OFFICIAL LIVE BLOG - Session #2 (1 pm - 2:15 pm), Vocation Track: "Your Blog is what?"

Session Description:

Ever wonder how some of today's most prominent food bloggers got to where they are today? We're talking cookbooks, TV appearances, regular columns in mainstream print media, consulting...all as a direct result of their blogging work. Learn from these high-achieving foodbloggers the hard work and practical actions behind their success. Topics to be covered include:

  • How your blog can represent you, your personal brand, and your work in the world
  • How to blog like a professional, before you've earned a single dollar from or because of your blog
  • How to put yourself out there and build meaningful business relationships via online communities and offline events
  • How to build authentic community, both with other bloggers and with potential business partners
  • How to help the right people find your great blog, including easy, practical tips for using simple SEO and social media tools

  • Amy Sherman moderates a full-disclosure discussion with Jaden Hair and Helen Dujardin, as all three of these blogging professionals talk about the hard work that goes into being an "overnight success"!

    Session Liveblog:

    (The session is standing room only -- people are sitting on the floor throughout the room.)

    Amy: We're talking about your blog but also your career - the three panelists have stories to tell about how blogging has changed where they're going in life in wonderful and unexpected ways. The panel's more of a conversation -- she's a panelist/moderator -- with everyone introducing themselves. First they'll discuss blogging and their blogs, careers and working, and the world beyond their own blogs/careers -- the community at large. We'll be taking questions as we go -- no need to hold questions to the end.

    Jaden: Steamy Kitchen is her blog -- it's two and a half years old; the original purpose was keep track of recipes recited by her mom over the phone. Originally just her and her recipes, with no readers except her husband and mother-in-law -- she now blogs professionally, is a food columnist for Tampa Tribune, is on a syndicated show called "Daytime" a few times a month, will be working with Discovery/TLC on TLC Cooking, and the Steamy Kitchen cookbook comes out in two weeks (a lot of work!).

    Helen: Tartelette is three years old - she started after she quit her job as an executive pastry chef; she didn't know what to do but knew it was going to be with pastry. Her mom suggested she start a blog/catalogue of her recipes, with blogging the easiest way to keep pictures and recipes together. (While Mom suggested it, she has never commented -- doesn't know how! Her brother comments as Mom.) It grew in readers and people left comments, she started meeting more people, and it grew from there. It started with small writing gigs, small photography jobs, and got bigger and bigger... into what it is now. It's now one day at a time -- writing, photography, blogging.

    Amy: She's been blogging since 2003 -- she started the blog for the fun of it, as a creative outlet -- she never intended it as a career move. She's very happy to say it's changed her entire career - she's now a cook book author, professional recipe developer, food writer, she writes for magazines, has had paid blogging jobs (Epicurious to Glam to KQED)...

    Amy to Jaden: What is a professional blogger, and what does that mean to you?

    Jaden: It is her full time job, with the blog always at the center of it. Steamy Kitchen is always the center -- no editor, she doesn't have to answer to anyone. Everything points back to -- she treats it as a business, as it's the big bulk of her income.

    Helen: She never thought the blog would become the center of her career, but it is -- it's her full-time job. She's starting to see the up, little by little, but everything centers back to Tartelette. You are your own boss -- a lot of discipline but a lot of reward at same time.

    Amy: She uses her blog as her portfolio of recipes and writing -- her blog is not a profession, but a portfolio, which helps people find her. She has a PageRank of 6 which helps people find her versus her personal site.

    There are different ways to approach this in terms of professional blogging -- but how does money play a part? Without numbers, what's the percentage of income?

    Jaden: She first started running ads with FoodBuzz -- they pay a minimum depending on so many page views. Originally the blog income was 100%, but she now does so much freelance that it's fifty-fifty.

    Helen: She just now put up ads a couple of months ago.

    Amy: She still no ads on her blog.

    Helen: It's about 50-50 ads/freelance, but moving more towards freelance -- 70% work 30% ads.

    Amy: No ads at all, but she uses Amazon links -- her site is an ad for HER. She doesn't want to distract anyone, as she would rather be hired than paid for eyeballs.

    Since a lot of people are looking for income, do you think there's a minimum for how much it's worth the hassle of running ads?

    Jaden: It's always worth it -- 50 bucks is 50 bucks!

    Helen: Since I'm my own boss, I want to be in control of where ads are, where I put them. How much control do I maintain over it?  To me, ads aren't intrusive - they're separated, everyone knows they're ads.

    Question: What do you mean by a network?

    Helen: Vertical networks, ad networks.

    Jaden: It's no work because you put the ad code in once, and everything else is managed by the network. It's not something you have to maintain yourself if you don't want to.

