Amanda Hesser penned her first book at 24, wrote over 750 stories as a food reporter for The New York Times, and was the first to feature Ferran Adria of elBulli in a major U.S. publication. When it comes to storytelling, she’s precocious, prolific and at the forefront.
So what was that seminal work that made content so compelling that it became central to her life and career? The Official Preppy Handbook. The young Hesser mistook the parody, which was a gift from her sister, for a guide to a lifestyle she aspired to have. She devoured the guide end to end.
The book, Hesser recalls, showcased canvas tote bags from brands that she’d never heard of. It drove her to seek out a Land's End catalog. In fact, she recently found a note to her parents asking them for a blue duffel bag from the retailer. She ended the note with, “Don't I deserve it?”
And that’s the impact of content that moves readers to action by engaging and informing them, over simply making the hard sell.
Today, Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, both trained cooks and food editors and writers, are co-founders of Food52, a home brand that combines recipes, articles and community-submitted content with a home goods shop of more than 2,000 items. The brand reaches 13 million people each month, and is growing like gangbusters, thanks in large part to its thriving online shop that makes up two-thirds of annual revenue.
Still, when you land on the site, full of lush food photography and clever cooking techniques, you’d understandably assume it was simply an online magazine. In this exclusive interview, Hesser and Stubbs explain why they’ve always led with engaging content, confident that sales would follow. They walk us through their three most valuable channels — email, Instagram and video — with tips for maximizing each route to customers. And they share the no-to-low-cost content strategies that any founder can — and should — implement today.
The interplay between content and commerce — like that between company and customer — must be bidirectional.
From the start, Food52’s goal was to be more than a commerce site. Hesser and Stubbs set out to create a resource that would help home cooks across the board, through recipes, articles, tips, Q&A, and, yes, a shop that carries well-curated kitchen and lifestyle tools. “Our aim was not just to be seen as a commerce business but as a place where you could get help in many ways,” says Hesser. “And so naturally, if you needed a new cooking spoon you would come to us because you also trust us for our recipes and expertise.”
Nearly ten years in, the data proves that bet was a good one: 60% of users who register on the site at least one day before they make a purchase had a “meaningful engagement” with Food52 prior to their first order—whether that entails commenting on a post, submitting a recipe, asking or answering a question, or voting on a contest. “We see that as a strong case for building and growing a multi-faceted resource for people,” says Stubbs. “We’ve seen this engagement generate a meaningful impact on our commerce business.”
As the site has grown more established, content leading to commerce has worked in the other direction, too, with the shop leading the way to new content. Food52 started adding new categories to the shop — laundry, organization and home décor — all of which took off. The team began building content in those same categories to meet the interest. “They strongly influence each other,” says Hesser. “For us, it has expanded the possibilities of what we can do, because we're building a long-term relationship with people as opposed to just serving their one need at a moment in time.”
As Hesser and Stubbs share the secrets to their success on various platforms, from Instagram Stories to recipe videos, there’s one strong through line: in all cases, they have diligently honed and implemented their brand personality. “When it comes to developing a visual and written voice, it's so much about connecting with people on an emotional level,” says Stubbs. “It’s powerful. It just takes effort to define it initially and discipline to stay consistent.”
Food52 attributes much of their success to their direct, friendly and educative personality, which they see as part of a sea change in how brands are operating more generally. “The new brands, like Everlane, Casper and Cuyana that you're seeing crop up and succeed? They're connecting on a human level in a way that consumer brands really haven’t done historically,” says Stubbs. “The more you can be human — in everything from your website copy to your customer interactions — and treat people in a way that feels memorable and real, that's the most powerful thing you can do.”
What follows are three channels that Hesser and Stubbs have used to assert Food52’s brand personality as well as link and level up their content and commerce strategies.
Food52 sees email not only as a distribution mechanism, but a vital and creative element of its business strategy. Emails aren’t dashed off as a means to an end, as a way to simply deliver links and generate clicks. Hesser and Stubbs want their emails to increase engagement, of course, but they’re committed to publishing valuable content, in this format like any other.
“Email isn’t just a delivery vessel but its own content. It must inspire, map a narrative and issue a takeaway. If you don't have time to read it, we want you to save it for later.”
Here’s how Food52’s open rates regularly exceed commerce industry benchmarks, by as much as 30%. Here are some of the ways it captures the attention of its readers with its emails:
Take a page from old media. “Our formats are very magazine-like. You're trying to draw in people with a really strong headline and then keep them interested as they're scrolling down,” says Hesser. “We lead with large, beautiful photos to get people's attention and pull them into another world. We sprinkle the emails with a varied mix of content, products and features. A single email might contain a story about a maker, a snippet highlighting our podcast, the announcement of an event and a grid of new products. Not all of our emails are this varied — some are shop-focused and feature a new product or recipe-focused and keep to cooking content — but we find that mirroring the focus or variety in the manner magazines might has served us well.”
