At first I had no idea what I was doing. I, more or less, approached it much like my old days as a political blogger or content author for About.com. I was also terrified that my skills wouldn't stack up to others. If you look back at the beginning you'll see a lot of careful recipes with little to no experimentation outside the original. I stuck close to the printed process and because I often lacked proper tools, the results were mixed. Now, I'm more confident and usually experiment somewhat with any recipe I try (unless I'm asked to review the process and results) and often create my own original recipes. Heck, sometimes by the time I finish putting my spin on something it might not even resemble the original!
During that steep learning curve I've made a few missteps - often because I never expected anyone to care about Sugar Pies beyond family and friends. So, if you're an aspiring food blogger, I hope you'll find this departure from recipes helpful as I talk a bit about my mistakes and the lessons I've learned.
- Don't undervalue yourself. Sure, when you look at those page views the first few months or even the first year or two you'll be desperate to get your content out there. But don't do it for free. Don't give away your content to other websites where they'll reap ad revenues and money while you do all the work for them. One of my biggest mistakes was running off to these corporate sites to post my latest recipe and photo hoping to get people interested in what I was doing. That's fine every once in awhile to get word out, but don't do it for every recipe - maybe one in ten or twenty. Make sure if you do submit to sites that they provide a way to link back to your site. Otherwise, what's the point? Remember, someone has to buy the supplies in your kitchen so you can keep blogging. If you're the one swiping your credit card at the grocery story, you should be the one getting the money for the content!
- Beware the "Recipe Blog List" - Often startup companies will send you glowing emails praising your prowess and growing reputation. They make you feel really good and you might walk around all day beaming. Beware! Many times this "list" of influential blogs will get you to submit your site feed so that they can pull "excerpts." Make sure they continue to only pull excerpts. I just had to write to demand deletion of content from a website that was going to pull excerpts of my posts with links back to my site. What I found was they eventually started pulling my entire feed. In short, they were mirroring my blog on their site, deleting my ads, and subbing their own! So, they were making lots of money off my work and I wasn't making a penny!
- Read the fine print! I joined one of the big food blogger groups when I first started blogging after getting one of those glowing emails. There was a lot of really technical legalese in the agreement to become one of their "featured" blogs. But, I did it anyway. It was fine for awhile, but then as my blog grew I learned that the agreement was extremely restrictive of my freedom as a blogger. To be part of the group I could not accept any advertising but theirs. I also could not establish any relationships with companies unless this site set up the relationship and reaped the rewards (and profits). It was good exposure at first for a blog that was brand new. After two years, though, I took a look around and realized I could be making two or three times what I was from ad revenue on my site by working with other companies independently. I was also being approached by manufacturers and even restauranteurs asking to establish relationships to develop recipes with their products or to test recipes for the home cook of restaurant classics. That's when I learned just how restrictive my agreement was with this other company and had to take steps to terminate it. I also learned that I had signed away my traffic. This may not make much sense if you're new to blogging so let me explain. Alexa rank and Google Page Rank are used by advertisers to establish fair rates (like ratings on TV). When I signed this agreement I had assigned all of the traffic coming through my blog to the other website. In short, my Alexa rank would always be low because they were getting the benefit of my traffic! So, read the fine print carefully and don't give up control of your destiny to a company who has its own best interests at heart!
- Be original. Sure, you may not have the fancy digital SLR camera people talk about on websites about food photography but don't let that stop you. If you look back over Sugar Pies you'll see a real evolution in my photography. At first, I was scared to put any photos up of my dishes because the photos never looked good. Then I said, "What the heck?" and started posting my own photos. Then I began to be a little patient and try to get better quality photos with better lighting. Now, I get pretty decent photographs of my food, good enough to be Cook's Country's Photo of the Week last week. I also get it with a little Canon digital point and shoot camera (Canon Power Shot A590). No $3000 digital SLR required. That has also become a hallmark of this blog. I don't manipulate food and photos to make them look like something they aren't. What you see is what you get. If you see a photo on this blog, then follow the directions your result should be just as good (or maybe better!)
- Don't be intimidated. If you're any good you'll invariably find someone lifting your photos and content. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it rarely helps you pay your bills or restock the pantry. I have a very liberal policy of sharing my content with other bloggers. If someone asks me if they may use a photo, perhaps in a theme post, I nearly always allow it as long as they link back to my site. Likewise, if someone wishes to reprint a recipe I also allow it as long as I get a link back and credit. However, you're sure to run across the "Social Foodie" type who belongs to one of those huge network sites that gobbles up other people's content to make money. Those folks rarely ask if they can copy your recipe or photo to put on their "page" at these sites. They just do it because the sites tell them recipes can't be copyrighted. The list of ingredients can't but all the other parts can... descriptions, directions, stories about the recipe, etc. Of course, photos can always be copyrighted. So, if you find that someone who belongs to one of these sites (and there are hundreds) is lifting your content, contact the site immediately and defend your copyrighted content. There's no reason for someone else to not only get credit for your work but also make money off of it.
