have found these blogs. found it very interesting. all about spreading the word food around the world different ways of cookin. i’m a retired chef and i like the way people communicate in different ways to express themselves. thank you

  • http://www.thecardiganandcook.com Megan Clouse (Cardigan)

    Great points Sarah! Thank you!

  • http://delightfulrepast.com Jean | Delightful Repast

    Sarah, I’m working on 1, 2 and 3. Can’t do a thing about 4 (short of expensive surgery that my insurance won’t cover!), and 5, well, I’m just glad you didn’t tell me I MUST be on Facebook, ’cause I’m not, and I’m not likely ever to be. Enjoyed this article — after 15 months of weekly blogging I’m still trying to figure it all out.

  • http://www.danatreat.com Dana

    I was nodding my head as I read this post Sarah. So well thought out and said. When I think of the blogs I like the very most, they do all five of those things well. And you know Cheryl is a fave of mine too. And you are way better looking than Cate Blanchett.

  • http://www.davidlebovitz.com David

    Nice to be mentioned, but I think David Leite and Michael Ruhlman may win writing mentions because they are professional writers who went to school to learn their craft. As someone who’s always worked for, or alongside, women, I think it’s great that women have had success food blogging and there doesn’t seem to be any divisions in the community.

    (Although it is interesting that one might refer to the men by our last names and women, like Ree, Clotilde, Elise, Deb, Heidi, and Pim, by their first names..)

  • Brooke@foodwoolf

    Great round up. I do think we bloggers all fall into different categories. Knowing where you want to be and what you are willing to do to get there is key to finding success. Thanks for taking the time to write such a helpful post!!

  • http://lettuceeatkale.com/ Sarah Henry

    Jean: Would it help to know I find Twitter more useful, professionally speaking, than Facebook? Don’t be scared of this technology. I was skeptical at first but find it a great research tool.

    Dana: You are WAY too kind.

    David: Thanks for chiming in. You raise excellent points. Just to be clear: I wasn’t thinking so much about divisions in the community as much as point of difference or ways of standing out — and being male is definitely one of them.

  • Jen

    You forgot the all crucial ‘Have a job that lets you work from home’
    (Stay at home mom, living with parents, writer, photographer, telecommuter etc)

    Lots of people with regular working hour jobs have food blogs. Just not a ton of successful ones. In fact, I think I can count the number of those who manage to balance both and be good at it on one hand.

  • http://chowandchatter.com rebecca

    thanks for sharing what you have learnt great tips

  • http://ivysfeast.blogspot.com/ Ivy Manning

    Nice article Sarah! After spending a weekend spent on a rebuild and move over to WordPress, wondering the whole while why I was wasting my time since I’ll never be Molly, it was great to read the words “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.” Good advice.

    PS. I think Cate Blanchett is an excellent choice to play you!

  • http://www.reciperenovator.com Stephanie, the Recipe Renovator

    Sarah,
    What a helpful post. What I took away from both camps I attended was to find your own voice. You’re right, there’s isn’t one road map to success, but having something to say, saying it well, and being consistent and professional go a long way.

  • http://www.thecolorsofindiancooking.com Kathy Gori

    What a great article. I loved what you said about Twitter as that seems to be the main way I communicate with people now. I’m a screenwriter by profession but I’ve been cooking Indian food for many many years and blogging about it for 2. I love what I do for a living but I also love the immediate gratification of eating/blogging. I’ve decided to throw caution to the winds and as someone more comfortable behind the scenes have just started to add video

  • http://www.diannej.com/blog Dianne Jacob

    Thanks for the shoutout, Sarah. And yes, I always read this with an Australian accent as well. Funny!

    Just back from yet another conference, BlogHer Food, and going to IACP next week. Re your comment about “being a man:” yes, lots of men on panels there, relative to the membership. Also lots of men on the board of IACP, relative to its female membership, and lots nominated for awards for both IACP and Beard, relative to the female population of writers. Thanks for bringing it up. At these conferences, the men definitely stand out, as there are so many fewer of them.

