It’s been a little over two years since we took our first photograph of a sandwich and posted it on the internet. Since then, our blog has seen tremendous growth. From Away now has more than 500 posts, and averages approximately 100,000 unique visitors per month. That traffic and level of exposure has led to promotional appearances for the state tourism board, as well as to paid contributor positions with other websites and print magazines. We’ve developed strategic relationships with both local and national advertisers; in fact, the site is going to pay our rent for the first time ever this month. We’ve met tons of fascinating people, and learned the stories of many of the people who help keep Maine’s foodservice economy running.
We didn’t get lucky. We started the site after food blogs were supposed to be already “over,” during an era when the very idea of a “food blog” was already starting to become cliche. We didn’t have the carefully cultivated personalities of a Pioneer Woman or a Julie Powell, and we certainly didn’t have the lucrative book, television, or movie deals. Every day, we continue to work on the site, whether that’s developing new content, finding new revenue streams, testing ad networks, reworking design elements to drive visitors to overlooked parts of the site, or tweaking plugins to improve site functionality. We’ve learned a lot, and we wanted to share some of the tips we’ve picked up along the way with anyone interested in either starting a site of their own, or improving their existing food blog. In this post, we’ll try to cover everything we’ve learned so far, in an effort to help both new aspiring food bloggers, as well as more established bloggers looking for ways to increase their revenue or improve their existing websites.
Evaluate Your Motivation and Level of Dedication
When Jillian and I first started working on From Away, we weren’t even sure it was ever going to see the light of day. We had just moved to Maine after spending four years in Mexico, and the food blog landscape was already crowded to the point of oversaturation. We’d spent $400 acquiring the “From Away” domain name from a domain squatter, unsure of exactly how we were going to develop it or what we were going to do with it, but certain that it was too good a name to pass up. For the first few tentative posts, were were unsure of exactly what we wanted to add to the local food blog scene. We weren’t sure we had any business commenting on local restaurants, we didn’t really know how to take decent photographs, and we weren’t convinced that we could find a way to be funny while writing about frozen burritos. (Actually, I think we’re still uncertain of some of the answers to those questions.) From the very beginning, though, we knew that if we were going to add yet another food blog to the world, we were going to treat it as a real business from the very first day.
If you are considering starting a food blog, the very first question you should be asking yourself is: Why?
What are your goals for the site? Are you content with a simple journal of your cooking exploits, and less concerned with building a readership, or making money? That kind of food blog certainly has its place, and running that type of site is certainly a lower-stress proposition. There’s a lot of freedom in writing a blog that no one reads, where you don’t have to be mindful of consistent voice or tone, can publish new posts as you feel like it, without giving a thought to topic choice or improving your skill as a photographer, and can spend 2,000 words talking about your peanut butter and jelly-eating parrot, if you feel like it.
The trouble is that blogs like this are tough to sustain. As bloggers, we all have the idea (even if we don’t admit it), that we are going to attract readers who are going to loyally return to our site every day, peppering our comments sections with thoughtful feedback. That’s why we publish in a democratic medium with hundreds of millions of users, rather than write our thoughts in a secret journal that we keep in the nightstand. Every one of us, even those who claim to be writing a blog “just for fun,” have the expectation that sooner or later, the readers will show up. If they don’t, your motivation will evaporate.
Here’s the thing: They’re probably not going to show up. Why? Because people only want two things from the internet: Dirty movies and pictures of cats. No matter how carefully crafted your Chocolate Moxie Whoopie Pies with Allen’s Coffee Brandy Buttercream may be, the chances are, nobody cares.
In my opinion, there is one major remedy to this near total indifference: You have to publish high quality content every single day. Readers hitting your site for the first time should see consistently updated, fresh content, and they should know that if they come back the next day, there will be something new to read. That’s the only way to get people returning to your site several times a day, checking to see if you’ve updated yet. These can’t be throwaway posts, either; everything you publish to your site needs to be a carefully crafted, professionally-photographed piece of content that will either teach or inform. Then, the next day, you need to do it all over again, and be comfortable with pushing the previous day’s work out of the spotlight after just a brief 24 hours.
This constant demand for new content, this constant churn, can be challenging. It requires a lot of time, as well as the ability to not become emotionally attached to a post that requires an emotional attachment in order to make it compelling. Tough, right? Your writing has to be good, but it can’t be precious. It has to be important enough for you to work on each day, but not important enough that you will be crushed if it doesn’t receive a huge response (or worse, if it receives negative criticism) and is gone from the front page of your site the next day. You have to care about your site more than anything else, and somehow manage to not care about it at all. It’s a challenging balancing act, but treating your blog as a business is the only way to attract a consistent readership.
