I Can’t Pay My Mortgage With Free Applesauce! A Conversation About Blogging & PR

I first met Maris Callahan through a food blogging group on Facebook and I’ve appreciated her candor and insight into the world of PR. Maris is the founder of In Good Taste, so she has the unique perspective of being a PR professional and being a food blogger. I asked Maris if she’d answer some questions about how food bloggers and PR work together and she kindly agreed. If you’re new to working with PR, or even if you’re a seasoned pro, you’ll want to read what she has to say. Thank you, Maris!

MarisHeadshots_2014_8609-2Photo: Leigh Loftus

How did you get into blogging? Do you think it’s benefited you in your career to be on both sides of the fence, so to speak?

I worked in PR first, then started blogging in 2008 because I have always loved to write and blogging seemed like an obvious platform to utilize. I vividly remember chatting with my friend Joey over a drink ​and telling him that I’d always loved to write. He said: “why don’t you have a blog?” I started one the next week! While it can be difficult to balance the two, in the long run, I know that I am a better publicist because I understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of pitches. I’ve seen what works and what does not.

I have been writing online for a long time and also believe that my education and experience in marketing and PR is a strong asset as a writer and a publisher. I love to find unique ways to help brands tell their stories via all different mediums. One example of how blogging and PR complement one another is that I’ve received pitches from companies that I wouldn’t necessarily write about, but that fit a national TV segment that I had booked for my client. At the end of the day, working in the media lends itself to a lot of opportunities. Being transparent with my clients and colleagues is my number one priority and with that, it all falls into place.

For bloggers who are just starting out, what’s the best way for them to get their foot in the door with PR reps and brands?

This business is about building relationships. A blogger should get to know a brand before initiating a business deal. Assuming your end goal is to have a brand hire you for paid work, you should introduce yourself with a simple email explaining who you are and what you do and why you’re different than the thousands and thousands of other blogs out there. Just as it’s rare to be hired at your dream salary right out of college, it’s rare to be new in an industry and start making the big bucks right away. I would rather receive an email from a blogger who introduces herself, explains why her blog is a fit for the brand I am representing and what types of collaborations she is interested in working on in the future. If I get an email that mentions compensation immediately, I find it off-putting. I’d rather see that you’re truly interested in building a relationship with the brand than looking for fast cash.

Food bloggers get emails all day long from brands wanting to send them samples or collaborate on projects. When is it appropriate to ask for compensation and how should bloggers bring it up?

If you’re going to treat your blog like a business, you need to be just as professional as you would if you were going into an office every day. I can’t tell you how many emails I receive from bloggers that say “I would love to develop a recipe!​” or “I would love to do a sponsored post!​” for a brand that I represent. I would never pitch a prospective client by saying “I would love to do your PR!” and sign it “xoxo, Maris.” I send them a professionally worded email that introduces myself and my business and explains why working with me could be valuable for ​to that company. I treat my outreach for my own​ blog the same way. If you’re asking for paid work, you need to also be prepared to “sell” ​the recipient on the value proposition. Tell ​them why working with you will benefit the company’s bottom line and for lack of a better term “what’s in it for them​.”​

I would also highly recommend learning about the industry and understanding the difference between public relations and advertising, which I will talk more about in a bit. When I send a PR pitch for a client, and I immediately receive an email back saying “here is my media kit and this is my rate for a sponsored post,” it’s an immediate decline. I want to ​introduce my clients to bloggers who we can build relationships with, not bloggers who want to make a quick buck and call it a day. Blogs are a really unique media channel, unlike print media, traditional online media (like a news website) or even broadcast media. It’s not to say that I don’t think that bloggers should be monetizing their sites, because I do, but I think there is a way to do it that is tactful and professional.

How would you define earned PR vs. a paid advertorial?

It’s really so much simpler than a lot of people make it out to be. Public relations is not guaranteed, while advertising is. Public relations is the process of securing earned media while advertising is paying for exactly what you want to run. Digital publishing is blurring the lines​ between the two, but it really should not be.

​At end of the day media is paid for or it isn’t and the most important thing is that paid media is disclosed properly as such or it risks being seen as deceitful to readers.

Where do you see sponsored posts and brand collaborations heading in the next few years? My opinion is that just like with banner ads, we’re going to reach a saturation point with sponsored posts and people will begin to tune them out. Do you think blogs that do almost exclusively sponsored content will be sustainable in the long-term?

My advice to any publisher would be to diversify your revenue stream. Would you watch a television network that only ran commercials? I would not, nor do I read blogs that only run sponsored posts. People who consume online media are getting smarter about what they are reading and why.

Personally, I do not read blogs made up entirely of product reviews, giveaways or sponsored posts. I do not recommend them to my clients because my clients pay me for my opinion and I want to recommend high-quality sites that offer a variety of content, not solely advertisements. Consumers get frustrated when their magazines are thick with ads or if their favorite TV program cuts to commercial every five minutes and blogs are no different.

I think another thing to consider also, is that as more bloggers charge four figure fees for sponsored posts, fewer brands are going to purchase them. Eventually, there will be a tipping point where brands start to allocate their advertising dollars elsewhere. Digital marketing is tricky, even huge and widely read sites like Daily Candy couldn’t remain profitable, so as more and more people jump on the blogging bandwagon to make money, it’s going to be harder and harder to stay profitable.

Is there anything else you’d like bloggers to know about PR? Any misconceptions you’d like to lay to rest?

