Theories

There’s a little theory we’ve been working on, which you can feel free to either test out, or disregard completely. I’m just going to come out and say it:

Consider scheduling your Facebook posts for off-peak times.

I know, I know. This runs counter to every bit of common sense you have, which tells you to obviously schedule your posts for the times where most of your readers are online.

Facebook Insights Chart Displaying Peak Page Activity Times
Facebook Insights Chart Displaying Peak Page Activity Times

Using the chart above, we can see that our blog’s fan page gets hit with the most people between three and six in the afternoon. That makes it seem like the ideal time to post, right?

But here’s the idea. It’s possible, just possible, that more people will eventually see your post if you schedule it for off-peak times. The reasons for this are twofold.

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There’s a big difference between your food blog after year one, and your food blog after year four. The very nature of this business means that your site is constantly changing and adapting to meet the new needs of your ever-evolving status as a food blogger. After year four, you may have not just hundreds (or thousands) of posts to manage, but you may also find yourself juggling multiple advertisers, a few e-books (or maybe even a book that someone published), a couple of contributing writers, newsletter signup forms, comment widgets, social media counters, and tons of other little graphic elements all on the front page of your site, all competing for the eyeballs of a visitor that may stay on your site for only a few seconds.

Here’s the thing: Your blog is probably exhausting.

It’s exhausting for you, the blogger, who is put in the position of managing all of those ad placements, static pages, and other content. And it’s probably even more exhausting for your readers, who may be left with no safe places to rest their eyes, anywhere on your page.

Want to see what I’m talking about? Here’s a screenshot of our site, From Away, on the eve of its fourth birthday:

fa-screen

So loud! So busy! So shouty! In an effort to communicate the full breadth of our content, while driving readers to social media, we’d ended up with a site that was too loud, too busy, and too hard to look at. What happened? How did we get here?

It’s a natural road to go down, when you’re trying to entice readers to perform a few tasks native to food blogging. I realized, that by the end of year four of food blogging, I was honestly expecting readers to:

  1. Share our posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest
  2. Sign up for our newsletter
  3. “Like” our various social profiles
  4. Click on an advertising banner or two
  5. Leave a comment on a few posts
  6. Buy a copy of our book, and if there was still time…
  7. Explore our hundreds of pages of archived content

That’s an awful lot to ask from someone, isn’t it? My own mother loves me more than anything in the world, and even she wouldn’t do all of those things, no matter how much she wants to support our site.

In fact, it seemed like the more we asked of our readers, the less they actually did. Comments were way down, social media “likes” had slowed, and newsletter opt-ins were lagging.

So beginning today, we’re trying something a little bit different. Yes, even at the potential expense of lost traffic or revenue.

We’re making a focused effort to calm down. To step back. To give our readers, and ourselves, some room to breathe. To remember why we first started blogging in the first place.

Here’s the new version of the site:

New Site

Aaaaaaaaaaah. Do you see all that beautiful, relaxing whitespace? We’ve stripped out some of the ads. We’ve calmed down the pleas for social media follows, likes, and shares. We’ve looked at every element of the site, and tried to ask ourselves if it really needs to be there, before putting it back in place, with a focus on keeping our photographs at the center of your attention. The result is, hopefully, a calmer, saner place to read about some delicious food, and maybe have a chuckle here and there.

We’ll never get away from banner ads and social media entirely. But it felt like it was time to reevaluate the whole project. After all, we’re not a portal with hundreds of authors, like Serious Eats. We don’t have millions of readers, like Pioneer Woman. And we’re not a clickbait site, like Foodbeast. We’ll probably never get to turn From Away into our full-time job.

And you know what? Maybe we never should. Instead, we’re refocusing on what has mattered most to us from the very beginning: Taking great photos, learning about cooking, and using food to tell stories.

Breaking the site free from the shackles of incremental revenue generation and begging for social media shares feels good, so far. Our gamble is that, even though traffic and income may take a hit, our readers will appreciate being treated with just a tiny bit more respect, and not as clicking, sharing machines. We’ll let you know how it goes.

