CP15: Podcast with Bjork Ostrom from Pinch of Yum about Food Blogging
Welcome to the 15th episode of our podcast!
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Martin: Hi folks! Today we have a very interesting speaker joining our podcast. You will learn lots about food, food blogging, and building a business around this topic. Hi Bjork! Who are you and what do you do?
Bjork: Yeah, thanks so much for having me in the podcast. So, starting from the very basic, my name is Bjork Ostrom and my wife, Lindsey, and I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota. And we’re still trying to figure out that idea of explaining what we do. I was just out at a bar with some friends the other day and they introduced me to somebody they knew and he said: “What are you doing?”, I said “We’re still trying to figure out how to explain this but at a very high level – what we do is we run a food blog.”
So, for people that aren’t familiar with what that would be: essentially, it is a blog, so we run on WordPress. It’s built entirely around food and recipes. And the interesting thing with it though is its food recipes and then a hint of lifestyle or personality. So, in terms of the content itself on the blog; that’s all done or 95% of it is done by my wife, Lindsey. So she does the photography, recipe development, she does all of the writing and I handle a lot of the backend stuff so; advertising, some of the server stuff, and all of the not-so-fun behind the scenes things. Fun for me, but for a lot of people, it’s not fun.
So that’s Pinch Of Yum, and then we also have a membership site that we run for people that are in the food space that are interested in building a food related website that they would want to either build a following around or potentially create an income from that’s called Food Blogger Pro.
Martin: Great, so just for simplification, Lindsey would drive the traffic and you would monetize it.
Bjork: Yes, yep, at a very high and simple level.
Martin: Great. When did you start this and why did you start this type of blog?
Bjork: Sure, so the interesting with us building these businesses is that when we started, our intent wasn’t to build a business. So Lindsey first started Pinch of Yum because we had just recently been married and she said “Hey, you know, I want to figure out how I can share recipes that I’m creating every night”. So what she did is she started posting on social media, Facebook, and sharing with friends and at some point, she said: “It doesn’t make sense for me that I was posting these on social media, it’s probably not what my friends want to hear.” So we said: “You should start a blog or kind of a holding tank or an online recipe box for you to put these recipes.”
So she started to do that, and I’ve always been interested in, kind of, the IT side of things. My background isn’t in that, I worked at a non-profit at the time and Lindsey was a teacher, so these aren’t things that we went to school for or formally trained in, but I’ve always been interested in it. So when Lindsey started to do that, I said, “Hey, do you mind if I come alongside and experiment with some things in the background?”
So, probably a year and a half after she had been working on and off on the blog – it had gotten to a point where it was more than just her mom checking in. There would be a few hundred people, every once in a while, a thousand people that would come and read in and we said “I wonder if we can transition this into something that would create an income?” And I don’t think at that point we were even thinking business, we were just thinking like: “What would it be like if we could pay our mortgage payment just through the blog?” and that was like this incredible idea that we could potentially create an income from it.
So, it wasn’t something, by any means, that we had started off with the intent to build a business. It was very much so a hobby that Lindsey was interested in, that she started to experience some success with and we said, “Hey, if doors are opening, let’s walk through this and see what we could do with it.”
Martin: Cool stuff, Bjork! Today, you have around three to four million monthly unique visitors. How long did it take you in this type of four-year-journey to get to like, the first ten thousand or one hundred thousand unique monthly visitors?
Bjork: Yes, I think that’s one thing that people are usually glad to hear is that: it takes a long time. When you’re first starting out – for a content-based business, which is what Pinch of Yum is, it’s not an e-commerce store or anything like that… So the way we create an income and the way we create revenue is by the traffic that comes – which it would still be true in any e-commerce business but it’s not like we’d be able to pay for that traffic. So we have to be really intentional about what that looks like.
And for people that are interested in building a content based business, maybe it’s a fashion blog, or a food blog, I think that I could be kind of a bummer when you’re starting because nobody really cares or listens or is following along and it takes a long time to build that up.
So, for us from the very start, that first year in terms of monthly traffic would probably be in the one thousand to maybe ten thousand range at the end of the first year. And it wasn’t until two years in that Lindsey started to consistently get a hundred thousand plus visitors to the blog. So that’s 2 years of working really hard, consistently publishing content, and not necessarily get a ton of interaction and people engaging with that content.