One major misconception that I constantly hear bloggers say is that “PR people expect us to work for free. Do they work for free?” No one expects anyone to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing. In every industry, there are good and bad apples and that can’t be helped, but beyond that, everyone is trying to earn a living and many of us are trying to follow our passions. If everyone were even a little more understanding of that and a little kinder to the person on the opposite end of the email, we could all be that much stronger together.

An Answer to the Question: “What do bloggers do all day?”

IE7A6138
People seem to have two ideas about what food bloggers do. Some think that we sit around all day living lives of leisure until dinnertime — then we cook, take a picture of it, write up a post, and that’s our work day. These are the people who also like to say things like, “I should quit my job and start a food blog — I’d love to make money for taking pictures of my dinner!”

Others think that the work we do is really exciting and fun, and that we’re busy doing all these amazing things and getting cases of free food in the mail daily, hobnobbing with big name brands and celebrities, etc. And fine, maybe that’s true of some bloggers, but for me, blogging is pretty much the same as almost every other job I’ve had, with two (very awesome) exceptions: I’m my own boss and I can wear velour yoga pants to the office (so soft!).

To dispel some of the mystery surrounding what bloggers do, I kept track of my time for a full day. The takeaway is this: running a food blog, for me at least, isn’t that different from any other job. It’s not hard work, or at least not harder than any other job, it’s just a lot of work, and it’s often work that doesn’t fit into a neat 9-5 schedule.

7:30 Eat Breakfast + Morning Work Routine

I start every morning with a cup of tea and breakfast and while enjoying said breakfast, I clean up my email by going through and deleting any junk I got overnight, check my personal Facebook account, check things that have been pinned from my site on Pinterest, check my stats, and check my ad networks. I also proofread the day’s post one more time (every post we publish goes through our editor, me, my husband, and then me again — yes, seriously, I am that neurotic), publish it, and manually add it to the recipe index. I have a visual recipe index that updates automatically, but I like having one that I curate myself too.

8:30 Shower + Get Ready

Sometimes I work out at this time, but lately I’ve had too much to do in the morning, so I decide to workout at night instead. But that rarely happens, so I should really probably get back into working out in the AM.

9:00 Put Together To-Do List For the Day

There are apps for this, but I use a good old-fashioned text document on my computer. I keep it open all day long so I can look at it and see at a glance what I need to get done. As I finish tasks, I delete them from the list. My goal is to always have 0 tasks left by the end of the day. This pretty much never happens, but it’s important to have goals, isn’t it? Yes, it is.

9:10 Check Blogging Groups

Notice that I spend 10 minutes on this! Blogging groups can be a huge timesuck and when I first started blogging professionally, I literally spent hours a day in Facebook groups, commenting groups, etc., and I had nothing to show for it — I felt like I was always busy, but I couldn’t point to anything that I was actually accomplishing. Now I realize that my time is much better spent creating content and working on my site than networking.

9:20 Check Redbooth

I highly recommend using Redbooth for project management if you’re in the market for that kind of thing. Kare helped me come up with a list of tasks for every post we do — contributors check a box when they turn in their posts, I check a box after I review it, after the recipe is tested, we check another box, etc. The tasks you create are automatically entered into a calendar so you can look at that and see when everything is due. Genius!

9:25 5 Emails

I came up with a system for managing my emails, which is pretty much a non-system, but here it is: I try to respond to 5 emails at least 3 times a day. So that’s a total of 15 emails a day. I always feel blergh about sitting down for 2 hours doing emails, so breaking it up throughout the day makes it more manageable. I also have a system of triaging my emails — I delete junk as soon as it hits my inbox and I prioritize anything business-related over emails from other bloggers (sorry guys!). This batch of emails included two to contributors about posts they’re working on, one to my virtual assistant detailing a new project I wanted her to work on, one to my developer, and one to a client I did freelance work for to follow up about a payment.

9:40 Photo Editing

I use Lightroom for my photo editing — I like to edit in two phases because I’ve found that when I go back later, I almost always end up adjusting the exposure or white balance. So I finished editing photos for one post and I did the first round of editing for a second post.

10:05 Create 2 Post Graphics in Photoshop

While I have my graphic designer do some graphics for Oh My Veggies, I make a lot of them too. I had her create overlays that I can use myself, so my graphics are consistent. If you want professional graphics, but don’t have a budget for it, that’s my tip for you — find someone to create overlays that you can use in Photoshop. And if you don’t have Photoshop, subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud for $10 a month — it’s so worth it!

10:35 Submit Today’s Post Photos to FoodGawker and Tastespotting

10:40 Back to Photoshop to Make Another Graphic

10:50 2 Quick Emails

Despite the whole “5 email 3 times a day” thing, I also try to respond to quick and/or urgent emails throughout the day. I had to email my developer again and I also had to send a high res photo to a website requesting it for a round-up.

11:00 OMV Facebook

I’m not too great about staying on top of my Facebook page, but I do log in at least once a day to see if there are questions to reply to and to share that day’s post.

11:05 Lunch

While I eat lunch, I check my personal Facebook account. Occasionally I’ll work while eating lunch too, but usually I like to take a little break.

11:30 Work on Post

I finished writing a post that I started over the weekend after lunch. I write all of my posts in a text editor and copy and paste them into WordPress, that way I have a copy of them on my computer (and using a text editor is a lot less prone to issues that drafting your posts in Word). I uploaded the photos for the post, tagged it, wrote the excerpt that appears on the homepage, did my very rudimentary SEO on it (I use Yoast), scheduled it, and read over the post again.