As you get started planning your food blog, ask yourself: Do you have the time to run your food blog as a real business? Can you attract a loyal readership by updating your food blog every single day? Can you learn to take a decent photograph? Can you handle the constant turnover of new content on your site? Are you comfortable with the notion of complete strangers occasionally being ruthlessly mean to you for no reason? If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” I would gently suggest looking for a more rewarding hobby, such as playing air guitar, taking pictures of icicles, or riding roller coasters. If, on the other hand, you are ready to make the commitment to your new site, congratulations. You’ve taken the first step towards creating an exciting new food blog.
Choosing a Blogging Platform for Your Food Blog
Your choice of blogging platform is one of the first important decisions you will make for your new food blog. There are three major options: Typepad, Blogger, and WordPress (in both the hosted and self-hosted varieties).
For the less technically-inclined among us, Typepad can be a great place to get your feet wet with food blogging. You can start your site immediately on their hosted blogging platform, they have beautiful site design templates, and you can get your new site up and running with just a few clicks. With Typepad, blogging is as simple as typing. Their technology handles the rest. When you’re ready (and if you decide food blogging is for you), it’s easy to buy a domain name and associate it with your site (Typepad will even handle this for you), and they offer a surprisingly robust theme editor, stat tracking tools, and options to generate revenue with your new site.
Blogger continues to be a puzzlingly popular choice for new food bloggers. I don’t recommend it, for a few reasons. First, though it is easy to get up and running with Blogger, you will quickly become frustrated with the lack of customization options available to you. Blogger blogs all look like Blogger blogs, and developing a customized look and feel for your site is difficult when your hands are tied by the limitations of the software. Basic functions, like associating a domain name with your Blogger blog or moderating comments, are needlessly complicated and frustrating. Most importantly, though, is that as a hosted service, you never really “own” your blog; Blogger can, at any time, shut your blog down, effectively seizing its content and repossessing the custom Blogger site name that you have worked so hard to develop.
If you are serious about your new food blog, there’s really only one choice in blogging platforms: WordPress. WordPress is the most popular blogging platform on Earth, with over 55 million WordPress-powered sites in the world. It has quickly risen from being just another piece of blogging software to the number one content management system in the world, with armies of developers, incredible support communities, and programmers working around the clock to extend the platform’s core functionality to do almost anything you’d like on the internet. Want to start a food blog? WordPress can do it. Want to start a Craigslist-style job board, a Citysearch-style city directory, or a full-featured real estate website? WordPress can do those things, as well, using an easy-to-use interface that makes administering your new site easy. WordPress is infinitely customizable, and when you want to add some sort of custom function to your site, you will never hit a wall with WordPress.
You can choose to use the hosted version of WordPress, or to download the free software yourself for use on your own site, with your own hosting and domain name. This is only marginally more difficult than using the hosted version (you can get the software up and running in just a few clicks), and offers even more options for customization as your site continues to grow. The learning curve might be ever so slightly steeper (though again, I must stress how easy to use the software is), but the investment is worth it. As more and more of the web is powered by WordPress, learning the basics now is anything but a waste of your time. As your blog’s needs grow and change, having an understanding of WordPress means that your site will never be left behind. In my opinion, the self-hosted version of WordPress is the best possible choice for anyone starting a new food blog.
Choosing a Hosting Company for Your Food Blog
Now that you’ve chosen your blogging platform, it’s time to choose a hosting plan.
“Oh,” you may be thinking, “Why would I pay for a hosting plan? I can get a GoDaddy hosting plan for next to nothing. What’s left to discuss?”
It’s true that there are lots of free or low-cost hosting plans out there in the world. Some of them even have funny television commercials, or quasi-celebrity endorsers. However, most aren’t a good option for a food blog. Why, you ask?
Most free hosts add your website to the same server with thousands of other sites, all of which share the same resources, including CPU cycles and memory. The result of hosting your site in these kinds of cramped quarters is that your website responds slowly, and may even suffer from timeouts when people try to come see the brilliant new post you’ve spent two days working on.
Worse than that, though, is the kind of questionable characters, spammers, and pornographers that are drawn to free or inexpensive hosting plans. Often, your budget hosting provider will put these same websites on the same IP address as your perfectly innocent food blog. It’s not totally clear what this will do to your search engine position, but think of it this way: Would you shop in a grocery store or eat in a restaurant that was sandwiched in between an adult movie theater and a bong store? Probably not. In internet terminology, these blocks of IP addresses are known as “bad neighborhoods,” and they certainly aren’t a good place to start your new website.