By now, it’s clear to anyone that markets their food blog on Facebook that their organic “reach” (that is, the percentage of your page’s fans that actually see your updates) has dropped to near-uselessness. While two years ago, pages could expect about 15-20% of their “fans” to see a given update, that number is now approaching an officially-stated target of around 1-2%.

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Like most food bloggers, I want to do everything I can to stop thieves from stealing my photography and using it on their own websites. After all, if I take the time shop for ingredients, cook, set up lighting, shoot, and edit my photos, it seems only reasonable that I would get to enjoy the sole benefit of their use on the internet, without worrying about some unscrupulous jerk stealing the pictures and posting them all over the place.

Like many food bloggers, I have been watermarking my photos with a small, unobtrusive text link that mentioned my website’s name, rendered at about 30% opacity so as not to detract from the beauty and composition of the photograph. I’ve been doing that for about two years, and I’m going to stop. Here are my reasons why:

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Yelp. TripAdvisor. Google Local. Restaurants and food business are receiving online reviews, both positive and negative, from customers every single day. Often, these reviews are some of the first search results that pop up when a new customer begins conducting research about a restaurant online. But how much emphasis should owners and managers be placing on review and reputation management, when they’re already juggling several social media profiles, working on offline advertising initiatives, and, uh, also finding time to cook?

The answer may surprise you. Thanks to this new infographic that aggregates statistics from AdAge, Nielsen, Marketing Sherpa, and some of the biggest names in online behavior and metrics, we have a much clearer picture of what online reviews mean for restuarants. For example:

  • 70% of people consult reviews/ratings before purchasing.
  • 75% of reviews posted on review websites are positive.
  • Nearly 84% of people said they would trust a friend’s review over a critic’s.
  • Reviews drive 18% higher loyalty, and 21% higher purchase satisfaction
  • 71% agree that consumer reviews make them more comfortable that they are buying the right product/service
  • Perhaps most significantly, 95% of unhappy customers will return to your business if an issue is resolved quickly and efficiently.

There are two key messages here which are overwhelming:

First, that online reviews are an absolutely vital part of the decision making process, when it comes to attracting new customers or driving sales. Consumers are actively looking for reviews of restaurants online; in fact, these reviews make up a huge part of an establishment’s overall online identity. Most of the reviews being written by these consumers are positive, and there is overwhelming evidence that these reviews can drive new business.

The most important message, however, is that even negative reviews online can be used to a restaurant’s advantage. If a restaurant works hard to address a negative reviewers’ concerns, 95% them will return to that business, and they may even update their review, provide followup, or take to Twitter or Facebook to share their (now positive!) experience with that particular brand.

Online reviews, both positive and negative, provide opportunities to interact with existing and potential customers, and turn even critics of a restaurant into loyal brand ambassadors. Any reviews that appear online provide an opportunity, and we only wish more restauranteurs would devote more time and attention to cultivating these reviews.

As we’ve discussed previously in these pages, Foodgawker and Tastespotting (and indeed, all of the so-called “food porn” sites) seem to be at a real crossroads. During their heyday, an approved submission to Foodgawker or Tastespotting would add thousands of visitors to your daily traffic stats, or even more if your photo was voted up into “favorite” status for the week.

Now, however, the numbers have changed. With so much competition among food bloggers and the general skill level of amateur food photographers sharply on the rise, getting a photo published on one of these sites can be a major challenge. And even if your submission is approved,  the major sites now bring mere hundreds, rather than thousands, of new visits to your site.

My suspicion is that much of the traffic enjoyed by these sites has moved to Pinterest.

Pinterest has emerged with guns blazing, quickly rising to become the top referrer of new traffic to many food blogs, traffic whose flow used to be controlled by the major food photo sharing websites. All Pinterest did was democratize the process; instead of a bunch of faceless editors judging each of the gorgeous sandwich photos you  submit by an increasingly puzzling set of criteria, a photo’s success or failure is determined solely by users of the service.