12:20 5 Emails

I had to put together a recipe list for a partnership I’m working on, then I emailed my VA again, responded to an email from a reader and an email from a blogger looking for advice, and responded to an interview request from another blogger.

12:50 Update Pick of the Week

12:55 Tweet Today’s Post, Respond to a Quick Email

1:00-2:15 Phone Call with OMV Editor

This week I confessed on my personal Facebook account that I hate phone calls and found out that I’m not alone. I’m not alone! I’m cool with phone calls for brainstorming, but when it comes to negotiation and things like that, I always feel on the spot. And it’s important to have a paper trail! But anyway, this was a phone call to talk about workflows (so corporate!), come up with ideas, etc., so it was an acceptable use of a phone call.

2:15 Read Emails That Came During Phone Call, Email Editor With Additional Info

Because after a phone call, there’s always a follow up email, right?

2:50 Photo Editing Round 2!

Finish editing the photos I started this morning and then add overlay to one of them for the post.

3:25 Finish Another Blog Post

Copy and paste another post into WordPress and make edits. Upload the photos I just finished, assign categories and tag, and SEO.

3:40 5 Emails

Someone emailed me to complain about a tech issue on my site, so I responded to that and let my tech person know about it. I also had to email an ad rep, a contributor, and email 2 consultants about projects I’m considering hiring them to help me out with.

4:05 Research Remnant Ad Network Pitch

I get at least one of these a day. Usually I take a quick glance at the website, decide it’s not for me, and delete, which is what I did with this one.

4:10 Break

I checked the weather to see if it was supposed to rain around dinnertime (because: photos!) and got a glass of water. You’re totally jealous of the exciting awesome day I’m having right now, I can tell. You’re on the edge of your seat waiting to see what I do next…

4:15 Comment Replies

Ooh, comment replies! Yes, I still reply to comments myself. Although I used to reply to every single comment left on my blog, now I mostly reply to comments from non-bloggers (since they’re usually either questions about a recipe or feedback after making a recipe) or to more substantive comments. It used to take me about an hour or two a day to reply to comments when I replied to all of them and I was the only one posting on OMV.

4:30 Make My Cat Type On the Computer

cat_assistant
I do this a few times a week. It never gets old. She loves it! Look at her face! That’s the face of a cat who loves to work!

4:30 Resume Comment Replies

Unfortunately, cats can only work in small spurts before going back to napping.

4:35 Troubleshoot Ad Issue

I wasn’t sure if one of my ads was defaulting properly, so I had to run reports for that network and the network both above and below to make sure the numbers all matched up.

4:45 End of Day Email Cleanup

Before I shut down my work computer, I like to do an end-of-day push to respond to any lingering emails in my inbox. Sometimes these are urgent emails that just came up, but usually they’re the ones without a pressing deadline — in this case, they were 2 emails from other bloggers with questions and an email from a reader.

5:05 Start Dinner

Work computer is off for the night! Now I go downstairs to start dinner. Usually Chris will be downstairs already helping get some of the prep out of the way, then we both work as a team to finish. I do my recipe development on the weekends because I feel less rushed then, so during the week, it’s always stuff for the meal plans, 4 recipes from posts, or recipe testing.

6:00 Photograph Dinner

Tonight’s dinner was something I was making for a meal plan post. And I know what you’re thinking — why do you actually make the recipes you include in your meal plans? Everyone asks me that! Well, first, because I like making recipes from other sources and I’d be doing that anyway, with or without the whole meal planning thing. And second, because I think it’s good for readers to know that the recipes we put in the meal plans are things that are going to work out for them.

6:10 Eat Dinner

I don’t take very long to photograph the meal plan posts — usually I just put the food down on the table and photograph it. Which is why the photos in those posts are never very good, but I figure since it’s a meal plan, it doesn’t have to be perfectly styled, right?

6:30 Check Work Email and Personal Facebook

I bought a desktop computer in lieu of a laptop in hopes that it would keep me from working all night. And then I bought a laptop as my “non-work” computer, which obviously led to me working on that at night. After dinner, I check to see if any work emails came in, and then I log into my personal Facebook account — while I’m in there, I check blog networking groups briefly.

7:00 Check Stats and Pins

I use Clicky, Google Analytics, and Quantcast for my stats, but Clicky is the one that I use for my day-to-day tracking. It had real time tracking before Google did and I got used to using it, so even though I don’t technically need it, I still like it. I also look to see what was pinned from Oh My Veggies during the day, which, combined with my traffic, gives me a good idea of how popular today’s post was.

7:10 Start Pinning

Pinning helps me unwind! Most nights, I’ll pin while either working on other stuff or while watching TV. I pin today’s post during this time too.

7:15 Enter Due Dates for August Posts in Redbooth

I totally did this while watching Sister Wives on the DVR. And while pinning. Multi-tasking!

9:30 Review Sketches While Watching RHOC

We’re doing another illustrated technique post for July, so my friend sent me the sketches for that and somehow it ended up with me texting her an animated GIF of Vicki Gunvalson with a stripper in Mexico.

9:40 Potluck Stops Working

Hooray, tech issues! Potluck is serving up blank pages. I email my tech person, Sarah, to help me figure out what the heck is going on while poking around myself to see if I can figure it out.