There’s one more reason to avoid free or cheap hosting for your food blog. The way we promote food blogs is different than other websites. With submissions to photo sharing sites, and links generated through social bookmarking, food blogs are more likely to receive sudden spikes in traffic when a particularly delicious recipe goes viral. Your web host needs to have systems in place to handle these kinds of traffic surges. Otherwise, you can suddenly find your shiny new site crippled by a sudden influx of visitors from Reddit or StumbleUpon, sending your thousands of new visitors to a “Not Found” page. Not a great way to make a first impression.
The solution that we have used over and over again is to start your blog on a low-cost, extremely reputable host. Down the road, as your site starts to buckle under the weight of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who are flocking to your site each month, you can upgrade to a dedicated host. Here’s the process we use, each time we launch a new website or food blog:
1. Launch new food blog on inexpensive shared hosting from Bluehost, and get free domain name.
Almost every time we start a new website, we choose Bluehost as our hosting provider. There are a few advantages to their service. The first and most important benefit is the cost. Bluehost costs just $6.95 a month, making it a perfect place to test your new website concept, all while keeping your site under budget as you focus on getting the word out about your new site to readers. The second big bonus to using Bluehost is the free domain name. When you set up a hosting plan with Bluehost, they’ll register your new domain name (like FromAway.com) for free. It’s another simple way to get started with a professional food blog, without letting your startup costs get out of control.
An inexpensive service is completely meaningless if it’s lousy, and fortunately, Bluehost excels with their features. Their most basic package includes unlimited bandwidth and storage, as well as outstanding customer service if you ever get stuck or need help with anything. My favorite feature of Bluehost, however, is in their load balancing. If your site suddenly receives a huge influx of traffic from a popular post on Tastespotting, Bluehost is able to seamlessly handle the flow, keeping your site online and making sure your new visitors see your site, not an error page.
If it sounds like I am excited about Bluehost, it’s because some of our most successful websites began on Bluehost. I really can’t recommend them any more highly, for either new or experienced food bloggers.
2. Transfer food blog to Media Temple
Though the shared hosting you get with Bluehost is more than sufficient for any website or food blog that is just getting started, there’s going to come a point with any successful site where you may have to consider moving to a dedicated server. In a nutshell, a dedicated server hosts just one website: Yours. That means your site can handle as much traffic as you can throw at it. We host From Away on Media Temple’s “(dv) Dedicated-Virtual 4.0 – 1 GB” plan, which is enough to handle our current traffic, as well as leave a little breathing room for increased popularity down the road. Media Temple not only helped us with the migration from our old shared host, but they’ve handled every single customer support inquiry quickly, and with knowledge and courtesy. They’re an independent company that we recommend highly for any food blog that is receiving more than approximately 4,000-5,000 visitors per day.
3. Looking for more in-depth WordPress server management? Consider WP Engine.
It’s one of the most expensive options, but if you find that the more technical aspects of managing your blog hosting become overwhelming, or if you have such a high amount of traffic that you just can’t keep up with things like caching technologies or server optimization, it may be time to switch up to a host that specializes in the special needs of an extremely successful WordPress site. Said quite simply, the single best host for this type of specialized WordPress management is WP Engine. They host some of the largest and most successful food blogs on the planet, including the Foursquare and Williams-Sonoma blogs. Their managed hosting plans offer improvements to speed and performance that are completely beyond the capability of typical web hosts. WP Engine also provides free backups, and a repair concierge service in the event your website is ever attacked or hacked. As soon as you reach the point where your food blog turns you into a minor celebrity, it’s time to consider upgrading to a customized, managed hosting solution from WP Engine.
As you can see, it is possible to start your new career as a food blogger with free hosting. It’s just not a strategy I would recommend. At first, it may seem smart to spend as little money as you possibly can while you’re just getting started. However, the frustration associated with free web hosts, including working with their limited or nonexistent customer service departments, the super creepy websites that are likely to be on the same shared server as your food blog, and the unreliability of their networks, all make it a bad cost saving measure in the long run. Your new food blog deserves the best possible start you can give it, with as few roadblocks to future development or growth. Choosing a proper web host lays a great foundation for the successful future of your food blog.
