How To Start a Food Blog
It has been a while since I penned advice for aspiring food bloggers (5 years!) and it is woefully out of date. I have been writing this blog for almost 9 years now, and I speak at Professional Blogging Masterclasses at the Guardian (I am preparing for my fifth session in January), and I have previously organised and taught a full weekend course on food blogging there too. It is time to update my thoughts on here.
With 2016 starting to wave in the near distance, it is a good time to refresh the information here, in time for all of you looking to start soon, or for those of you who are new and are looking for guidance.
First things, first. There are two important things for successful blogs: great content & visibility (aka knowing how to make it visible).
Blogging has been around for a while now and there are many of us. It is a very competitive field, however, it is not unusual for a new blogger with their own style and great content to shoot out from the masses and be noticed. But no one will notice while the blog is just an idea in your head, right? It took me almost 3 years to start, I provided so many barriers to it (name / design / anything), I really wanted to do it but I was lacking in confidence. After a year (in 2005) I started on flickr posting food photos etc., and this, in turn, led to the blog in 2007. When I did start it was on an impulse, in the end. A burst fired by frustration and desire. I haven’t looked back since.
Write the blog you want to read
Simple and effective.
Be original. Why would anyone read your blog if it is a copy of something that exists already? Your blog should be as unique as you are, embrace it.
Cite Your Sources
If using another blogger or writers recipe, or if inspired by it, link to them. Don’t claim another persons work as your own (that goes without saying, but you know, I have seen it happen). If using a recipe from a book, drop the author or publisher a line (you will be promoting their work, so they will generally be happy with it).
A blogger is more than a writer
Writing is very important, you also need to learn to ruthlessly self edit. You need to spend time on photography (or for some, illustration), you need to understand how your website works, how best to host it and how to enhance it. You need to embrace social media.
What is your niche?
This can change over the first while as you discover how you like to do things, but your name should describe it, if possible, and it should be catchy. A catchy name will get you far (once you have the content to match it). Make sure the name is available as a URL and as a handle across all social media channels. If it is being used already, it doesn’t matter how much you love it, move on. Own your name on all spaces.
Name it and Host it
It is ok to start on wordpress.com but always with your own URL which you can pay to stick on there. Blog.wordpress.com, blog.blogspot.com etc are how most start but then when they want to change it, which inevitably they do, there is a lot of work to do. It just looks better too. Invest as much as you can in hosting, especially as your audience grows. Google cares a lot about site speed and has built this into their algorithm.
Look good, feel good
Given the option of two free magazines at the tube, or similar, you won’t pick up the one that looks thrown together and unprofessional, unless you already know you love the content. The same goes for blogging. Invest time in making it look better, or commission someone who can.
Be an authority on your topic
You need to be an authority for readers to trust you. That authority might be that you are learning to cook, or that you are already a great cook. It might be that you know restaurants very well (and tell people why) and that is why they should trust you are a good critic. If you are not an authority, why would anyone want to read you?
For cookery bloggers, thoroughly test your recipes
And also make sure the steps are clear. Imagine a poor reader spending money on ingredients and not getting a good result? I have been that reader. It is very frustrating.
Start small but continually grow and improve
Use the best camera you can afford, teach yourself about photography, composition and how to use your camera. Learn about light and how to style food, knowing that you will improve as you go (so don’t expect miracles at first). Learn to edit your photographs. Simple things like adjusting the light and a sensitive crop will make an OK photo great. Invest in the tools to do this (I have a monthly subscription to Photoshop and Lightroom). Your style will develop visually as it will for your writing. Give this time, but give it your all as you go. I am still learning.
Blog as frequently as you have great content
Fill the internet with gorgeousness and joy, moments of inspiration that will draw readers old and new back to your blog as often as you can. Try and make it once a week, at least. Moments of inspiration? I know, it sounds trite, but think about the sites you love and why. They make you want to cook, to travel, to go to the cinema, to go to a restaurant, whatever it is, they inspire you to do something. There are times where you will flag, blogging can be tiring and inspiring. If you have nothing to say on a particular day, don’t force it.
Learn about google & SEO (a bit)
I say a bit as this has always been my weakest thing, but I know how important it is and that my failure to attend to it has held me back at times. You need to know the very basics and everything new as it comes out. You need to know what nofollow and dofollow links are, you need to know what a responsive mobile website is and you need to have one, and you need a Google Webmaster Tools account hooked up to your site to keep an eye on things. You need to start keeping up to date with google algorithm changes. I know, you want to blog because you love to cook and write but you do need to know the geeky stuff too.
Delegate your weaknesses where you can
Again, a weakness for me, and the irony, but I recognise now that I need to start hiring people to do the stuff that needs to be done that I don’t have the time to do or the skills for. So, I need to hire a designer to fix up the site for a start, as I have been piecing it together for way too long. This will be liberating.
Embrace the social media platforms that suit you and your content
It is social media, so be social, simple!
Great photography? Focus on instagram. Prefer the words and a bit of banter? Twitter is for you. Are you an information hound and love sharing links with a penchant for an inspirational quote? Head over to facebook. Have you a great eye and are great at organising things? Pinterest is for you. Like to chat and do interesting things? Download periscope. I am currently enjoying snapchat for little recipe snippets and randomness.
The main point is, don’t try and be the square peg squeezing into the round hole. If it is a good fit, exploit it, find your community on there, be social but not pushy. Enjoy it! Share the love. Generosity with others content will carry you a long way too.
People monetise their blogs in many ways, but I would encourage you to establish your blog properly before considering it. Once established, look to your strengths and build a monetisation strategy around that. Partnership content is something I do, I also speak frequently at the Guardian and at conferences, I am working on a book which is currently a large cost but once it goes on sale, it will be a source of income, and while not directly related to the blog, all of the things I do are linked and support one another. I have taught cooking classes which I have organised myself and for brands also.
Be transparent, declare if meals were compensated, if items were gifted, if trips were sponsored. Respect your readers and they will respect you too. Keep abreast of ASA rules (ASA = Advertising Standards Authority). If people who want to work with you don’t want things declared (and this happens), insist that they have to be, or decline to work with them.
Don’t sell links
It is a bad idea, and Google will also penalise you for it.
Talk to people
It feels like no one really comments in the UK on blogs much anymore (and that is sad – I miss it!). When people do comment, talk to them. Enjoy the chatter. I think it is the ultimate compliment when people like your work and people want to talk to you about it. Of course sometimes it is for a clarification, and that is fine too. Talk to me, folks! :)
Learn from your mistakes
I have made a few. We all do. Lessons learned can be powerful and difficult. But, they will help you improve your blog as you go.