10:40 Email Editor

10:50 Email Sarah

Still trying to figure out what’s going on with Potluck.

10:55 Check Personal Facebook

11:00 Email Sarah

Sarah thinks she knows what’s wrong with Potluck — it’s two plugins that are conflicting, but to deactivate one of them, we have to figure out an alternative to it.

11:15 Pay Sarah to Fix Potluck

And then pop some melatonin and go to bed.

Pinterest For Food Bloggers, 5 Elements of Delicious Blog Design + 2 More Things to Check Out

Pinterest for Food Bloggers
This is one of those posts where I share various things that I think you, fellow food blogger, may appreciate. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for a round-up! It’s July, so it’s a good time to keep things light and breezy, yes?

Pinterest For Food Bloggers

Mary from The Kitchen Paper sent me an advance copy of her e-book, Pinterest For Food Bloggers (affiliate link!), a few weeks ago and even though Pinterest is totally my jam when it comes to social media, I still managed to learn a few things. Like, uh, did you know you should add descriptions to your boards for SEO purposes? Yeah, I totally never did that because I was all, “Pfft, the board is called Vegetarian Sandwiches, it says what it is!” There’s a lot of really crappy advice about Pinterest floating around out there, so I approached the book with a healthy dose of skepticism, but was immediately won over when Mary described managing your Pinterest account like you’re curating a collection for a museum. Yes! Thank you! Pinterest shouldn’t be “pin all my things to all the boards all the time!” View it as a bonus resource for your readers and curate content for them — then people will follow. That’s the approach I’ve taken with my account (not an affiliate link, just shameless self promotion — follow me!).

Erickson Wood Works

Erickson Wood Works BoardsMy contributor Meg told me about this Etsy shop and WHOA am I glad she did. Unpopular opinion: I hate those vinyl photo backgrounds that everyone loves. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but I can’t get them to lay flat, I can’t get them to look like real wood, and you can always see the texture of the vinyl in my photos. So I use real wood, but making your own boards is a hassle, so I’ve been using the same few boards over and over and over (and hoping no one notices). Erickson Wood Works makes real wood boards and bonus, they can make them double-sided so you get two different backgrounds on each board. They’re more expensive than vinyl, but they’re totally worth it for me, a person who does not like vinyl.

GourmetAds

Gourmet AdsI’ve been testing out a bunch of new ad networks lately and the only one that I’ve really liked so far is GourmetAds. The CPMs are on the low side, but they’re 100% fill. When you’re getting single digit fill rates from your higher CPM ad networks, 100% fill with an okay CPM is a really, really good thing. Since they’re 100% fill, I’ve been using them as the last tier in a few spaces on Oh My Veggies.

5 Elements of Delicious Blog Design

GarnishIt’s been 2 years now since I started working with Shay Bocks and it’s fun to see how both of our businesses have grown during this time. I really believe that her design work played a crucial role in Oh My Veggies’ success — I couldn’t articulate exactly what it was that I wanted, but through getting to know me and my content, she was able to totally nail branding and design for my website. This fall, Shay is launching an online course for people who want to do their own design work, but need a little bit of professional guidance along the way. But because fall is a few months away, she’s sharing some free videos on her site in the meantime. Hooray! The first one is about the 5 Elements of Delicious Blog Design — find out how many fonts you should use on your site, strategic places to put your subscription boxes, and lots of other juicy tips!

How I Grew My Blog Traffic

The question I always got asked most by other bloggers used to be, “How do you make money from blogging?” Now that I have an ebook about it, I don’t get asked that much anymore. Instead, I get lots of emails asking me how I grew my traffic. That’s much harder to answer!

My response to this question can be boiled down to, “I don’t know, but here are some things that probably helped.” Usually people are cool with that, but I’ve had a few bloggers give me huffy responses, like I’m holding out on them or being evasive. I’m not! There’s no big secret in growing traffic. There’s no blogging Illuminati that decides who will be successful and who won’t be. Also, if I had the secret to growing traffic, I would write a book about it and make a lot of money on it. Duh.

But since people ask me about this all the time, I figured I’d post about it here.

The Big Jump

In my ebook, I have a chart that shows my traffic and income growth. Quite a few people have emailed me to point out the jump in traffic I had in June 2012 and ask me what happened that month. I always say that luck has a lot to do with my success, and this is where luck comes into play.

Big Jump in Traffic
In May, a super-pinner with millions of followers pinned my Mexican Chocolate Breakfast Shake and I had my highest traffic day ever at that time, with just over 10,000 pageviews. That pin gave me a boost in traffic for a while, and then she pinned a second post in the beginning of June, which gave me another boost on top of the first boost. Then I posted a recipe for Vanilla Ice, which went viral.

That Vanilla Ice post was my number one source of traffic for months. I’m kind of embarrassed by it now because it’s a little of out of left-field for my blog, which is mostly meal ideas, and the recipe didn’t work out for some people, which caused me to obsessively re-test it all summer long, driving myself to near insanity in the process.

Around the same time I posted the Vanilla Ice, I had another post go viral on StumbleUpon, which was a total freak thing because in mid-2012, the heyday of StumbleUpon was already over. All of these things combined to double my traffic in one month — I went from 95K pageviews in May to just over 200K in June.

At the time, I expected that once the traffic on these posts died down, my pageviews would go back to normal levels. But they didn’t. My pageviews continued to grow steadily each month even as the traffic to those particular posts started to wane. It was luck that caused me to have that big jump, but I think it was hard work that kept my blog growing after the big jump.