    Question: We just put ads up -- we're all picky about what goes, as food bloggers -- how do you balance the "look, you're getting money" versus the "oh, it's not what I want"?

    Jaden: Go with a network like BlogHer or FoodBuzz to get the good ads.

    Jory (from audience): You can opt out -- if you're a vegetarian, you don't have to run meat ads.

    Helen: I have a pastry blog -- I don't want steak on my blog! We can stick to sugar!

    Amy: During the election, there were ads on blogs that people didn't want there -- there was a massive takedown of Google ads that were politically upsetting. You are the ad manager -- no one else is managing them. You have to pay attention. A lot of people switch between networks.

    Jaden: Some pay you based on inventory, some pay you guaranteed. She would rather have a guarantee versus based on inventory, since it's such a big percentage of her income. FoodBuzz and Cooking Village pay based on guarantee.

    Amy: What about the non-monetary ways blog has helped with your career -- Helen was a pastry chef, so has her blog led to new professional opportunities?

    Helen: She's done cooking in personal homes -- becoming a bit of a private chef. They knew her from the restaurant and followed the blog, and others who wanted to know if she wanted to cater. She's been offered lots of jobs out of state -- "If you pay me, I'll travel!" Her blog was used almost as a menu. Writing gigs -- she's done writing for online magazines that paid in coupons/gift certificates ("we can't pay you but we like you"). Photography jobs have been coming out of it. She's still doing a little bit of each -- now shadowing in kitchens.

    Jaden: Traditional media has cut budget, cut their staff, and they want to connect with people online. She saw the hole there, and approached traditional media -- print, TV, etc. She went to her local newspaper and offered them her content once a month for free. She went to her local ABC affiliate and offered to come to their morning news program and cook. Then bigger and bigger newspapers and TV stations called. There's so much opportunity out there right now -- if it's not online, look offline. Look at your community and what kind of value can you add.

    Amy: They're two different personalities and styles in pursuing opportunity. Helen received it, Jaden went out and searched for it. There's a little bit of a mix of both for Amy -- for example, she wrote about Jacques Pepin, linked to his TV shows, and KQED noticed the traffic coming from her blog -- they didn't have a blog, contacted her, invited her to blog for KQED, and so she helped set up the KQED blog. She wrote once a week for about six months for free, then quit. Two weeks later, they offered to pay her.

    At the beginning, you look at different opportunities differently. She was asked to develop recipes for Dannon -- they asked her to create thirteen original recipes using plain yogurt, including blogs and photos, and she got paid $5,000.00. "I'm changing my career today!" Lo and behold, most clients don't pay like that. She's done a lot of corporate recipe development, but not all of it pays like that.

    She had to learn what's reasonable to charge for recipes so she doesn't undercut others, but sometimes you do what you have to do. She's gone to the Fancy Food Shows, has gone out proactively and asked to work with companies -- "you supply with product, I'd like to develop a recipe for myself and my blog", and if they like her work, they'll think about her when they do have the budget. Sometimes her page rank has been bigger than her clients, and the visibility and traffic from her was a big deal and exposure to them.

    Helen: When first started getting gigs and jobs, i was amazed and surprised -- if there's one coming in, I can get four. It makes you want to get out there and do it.  You have to get out there, that's where it is.

    Amy: There's one big takeaway from this panel -- putting yourself out there. Blogging is great, it's wonderful, it opens doors, but you have to impress people in person when you meet them. If you don't take advantage of those opportunities, you're missing out. You get even more if you put yourself out there. Step away from the computer.

    On building a better blog -- we've reached level of critical success with the blog alone. How do you make sure people find you? How do you build your traffic or reach the right people?

    Jaden: I go out and find it -- if there's people I want to meet or get to know, I'll go to their blog. I'll find them on Twitter. Create relationships and start conversations. Be a part of BlogHer. Network all of the time. It's not "build a blog and people find you" -- there are so many food blogs out there! The space is getting crowded, with so much content -- it's all about being proactive and authentically so. So yes, create connection and relationships, but it's got to come from authenticity.

    Amy: We have online friends becoming offline friends -- We know the bad ways to go about making online friends, like don't ask people to comment or link to your post. What are the good ways to make friends?

    Jaden: Invite them to Club Med? (Laughter.) Twitter is one of the best tools out there for casual, noncommital conversations -- it doesn't require response every time. Of all the opportunities that have come up for her, probably 80% have come from meeting people on Twitter. CBS came from Twitter. She's working with lots of clients -- brand clients -- from Twitter.

    Amy: Who's on Twitter? (Pretty much all hands go up.)