Vary the format — but predictably so. Subscribers hear from Food52 once or twice a day, so to hold readers’ attention, it mixes up its email templates. “Some days we'll focus more on content, other days we'll focus on the shop,” says Hesser. “But variety is different than surprise. Every Wednesday, for example, is devoted to an email from Food52’s creative director, Kristen Miglore. She writes our most popular column, called Genius Recipes. It's very much like a personal note from her. Some weeks she sings the praises of her all-time favorite dish soap, or a must-have kitchen implement. Others, she might share her favorite dinner party playlist. It's quirky and it's coming from a real person. That email performs extremely well.”
Showcase what’s not in your shop. Interestingly, though the Wednesday email from Miglore isn’t focused on the Food52 shop (and often includes recommendations for products the shop doesn’t even carry), it drives as many sales as a commerce-focused email. “We do have related content at the bottom of every email — suggested products that are relevant to what Kristen's talking about. And even if products are included only as little thumbnails in the newsletter, the Genius Recipes email ends up generating anywhere from $3,000 and $9,000 in sales,” says Stubbs.
It’s further proof of Food52’s core hypothesis: lead with high-quality content — offer value to your readers — and the sales will follow.
Several of Food52’s best performing emails were the result of direct feedback from their community. In fact, that’s how they drove $20,000 of sales of a German egg coddler in one month. “This is a product we love,” says Hesser. “We sold it from the very early days and it performed fine, but it wasn't a best seller. We got feedback through customer care that some people didn't understand it, didn't know what it was, or how it worked.”
So the team took that cue and ran with it, building a suite of content including a video and a gif of how the coddler works, plus recipes and ideas for how to use it. It was time to feature the egg coddler front and center in an email. But while many brands would balk at putting more than one click between the customer and a sale, the team decided to use every piece of content to create a rich educational experience. “Instead of linking from the email to the product page where you can buy the egg coddler, we linked to the editorial post.”
“People had to first open our email, read our email, click through to the egg coddler article and then click through to the egg coddler product page in order to buy it,” says Hesser. “Rather than deterring interested readers, that process engaged them more deeply. We entertained. We informed. And then people said, ‘Well, now I've got to get it.’”
Other times, customer feedback prompted Food52 to rethink, along with its commerce partners, how products are designed. “Our team has long been enamored by the butter keeper, a dish that keeps butter at room temperature without spoiling. Again, by creating a video and some additional explanatory content, the team turned an underappreciated gem into a bestseller,” says Stubbs. “But we were getting feedback that it didn't hold a full stick of butter. So we went back to the maker and said, ‘Hey, can we do a bigger version?’ He made a new prototype and now we have the larger version in the shop. It's also a bestseller.”
The takeaway? The best type of engagement is education done genuinely — to teach rather than aim to show the extent to which you’re an expert. Build your content strategy around educating your users by meeting those needs, and the insights you gain in return will be well worth the effort.
Thanks to a recent analysis of their sign-up data, Hesser and Stubbs have found that engaged users are literally more valuable, too. “We did an analysis of 2017 subscribers by signup source, and we saw something really interesting,” says Stubbs. “People who subscribed during checkout in order to receive communications about their order ended up having lower lifetime value than subscribers who had signed up for our emails, been readers for a bit, and then made a purchase.”
Armed with that insight, the team continues to experiment with how and when users are prompted to sign up for email. They’ve played around with how long after arriving on the site a user is shown a signup pop-up window — and currently they appear once users show engagement on the page. They partner with similar brands to drive each other’s audiences to their respective sites and generate new signups. They’re leaving no stone unturned to optimize for email acquisition. “The data confirms what our hypothesis has always been, which is that quality email leads are a huge driver of our business,” says Stubbs. “Getting email sign-ups right is vital to Food52.”
Food52 has found Instagram a particularly valuable platform for building community and broadcasting its brand personality. It’s had great success driving direct sales from Instagram, too — no small feat, as any social media manager can tell you. “Instagram is a free marketing platform. It’s a no-brainer place for resource-constrained startups to start building an audience,” says Stubbs. “So much of the heavy lifting is already done for you.”
From the moment Instagram took off, Food52 has been on it. “For anyone who works in food publishing, in particular, an image-centric platform like Instagram or Pinterest is a very natural place to be,” says Stubbs. “Right away, we knew it was a platform where we could really take a stand as a brand.”
Hesser and Stubbs understand that Instagram is best suited for companies for which visuals and short videos are at the core of how they convey their business, such as Airbnb, Rolex or GoPro, but many of the following tactics also relevant across other social media channels.