(I’ve also had significant jumps in traffic in January 2013 and 2014. I attribute this to New Year’s resolutions — I know a lot of other food bloggers in healthier niches who see traffic boosts in the beginning of the year, and the consensus is that that’s why.)

…and then the hard work

So that’s the luck part of it. There’s really nothing you can do to make that happen. I don’t think it’s possible to orchestrate viral posts like that. I hardly promote my own posts for this reason — my own promotion is never as effective as the word-of-mouth promotion I get from others. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to grow your traffic. Here are some things that I think helped me continue to grow Oh My Veggies after the popularity on those viral posts started to fade.

FoodGawker

Bloggers debate about whether FoodGawker is worth submitting to now that so much of our traffic comes from Pinterest, but in my opinion, it is. Not only is FoodGawker where editors from big websites find recipes to link to, I think it’s also where a lot of food blog fans find new blogs to read. I did a reader survey last year and asked how people found Oh My Veggies and a significant number of readers indicated it was from FoodGawker.

One of the things I did back in 2012, when I was hustling to grow my blog, was re-take crappy photos from my earlier posts and submit them to FoodGawker. When I was using my iPhone as a camera, I never submitted those pictures to FoodGawker because I knew they were bad; after I got my DSLR, I took new photos for those posts so I could submit them. They didn’t all get accepted because I was still learning how to use my new camera, but a lot of them did. Posting 2 new recipes a week, plus re-taking and submitting photos for 1 old post, meant I was getting a pretty steady stream of traffic from FoodGawker and other food gallery sites.

The best way to get traffic from FoodGawker is if you end up on the front page of their site for a few hours. A friend and I used to keep track on a spreadsheet of when we submitted our posts, when they were accepted, and if we ended up on the front page so we could compare notes. By doing this, we were able to nail down a precise time to submit our photos. Sometimes the time moved, so we’d have to figure it out again. I’m not nearly so OCD about it now because I think they vary their approval times a little bit more, but at the time, I was really proud of having cracked the FoodGawker code.

I also submit to food sites that don’t send much traffic. Why? Well, I figure that even if one new reader finds Oh My Veggies from a post I submit, it’s worth the 30 seconds it takes me to submit them. Why not, right?

Posting Regularly

Common sense: the more you post, the more traffic you’ll get. I knew I couldn’t sustain more than 2 recipe posts a week, so I did 2 non-recipe posts each week, for a total of 4 posts. I treated my blog like a job; I had a schedule for my posts and I stuck to it. With a regular job, you can’t say, “Oh, I don’t feel like working this week, but I’ll be in next week!” So I don’t do that with my blog either. I’ve had some people tease me about taking it so seriously, but I’m really sure that this is a big, huge, ginormous factor in the growth of Oh My Veggies, so haters can hate!

(Note that this really only applies to people who are blogging for an income. If you blog as a hobby, I think you should post whenever you please. But if you’re blogging professionally, I do think it’s important to post consistently.)

Not only does posting regularly mean that your regular readers will be coming back more often to read your new posts, but it means you’re going to be building up a bigger archive of older posts, which will also help boost your traffic. A lot of people think success is about social media or marketing or who you know (those people are the worst, aren’t they?), but I believe the biggest factor in success is content — posts are always my number one priority, before anything else blog-related.

Redesigning

Maybe this doesn’t exactly fall under hard work, but 2012 was also when I got my first professional blog design by Shay Bocks. I almost cancelled it too — I decided to take the plunge and do it, after months of thinking about it, when I got my first big check from BlogHer, but then right after booking it, I got laid off and the $1000 I had just committed to redesigning my blog seemed crazy.

I made that $1000 back pretty quickly though. I think having a well-designed blog communicates that you’re a professional; that your site is trustworthy. And having a good recipe index and navigation that makes sense can be a boost in traffic too. (I used to do web taxonomy consulting and navigational links that don’t make sense drive me bonkers!) I’ve worked with Shay for almost 2 years now — she does most of the graphics you see in the posts on OMV and she constantly tweaks and changes things and adds new features to the site. I really consider her work to be a big part of my blog’s success. I realize that this isn’t feasible for brand new bloggers (and I don’t even think you should invest in professional design work until you’re making an income from your site), but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a well-designed blog. Invest in a good theme like Foodie (affiliate link!), come up with a style guide that outlines the colors and fonts you’ll use on your site, and be consistent in using them.

Being Reader-Centric

When I started blogging as a job, I stopped approaching my blog as, “What do I feel like sharing?” and started approaching it as, “What would be helpful to the people who I want to read my blog?” I try to offer something unique; too often, bloggers focus on what everyone else is doing and every subsequent Nutella cupcake recipe is a little less popular than the first. As someone who reads a lot of blogs, both food and non-food, I’m always looking for sites that offer me something that I can’t find anywhere else, and I think that’s what most blog readers are looking for too. I also look for a good variety of posts — I might be on a salad kick and make it 5 times in a week, but I wouldn’t post 5 salad recipes in a row on my site because for a regular reader, that’s boring.