    Helen: There are days she's on Twitter way too much. Be careful, don't let it eat up all of your time, but then opportunities come up. People she didn't know existed needed her -- she didn't know her newspaper was on Twitter. A chef needed a pastry chef -- "I don't have one tonight!", left the number to contact him, and he paid her double. Photographers who need assistants will tweet about it. Be careful responding to the opportunities, but you learn what's around you and what's beyond what's around one.

    Leave comments! Visit food blogs -- people you know and like, people you don't know yet. From pastry to vegan to vegetarian to pork -- just make the connection. It's about establishing a rapport with people whether they come back or not.

    Jaden: Be real, not blowing through with "great recipe, thanks!" Ask a question, be compelled, add value in your comments.

    Helen: "Love your blog" -- "thank you?" She wants to have conversations. She also believes in participating in events -- Sugar High Friday, "does my blog look good in this" -- participate and share.

    Jaden: Daring Cooks and Daring Bakers.

    Helen: Host blog events as well, volunteer to host an event that will bring traffic. Email the person in charge and offer to host. Sugar High Fridays are one event -- once-a-month, theme, usually about desserts -- create a recipe, photograph it. Is My Blog Burning, Sticky Date. It's about getting to meet people and getting to try new recipes. It's great for the hostess if you offer to host -- she gets to take a break -- and it's great for you, since you get the traffic and the community.

    Amy: Wednesdays with Dorrie is another (Audience: Tuesdays with Dorrie!). Is My Blog Burning -- it's mostly defunct now, but that sort of thing. Try hosting an event, and come up with your own if you notice a thread -- if certain people are blogging a certain cookbook, for example. National Pomegranate Month is coming up!

    Helen: Get a friend involved and team up. She and a friend teamed up for a donut event. Everybody loves donuts! Biggest traffic days are donut days.

    Amy: Need traffic? Post donuts.

    Helen: Chocolate and donuts. They separated entries, easier to post, worked together on it. Great for community -- they both got new readers.

    Amy: It's about conversation and relationships. Develop relationships with your community. She's very enthusiastic about local bloggers -- and so she wanted to meet them offline. So many people in SF Bay Area, and they had a food blogger get-together. Go out for coffee, talk to people, get to know people. Make it legitimate, make it real. You'll get so many rewards from it.

    Her approach to Twitter - do I want to be informative or entertaining? She's going with informative, so that others can find some value in it. She worked on a campaign with FoodBank -- wouldn't it be great to do something with bloggers? They did one on National Hunger Awareness Month -- the Food Stamp challenge. They recruited a handful of people who lived on food stamp budget ($3 a day or so, last year) to raise awareness and money. She developed recipes, and put out tweet about Hunger Challenge. Tyson Foods monitors "hunger" as a keyword, saw her tweet, and wanted to get involved. They made a 200,000 pound donation to six local Bay Area food banks. You don't know who's listening when you're tweeting -- someone may be looking for keywords. If it's valuable to you, it could be valuable to someone else.

    She's happy to connect with people on Twitter where "I don't think they'd take my phone call". It's a good way to make connections that may be hard to reach -- Rick Bayliss, etc. Email can be overwhelming -- sometimes it's better to reach her on Twitter than through email.

    Jaden: Biggest Twitter advice: follow everyone that follows you. Social media is two-ways. She has almost 20K followers, and she manages it with Tweetdeck and separate columns: close friends, mentions, direct messages, everybody else. She checks over once in a while to get a glimpse of what's happening. If you want to really use Twitter as a tool, then follow every single person that follows you.

    From Audience: Beware of Twitter spammers, though!

    Jaden: There's spam no matter what, and I just unfollow.

    Amy: General etiquette is to follow back; she doesn't use Tweetdeck, does feel overwhelmed at times and so she does go through and unfollow. People she pays attention to are interesting -- entertaining or informing. Regardless of how many people you follow, make sure your tweets are thoughtful. Make what you're saying valuable and interesting and entertaining. (David Lebovitz' Twitter particularly entertaining!)

    From Audience: What about sites like Tastespotting and Food Gawker?

    Helen: I use Food Gawker more than Tastespotting because I know Chuck (owner of Food Gawker), so there's the relationship there. Also looked at the traffic and Food Gawker was bringing more traffic. Tastespotting, off and on. She doesn't submit all the time.

    Amy: Who's not familiar with these sites?

    Helen: Food Gawker and Tastespotting is a place to showcase your newest blog post in a picture. Share a picture and a link to your blog and a short description. It brings exposure and traffic. Submission has to be in focus -- it's hard to be attractive if the picture is out of focus.