    It’s true that people (mostly women) attend these events to find the keys to success, but according to the heads of BlogHer, more than anything, they are looking for community. It’s great to hang with other people who do what you do, exchange notes, find inspiration, and get tips on how to do it better. And we love to eat and party together.

    Re StumbledUpon, I heard at this conference that it’s declining in popularity. Re video, yes, the web is moving to video in that more people watch it than their TVs these days, but I’m not sure that means we all have to start shooting it. In my case, I’m not about to film myself as a talking head. Talk about boring!

  • http://www.eatthelove.com Irvin

    I would have to disagree with you about the male thing. I think most of the top bloggers out there are female. Pioneer Woman, Orangette, Gluten Free Girl, Simply Recipes, Steamy Kitchen, 101Cookbooks, Smitten Kitchen. The list goes on and on. I can probably name on one hand the number of top male food bloggers that would sit on that list as well.

    Having an easy way of standing out is great, but it really doesn’t go very far other than a novelty thing (I’m easy to remember at a large blogging conference, as opposed to the hundred other women that are floating around I guess). Creating a unique voice (both in your written word, and in your visual photographs) are way more important than your gender. Leite, Ruhlman and Lebovitz all worked on their craft (and were established authors/chefs) for a long time before they became bloggers. They stood out because they were witty, informative or intelligent. When you visit their site, you know who they are, not a generic blogger featuring another pink frosted cupcake on a polka dotted plate. Content is king. People will come and stick around.

    On a total aside, Twitter and Facebook are vitally important in building communities, creating and maintaining relationships. It really does depend on what you want your blog to be and how you define “success” but I find both of them incredibly important in connecting with my readers and other people in the food blogging community. I’m always curious as to why people don’t want to be on them. For me, I would never have gotten as far as I have in the short amount of time that I have been blogging without either.

  • http://www.babaduck.com Babaduck

    Concise, intelligent and utterly relevant advice. I’m going to memorize the steps.

  • http://www.howtocookgoodfood.co.uk Laura S ott

    Hello Sarah,

    Your article really helps people like me who are just starting out. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of seriously good blogs, both in style and content. I am beginning to find my voice but it takes time to get into the natural rhythm of writing, especially as it’s been a long time since I have written this much!
    You are right about putting in snippets and personal experiences. I think it makes the readers get to know you and relate to you, not that I have got there yet, but that’s what I look for in blogs I really like.

    Also, 1 post a week – yes to that. How do people cope with any more!

  • http://lettuceeatkale.com/ Sarah Henry

    @FrontRowEats: Looks like you’re doing swell and can tick off most (all?) of the 5 points on my list. Meat, men, drinks: Am sure you boys have found a loyal following.

    Brooke@foodwoolf: Thanks for weighing in and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point readers to your post on how to navigate a food blogging conference, so here it is folks:
    http://www.foodwoolf.com/2010/10/blogher-food-2010-how-to.html

    @IvyManning: Welcome to WordPress, Ivy, and how are you finding it?

    @Stephanie, the Recipe Renovator: Yep, the all-important voice is crucial to success.

    @KathyGori: Huge Indian food fan, about to go check out your site on same.

    @DianneJacob: My pleasure. And, just in case there’s a food blogger who doesn’t know your site, get yourself over to Will Write for Food lickety split for way more advice on this matter than can fit into one post: http://diannej.com/blog/

    @Irvin: Lovely to see you here, though we’ll just have to respectfully disagree. I stand by my statement that men stand out in this field because it’s largely female. Please know, though, that I’m not casting aspersions on their talent. I named the three males I did exactly for all the reasons you describe above. So no argument from me on that score.

  • http://www.RecipeGirl.com Lori @ RecipeGirl

    Great post. I found myself nodding my head at many of your excellent points! My son (age 10) just started his own food blog (RecipeBoy)… so hopefully he’ll have that “man” advantage! I’ll have to direct him to your post as he’s definitely interested in being a star someday!!