Instagram is a place for Food52 to publish the food photography for which they’ve become known. But it also offers an ideal suite of tools for building and engaging a community. “Very quickly, we jumped to a strategy of regramming other people, calling them out and giving them exposure,” says Stubbs. “Just as we wanted our website to be a platform for other people's recipes, photography and knowledge, we found that Instagram was another great platform for introducing people to a wider audience.”
Too often trailblazers get lauded for being at the forefront and less celebrated for what’s left in their wake. Brands are only as good as the path they leave for others.
Don’t worry about diverting users away from your website and toward a social platform — the Food52 founders didn’t worry about cannibalizing their web audience. They simply focused on optimizing content like sharing recipes and showing Shop products in their natural settings for Instagram’s format — creating an entry point for new users, and a way to deepen the participation of existing users. “We've always looked at social as just another place for us to meet and engage with our community,” says Hesser. “What we have been focused on is how we engage people in a meaningful way for each platform.”
For example, the team hit viral gold by amplifying the voice of their users. At the end of 2014, Food52 had 100,000 Instagram followers. That’s when they launched #f52grams. “Each week would have a particular theme, whether it was pink food or your best stew. People would Instagram using that hashtag and bring in their friends, and their friends would get to know us,” says Hesser. By 2015, Food52’s Instagram followers had ballooned to one million.
They didn’t set out to boost their numbers. It was just the happy outcome of an initiative to build community, across all their platforms. “It mirrored what we were doing on the site with recipe contests. The thing we wanted to replicate was this pattern of making people feel valued — and, by extension, invested and involved in the community — by calling out and promoting their contributions,” says Stubbs. “We knew our community from the site would be familiar with this mechanism — we just tweaked it so that it was relevant to the platform. When we started to see our follower count and the number of #f52grams mentions skyrocket, we knew we were on to something.”
Before hitting a million — or even 100,000 — followers, though, there was a lot of trial and error. It was an ongoing process of trying out pieces of content to see what garnered the most interest, while also pushing followers to dip their toes in the breadth of content Food52 offers.
“I remember in the early days we discovered that donuts just kill it,” says Hesser. “If you're a food media company, you could do that everyday and get lots of clicks, but you're not going to be an inspiring resource,” she says. “So we took note of what worked, then kept trying to find new ways to generate excitement. We thought, ‘Okay, good to know about donuts. Now we've got to find 17 other things that people want to see.’”
As Food52 nears two million Instagram followers, that spirit of experimentation continues to serve them well. Because when it comes to changeable, unpredictable social media formats, it turns out you can’t ever rest on your laurels.“The thing with Instagram — and pretty much any social media medium — is that you constantly have to be flexible and willing to experiment while not risking the relationship you've built with your existing audience,” says Hesser.
Hesser and Stubbs identified three key tips that, taken together, form a cycle they’ve repeated many times to maintain their high-performing Instagram presence:
Pounce on new features on social. Every time Instagram has released a new video feature, Food52 has jumped right on it. “The first day that Instagram launched Stories, we published an Instagram Story. We’ll use text overlay to ask a question or prompt feedback. Or combine gorgeous product shots with videos of those same products in action. We try it all,” says Stubbs. “This is critical because every new tool is a potential way to communicate with your audience. Once you’re aware of that new lever, just try it. Don’t take things too seriously. Protect your brand, but don’t make it precious. We remind our social media team not to overthink things. Social is this river, constantly moving. And so you have to try things and understand that some attempts will fall flat.”
Test and tweak your strategy on and across social platforms. When something works — or really doesn’t — welcome that fresh insight into your audience. For all their experimentation with video, for example, the Food52 team learned that their followers tend to comment more on photos in their feed than on videos. Now, Food52 weights their feed more toward photo posts, relying more on video for Stories, where it garners more engagement. “Also, what we often do is distribute a video on Facebook first. If it does well on Facebook, that's usually a good signal that it will perform well on Instagram,” says Hesser. “To not only flag new features that are upcoming but anticipate how they might work together, we have people on our social team who are in close touch with contacts at Facebook and Instagram to make sure that we're ready for what’s coming down the pike.”
Be data-guided — more than data-driven — on social. Wherever you can get data, stay close to it. “We do have an analytics team, but I would say that the social team probably handles 90 percent of the data analysis for social,” says Stubbs. Hesser adds, “We know from being in media for a long time that you need to evolve, even if the data is telling you to do the same thing over and over,” she says. And when it comes to knowing how and when to push the envelope, hiring the right social media pros is key. “They really do have to have that combo of being able to comfortably analyze data and having the sense of fun and innovation to put together an Instagram Story that’s in line with the brand, but also a little bit fun and quirky,” says Stubbs.