Part of being reader-centric is also making sure the content I post is solid. If I make something and it doesn’t turn out right, I don’t guess what would improve the recipe and post it without testing the changes — I make it again until it’s right. And if something turns out right the first time, I make it again just to be sure. To me, my blog isn’t about, “Look, this is what I made,” it’s about, “Here, you should make this,” and I don’t want to share a recipe that I don’t feel confident about. That’s not to say there’s not a place for bloggers who just want to share what they made for dinner last night — I’m not saying that! But I think one of the factors in my blog’s growth was having reliable recipes because I’m not the best photographer and no one is coming to my site for the writing, so having solid recipes really helped me build a regular readership.

Improving My Photography

This is probably a given, but good photos bring traffic. And NO, I don’t think that means you have to buy a lot of expensive equipment. It’s entirely possible to have a DSLR and take terrible photos because I have taken many of them myself. When I finally got my T2i, my photos still had a long way to go because I needed to get more comfortable with composition, editing, and staging. And these are things I’m still working on. Resources like Tasty Food Photography, Photographing Food, and Plate to Pixel (affiliate links!) have all helped me improve my photography; when I find myself in a rut, I circle back to these resources for a refresher. Back in 2012, my photos weren’t works of art, but I learned how to use natural light and that alone made a big difference. If you don’t have a DSLR, I have a post about iPhone food photography that might help.

Do Things Your Way

I think you’ll see that my answers on how I grew traffic for Oh My Veggies are very different from what a lot of other bloggers might tell you worked for their blogs. Social media is nowhere to be found on my list, and neither are conferences, networking, etc. Which goes to show you that what I said in the second paragraph of this post is true — there’s no secret to blogging success! There’s no single path to follow! All of our blogs are different and our audiences are different and what works for me might not necessarily work for you. It sounds trite and I know it can come off as being evasive and not helpful, but it’s the truth.

On Buying a House When You’re Self-Employed

Baby ArtichokeThings have been a little bit crazy for me these past few weeks, for many reasons. Hiring new contributors! Projects! Always projects! So many projects! And Chris and I were thinking we were going to move, which involved getting pre-approved for a mortgage, which did not go the way we expected it to.

We’re originally from the Chicago area, but we moved to Wisconsin for a few years, then to North Carolina. We want to move back to the Chicago area and our realtor suggested now was a good time to sell, so we decided to hop right on that and get selling.

Despite my overuse of exclamation points (see first paragraph) and smileys (see every comment reply on my blog), I tend to be a pretty pessimistic person and I approach every month with a this-will-be-the-month-my-blog-fails attitude — I’m not going to count on my blog income to be steady until I retire, because let’s be real, none of us really know where this whole blogging thing is going to be in a few years. I anticipate that at some point in the future, I’m either going to have to spin these skills I’ve picked up into something else or go back to using my MLIS degree. So we figured the prudent thing to do in setting a budget for our new house would be to count all of Chris’s income and no more of my income than I could make if I had to take a librarian job. We’ve always agreed that if I start making less on my blog than I could using my degree, I would find a regular job and go back to blogging as a hobby.

We figured that getting a mortgage would be easy peasy. We were being conservative! We have good credit! The only real debt we have is my student loans (which, okay, are a pretty massive debt) and our mortgage.

And then we got denied. And denied again. And again.

Well, not denied denied. We qualified for a mortgage, but no one would take any of my income into account. It was like I didn’t have a job at all and it kind of made me feel like a loser. Apparently there’s a seasoning period for small businesses. You need to have had your business for 2 years in order for that income to be considered in a loan application. I’ve been running Oh My Veggies for over 3 years, but I didn’t register it as a business until the end of 2012. Once it’s been registered for 2 years, my income will be considered as solid as someone who has a regular job (although they will average my past 2 years of income to figure out what I qualify for — that was another hurdle for us had we qualified this year, since I didn’t make very much in 2012 because I wasn’t blogging full-time until August), but until that point, nope. Can’t use it.

It’s not the worst news in the world, and if we really wanted to, we could still move now — we haven’t ruled it out entirely, it’s just going to be difficult to find a place that has the room we need on a tight budget. And by “room we need,” I obviously mean “room I need for my eleventy-billion plates and bowls.” But oh, am I kicking myself right now for not registering my business earlier! I had it on my to-do list for several months and for whatever reason, I didn’t do it. So if you haven’t registered your blog as a business and you’re making an income from it, you should probably do that. Just in case you find yourself in the market for a house in 2 years.

Other Things

  • I have been seriously contemplating closing my Twitter account. Twitter fatigues me; I like interacting with readers, but most of the interaction is from other bloggers and so much of it just seems like interaction for the sake of networking and not, you know, interaction. Which is kind of my beef about food blogging in general lately, but I digress.
  • Related: If I didn’t respond to a tweet you sent in the past week, it’s because I was ignoring Twitter, not you. I swear I’m not a jerk.
  • I’m testing a few new ad networks this month, so expect a post about those eventually. Spoiler alert: there may be charts involved.
  • Here’s a little tip that I’ve picked up over the past year. Maybe everyone else does this and I’m just slow, but whenever someone contacts me and wants to do a phone call to talk about a freelance gig, sponsored post, their ad network, etc., I reply and ask for all the important details first. I’ve had way too many 30-minute phone calls that end with “…and we have no budget for this, but it will be great exposure.” So now I find out the pay first and if they won’t tell me over email, I won’t do a phone call.

5 Questions About Food Styling & Photography with Rikki Snyder

Butternut Squash FlatbreadI’m big on features and series (what’s the plural of series?!) for Oh My Veggies and so obviously, I had to carry that over to my blog about blogging too. I’m going to be doing occasional short interviews with people who I’ve learned from since I’ve started blogging. Because you know what else I’m big on? Learning!