So, it takes a really long time and its slow and steady right? So it’s not something that you can expect to have right out of the gate.
Martin: Cool. And what type of monetization options did you think about back then, like after you’ve been two years since the game and what monetization option did you choose first?
Bjork: Yes, the first thing that we got into was the easiest thing and that was advertising, so traditional display advertising, people that are listening would notice this as banner ads. And the reason was because it was so easy to get that implemented. You just take a little script and you put it on your site and then you automatically start creating revenue based off on those ad impressions.
The disadvantage with that is you need a lot of traffic and in general you need a decent amount of ads in order to create an income just strictly from traditional advertising and also one of the things that is interesting is that the food space isn’t necessarily the most lucrative space for advertising.
The example I would give is: Let’s say you’re in the insurance space and you have a really popular blog about insurance, you’re going to be able to create a lot of income from that because the value of a lead or a customer for insurance is a lot higher than the value that maybe somebody would have if you came in—they were looking for something to make for dinner that night or certain salsa to buy or something like that. So, the first place we went was advertising but it’s good for people to know that while it’s easy, it’s not necessarily the best long term.
Martin: Good. Which option did you go by then? Did you then start creating the first digital products?
Bjork: Yes, so, kind of hand-in-hand at that point after we started with advertising, we started to look at affiliate marketing and we started to look at having our own products. And affiliate marketing is interesting because while there are some options in the food space, they’re not necessarily super high paying options.
So we tried to be intentional about thinking: “What are the different ways that we can use affiliate marketing?” So, actually, one of the ways that we do it on the food blog is we talk about blogging and we recommend certain blogging-related products so it could be hosting, it could be a theme— like a WordPress theme that people could use.
So, we started to do that type of affiliate marketing so more online-based products, but then we also started to integrate little by little Amazon Affiliate advertising. There’s a stretch for a while where we couldn’t be an Amazon associate because of the Nexus law which is a whole site arbitrary – that’s been cleared and we’re able to do that as well.
So, affiliate marketing and then creating your own products and we weren’t in anything revolutionary. What we did is we noticed that a lot of people were coming to Lindsey and saying: “I want to take better pictures of my food”. It’s kind of, this universal thing whether you pull her out with friends and posting in Instagram or have their own website that they want to post food photos, we want them to look good, right? We’ve all seen those pictures that are really bad color. And it could be the world’s most incredible sandwich but it’s such a bad picture that you’d never want to eat it. I think people understand that.
So, we had a lot of people coming to us and saying: “How do I take better food photos?”. So the first product that Lindsey ever did, it’s still available on the site actually, is an e-book all around how to take better food photos.
Martin: It seems to me that most of your products are related to some kind of educational product. So, when you’re thinking about how to take better pictures or how do I set up my own food blog and grow it in terms of traffic and monetization. The other route would be going to this e-commerce route – so really having your own food related products like, I don’t know, fish oil or whatsoever on your shelf and then sell this on a gross margin via your website or via other channels. Why aren’t you going that route? Or it seems, currently, you are not going that route?
Bjork: Yes, that’s a great question. I think the number one reason is just ease of implementation. For us, it’s a lot easier to implement the type of products that we have – whether food photography or blogging related products – than it would be to, let’s say, create a kitchen utensil that we would sell.
I think the other reality is the complexity and the competition that’s involved with the straight consumer product is a lot different than in informational or educational solution in that. I think, when people are purchasing an educational product; they’re also purchasing their understanding of who the brand is or who the individual is. So in the case of the food photography eBook, people know that Lindsey has done a really good job with food photography so it makes sense for them to purchase this food photography eBook, whereas, if it was, let’s say, you know, a cutting board, I think that people will be a little more intentional about comparing and contrasting and looking for other sources and so the competition is just a little bit different.
And then the third piece is just the reality that: with the blogging space and building the business online, that’s the one that I just really, really enjoy. And so it’s a really nice complement for Lindsey to work in her area of passion and interest, and then for me to focus on my area of passion and interest and those overlap really well in that we’re each able to serve in this kind of small weird niche of food blogging and food recipes that we’re each able to do what we enjoy working on while still within this niche, even though those are very different things. Like I’m a terrible chef and Lindsey’s incredible and Lindsey hates the idea of like, spending an afternoon on Google Analytics but I love that. So, part of the reason is because it complements our skills and interests really well. I think if I hated all of that stuff, we wouldn’t have informational products around maybe blogging or social media or monetization things like that but I’m super fascinated by that so it makes sense for us to build that out as our focus area.
