Building a healthy community around your blog creates a solid foundation to grow on and opens up new opportunities. Here's our top 10 tips to grow your food blog's community - including some great examples and our bonus tip!
There was a time, back in the early days of food blogging (circa 2004–2011/12), where creating a community around your blog wasn't hard. It sounds funny to refer to five or six years ago as a "simpler time" but in many ways it was!
Fast forward to now and your blog readers' attention is being pulled in hundreds of directions:
- Instagram is a constant stream of food porn, live food stories, and restaurant recommendations
- Pinterest provides people with thousands of recipes at a click
- Facebook has quick and easy recipe videos popping up right in your readers' feeds — often shared by close friends or family that they already trust
- Don't forget YouTube cooking channels, podcasts, email news letter subscriptions with 7-day meal plans in them, new food channels popping up all over, Netflix documentaries ...
Even LinkedIn, once the bastion of corporate employees and business news, is now home to food bloggers posting their latest recipes.
Blog comments have tanked, social media streams are being throttled and there's louder and louder rumbling surrounding bloggers' "true influence."
So how do you form a community around your blog? Is it even possible anymore without relying on other bloggers and influencers to help boost you or, even worse, buying followers or likes?
Well, after growing and running a successful food community for five and a half years that's still showing strong growth, we felt we could share some insight!
Yes, it's possible to grow an engaged community — whether you're an established blogger or a brand new one — without resorting to tactics that feel icky (or are outright unethical).
We've seen lots of FBC Members create extremely vibrant, active engaged communities, some of which have turned into thriving businesses. A few to check out are Meghan Telpner (Meghan has it right on her home page: Join My Community), Denise from Sweet Peas and Saffron, Ashley from the Recipe Rebel, and Laura Jane from The Rawtarian. But, there are many more!
Here are our top 10 tips to create community around your food blog. And a warning: it's long and there's real talk in here!
FBC's Top 10 Tips To Build Your Blog's Community
1. Find Out Who Your Readers Are & Talk to Them
Before you can create a community, you need to know who your readers are, why they come to you and what they're looking for when they arrive. When was the last time you talked to your readers and asked them what they'd like to see from you? There's loads of ways you can do this but a few include:
- emailing your subscribers
- conducting a survey
- polling your Facebook page followers
- using social media — it's not just a tool for sharing your content, it's also a tool for asking questions and listening. (Hint: that's why it's called "social" media; interact and engage on it, don't just shout! Pro Tip: The act of interacting and listening in itself will help you grow a community!)
2. Don't Try To Be Everything to Everyone
One of the hardest lessons we've learned over the last five and a half years is that you can't be everything to everyone. And believe it or not, this becomes an even harder struggle as you grow.
You need to be crystal clear who your core audience is (see point 1) and focus on making them happy. They'll be your most engaged readers and that makes them extremely valuable to you (and any brands you may choose to work with). Accept that you won't be everyone's cup of tea and you won't make everyone who lands on your blog a believer. Let those people go. Let them go my friends, and don't be afraid to wish them well and wave bye-bye.
3. Solve Their Problems
If you're talking to your readers regularly, you'll learn very quickly what their problems are. Figure out how to solve them within your niche.
It could be a cooking video explaining a technique, a meal plan to help them cook for their celiac kid, it could be your secret to making cookies that are the exact right combo of crispy and chewy or it could be telling them where they can go eat lunch in your city for less than $10.
4. Create a Mission Statement
You've talked to them, you've gotten crystal clear on who your audiences is, you understand their problems. Now create a mission statement for your blog. It only has be one sentence and shouldn't be more than three.
FBC has one: To promote, support and showcase Canadian food bloggers within Canada and around the world.
That's it. It's crystal clear. We go back and read it regularly.
A mission statement makes your life so much easier. Use it to evaluate every blog decision you make from what to publish, who to work with and what project to tackle next. If you have to force an opportunity to fit, you know it's not right.
Tip: Mission statements can change over time as your blog evolves.
5. Get Over Comments
Blog post comments used to be the gold star metric for blogger engagement — until commenting tanked a few years ago. And yet we still hear blogger bemoaning the lack of comments they get on their posts.
Get over it. We did. We rarely get comments on any of our posts unless somebody has a specific question (which we love!). But we have a highly engaged community that interacts with us in multiple ways.
Publishing and reader behaviour evolves and evolves fast; evolve with it. Nothing is worse than sounding like a moaning whining dinosaur. Nobody feels sympathy for you (think of the newspaper industry ...)
6. Use Your Blog as a Hub, Then Go Where Your Followers Are
Phones, tablets, cheaper data plans and an increase in public wi-fi mean people have all kinds of ways to stay entertained at their fingertips — literally.
Engagement takes many forms now, and commenting is one of the clunkiest, most time-consuming ones for people when they can click a heart or a like button or simply comment with an emoji through Facebook or Instagram. Don't fight it, embrace it.
Give your readers multiple ways to engage with your content on different platforms - but always give them a way to get to your website, which should be your home base, independent of social channels you don't own. Make their life easier, not yours.
A great way to do this is to "layer" your content. Start with an image on Instagram; have a link to the recipe in your profile. When they visit your recipe, give them the opportunity to join your newsletter for more information on a special ingredient you used in the recipe. Keep it all connected and layered. Let them choose how engaged they get!
Tip: If you work with brands, be sure to measure and track your engagement across all platforms and share that with them.
7. Create A Space For Your Readers To Interact
When FBC first started, we had a forum on our website. It was fraught with technical issues and very little activity. Why? It was clunky and frankly, people didn't like having to log in just to comment. So we moved to a private, members only Facebook group. Boom! Activity, engagement and no technical issues to make us pull our hair out!
