While many publishers are trying to find new content streams within the retail sector, few have managed to marry the two worlds of content and commerce like Food52.
First launched in 2009 as a small online food community, Food52 now has an average of 11m monthly visitors across various platforms, including an impressive 1.7m followers on Instagram. Meanwhile, it generates two-thirds of its revenue from sales in its online shop.
So, how has it managed to create such dual success? Here’s an in-depth look into the publisher, and what others experimenting with commerce might be able to learn from it.
Fusing content and community
As former food editor of the New York Times, Food52’s CEO and co-founder, Amanda Hesser, undoubtedly knows a thing or two about food publishing. In 2009 she teamed up with freelance food writer and recipe tester, Merrill Stubbs, to create a food website aimed at ‘home cooks’.
More specifically, Food52 aims to reach an audience of home cooks who – alongside recipes – also care about food within a wider context, such as how it fits in with a modern lifestyle, its visual appeal, and how it makes people feel.
In order to do this, instead of a straight-forward recipe hub or editorial website, Food52 uses a combination of professional articles and user-generated content. So, alongside feature articles, you’ll also find regular submissions from its 1m registered contributors, and even a site ‘hotline’ for people to find answers to any burning food-related questions.
It is the site’s highly-engaged community that first allowed Food52 to venture into commerce. When the site launched, it did so with the aim of crowdsourcing a cookbook based on user submissions. Since then, it has created a number of cookbooks in this way, with each one including a competition element (with recipes voted for by fellow readers).
In doing so, it has been able to capitalise on the contributions of its enthusiastic audience, as well as foster a real sense of community online. Contests are a regular feature throughout the year, too, with users voting for various categories such as ‘best weeknight recipe’ and ‘best thanksgiving leftover recipe’.
A seamless experience
Alongside this sense of community, Food52’s dedication to creating a seamless user experience has enabled it to expand into ecommerce without alienating its audience.
Instead of using content purely as a vehicle to drive sales it treats the two verticals equally. It aims to be the ultimate foodie destination, meaning that – whether the user’s aim is to find a lamb recipe or a carving knife – they will be able to find what they’re looking for somewhere on the site.
Product recommendations (usually found at the bottom of recipes) feel natural rather than forced, with the publisher only selling items that fit in with the brand’s wider ethos.
Similarly, regardless of whether Food52 is promoting a product or a recipe, its priority is to always provide the user with inspiration – and high quality across the board. This stretches to the site’s signature photography and design, too.
Both the content and commerce verticals are photographed in the Food52 studio, which ensures consistency in what the publisher calls the ‘Food52 aesthetic’. This usually means beautifully understated and minimalistic photography, often with a vintage-inspired edge.
Together with design, Food52 uses storytelling elements to naturally integrate retail, as well as to create its own ‘point of view’. In doing so, it does not necessarily aim to compete with large competitors, but to provide extra value for consumers. Unlike the purely functional style of Amazon, for instance, Food52 uses emotive and immersive elements to draw in the audience.
Each merchant selling on the site has their own page, including detail such as where they’re from and their motivations.
With a third of all products sold being exclusive or one-off designs – Food52’s curated approach is certainly part of its appeal. By promoting the handcrafted nature of items and the small scale of merchants selling on the site, it feels far more ‘artisan’ than a big brand ecommerce site.
This image is portrayed everywhere on the site – even extending to the FAQ page, where the first two questions focus on the publisher’s ‘food as lifestyle’ approach.
Relevant and natural advertising
Food52’s online shop is not its only source of revenue – it also makes money through display advertising and sponsored content.
However, it also treats this in the same way as it does shoppable items, ensuring that it is both relevant and valuable for users. Again, the publisher does this by putting as much of an emphasis on quality as it would its regular editorial features or recipes.
There’s no obvious difference in quality between sponsored or non-sponsored content, which means that it could even pass by unnoticed.
Food52’s CEO, Amanda Hesser, has previously said that the publisher decides whether or not it accepts a brand deal based on a single question – would it do it with or without an advertiser? If the answer is yes, then this clearly signifies a natural partnership, and one that the audience would want to hear about. So, even if brand involvement is obvious, Food52’s reputation for quality means that users are perhaps more than willing to accept it.
Strong social presence
Unsurprisingly, social media is another huge area of interest for advertisers, with sponsored content on Food52’s various channels often being part of the package.
Food52 has partnered with a number of big brands including Annie’s Mac & Cheese and Simply Organic Foods in the past. And just like branded content on the website, these social posts tend to be just as well received as regular ones, mainly due to the way they seamlessly blend in with the rest of the content on Food52’s channels.
Instagram is one place where Food52 has particularly flourished – perhaps unsurprising considering that food is one of the most popular topics on the platform.
That being said, other publishers show that the topic itself is not always enough.
One of Food52’s biggest competitors, AllRecipes – which generates a huge amount of visitors on its main website – has a mere 280,000 followers on Instagram. Perhaps this can be put down to AllRecipes aiming to be a sort of social hub in its own right, however, it certainly highlights Food52’s success on the platform.
The publisher experiments with various types of social media content, capitalising on user-generated posts as well as other mediums like video and livestreaming. Interaction with followers is also another key to social success, with Food52 encouraging comments and replying to questions across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Let’s not forget its use of Pinterest either – especially how Food52 has even incorporated similar features from the discovery site into its own. Users can ‘like’ products and recipes to add them to new or existing ‘Collections’. In turn, this data also allows the publisher to discover what readers are looking for and enjoying, which it uses to inform future content and commerce sales.
Using a combination of beautiful design, quality content, and focus on delivering value for its community, Food52 is a great example of how to fuse two very different verticals.