    Amy: Food blogging is a very visual type of world, and these are very visual sites. Go to these sites and take a look. It's like a magazine where you see a whole bunch of food porn. Beautiful photographs -- one snapshot of very recent posts. Really beautifully done and addictive. It's a nice way to get a sense of what's out there in a given day in the food blog world.

    Jaden: They send a lot of traffic. She doesn't post regularly to those now, but the largest traffic came from them when she did. -- great way to get easy and fast traffic, and to get to know other food bloggers. Great way to find other recipes, too.

    Amy: You really do have to have excellent photos -- you get specific feedback when you're rejected. They have super-high standards.

    Question: Recipe compilation sites -- how do you balance your desire to get out there without compromising the originality of your own stuff? A photo and a link are one thing, but a recipe? How do you maintain the integrity of own blog?

    Jaden: It's up to each of you -- to some people community is about sharing and giving and taking and getting to know people. If that's the case, share your recipes. Some people would rather keep it to themselves.

    Helen: People do print and distribute. Don't think "it's mine" -- if you put it up, it's out there. You want to retain originality. It's something I have to remember to do (to submit to these sites) on top of my regular blogging. Food Gawker etc. are great for traffic and getting to know what's out there. It's also a good way to discover new blogs and recipes.

    Amy: What about giving content away? What do you do when you don't get compensated? There are "unlimited opportunities to work for free...!" What kind of guidance do you have about guest-posting, photo and recipe usage? Does it matter who's asking?

    Helen: It depends on how the question is asked -- they don't know my name, they don't know what I write, it goes in the "we'll see later" folder. She has a great relationship with an online magazine, so she gives them content for free.

    Amy: Why did you say yes?

    Helen: They sent a personal email. They didn't try to butter her up -- you can smell those. Just a really well-written email. They left some of it up to her to participate or not. Very honest. She loved how they put their content up, likes the relationship, and opportunities are coming from it. You will get "farm emails" -- she's not sure how to read them properly for the opportunities that could be in there.

    Amy: You can smell them a mile away when it's very canned, and when they're not flexible and sharing too-good-to-be-true visitor numbers.

    Helen: If you have all of this traffic you're saying in the email, why do you need mine?

    Jaden: There are only so many hours in a day -- is this worth my time? Sometimes it's about building community. With time stretched so thin, being so busy and with so many opportunities out there that she no longer does free content. Every post takes 4 to 6 hours for one recipe from grocery to writing, testing, photographing. Am I willing to spend 6 hours on a post for nothing? No. But at the point where so many opportunities she can turn some down. For beginning bloggers, is this worth six hours of my time, and what am I getting out of it? Who's reading it? You never know who's going to pick it up...

    Amy: It's about three things: Cash, credibility, or visibility. Is there cash? Does it pay well? Does it give you credibility, like being associated with KQED? How long do I need to write for them? Visibility -- Food52 is "nice little pool to splash around in". Amanda Hesser's looking at it, after all. She's Not a big fan of AllRecipes -- if you don't have a blog, that's fine, but don't steal other people's blog recipes and stick them on there!

    The more you do this, the more you become a professional, and you have certain responsibilities as a professional -- don't give stuff away for free. Another client after Dannon asked how much she charged for recipe development; she wasn't sure of her rates, so she called SF Professional Food Society. "I'm so glad you're calling me -- people who don't know how much to charge and undercut the professionals' going rate." You charge less for your work, you hurt everyone else. When you take professional opportunities, act like a professional. Reach out to someone who can tell you.

    Question: Media businesses keep popping up on getting content for free -- as a freelance writer with a blog-as-portfolio, exposure doesn't pay the bills! People are coming in as novices and undercutting the pros. Be careful about what you give away in opportunities, because these careers will fade away.

    Amy: Your work does have value.

    Helen: Some people don't want to pay photographers, they ask for blog photos. Don't just give them away when you know they can pay! It drops your fee because people will say "hey, I can get it somewhere else for cheaper". It hurts all of us.

    Jaden: I started by giving it away, though.

    Helen: Yes, but be firm, judicious, and picky about it.

    Amy: If you're not sure about it, and someone contacts you -- listen to your gut. "No, they can pay me" versus "Yes, of course". If you're not sure about it, ask another blogger who you know has been in that spot before. Have the conversations, ask around, especially when it's a big commitment.

    Jaden: Do your homework. Go to Alexa and find out how much traffic this offering site is really getting. Find out some stats. Are you realistically going to benefit from this?

    Question: What about Alexa numbers being wonky? People put a lot of emphasis on Alexa.

    Amy: Go with PageRank versus Alexa and Technorati.

    Jaden: Look at the trends and comparisons, not at the rankings.