Facebook is a no-brainer spot to create a private space for your readers to interact. Odds are good they're already logged in on every single device they own and they visit it multiple times a day. Create a private Facebook group just for them. You won't suffer as much from Facebook's algorithm in a group as you will with a page and it's a chance to have real, meaningful discussions with your actual readers.
We've seen several FBC Members, like Meghan and Denise and Trudy from Eat, Live and Play, create groups for their readers where they engage, are available for one-on-one conversation and to answer questions. They offer up exclusive content, ask for reader feedback and input, run challenges and just keep things hopping. And their readers also get the chance to get to know each other! It's a true community feeling. (It's also a great way to source out recipe testers if a book is on your horizon!)
Warning: Facebook is not your platform! They make the rules and they can change them at any time. But it still offers a lot of great, easy, low-cost opportunities to connect with readers.
8. Create a Hashtag
This won't work for everyone but it's been successful for us and for other publishers. We created the #FBCigers hashtag on Instagram. We encourage people to use it if they want us to share their images in our feed (not everyone will want to publish other people's images on their Instagram — we know that!). It's also a really easy way for us to scroll through images and interact with them without being at the mercy of Instagram's algorithm.
Create your own hashtag and encourage readers to use it when they make one of your recipes or when they use one of your dining recommendations like Kristen from The Endless Meal does . Check it regularly and interact with the photos. Remember, these are your people. These are the ones choosing to interact with you. Treat them like they're gold!
9. Run a Challenge
Challenges are a great way to get people engaged and build community. A prime example? Simple Green Smoothies.
They started with an Instagram account and a very simple premise: a 30-day challenge to drink a green smoothie a day. Today they've got a massive Instagram following, a website with everything you could ever possibly need to know about creating smoothies from blender tips to sweetener substitutions, a cookbook, a thriving email subscriber list, and more great healthy eating challenges. Many of their readers take the challenges more than once!
Consider ways you can create a challenge appropriate for your readers. We've done a 7 Day Smoothie Bowl Challenge, several Instagram Photo a Day challenges and we have two recurring blogger challenges (a 31 Day Blog Cleanup and a 15 Days To Falling Back In Love With Your Blogs challenge), all of which have been successful at helping us engage readers.
10. Go Live
Go live with your readers! Lift the veil, take off the makeup and let them see you in your true surroundings: your messy kitchen, your toddler running amuck while you cook or shoot video, your oven fails, your restaurant trials. People love to see real life. It makes them feel connected and like their crazy life isn't the exception!
Consider hosting live events in your community or doing meet ups when you travel - nothing seals a connection like meeting face to face. Countless FBC members teach in person cooking classes (there's too many to list!), host chef dinners like Mayssam and Janice do with the Saisons dinners. Host workshops - you could do everything from meal planning to food photography to a brewery tour - whatever your expertise, you can probably teach or host something! (we do a conference!)
If you're not ready for Facebook Live or Instagram Live, start small with Instagram Stories where you can still delete things that are really horrible! We've seen some FBC Members who have found a whole new niche for themselves on Instagram stories by just getting real. Some great ones to check out are:
- Christina at Strawberries for Supper - Christina isn't shy about sharing the real life of cooking for a young, growing family - mess and all
- Chanry, TheHungryGnome - She does "Insta Gnome" on the spot restaurant reviews in Calgary that are so entertaining.
- Ashley from The Recipe Rebel - Ashley shows her behind the scenes video and photo setups (complete with toddlers "helping")
Part of why these women are so successful with their Instagram Stories is because they're not afraid to show real life with its dirt, mess, bad servers, cranky toddlers and cute dogs. People can relate and they like to see the real person behind the perfect images.
Also consider podcasts like Tiffany Mayer with Grub and Davida Kugelmass with the That's So Maven podcast. It's another way for readers to consume your content and get to connect with you on another level - hearing your voice and listening to you interact with guests!
Going live invites an easy, real-time way for your followers to interact with you and see you in real life!
BONUS TIP: Work on Your Email List
Our bonus tip is work on your email list. Your email list is something you own and it's not at the mercy of social media algorithms or other platforms. The people who join it are doing so because they want to stay connected with you.
Be sure to give them a good reason to subscribe. A contest prize is usually a mistake; most of them will unsubscribe as soon as the contest is over.
If you're going to offer an incentive to subscribe, make it useful to the people you want to encourage to read your blog. Recipe books, sample meal plans and tip sheets are all good options. Make sure if you change your incentive up every so often that you make the new incentive available to people who are already subscribed — you want to keep them happy!
Make sure your newsletter is much more than a summary of your latest posts. That's stuff people have already read. Instead, create new content: exclusive recipes, shopping tips, restaurant suggestions, curated links to other great content, a contest only for existing subscribers. Make them excited to open your newest letter!
Remember, if you ever decide to create a product for sale or write a book, your newsletter subscribers are usually your most loyal fans and a built-in audience. However, do not start selling to them the minute they sign up. Make your newsletters 80 to 90 percent about creating great, valuable content for your readers and 10 to 20 percent about selling product or services.
Building a Community Is a Slow, Baby Step Process
Building a community is slow and time consuming. It's a step by step process. None of the examples we listed above were overnight successes. You need equal doses of patience, grit and sometimes sheer stubbornness. Even when your community grows it requires constant attention; people are fickle and will leave when they get bored or feel neglected.
But it's also one of the most rewarding things you can build!
Have you had success building a community? Share your tips with us in the comments!
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Melissa Hartfiel is a co-founder of FBC and the site’s Managing Editor. She’s a graphic designer who writes, doodles, photographs and eats chocolate and drinks tea. She blogs about food, photography and creativity at her own blog, Eyes Bigger Than My Stomach. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or connect with her on Linked In.