Choosing a Theme or Template for Your Food Blog
It would be impossible to ever completely sift through every available option, when it comes to the tens of thousands of WordPress themes that are available for your new site. There are many free options, but they come with wildly varying levels of programming quality, documentation, and support. When considering a theme for your new food blog, the ability to customize things easily, the theme’s SEO features, and the availability of support if (and when!) things go awry are all important factors to consider.
Though it may cost a few extra dollars at the beginning of your food blog’s life, when you’d much rather be spending money on restaurants to review or fancy ingredients to cook with, purchasing a premium WordPress theme will save you a lot of work in the long run. What makes a WordPress theme “premium?” Typically, premium WordPress themes for food blogs have extra features and functionality, a custom administrative backend that makes it easy to make changes to your site without doing any programming yourself, and a good separation of code and design so that your website will start out with a basic level of search engine optimization right from the start. Unlike most free WordPress themes, your purchase price usually includes some basic support, should you ever need help with getting your theme installed (or sometimes, even with more advanced customization).
As far as I am concerned, there are four major choices, when it comes to finding a gorgeous premium theme for your food blog.
Elegant themes has nearly 150,000 customers, and sells more than 75 unique and, well, downright elegant themes. Many of them would be a perfect fit for a food blog. In my experience, their support has been excellent, and their focus on clean, uncluttered themes is on-trend and perfect for a new food blog. You can purchase themes individually, or pay $39 for instant access to every theme in their collection, which makes it easy to try different looks for your site. In particular, be sure to check out these themes: My Cuisine, eNews
WooThemes is arguably one of the top premium WordPress developers out there right now. They do things with WordPress I never would have believed possible, including fully responsive designs that automagically adapt to mobile devices and different screen resolutions. With top-notch support and nearly 100 of the best-looking WordPress themes available, you’re certain to find something that would be a good fit for your food blog. In particular, don’t miss: Delicious Magazine, Fresh News, The Morning After, Bueno
Both WooThemes and Elegant Themes offer premium WordPress themes for your food blog, at very reasonable prices. Eventually, though, your blog’s needs will probably outgrow the capabilities of even the best off-the-shelf premium themes.
If you want to pick a theme just once, and be certain that it will serve you for the lifetime of your blog, you probably should consider investing in a blog framework. You can think of a blog framework as a sort of “master theme,” to which bundles of modifications and customizations, called “child themes,” can be applied. In a nutshell, this means applying one major theme framework on top of your fresh WordPress installation, and making any changes you can think of to that framework. This allows for complete control, via a customized backend interface unique to the framework you choose, over every single aspect of the appearance of your site.
In my mind, there are two major players in the blog framework market. I currently use both of them on different websites, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Thesis by DIY Themes
Thesis is a powerful framework that runs on top of WordPress. It’s what we use to power From Away, the website you are reading right now. It features a powerful administrative area, and almost anything you can think of adding to your site can be accomplished using Thesis’ system of “hooks,” which allow you to place blocks of custom code almost anywhere on the site. Thesis doesn’t use WordPress’ template structure at all, so even those that are very comfortable working with WordPress, may find that they have a lot to learn when getting started with Thesis.
Thesis provides some rock solid options for search engine optimization, without the need to configure complicated plugins. On each page, you can set custom title tags, meta descriptions, and meta tags as well as 301 redirect any post or page to a URL.
Where Thesis really shines, however, is in its off-the-shelf options for control over layout and design. Through its simple interface, Thesis gives you the ability to control the layout of your homepage using any combination of featured posts and “teasers” to create a magazine style layout. You also have total control over font choices and sizes, as well as control over what shows up in your bylines, comments, teasers, and post content. This combination of controls (with no programming required) allows you to dramatically customize the look of your site.
With a community of more than 50,000 users, Thesis has one of the most active support communities of any WordPress theme, and they employ several staff members specifically to handle support requests.
Genesis Framework by StudioPress with Eleven40 Child Theme
Every theme by StudioPress uses the Genesis framework, a sort of “master theme” similar to Thesis that sits on top of your WordPress installation. We use Genesis and the Eleven40 theme on ProFoodBlogger, our food blog about, well, food blogging. Like Thesis, the Genesis framework features a completely custom administrative backend, and a hook system that allows you to make extensive customizations without changing a single line of code.
Genesis also provides groundbreaking SEO capabilities, without the use of external plugins. There’s custom title tags, custom meta descriptions, and custom meta tags, as well as the ability to add your own custom URL for each individual post. The Eleven40 child theme features a clean design with plenty of whitespace around each element, as well as gorgeous typography. Out of the box, the Eleven40 theme is better looking by default than the default Thesis installation, whether or not you choose to make any customizations.