  • http://www.sergetheconcierge.com Serge Lescouarnec

    Sarah
    I asked David Lebovitz to please leave room for the women.
    Regarding conferences (tech events), I think guys tend to be predominantly represented.
    On number 2 (photos), I am lagging. I do know how and when to ask others if I can use their creations (with proper credit).
    It seems there are more and more ‘food blogging’ pow wows taking place.
    It looks like its own industry, the consultants of the field.
    Like someone can teach you the secret to success or maybe ‘instant’ success.
    Ina Caro in the introduction to her upcoming book ‘Paris to the Past’ writes that it took 9 Years for her husband to write his first biography. They were broke for long spells.
    I was talking to 2 guys from younger generation of Champagne yesterday and they noted how in their field like in others it takes a lot of time to master all small bits and subtleties that allow you to create a good wine.
    Some use their nose, others their palate.
    There is no one way to get there.

  • http://lettuceeatkale.com/ Sarah Henry

    Lori@RecipeGirl: That is adorable. I am so going to check out the cyber-happenings of RecipeBoy.

    @Serge: David Lebovitz is a kind, gracious, and generous soul. As for your last comment:
    “There is no one way to get there.” I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Sharon Blake

    Deb (Smitten Kitchen) and David (David Lebovitz) are my two best online friends. I just sit here in Santa Rosa (heart of California’s Wine Country) while they entertain, amuse, astonish, and inspire me. I love them ~ love them ~ love them.

  • http://leitesculinaria.com David Leite

    While I’m honored to be in the company of Lebovitz and Ruhlman–both of whom I respect highly–I want to say that I’ve never been to school, either for writing or cooking, with the exception of a few avocational courses. I think you can become a rock star food writer (and let’s face it, I am SO not one; imagine me in leopard Spandex pants), by working hard at your craft; reading, reading, and re-reading the works of great writers; taking time to parse the vagaries of the English language; learning proper grammar; spending time with people who know more than you about food and writing; and most of all being willing to grow and learn from everyone–including your readers and other writers and bloggers. A good writer stops being a good writer when s/he thinks there’s nothing more to learn.

  • http://www.clickblogappetit.com Faith Kramer

    Great post, Sarah. I’m struggling with what to do next with my 6 yr old blog and to find the time to do it. Thanks for the reminders and suggestions re content and community.

  • http://lettuceeatkale.com/ sarah henry

    @David Leite: Thanks for making me smile, sharing details about your background, and for all the wise advice you offer here. Just this week I was reminded by readers about another key to success in this blogging business, so your comments resonated with me: http://lettuceeatkale.com/2011/best-blog-post-ever-its-kinda-cheesy/

    @Faith: Happy to help. And good luck figuring out what to do next. You have around four years on me but I can appreciate the challenge of keeping things fresh and current.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/kirstine.vonbulow Kirstine von Bülow

    Hi Sarah,

    Have been re-reading your advices for the second night now; Thank you very much for the high level of quality and all the links.

    I do though have one more question as danish being my mother language, but with the urge to blog in english too; I would like to set up my own blog theese days, but cannot figure out if it is a bad idea to do my posts both in danish and in english at the same blog?
    I would (with time) love to go blogging beyond my lovely little country, but also consider one language a more smooth start up… Any good advice? Good examples?
    Best Regards, Kirstine

  • Lost Girl Cooks

    Thank you for posting this! I really appreciate it and have been thinking about a food blog for a long time! You are in my area! I have to follow your blog and get the best places around here to go, I’m super excited.

  • http://www.easytocookmeals.com/ Shobelyn Dayrit

    Thank you very much for these ideas you posted. I am excited to roll my sleeves to do the work in my ” just baby” blog. I started it this July and it feels like I am the only one there. But it gives me joy writing articles and learning food photography. Although I wish I have a lot of people to see my blog, I keep on reminding myself that I am doing this for me and I hope that my blog will find a way to those who will find it helpful and useful.

  • Indira MC

    Thank you! I really am interested in growing my blog so will try to incorporate some of those into my blogging routine.