Armed with that insider insight, it’s right back to the beginning: trying something new again. That’s not to say you should make dramatic shifts or ditch your branding along the way. Simply make room for gentle innovation within that brand. “The idea is that you should constantly be tweaking and taking risks, measured risks,” says Hesser. “The way to do that is to not just post products but frame them as experiences. Take a grater or a butter keeper or any number of kitchen goods. It’s not always obvious how they will fit into your life. So, we’ll post a set of bowls along with five great salad recipes and a trick for making salad dressing. It's an experience as opposed to just an opportunity to get people shopping for a product.”
And it works: Stories currently drive 50% of Food52’s Instagram revenue, and 30% of Instagram traffic to their site. “Obviously, producing Stories takes more resources and time and thought than a photography post, but we've found it definitely worthwhile,” says Hesser.
When it comes to video, the Food52 team has always taken the position that any piece of content, in any format, needs to clear the same bar: it has to tell a great story. “That can look very different depending on the format, the length of video,” says Stubbs. “But having a clear narrative arc and point of view is essential, whether it's a 30-second recipe video or a three-minute maker story.”
Take Food52’s video for the Lazy Mary Tart, a fan favorite recipe since it won a contest in 2010. As easy as its name suggests, this recipe has just one tricky element: prepping the dough. So when it was time to produce the video, it was only logical to pair the tart with the shop’s Lovely Baking Rolling Pin Set.
“The promise of this video was resolving the biggest challenge of the recipe. The beauty of it is it's the easiest lemon tart you'll ever make — you literally just throw everything, including the rind and seeds of a lemon, into a blender,” says Hesser. “So the hardest part is making the dough and rolling it out. With this video, we're showing you a storied, timeless recipe from the site, and then helping you resolve a challenge through a great product.”
The result was a recipe video that organically incorporated product promotion, too. The success of that pairing was immediately evident: the video yielded 2,500 engagements on Facebook and sold 18 units, far above the company’s benchmarks for organic posts.
Some of the best videos are solutions disguised as stories. Problem-solving becomes delightful with a bit of charm and cinematography.
Beyond their narrative arc, videos are also living, moving bearers of your brand’s aesthetic standards. “It's really important that our video is instantly identifiable as Food52,” says Hesser. “These are not just product videos of an unboxing. The brand has a personality. We're talking to you. We're your friend at home who's helping you out, giving you good ideas, and ideally helping you live a better, happier life.”
“One way to a strong brand identity is visual consistency. It’s paramount that you do that in all media.”
To achieve that mission, Hesser and Stubbs still yea or nay every product and chime in on any major visual decisions for the site. But as the company has grown, they’ve taken steps to scale those aesthetic judgments, too. In the early days, they always worked with the same photographer, who later oversaw hiring new photographers and training them on the brand’s lighting and visual style.
Adding an art director to the team was another big step. “She has really helped us refine our look, and helped codify brand guidelines and style guides,” says Hesser. “She has hired a team that can replicate our look, so that when she's not on set there’s consistency.”
Food52 has taken their quest for consistency one step further: they modeled their office after the look and feel they strive to achieve in their emails, videos and across all their social platforms. “We designed it to really feel like a home,” says Stubbs. “That's one of many things that we do to infuse the brand aesthetic into the day-to-day existence of everyone who works here. You can't help but have at least some understanding of what it is if you work in our office.”
For many, the relationship between content and commerce is distant — or a loose correlation at best. But Food52 has found a way to connect them in a consistent way across a number of tools: email, social and video. First, take a page out of old media and reimagine your emails as magazines. Try different formats and curators to introduce variety without surprising your readers. Foster trust and some objectivity by linking to editorial posts instead of product pages, or feature products that your online shop may not even sell (yet). For social, elevate others to amplify your brand. Capitalize on every new feature on social to reach new customers and be data-guided — not data-driven — on your decisions. Lastly, use videos to tell your best stories and as your highest-leverage tool to illustrate your brand personality in motion.
“We’re now taking our content- and community-focused approach one step further by developing our own product line. It’s going to be our biggest experiment yet in combining content and commerce — and we’re not drawing up plans alone in a back office. It’ll be a crowdsourced endeavor, and we’ve reached out to our community to help us design products,” says Hesser. “And so, obviously, things will have the visual aesthetic of what people know as Food52. But with the input of the community. Ten thousand people have already chimed in on our first product: a cutting board. They’ve given opinions on the thickness and the type of wood, how the wood was sourced, whether the board should have a handle or not. We solicited answers through email, Instagram Stories and video — all the channels we’ve discussed. Every stage of product development will be transparent. And in our category, that’s a pretty radical shift. But it shouldn’t be. There’s nothing more intimate than what we invite into our home and kitchen.”
Photography by Michael George.