    Amy: A lot of sites just guess -- PageRank is all that really matters.

    Question: What about using Typepad? What about different blogging platforms?

    Jaden: She uses Wordpress.

    Helen: Blogger!

    Amy: Blogger, totally.

    Helen: Blogger's totally great for non-geeks.

    Amy: She's basically used all platforms -- she's tried lots of different platforms, with all different strengths and weaknesses, but because she doesn't look so much at the money or traffic side, it doesn't really matter to much to her. If your programmer feels strongly about it, talk to them about it. "Do I need to move over?"

    Helen: Go with what's comfortable. The way I function, Blogger works better than Wordpress for me. If anything, back up your files, always. Download your whole blog and save it from time to time. Do it, it's important. Especially if it's more than a hobby.

    Amy: Offline events! The relationships that we make beyond the blog are really important. We're so busy with SEO and platforms that we don't really talk about networking. How the relationship bloomed by meeting in real life.

    Jaden: Great to meet everyone here without having to type - amazing! Go to blogging conferences. When you're invited to press events, go. You never know who you'll meet.

    Amy: She's a big believer in responding to those emails inviting you to things. Everyone's getting some email from their blog now -- things to go to, interview opportunities. You don't really know what you're going to get until you actually get out there. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Her big break was writing for Epicurious -- it was how she got her first cookbook deal. Cold pitches to these places aren't so great, and don't go so far. She met Epicurious by going to a dinner in San Francisco and getting an interview opportunity. She did several posts on the interviews, followed up with emails, thanked her, and then asked "hey, any opportunities here?" "Yes, of course!" If she'd emailed out of the blue? No response, for sure. But she built up a relationship and got a cookbook deal. Go to things that sound boring. "It's like dating -- you don't know until you get out there if it's going to be a waste of time or not." Even if you think it's not going to be interesting, you might meet someone there. You just don't know until you go.

    Question: Do you answer all of those emails?

    Amy: Look at each one, unfortunately -- it's triage in your inbox. You never know! Even if it's not right for your blog itself, but if you're writing in various places, they might apply somewhere else. Can you forward it to someone? Is it interesting to someone else? But it does take time to look at all of these pitches and see if they're useful or not.

    Helen: Her motto is "Why not?" "That's how I ended up in the States and how I married my husband!" You never know! "Why not? Let's talk." She never realized the resources in her own town. We always think big, bigger, huge! Tons of people are willing to hear your story. She called a restaurant and asked a friend she'd like to interview, and offered it to a paper; it got rejected, but still there was interest in her work. Why not? Don't be shy; what's the worst they're going to say? There's always something else. It's a no right now, not a no forever.

    Amy: As a multiple career-changer, the food people are really nice. It's very competitive and not always pretty, but in general people who care about food are interesting people. They have lots of interests, they like food, they like pleasure, they like caring for other people, they like experiments. It's always going to be a good time at a food event!

    Helen: She didn't realize someone was in her town; they run a tech start-up and they're doing small presentations, and asked her if she would like to do one on food photography? So she researched it, said yes; they don't pay, but it was a community event she didn't realized existed, and lots of passionate people will be there. "The Bacon Guy" is going to be there, and so she's teaming up with him on bacon food photography. What's in your town? It's a great way to connect.

    Amy: You're gaining a valuable connection, and visibility with a new audience.

    Helen: Other pros will be there, the newspaper will be there, other photographers... other people will be there. It's going to take an entire day, but it's worth it. Who knows?

    Amy: The blog opens the door and starts the conversation, but the deal is sealed in person with the actual relationships and connections. You wouldn't hire a babysitter without a personal recommendation.

    Jaden: Three pieces of advice:

    - If this is what you want as a career, treat it as a business. Incorporate. Pay your taxes. Get a board of advisors. Intern at a bigger blog.
    - Write a business plan. Make a vision board of everything you want for your business or your life. Frame it, hang it; it's much more interesting than a business plan. Always know where you're going and where you want to go.
    - Stretch beyond the blog. Contact your traditional media. Be the leader in your community for food. Pick up the phone, go to the small newspapers, the small local TV stations. They're in desperate need of help for new content and advice (Amy: Some more than others! Maybe not in San Francisco, but definitely smaller markets).

    Helen: Shower and get dressed. Get in a business frame of mind. You're working on your own, you have to be disciplined. Make a schedule -- just like going to school. Get in the frame of mind for the day.

    Know what you want to do -- yes, it's great to be on TV, but is this what you want to do? She doesn't think she wants to be on TV, as she's not comfortable for it, but she's okay with realizing that. You may not be good at it all, and that's okay. Focus on your strengths.

    Thank you!