So now that it’s harder than ever to get a photo published on Foodgawker or Tastespotting, and now that even a published photo is generating fewer visits than ever before, the question becomes: Does taking the time to submit your photos to the major food porn sites still make sense?

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Food Blogger

Recently, in a review on our site of a pizza restaurant, a commenter noted that pizza was a sacred beast, and that “acting like we [knew] better” was unacceptable. It’s a refrain you sometimes hear repeated among local chefs and the owners of local food-oriented businesses (even though such comments alienate what I would think to be a fairly important demographic for their business); that food bloggers are self-important idiots, with no training or education, spouting off on the Internet about food, without the needed qualifications and background, be it in the food service industry, a professional career in print media food reviewing, or otherwise, with no right to comment on the food prepared in their kitchens.

So the question is: Are food bloggers qualified to write about food?

The short answer is: Usually. I’ll elaborate.

Does a food blogger need to have a background in the restaurant industry in order to write compelling reviews and opinion on food? While a bit of back-of-the-house experience may provide a writer with some different insights into the process of food preparation and presentation, I don’t think having been a dishwasher somewhere necessarily makes them more qualified to write about food than anyone else.

Anyone who eats out at a restaurant, anyone who gets their coats on, shuffles out the door, gets the car parked, and basks in the company of strangers for 90 minutes, while sipping cocktails and throwing themselves at the mercy of a stranger, a stranger who cooks, for that person, their take on delicious food, has the right to comment on that experience. Some people will do it informally, and in just a few words. Those people drop a few notes on Yelp or Urbanspoon and get on with their lives. Others get into more heated discussions on Chowhound, using a bit of a longer form to get their ideas across. Some type their thoughts into their blog, giving an opportunity for even more at-length discussion of a particular topic, whether it is a restaurant, a recipe, or the weather. The best dining patrons are so good at thinking about food that they write their thoughts down on paper, and those thoughts get published in a newspaper and read by hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people.

These people, though the outlet for their thoughts, and the scope of their audience, may be different, all have one thing in common: They don’t want to shovel any old thing into their mouths, and wait for their next meal. Food is not about fuel, for them, and they relish the opportunity to think about what they are eating, about why they enjoy the things they like; it is our job to notice the flourishes a chef puts into a dish, as well as the way the restaurant, the waitstaff, hell, even the kind of day we were having, made us feel about our meal. Food writers at all levels put great thought into each chew, and I would think a chef who takes care in his food, would appreciate a customer who takes care to notice.

If anything, amateur food bloggers are at least as passionate, or perhaps more passionate, about their subject than professional reviewers. A restaurant critic for a major newspaper enjoys meals that are either comped by the restaurant or paid for by the paper, a tidy paycheck, and local or even national recognition for the cleverness with which they craft a metaphor about the flavor of a certain cheese.

Food bloggers see few of those rewards: We eat out more than most of our non-blogging peers, paying for meals out of pocket. The demand for fresh content on a website means that we aren’t visiting a restaurant 3 or 4 times, and then lounging around in our jammies for days, smoking a pipe, while we consider whether the pico de gallo on our halibut was “piquant” or simply “poignant.” We need to be constantly cooking, dining out, writing, editing, and moving right along to the next piece. We often spend thousands of dollars on fancy photo and lighting equipment. We spend hours responding to comments and writing each day, to publish our work on a website that we spend more hours designing and maintaining, which, in the grand scheme of things, nobody reads.

For us, perhaps more than any other category of food writer, a real love of subject is key to why we do what we do. Often, I don’t know my ass from my elbow, and I haven’t been shy about that. I don’t know how to properly butterfly a chicken. I don’t take the best food photos anyone has ever laid eyes on. I’m still trying to learn the finer points of talking about food without describing it. But at least I’m thinking about it, and trying to figure out why I like the things I like. Hopefully, those that read our reviews find that our tastes align in some areas, even while they diverge in others. Anyone who is willing to think constructively about food, about why they like the things they do, about the way food makes them feel, has the “right” to write about it, and again, I would expect chefs to welcome a customer that passionate, thoughtful, and considerate about what they are eating into their restaurants with open arms.

Photo: lesleyk