So my first 5 questions were for Rikki Snyder. I met Rikki when one of us commented on the other’s blog, as bloggers often do. We began emailing back and forth and we’ve collaborated on a few projects together, like our big vegetarian Thanksgiving menu series. (See? I love series!) Like most food bloggers, I have no formal photography training, so over the years, Rikki has given me a lot of advice and pointers. I favor simple, unfussy food styling that reflects how we actually eat and that’s why I love Rikki’s photos. They’re styled in a way that looks effortless and natural, like they’re capturing a real moment in time rather than capturing an elaborately staged production. I’ve learned through experience that the photos that look effortless are often the most difficult to compose!

How did you get into food photography?

I got into food photography completely by accident. It was one of the areas that we briefly covered in photography school. We had one mandatory food assignment and even though I went into school convinced I would graduate as a portrait photographer, this assignment completely changed my direction. The photo I took for this assignment (which is the first food photo I ever shot and styled) is still one of my favorites and still used in my portfolio today. I had so much fun creating it and shopping for all the ingredients and props. My father helped me as he went to culinary school and is a chef. After this image I immediately fell in love with food photography and it just made sense—with my father being a chef and my mother always including me in her baking excursions as I was growing up.

Besides a camera, what are some tools that every food photographer should have?

If you’re shooting with natural light a scrim is vital to keep with you at all times as well as white boards and black boards. Small mirrors are also good to have on hand, in case you want to bounce a little punch of light into a certain area of the photo. A ladder/step stool is also important (especially if you’re shorter like me!) to help you get higher for those over head angles. A good arsenal of lenses is also helpful to get shots at different focal lengths to create a well rounded story out of your images.

If you are also doing the food styling here are a few things I couldn’t style without: a bunch of paper towels (pre-cut/ripped for easy use), lots of toothpicks, q-tips, a good pair of tweezers, a basting brush (it’s always good to have one on hand, esp. if you’re shooting meats and they need some shining up), a good collection of sharp knives, a spray bottle.

One thing I love about your photos is that they’re all styled in a way that looks very organic and natural. What is your process for food styling?

My approach to food styling is to keep everything natural. I think food is really beautiful and that it’s important to embrace the imperfections in it. But it still has to sell the recipe and make the viewer’s mouth water. I never use fake ingredients or things that aren’t edible. I take my time in the kitchen and I make sure that when I’m cooking the food I’m very careful at getting it to look just right. If things are crooked, I use toothpicks to straighten them and make them perk up, this makes it appear more appetizing. Also, with food styling, things can be pretty exaggerated to help make the food look more desirable. For example, burgers are made bigger (they just look yummier when they’re big and juicy!), sandwiches are way overfilled with lunch meats and condiments, brownies are cut in larger, more perfect squares and salads are packed with more veggies that are perfectly placed throughout.

A lot of bloggers get approached about selling their photos and they have no idea how to price them. Do you have any tips?

Pricing is probably the most difficult aspect of photography. It’s something that a lot of photographers struggle with. I have set rates that I use for clients with all different budgets. I can work in day rates (which is x amount of money for an 8 hour day) and half day rates (which is x amount of money for 4 hours) and then the photos are given a price based on how many the client wants to use and how they are going to be used, with copyright being a big factor that decides price. I can also work with rates that are per recipe. So every situation really differs in price because every situation is completely different. It always helps for me to talk it out with my fellow photographer friends if I’m struggling on finding a price. And if all else fails, the best pricing advice I ever got was, how much is the assignment/photo worth to you or what would you be comfortable doing this job for. Ask yourself what you feel it’s worth to you! And don’t be afraid to say no if their price doesn’t match yours.

What’s your favorite lens to use for food photography?

It’s so hard to pick just one so I’m going to give you a few. I love my 17-40mm f/4.0 for when I’m shooting overhead shots. Of course, the 50mm f/1.2 is always a go to for food photography. I also really like the 100mm f/2.8 macro and the 70-200mm f/2.8 (for more specific things and scenarios).

See more of Rikki’s photography on her food blog and her porfolio site. Follow her on Twitter @RikkiSnyder.

A Redesign and a Blog in Transition

Oh My Veggies Redesign
Did you notice that Oh My Veggies got a redesign? Yes it did! I tweaked my layout a little bit in December, but a few months later, I decided I wanted to simplify my overall design and incorporate a new tagline into my logo. My old tagline was a total non-tagline: “a vegetarian food blog.” It took me two years (!) to come up with Meatless Made Easy, but it’s a much better description of what my blog’s hook is. It’s not just a vegetarian food blog, it’s a vegetarian food blog with everyday kinds of recipes. Meatless! Made Easy!

I’m still using Shay Bocks’ Foodie theme (that’s an affiliate link!), which I’ve been really happy with. I’ve worked with Shay for two years now and she always has a knack for knowing what I want when I don’t even know what I want. Which is, like, always. When it comes to design, I’m full of vague ideas, but I come up short on providing actual direction. I knew that I wanted my design to be cleaner and simpler; when I did my redesign in 2012, I really wanted it to be bright and quirky. But Oh My Veggies has changed so much in the past two years, the old design didn’t feel like it fit as much anymore. My old design was very much ME! ME! ME!, while this design is more neutral.