Martin: Cool. Bjork, when you’re thinking about other food bloggers or bloggers in general, some of them acquire like maybe ten thousand, one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand monthly uniques after some time but still the thing, one of the major problems that I’ve seen with lots of them are that they aren’t able to build up high converting sales funnels. So, what are you doing in terms building lead magnets, collecting email addresses and then pushing them towards your products in order to monetize them?
Bjork: Yes, we could be doing a lot better job at this but I think we’re probably at the top 5% of people in our space. And I think one of the reasons why is because people in the food/recipe content space primarily think about their thing, their product as the post that they publish, which I think in a lot of ways make a lot of sense, right? So it’s the thing that you’re putting out to the world, people come to that, they consume that content and you make money maybe from affiliate marketing, maybe your own product like a cookbook or advertising. But I think there’s a lot of room for improvement for people to be building and intentionally marketing to a certain funnel.
A few of the ways that we’re doing that, one of the ways is: we’re using Active Campaign for email marketing. So we’re tracking when somebody signs up to be a part of the email list and maybe that would be optin like the top recipes from the past year or maybe it would be certain – a single recipe that they want a PDF of, we can have the option for people to sign up for that. But after they do that sign up, we track and see: “Are people going to pages that have to do with photography and blogging?” And if they do, we tag these people. It’s not an automated funnel, but what we’ll do is occasionally we’ll have some type of sale or bonus or incentive around one of our products and we know that we’re going to be sending a targeted email to those people because of their previous website activity on the blog.
I mean, that’s been a really huge win for us. 2016 is really, for us, thinking about how can we do a better job of treating this as a business as opposed to or in addition to putting out content on a consistent basis. How do we take the interactions that we have and really be as intentional as possible in developing those versus just trying to get more and more traffic. So, does that answers your question or can clarify it all about that?
Martin: Totally. What type of tools are you currently using or are you looking at when you’re thinking about optimizing your food blog in 2016?
Bjork: Sure. Yes, Active Campaign is the big one. So that’s the email service that we use and that’s been a really important implementation for us before we’re in AWeber, MailChimp and we had FeedBurner a long time ago so we had all these different components, we’ve put all those together right now in Active Campaign. So that’s a big one for us.
We’re starting to experiment a little bit with SumoMe or optins and haven’t done anything super extensive with that yet, just kind of in the early stages with that.
And one of the tools that I love to use that I don’t get to as much as I can but I’ve really enjoyed is A/B Testing within Google Analytics. So we’ve run some A/B Tests on our important pages like our food photography page, the home page for Food Blogger Pro, the membership website we did an A/B Test on that was really successful so that’s another one that I enjoyed doing when I have time to get into it.
Martin: Cool. And why are you choosing Active Campaign when there are others out there like ConvertKit, MailChimp and so on?
Bjork: The one thing I liked about Active Campaign was the ability to tag based on website behavior. To be honest I can’t speak to the other providers, if that’s possible or not. I know where I think with Infusionsoft, it’s possible, I don’t know if it’s possible with ConvertKit, but the idea being that it doesn’t have to be based on like a link click in order to tag somebody, it could be purely based on website behavior so similar to Google Analytics, Active Campaign can track along with that. Do you know if Convert Kit, the other tools offer that?
Martin: I’m not aware of that. So I also have the same understanding that with ConvertKit, it’s more like on which lead magnet that somebody downloades.
Bjork: Yes, exactly. So, it’ll be like a download that they do or the link that they click with the email and that’s what segments people. One of the things I like about Active Campaign is that you can segment based on a page that’s visited. So for us, we have all of our friends’ food photography pages tagged and the reason that’s so important for us is because those are very different markets – somebody gets interested in food photography versus somebody that’s interested in like vegetarian recipes. We don’t want to send an email to people that are interested in vegetarian recipes about food photography, there’s a lot of dissonance with them in that and it will increase unsubscribes and things like that. So that’s one of the things that we really like with Active Campaign.
But to be honest, a huge part of it for us was like, picking something and moving forward. I think one of the things that people do constantly run into is this analysis-paralysis issue where they always feel like they should either be using a service so they’re bouncing around or they compare and contrast for months and months and months when it would’ve been more valuable to pick something and move forward on it.
