How To Make Your Food Blog Popular

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I received a touching e-mail this weekend from a reader who finds herself in the same situation I was in three and a half years ago: namely, she’s a third year law student, she hates the law, and she wants to be a writer. She’s just started a food blog and wants to know how to make it popular. “How did you become so widely read?” she asked.

I told her I would answer the question on the blog, and it’ll probably echo many of the points I’ve made previously in this post and this one. But it’s always good to re-explore a subject, and especially after this weekend’s coverage in The Wall Street Journal, it’s as good a time as any to offer advice. And so, without further ado, here’s my take on how to make your food blog popular.

Ok, let’s start with the basics. Here’s the criteria by which I judge a food blog:

1. Design. It’s the first thing you see when you go to a site. If there’s a really basic format, you better have REALLY incredible content to hold my interest. But those sites that have both great design and great content have a huge advantage. Check out MattBites for a great example. One look at his site and you never want to leave. And that’s true of all the great food blogs–they’re all wonderful to look at. So though looks aren’t everything, you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think they matter. For newbies, though, I’d say this:

– start your blog with a basic format (using a basic Typepad or Blogger template) and do it for a few weeks to see if you like blogging, to see if you attract any readers. When you do and you realize this is something you’re going to do for a long time, that’s when you hire a designer. How do you find a designer? Put a post on your blog, ask friends, ask your favorite bloggers who designed their site. And set aside some money for it. I spent $100 for the first design of my site (long time readers will remember that image of me in my red sweater with a pot and little things flying out of it). As your site gets more popular, you’ll be able to afford a nicer design. But, again, design matters a lot–so take it seriously.

2. Content. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: PLEASE DON’T BE BORING. Your content can be anything you want it to be–it can be effusive, it can be snarky, it can be elegant–just please, please, please make it entertaining. It’s THE most important component to winning an audience: you have to hook your readers.

Unfortunately, and this is very difficult to overcome, many boring people don’t realize they’re boring. You’ve met them at parties, droning on and on and on about the trip they took to Burma, and you stand there politely nodding your head, looking at your watch, praying for a bolt of lightning to hit you in the head. How do you know if you’re a boring blogger?

Read a post aloud. Is it exciting? Would it hold an audience’s attention? Does it sound like your normal speaking voice? Are you using words you would normally use? Nothing saddens me more in food writing (and I’m sometimes guilty of it myself) than a person who feels obligated to force adjectives that are completely unnatural. “The wine was gingery, with a hint of spruce, aflutter with the sad poetry of a summer’s day.” Don’t be pretentious! Don’t write the way you think you should write, just write in your NORMAL voice. A clear, compelling voice is essential for any kind of writing success.

Which is not to say that your posts should be casually tossed off, either. And that’s important too. Oftentimes I go to a food blog that someone sends me and the posts are duller than a day at the DMV. Why are you writing about what you’re writing about? Why should we care about what you have to say? Oh, so you made eggs for dinner? Why is that interesting? Why does that matter to you? Why should I care?

My most popular posts were all produced from a place of passion. Whether reacting to a bad restaurant experience (like this one or this one) or a really incredible evening out (like this one or this one) I was really worked up when I sat down to write. I had an all-consuming need to get these stories out into the blogosphere for people to read: there was urgency, there was fire in my belly. I promise you that if you get yourself really worked up about something before you sit down to write people will respond with similar energy. Not all of it will be positive (I’ve had to develop a thick skin here) but at least people will be reading you: and isn’t that what this post is about?

So form and content: those are essential. If you have a great design and the writing is great, your site will become popular, I promise.

But you may be wondering what else you can do to get a wider audience. Here are some additional tips:

– be a VIBRANT participant in the food blog community that already exists. That means visit lots of blogs, leave comments, link to posts you find and love on the web. Make your presence known, but do it in a lighthearted, genial way. Nothing is more unappealing than a desperate, shrill voice BEGGING for linkage. I only link to things that capture my interest, for better or for worse. When I choose not to link to something, it doesn’t mean it’s not good, it just means it didn’t capture my fancy at that moment. And that’s that. If you realize that it all comes down to the whimsy and caprice of various people at various moments, you’ll understand that the best strategy is to just keep on writing, to keep on reading, and to keep on commenting. Eventually something will happen.

– Be scoopy! Seriously. If you have a unique scoop on something food-related–you worked at a world famous restaurant and were severely abused by the chef; you saw a famous food critic and his favorite restauranteur doing it in an airport bathroom–write it up. That’s the kind of stuff that gets wide coverage. My post on the taping I attended of Iron Chef America got linked all over the place and with good reason: it offered unique insight into the process by which the show is taped and executed. When I have a unique opportunity to write about something, I grab it. And if you’re sitting on a hot food story, you’re crazy not to write about it. Write it now!

– Use all media. The internet is unique in that it allows you to produce all kinds of content for your blog. Sure, you can write regular “print” journalism-style posts, but you’re missing a great opportunity to create videos, songs, comic books, slideshows, interactive maps, etc etc. The more creative you can be in creating your content, the more likely your readers will be impressed and the more likely they’ll come back. Plus it makes it more interesting for you: part of the reason I’m doing weekly videos now is that it’s a whole new frontier, the idea of producing and editing my own weekly videos excites me. Keep yourself stimulated and your readers will be stimulated too.

– Take risks! In my archives you will find some truly embarrassing posts. Ear-shattering songs, bizarre attempts at humor (my Keith Richards dead grandma cake really didn’t cut it), and even outrageous episodes of Jackass like bravado (in particular: me eating cat food). Those posts were dismal failures but they were done in the same spirit as my biggest successes. So the lesson is you’ve gotta take huge risks and see what happens: sometimes you’ll cringe at the lack of response, other times you’ll come home and find 60 e-mails in your inbox, including one from CNN (as happened to me when I created the Janet Jackson Breast Cupcake). Be bold, be daring, and be willing to fail and you will succeed.

Ok, this post is getting too long, but hopefully I answered the original question. And the truth is if you’re meant to do this, you’ll take to it naturally. If not, there’s probably another form of writing that you’re better suited for and there’s no shame in that. Many “professional” writers don’t take so well to blogging–it suits manic personalities (like mine) more than careful, deliberate souls–so perhaps you fall into the latter category. In any case, you should just blog because blogging is fun. And if you’re having fun, it doesn’t matter if you’re popular. That’s true in high school and it’s true here on the web too. Only here on the web, they don’t flush your head down the toilet.

Happy blogging!

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