Though both frameworks represent the perfect foundation for your new food blog, if forced to choose one over the other, I would give the slight edge to the Genesis framework by StudioPress. For the average user, the child themes offered by Genesis mean you can create better-looking sites, without getting your hands dirty with lots of code. I’m also not crazy about Thesis’ once-innovative-but-now-archaic handling of featured images (though this will probably be addressed with the upcoming release of Thesis 2.0). More advanced users will find plenty of power under the hood with both frameworks, as well. Either choice of frameworks is suitable for powering blogs of any size, and are fairly future-proof; you don’t have to worry that your blog’s theme will suddenly stop being supported, or will be rendered obsolete by changes to core WordPress files. Choosing either Thesis or Genesis means that you will never hit a technological roadblock, as your food blog grows and you want to add additional features.
Useful WordPress Plugins for Your Food Blog
One of the best things about choosing WordPress to power your food blog, is the near limitless functionality added by the ongoing creation of thousands of independently-developed plugins. This list is by no means complete, but it does include some must-haves, as well as some plugins specific to food blogging that don’t get talked about a lot. The possibilities are nearly endless, but here are a few of the plugins we use on our food blogs, that we install right after getting a vanilla WordPress installation up and running.
- Akismet: It won’t be long before your site starts receiving tons of spam comments. Akismet handles this spam perfectly, ensuring that the spammers never make it onto your site, with very rare false-positives.
- Easy Recipe: A plugin for gorgeous formatting of the recipes on your website, with automatic creation of Google’s recipe schema, for inclusion of your recipes in Google’s recipe search results.
- Argo Links: Argo Links is a brilliant plugin that allows you to create weekly “link roundups.” It’s simple: Place a small button on your browser toolbar, and when you read a story you like, hit the button. A popup linked to your WordPress site pops up, allowing you to add a title and description to the link. Then, at the end of each week (or day, or month), you can create a post made of the links you bookmarked. Highly recommended.
- FoursquareAPI: Allows you to embed a map on your site, showing your most recent checkins on Foursquare. It’s a great way to let readers know which restaurants you have eaten at most recently, as well as encourage them to follow you on Foursquare.
- Nrelate Most Popular and Related Posts: These two plugins allow you to create backlink-free collections of the most popular posts on your site, as well as a collection of related posts at the bottom of each post. There are also built in monetization tools, which will swap out one of your own links for a paid link to another, related website.
- Widget Logic: Widget Logic allows complete customization of your sidebars, by conditionally showing widgets. You can choose single pages to show widgets on, or designate widgets to be shown only on the home page or on archive pages. It’s a great way to display different content based on which page your reader is on.
- WP-Pagenavi: Replaces WordPress’ default “Newer” and “Older” navigation links at the bottom of each post with a properly-formatted pagination system.
- WP Google Maps: This premium plugin allows you to create customized Google maps for embedding on your site, that can link back to other parts of your site. This is a great tool for building visual directories of restaurant reviews.
- WP Render Blogroll Links: As your blogroll grows in size, including it in the sidebar of every page can become a bit unwieldy. This plugin publishes your blogroll to its own WordPress page, freeing up valuable room in your sidebar.
Marketing, Promoting, and Generating Traffic for Your Food Blog
One of the biggest obstacles when starting a food blog is figuring out how to get people interested, and coming back to visit your blog each day. Without readers, it’s difficult to stay motivated, no matter how much you may think that you are doing this project just for yourself. If no one reads your blog, you may find that over time, your posts get further and further apart, which only makes people visit your site even less. We employ a multi-pronged approach to generating traffic:
Publish every day, or at least publish on a consistent schedule. As I mentioned way back in the introduction, the most important crucial step to attracting readers is to publish every single day. This keeps readers coming back, because they know that every time they hit your site, there will be a new piece of exciting content to read, or something delicious to cook. If you can’t publish every day, try to establish a schedule, publish that schedule, and then stick to it. I can’t stress this enough. When readers get the sense that your posts are becoming less frequent, or are arriving at irregular intervals, they will move along to something else.