So the big part of it for us was saying: “This looks like it has the things we need and let’s go ahead and move forward on it.”
ADVICE TO OTHER BLOGGERS FROM BJORK OSTROM
Martin: Great, yeah, cool. One thing I would like to hear from your side is if you’re having this person blogging about this specific topic, what type of mistakes do you often see them doing?
Bjork: I think that people spend or place so much of an emphasis on quantity of content over quality of content. And I think it’s a balance, it has to be both. The analogy I like to give is this idea of a band, and for a lot of bands, we know them because of two or three songs that they’ve written. And they’ve been really incredible songs and that’s why we know that band because it’s kind of their one hit wonders. And I think that that could be really true for a lot of different blogs in content based businesses.
They’ll have a handful of posts maybe 20-30% of the posts that bring in, let’s say 70-80% of the traffic. And the reason that is, is because those posts are really, really high quality posts that are really helpful for people and the thing is, those take a really long time to create. But the, kind of, catch that you get with it is that much like a band, in order to get those one hit wonders, you have to write a lot of quality content, if you’re in the space of writing, right, there’s a lot of types of different content, you can do a podcast, videos, things like that but just using writing because it’s the easiest.
So, I think the biggest mistake that I see happening is people pushing out content because they’re able to check the post box, like: “I publish a post, check”. But the reality is that it’s probably better to publish one really good post than two decent posts even if it feels like you’re doing more work. I see that happening a lot: People placing a really high value on quantity over quality.
Martin: Cool. When I’m analyzing your traffic, so where are the users coming from, from which type of channels, I see two major channels popping up so one is SEO and the other one is Pinterest. I would’ve assumed that something like picture sharing is quite a big part of the traffic, like Pinterest. What are you doing in order to attract this traffic from Pinterest?
Bjork: Yes, so, one of the advantages that we’ve had was just starting early, so that’s a big part of it is— so Lindsey was blogging and you know publishing recipes and photos around the same when Pinterest really started picking up speed. So part of it is right place, right time.
The other part of it is taking really high quality food photos and that’s why you know, go back to an earlier conversation that we’ve had about that earlier topic about food photography – it’s such an important piece of this next development of the web like video and photos were so visually oriented that if you’re able to create compelling images or if you’re able to create compelling videos, that’s really going to do a lot to drive interest in your content and traffic to your site.
So, as simple as it is, a huge part of it is taking creative and compelling photos and that’s one of the things that Lindsey’s really good at and she’s really intentional with. She’s intentionally slow with that process of making sure she gets the right photo so that’s a really big piece of it which is, it’d be kind of obvious but I think it’s important to point out.
VISION OF PINCH OF YUM
Martin: Good. Do you have a vision for Pinch of Yum?
Bjork: Yes, so, I think the long term vision for Pinch of Yum is to keep it as a personal site that is attached to Lindsey and for us that’s a really intentional decision because we know that a lot of people would view building a business as something that you build up and eventually at some point you look at it and say: “It makes sense for us to have this be acquired by XYZ.” And in order to do that, you have to remove a lot of your personality from it but we know that Pinch of Yum for us isn’t that. Lindsey wants it to be central to who she is, her personality, she likes being the sole author or primary author at least for the blog so that’s a really big part of it is to continuing to stay personality-driven as opposed to just food and recipe-driven.
That being said, knowing that Pinch of Yum has a following, we’re able to use it to launch other things off of. So, for instance we have a project that we’re working on right now called the PlateView and depending on the people currently listening to this, they can see a prelaunch at plateview.com and PlateView is a recipe video application and it’ll be a website eventually. And one of the unfair advantage that we have on working on this platform is that: we have Pinch of Yum with a really big following so Pinch of Yum can stay user-centric but we can use that to help build other assets or businesses off of it.
So, long term vision is to really not change that much and to continue to have us and Lindsey be a big part of the blog while at the same time expanding outward and saying: “What are the things that we can build off of Pinch of Yum that maybe don’t require us to be the sole content creators but allow us to leverage what Pinch of Yum has built over the years.”
Martin: Totally. Great. Thanks for your time Bjork, I wish you all the best.
Bjork: Yeah, thanks so much for having me on.
THANKS FOR LISTENING!
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Special thanks to Bjork for joining me this week. Until next time!