But that’s kind of where I’ve been at with Oh My Veggies lately. If you’ve been reading my blog for a few years, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve pulled back on the personal a little bit. I mentioned it in a comment on my Pinch of Yum guest post this week. When I started trying to make a living from blogging a few years ago, one of the first things I did was eliminate the posts where I just wrote about mundane life things. Those posts didn’t bring me much traffic, I didn’t enjoy writing them (I only wrote them because I felt like I “had” to because that’s what bloggers do), and they didn’t feel like a good fit for what I wanted my blog to be. Instead of writing those dedicated personal posts, I decided to put that content into my recipe posts.

This totally went against the advice of all my blogging friends, who told me I needed more personal posts, more pictures of myself, and more content about my daily life in my blog. Since they were all a lot more successful than I was and, having just been laid off, I was looking for all the advice I could get, I did second guess myself a lot at this time. But when I did my reader survey last year, many readers mentioned that they loved Oh My Veggies because I didn’t write posts about myself! I do think there’s a difference in how bloggers read food blogs and how non-bloggers read them–when you’re reading a food blog that’s written by a friend, you’re naturally going to be interested in hearing about what they did for Easter or about the new couch they bought. But I just can’t believe that someone who doesn’t know me at all would be interested in those things and, in all honesty, it sort of weirds me out to think that someone who doesn’t know me would be interested. I want to have more of a boundary between my personal life and my blog, which is maybe not the most natural thing in a medium that started out as people sharing their lives on the internet.

That feeling of wanting to limit how much me was in Oh My Veggies threw me into a blogging crisis last fall. Even putting myself out there in my recipe posts started to make me feel uncomfortable. The more my blog grew, the more anxiety I felt over it. I looked at other bloggers and their dreams all involved television shows and magazine spreads, while all of my dreams for Oh My Veggies involved me fading further into the background–I wanted to be like a magazine editor and have everything on my site to adhere to my vision, but I didn’t want to be in the spotlight and I didn’t want Oh My Veggies to be Kiersten’s blog about vegetarian cooking anymore. I started to question whether I should even be a blogger at all and I contemplated therapy to figure out why I didn’t want a show on Food Network (ha ha, but really, I did, because at the time, this whole “I don’t want to be a public person” thing was causing me a lot of angst and making me feel like there was something wrong with me). Around this same time, I began to feel disillusioned with the food blogging world in general and I came to a point where I realized that I had to either do things the way I wanted to do them or quit, because I couldn’t force myself into a mold that wasn’t me.

So I took the plunge and hired contributors. I stopped pressuring myself to come up with anecdotes and entertaining stories to put into my recipe posts. I started to view my blog as more of a resource/website than a personal blog and I took on the role of editor. BIG CHANGES! Terrifying changes. And yes, I fully realized that some people would hate these changes and stop reading, but doing things the way I was doing them had become untenable for me, so I was going to have to be okay with that. You know what happened? I freaking LOVED IT. And I finally felt like, “Aha! This is what Oh My Veggies is supposed to be!” Just because I had a different vision for my blogging career didn’t mean that it was wrong or that I had some kind of personality defect. I mean, I probably do have a personality defect, or more likely several, but not wanting to do a cooking show isn’t one of them.

Making this transition has been a little bit strange, especially because there aren’t really many models out there on how to make a personal food blog into just a food blog. We’re still working on finding our voice as a team (when I tweet from my account, do I say ‘I’ or ‘we’? if I still want to write personal anecdotes once in a while, is that okay or is it now off topic?), but working in a collaborative environment feels so much more natural to me than doing it all myself. I run Oh My Veggies like a magazine now, which I love because it’s the perfect role for my personality. (And I love magazines! Hello, former periodicals librarian in the house!) The redesign kind of ties a pretty little bow around the whole package.

Anyway, I thought I’d write this post because people have been asking me about all the changes I’ve been making this year and now you know. I’ve been experiencing some growing pains (and not the hilarious kind involving Alan Thicke), but I think I’ve worked my way through them and figured out what I want Oh My Veggies to be.

5 Tips for Taking Your Blog Full-Time on Pinch of Yum

Bjork and Lindsay from Pinch of Yum invited me to drop in on their (incredible! famous!) monthly blog income report this week to talk about how I transitioned Oh My Veggies from being a hobby to being a full-time job and business. Of course I said yes because Pinch of Yum’s income reports are kind of a big deal!

I’m also sharing 5 tips for bloggers who are wanting to make that same transition to full-time blogging. This was a little bit tricky—not only because I’m opinionated and wordy, so choosing only 5 is harrrrd, but also because I never want to give the impression that if bloggers do X, Y, and Z, they’ll be able to get tons of traffic/work from home/be Lisa Vanderpump rich/whatever. I hate when blogging resources start sounding like scammy get-rich-quick types of things or when all the emphasis is on marketing and none of the emphasis is on content. Boo to that.

And speaking of blogging resources that are not scammy, Bjork made a few suggestions for my e-book sales page and when I wasn’t sure how to implement them, he sent me a link to some video tutorials he did on Food Blogger Pro (hi! that’s an affiliate link!) about the topic. Super helpful! After watching them, I was able to get everything all set up on my sales page lickety-split. If you haven’t had the chance to check out Food Blogger Pro, you really should—it’s not just for beginners, there are resources there that are helpful for bloggers at every level.

Anyway! Come say hello on Pinch of Yum. Happy Saturday!