Build relationships using comments and social media. This means more than just setting up a Facebook page, and auto-publishing your new posts to that page. At a minimum, you’ll want a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Google Plus page, Pinterest board or two, and probably an Instagram account. Post on them regularly, and encourage people to follow you using a good social media plugin that puts “share” buttons on every one of your posts. Post not just links to your new posts, but also short, everyday thoughts, food photos that may not warrant a full-blown post, and, perhaps most critically, links to the cool things that other bloggers are doing on their sites. Nobody likes a social media channel that just endlessly flogs the author’s own work; highlight what other people are doing, and cultivate relationships with other bloggers you admire. To that end, leaving the occasional comment on blog posts that you especially enjoyed means that people will probably return the favor with a visit to your site. Be sincere, and don’t leave cookie-cutter comments (one blogger I know always leaves comments like: “Wow! That’s one tasty looking [insert recipe name here]!” It’s insincere, and it’s annoying). By now, bloggers can smell link-building schemes from a mile away, so don’t bother interacting with another blogger’s post unless it truly moved you in some way.
Use Pinterest and “Food Porn” sites to share your best photos. Pinterest is the number one referrer of new visits to our website, by quite a wide margin. A post that goes viral on Pinterest can bring you traffic for years to come; as of this writing, our months-old post on how to make American cheese has been shared over 53,000 times on Pinterest, and continues to bring new visitors to our site every day.
Before the explosion of Pinterest, there were just two big names when it came to sharing photos of food on the Internet: Tastespotting and Foodgawker. The premise was simple. Write a recipe, take a picture of the finished product, and submit the photo to the two sites. Your submission is reviewed by an editor for quality (a sometimes maddening process with criteria that can seem arbitrary), and if your photo is published, the post will drive hundreds of visitors to your site.
The advent of Pinterest removed the editorial selection process from the equation, putting the power to choose which photos achieve Pinterest popularity directly in the hands of the users themselves. Tastespotting and Foodgawker can still drive traffic to your site, however, and taking a few minutes each day to submit your latest photographs is well worth your time. As the popularity of the sites has increased, editorial standards have gotten a bit stricter, which can make it tough to get your photograph published. If you’re having trouble getting published with Tastespotting or Foodgawker, try one of the dozens of copycats that have sprung up in their wake; most of them are hungry for submissions.
Work with other bloggers or offline media to swap guest posts. Introducing a new voice to your blog occasionally (as well as contributing a post to someone else’s site) is not just a great way to liven up your content; it’s a great way to promote yourself. Work the relationships you have made, and ask about guest blogging opportunities on other sites; a post about your killer pancake recipe with a link back to your own site can attract tons of new readers, who may turn into regular visitors. If you can land a guest post on a major website like Serious Eats, you’ll not only attract new readers to your site, but you’ll earn a valuable backlink, which will in turn raise your presence on the major search engines. You can also look for opportunities (which are often paid) to contribute to print publications; I am a regular contributor to a few print magazines, and though I can’t track how many people are coming to the site after reading my byline, I’m convinced that at least a few people have to be checking us out from those offline sources.
Consider paid placements. If you have a few dollars to spare, it’s easy to set up an advertising campaign on Facebook. Facebook provides sophisticated targeting, allowing you to show your advertisement only to specific geographic areas, or to users with specific interests. You can also set a daily spending cap, so that Facebook’s zillions of daily impressions don’t unexpectedly run up a huge bill. Google Adwords has a similar program that will allow you to get started advertising your site for just a few dollars per day.
Finally, track your results with a good statistics tool. In order to see which of your marketing methods are bringing the most traffic to your food blog, you’ve got to track your stats with a good tool. Google’s own Analytics tool is the gold-standard of free statistics tracking; a small snippet of code on your site tracks trends in your referrals (as well as several other complex metrics that, frankly, I don’t really use). Install it, and you’ll know more about your visitors and their surfing habits that you could ever dream of.
Improving Your Food Blog Photography
I’m always completely stunned at how many food blogs are illustrated entirely with amateurish, grainy, harshly-lit iPhone photographs (and you guys, those Instagram filters aren’t doing your food photos any favors, either). It’s not just tiny, independent websites that may not know any better; food blogs sponsored by major print publications still sometimes continue to employ cell phone-powered cameras as their only photographer.
Here’s the problem. Perhaps more than any other type of blogging, food blogging depends on at least passable photography. It’s not enough to be able to write compellingly about food; readers have been trained by food magazines and cookbooks to expect to be able to see your subject, whether you are talking about a recipe for cinnamon-swirl french toast, or the latest meal you had out at a local restaurant. As part of your passion for food, it is your obligation to learn to photograph it properly, so that your food looks as appealing as it tastes. What’s more, learning to take a good photo of food is indispensable for gaining entry to the high-traffic food photo sharing sites I mentioned earlier.