- Get a Spam Policy in place. You're going to be comment spammed. Once you get a modicum of eyes on your blog the broken English crowd of comment spammers will descend to peddle whatever affiliate program they are scamming this week. Have a strong and consistent policy in place. I have developed one whereby no one is allowed to post links in the body of a comment. There is a space on the comment form for people with legitimate websites to put their URL so they can get a link back. (I'm always happy to help other food bloggers!) However, affiliate links are always stripped out of comments, regardless. Spam is spam and you aren't accomplishing anything by sending people away from your blog to give someone else money!
- Be patient. You should be patient in allowing your blog to grow and gain viewers of course, but you should be patient in other areas as well. There are a lot of "know-it-alls" out there. You'll almost certainly come across someone who wants to take you to task over something you say or how you present a recipe. If you're lucky, they'll just email you their diatribe (it's amazing how serious some people get about stuff) like the guy who took me to task for my "UN-traditional" (his quotes) corn bread because it uses butter and not bacon fat. It was like I'd somehow personally affronted him or called him bad names. In retrospect it was really kind of funny because the recipe goes back well over 150 years in my family and the bacon fat substitution comes in when making what is known as "Cracklin' Cornbread." Note: I loathe Cracklin' Cornbread with all my being! Anyway, my first impulse as a former political blogger was to hit back and respond in kind with righteous indignation. It was really difficult for me to finally just write, "Thanks for your input." and then delete the email. But, patience with people is a virtue in food blogging especially when dealing with folks who have some ax to grind - be it dieting, vegetarianism, self promotion, insecurity, etc.
- Have fun. That's the best lesson I've learned. Just have fun with what you're doing. Let yourself go and enjoy the triumphs and the failures. If you're having fun with what you're doing it will show through in your work and people will have fun with you. Don't try to be something you're not. One of my biggest hurdles to overcome was trying to keep up with the Joneses. There are folks I know who are pretty... well... let's just say they have a very developed palate. I'm a pretty traditional southern cook. I didn't attend culinary school and there were no Michelin rated restaurants where I grew up. So, when I started blogging about food, I felt really intimidated by these friends at times. They'd be talking about dinner and it would sound like some sort of six course meal at Maze or Alain Ducasse. I'd feel I had to do something along those lines for the blog. Eventually I realized a truth. I don't like that kind of food. Sure, it sounds great, but who the heck is going to make that 7 days a week for dinner? So, I took a page from Ina Garten who is one of my inspirations, I would make food that was simple and accessible. I'd focus on traditional food with a twist or on things that could be done by the most humble home cook and dressed up for a nice dinner. When I did that, I started having fun and stopped worrying about whether I would have to pull off some over the top dish to impress others.
- Find your niche and stick to it. Obviously, my niche is baking and baked goods. Sure, I sometimes post recipes for entrées or side dishes if I have something I find really interesting or good. Most of the time, however, I stick to my theme. Now, my niche does not typically lend itself to internet wide cooking contests. I made the mistake last fall of doing one of those and I wasted about three weeks of my life that I won't get back (not to mention about $300 in ingredients). Let's face it, I do baking. I don't do over the top 5 Star cuisine, so the chances of me wowing the people whose lives are dedicated to creating that cuisine and charging enough for it to feed a third world country is about nil. So, in this cooking contest I was trying to come up with all sorts of bizarre things to get attention. It was a headache, expensive, and ultimately a waste of my time. If there's a baking contest, sure, I might submit a recipe. But I learned that these long drawn out contests where every week you end up buying expensive ingredients to try to wow people you'll never meet really are a waste of time. If that's your niche, however, go for it! If it's not, then stick to what you do best and do it!
- Know from whence they come. Get Google Analytics and track your traffic. Know where people come from to find your blog and concentrate your efforts on those sites. I get a huge amount of traffic from Foodieview.com where I always post a photo of my latest dish. They just have the photo and a link back to the recipe at my site. I get a lot of traffic from there so I stick with them. There are other sites that always want me to give them links but whose sites don't really provide much traffic to me. Knowing where my visitors are coming from helps me decide what websites are worth my time in cross promoting or using to promote my site by supplying them with a little content.
- Don't get discouraged. There are some really, well, nasty people out there and some of them run food websites. You'll submit something to them hoping to get exposure - maybe a recipe or a photo and they'll tell you that you just aren't up to snuff. Sometimes they'll tell you that in a really snooty way, too. Don't worry. Nine times out of ten at some point you'll get an email from them begging for your content. Then you can have the exquisite pleasure of turning them down. (Just did that again last week and loved it... yes, I'm bad!)
So, there you have some things that I've learned in the past two and a half years of working on Sugar Pies. If you're new to food blogging, I hope you'll find these helpful in avoiding some of the pitfalls as you begin.