In 2006, I graduated N.Y.U.’s dramatic writing program and moved to Brooklyn with my friend Diana. At the time, I’d been food blogging for two years and had just sold a book to Bantam/Dell that came with a pretty decent advance. Before I sold the book to Bantam, I had ads on my blog—Google Ads, BlogAds—but wasn’t generating enough money to pay rent. With the book advance, things changed. When that check came, I told my parents that I wouldn’t need their financial help anymore. I’d be able to take care of things from here on out.
And, for the most part, that’s what happened. The book advance only got me so far; at a certain point, I began making enough money—from the blog itself and other food ventures—to pay the bills. Here’s how I did that and how you might do that too.
For starters, you have to decide if you’re food blogging for business or pleasure. If it’s for pleasure, that’s fine, but that most likely means you’re blogging when you want to, about subjects that you want to, in a format that may or may not appeal to readers. You can do that (many do) but that’s not going to allow you to quit your day job. If you’re food blogging for business—meaning, you’re doing it to support yourself—you have to approach things more strategically. Many of your favorite food bloggers (I won’t name names) make it seem like they’re food blogging for pleasure, but behind-the-scenes they’re checking their numbers and statistics the way that a trader checks his or her stock portfolio.
Here’s the truth: if you’re treating it as a business, food blogging is a numbers game. You have to know how much traffic you’re getting to your site and that’ll determine how much money you make. The essential term here is “CPM”—cost per thousand impressions—and that’s what most advertisers pay. In the old days (pre-recession) a food blogger might get what’s called a “fixed CPM”; meaning, based on your contract with an advertiser, you would be paid a fixed amount for every thousand impressions. If you have a $7 fixed CPM, that means 100,000 impressions a month yields $700. If you get a million impressions, that’s $7,000.
So, if you’re supporting yourself as a food blogger, numbers matter a great deal. How do you get the big numbers? It’s a combination of things. On the most basic level, you have to have great content. That means an original voice, good pictures, useful information, desirable recipes, and a well-designed page. If you don’t have those things, you could blog five times a day, and still not generate enough traffic to support yourself. It all begins with great content; the kind of content that makes people take notice.
Once they’ve taken notice, you should have an RSS feed that readers can subscribe to, so they don’t forget about you. Over RSS you should only send out partial posts so they have to click to read the rest (that way you get the actual site traffic you need to pay the bills. Some people won’t like it; ask those people to pay for your electricity). It’s also smart to have a newsletter, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page to keep people connected to you and your content. The goal, of course, is to keep people coming back.
You can moderate the traffic to your site with tools like Statcounter, Chartbeat and Google Analytics. Using these, you’ll know if you get more traffic when you blog about cooking for your kids or giving up meat for a month. For me personally, my statistics have shown me again and again that the greatest post I ever wrote is “The Best Broccoli of Your Life.” 80% of my traffic comes from this post. How did that happen?
Well, as stated above, it was good content. It’s a good recipe with decent pictures written enthusiastically. The title got people’s attention and made them take notice. And then something more important happened: people began making the recipe and e-mailing it to their friends. The recipe appeared on Stumbleupon (viewed 351,000 times) and Pinterest; it’s been liked on Facebook over 4,000 times.
Once that happens, Google takes notice. The more incoming links a post has, the more authority Google lends it. And so, because of all of those links, if you Google “broccoli recipe,” that post is one of the top results. Many, many people Google “broccoli recipe” and therefore that post sends tons of traffic my way. Which is why my landlords will be getting their check promptly on November 1st.
Step One, then, in your financial journey as a food blogger is to build your traffic. It took me two to three years to get the numbers necessary to make significant money. Your strategies for doing this should be twofold: (1) you need to blog frequently (4 to 5 times a week); and (2) you should write posts that are natural traffic-generators. Telling the story about your grandmother’s beloved oatmeal recipe and how it solidified your bond with her before she departed this world is very lovely and will endear you to your readers, but it won’t get you big numbers. (Though endearing yourself to your readers is important and builds you a loyal fan base.) A post, though, like this one Serious Eats did recently about trying every combination of soda (127 possible flavors) in the new Coke machine? That’s a brilliant traffic-generating post (it was liked 1,000 times on Facebook).
It’s all about value. Your posts, your blog; they have to have value. If you blog lazily, half-heartedly, insincerely, why should people care? It’s an oversaturated market out there: you have to convince people that your blog is worth something. It takes a few years to make that happen.
Once that’s happened, though, for many of us: it’s still not enough. The income from my blog only gets me so far. That’s why, when I’m not working on my food blog (and I mostly do my food blog work in the morning), I’m pitching stories to food magazines (I have a piece in the January Food & Wine!), working on book proposals, creating video content for websites like Food2.com. Those ventures make up the difference. So, could I have supported myself exclusively on my food blog income over the past five years? The answer is very much: no. I supported myself through a combination of income from the blog, selling books (my 2nd one is coming out next year), making videos for the Food Network, and writing for websites like Epicurious.
But, here’s the key: if I hadn’t built my traffic the way that I did, I wouldn’t have gotten those book deals, I wouldn’t have been hired by the Food Network, and Epicurious would’ve brushed me off like an annoying bug. Once again: it’s a numbers game. It all starts with great content; great content leads to great numbers and great numbers will lead you to book deals, web shows, and monthly checks that allow you to pay your rent.
A few more specifics before we go. You’re probably wondering: “What happens when I do build my traffic? What advertisers should I use?” Your best bet, on that front, is to look at the food blogs you admire the most and to see what ad companies they’re using. Over the years, I’ve been with FoodBuzz, Federated Media and BlogHer (I’m starting with a new company, SAY Media, next week). In each case, the deal was different—with various pros and cons—and that’s stuff you’ll work out once you have some leverage in the game. (Try to get a minimum monthly guarantee or a fixed CPM, if you can.)
The other important specific concerns taxes. If you’re getting that monthly check and taxes aren’t taken out of it (they usually aren’t), you’ll want to have an accountant set up estimated taxes for you. That was my biggest fumble so far supporting myself as a food blogger: I didn’t see the taxman coming one year and when he came, I was in big trouble. (Also: it pays to keep careful records of money that you spend on your food blog; much of it is tax deductible.)
I hope you found this post helpful. Despite how business-oriented it is, please know that if money was my aim, I wouldn’t be a food blogger. There are better ways to make money (see the rotting law degree in my closet). It’s because I love food blogging that I’ve figured out ways to support myself doing it. Maybe now you will too.