Food photography and styling is a specialized subset of regular photography that you can study for years. It’s one of the most challenging things to shoot (which is part of what makes getting a beautiful shot of food so satisfying). These days, competition in the world of food blog photography is fierce, where it can seem like every single other blogger on the planet is taking better photos than you are. At least, it seems that way to me, a lot of the time. I’m certainly not an expert, and my food photos have a long way to go, but here are some of the resources that have gotten me to at least a basic level of capability behind the lens:
Books on food photography that have helped me:
- Digital Food Photography by Lou Manna
An excellent entry-level book for “amateurs-plus,” that covers food photography, styling, science, and business.
- Food Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shots by Nicole S. Young
Provides the basics on getting the right camera equipment and takes you through the key photographic principles of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Also discusses lighting and composition, and shows how to style food using props, fabrics, and tabletops.
- Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Delores Custer
Any time I have something particularly difficult to style, I turn to this massive hardcover volume, my food styling bible.
Digital resources on food photography that have helped me:
- Confessions of a Foodie Bride’s Photography Series
The Foodie Bride presents tips that you can start using to improve your photos immediately, in an easy-to-follow and understand format. This series covers everything from basic lighting setups to prop styling.
- The Serious Eats Guide to Food Blog Photography
Shooting food photographs for a blog is different than shooting for a magazine or a print ad. Often, you’re dealing with low light, weird light, or other “in the field” problems. Serious Eats has written a great guide to tackling these issues.
- The Pioneer Woman’s Photography Blog
Though her hyper-oversaturated food photos kind of drive me mental, I stand in awe of Ree’s self-taught skill as a portrait and landscape photographer. Also, don’t miss her Photoshop action packs, which bring one-click tuneups to your photos.
- Pinch of Yum – Tasty Food Photography
One of the single most helpful books on food photography I have ever read, written by an accomplished food blogger (just like you!). Even better, all of the proceeds from the sale of the book go to charity, so you can hone your skills AND help a worthy charity at the same time.
- 7 Beginner Tips for Improving Your Food Photography
From the “shameless plug” department, check out this post I wrote covering inexpensive ways to immediately start taking better food photographs.
Making Money with Your Food Blog
This is one of the biggest questions I get asked about food blogging. If you’re investing your time every day, as well as your money (in the form of camera equipment and fancy meals), there’s got to be a way to make a living as a food blogger, right?
The short answer is: No.
The long answer is: But maybe. I’ll elaborate.
Unless you find a new way to hilariously combine photographs of cats with frozen food reviews, it’s unlikely that you will make a fortune food blogging. At least, not at first. In the beginning, you won’t even cover your ingredient costs. For most, it will take somewhere between two and five years of consistent, quality posts before you will have the opportunity to start making any kind of real money with your food blog (and by “real money,” I mean, “more than what you’ll pay for a few lattes”).
Why? Most ad networks work off the “CPM” model, or “Cost per Thousand” impressions of an ad banner. If you find a network that pays a $2 CPM, it means that for every thousand page impressions, you’ll earn two bucks. Get 10,000 pageviews, and you’ll earn twenty bucks. And if this seems like a reasonable way to make a living, you probably don’t live in a country where a gallon of milk costs four dollars. The simple truth is that until you have a lot of traffic, you are not going to make a living from your food blog.
Until you have at least 100,000 readers per month (and realistically, you could argue that you can’t make any real money from a food blog until your unique visits are more in the range of a million per month), those tiny checks from your different revenue streams aren’t going to amount to much. For the first few years of your blog’s life, focus on creating content that people will want to read, strengthening relationships with link partners, and honing your skills as a writer and photographer. When your traffic levels justify it, here are a few potential revenue streams for food bloggers. We use nearly all of them.
Join an ad network. In addition to running Google Adsense ads, there are many food blogging-specific ad networks to choose from, including FoodBuzz, Martha’s Circle, Glam Media, Federated Media, Six Apart Advertising, Technorati Media, SAY Media, and BlogAds. We have worked with some or all of these ad networks at one time or another, but our greatest success so far seems to have come from our relationship with BlogHer.
There are a few things that make BlogHer special. First, they have a huge sales team that is dedicated to selling your blog to potential advertisers. The relatively high level of quality of the sites in their network mean that BlogHer can pay a higher CPM, which can average as high as around $7 or $8 dollars, depending on the time of year. They have multiple ad sizes available (though there are some restrictions about where on your site you can place these ads). If they don’t have an ad inventory sufficient to fill the traffic your site gets, they will run either low-paying “remnant” ads, or, at your request, they will serve ads from your Google Adsense account automatically. This combination has so far been the most successful for us. Finally, there are special opportunities several times per month (which you will learn about via email) offering lump-sum payments for product reviews or promotional tweets about a particular product.
Sell ad space on the local level. If your food blog has a local bent, you may find success selling banner ad space to local companies. There are several WordPress plugins that will turn your food blog into a full-fledged adserver, but I am particularly fond of AdRotate. The features are too numerous to list here, but you have full control over your ads, including assigning “weights” to ads, randomizing their display, downloadable custom reports for your advertisers, and much more. Selling sponsorships back to the community that supports your blog can be an excellent bit of additional income.
Work your affiliate relationships. As a goal, aim to turn as many links as possible leading outward from your site into links that make you money. This can be as simple as signing up for an Amazon affiliate account and turning your book recommendations into paid links (though these don’t seem to pay much), to checking to see if any of the products you routinely recommend and endorse have affiliate programs that will pay for every new customer you send them. We’ve also been experimenting with a new technology called “VigLink.” The premise is simple: install a snippet of code on your site, and VigLink will automatically create unobtrusive affiliate links for as many of your outgoing clicks as possible, whether or not you have an existing affiliate account for that product. It’s an interesting way to work the affiliate angle, without signing up for dozens of accounts on your own.
Work for other people. As your food blog builds some momentum, you may find that one of its uses is as a sort of gigantic online portfolio. We have used our blog to pitch ideas to larger companies, as well as earn paid contributor positions with other websites and with offline print magazines. Your blog doesn’t have to be the way your blog makes money (if that makes any sense at all).
Write and sell an eBook. If you are an expert in your field, whether that’s photography or brownie baking, an eBook may be your ticket to making money with your food blog. The food photography eBook sold by the folks at Pinch of Yum, for example, has been very successful for them, adding around $1,000 dollars per month to their blog’s bottom line. The surge in popularity of tablets and eReaders has once again made eBook publishing (as well as the use of mIxed cApital lEtters) a viable method of publishing. There are tons of methods for turning your Microsoft Word file into an eBook, but Amazon’s own Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing is a great place to start researching.
Though food blogging may not provide the same direct path to fame, fortune, a multi-cookbook deal, and a show on the Food Network as it once did, there is still plenty of room for you to make your mark on this unique online community. Every day, people just like you pick up a camera, and start taking pictures of their latest meals or culinary creations. The best new food bloggers pair a dedication to their new blog, featuring regular updates and quality photography, with a compelling voice, whether serious, snarky, or funny.
Though you shouldn’t start a food blog under the mostly hilarious impression that you’ll soon be quitting your day job and blogging full-time, earning a bit of side income is certainly still possible. Those that are able to turn a food blog into a full-time job do so by treating their blog not simply as an online scrapbook of their cooking endeavors, but with the same level of professionalism and dedication that they would a full-time job. In fact, a successful food blog will require almost as much time to manage as a full time job.
Food blogging has rewards outside the realm of making lots of money (thank goodness!). As a successful food blogger, you can count on lots of people reading what you have to say each and every single day, which is certainly exciting. Most of all, though, our food blog gives us a reason to explore the culinary universe we currently inhabit. If it weren’t for the blog, we wouldn’t be cooking the interesting things we do, we wouldn’t be going out to dinner nearly as often, and we certainly wouldn’t be going out on giant 100-year-old ships to eat galley-cured gravalax. Our food blog has made us really consider food, really examine why we like the things we do, all while becoming more educated customers, better photographers, and better writers in the process. It’s worth it.
Next Steps/For Further Reading
Now that I’ve either confirmed your desire to become a food blogger (or made you rethink the whole idea), here are some resources for continuing to do research and to learn more:
- How to Support Yourself as a Food Blogger by Amateur Gourmet
Provides a great overview of some ways to get your food blog to make money.
An ongoing collection of helplful articles and advice for both established and aspiring food bloggers.
- Food Blog Alliance
Some of the biggest names in the food blogging world offering expert advice on the issues unique to food blogging.
- Food Blog Code of Ethics
A basic overview of the “rules” of food blogging. Ethical food blogging, that is.
- A Brief History of Food Blogs
Saveur magazine’s very thorough visual history of food blogging.
Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through those links. I have used each and every one of the products or services listed above, and recommend them based on my positive experience with them, not because of the commissions that I may earn from your use of their services.