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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Food brands deliver a hearty response to changing consumption habits

May 14, 2020 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Journalist @EstherKeziaT

As we begin to adapt to new routines amidst the coronavirus crisis, food publishers have seen a large rise in audience numbers and engagement. People facing weeks at home with limited take-out options (and even limited cooking skills) have turned to food sites and networks in droves. They’re looking for inspiration and guidance about everything from baking to budget meal planning.

However, these publishers have had to deal with challenges of their own. Production teams, editorial staff and studio stars have all had to adapt to remote working and changing audience demands.  

Record-breaking ratings

One food publisher rising to the challenge is Condé Nast’s digital consumer-focused food brand Epicurious. The site has seen a surge in overall traffic of 69% year over year, according to Digital Director David Tamarkin. For the five years he has been at Epicurious, he says the title has focused on “realistic cooking: the kind of cooking that happens when you’re juggling childcare, or got home late from work, or the kind of cooking you do on the weekends when you have more time.” And that, it seems, aligns with the times.

Epicurius’ focus has pushed daily average traffic up +88% as audiences search for accessible recipes. The publisher is also seeing unexpected success with its eCommerce revenue. It’s seen a “huge increase” in sales of baking-related products, such as kitchen scales, which have seen a 1,000% year over year increase. Meal delivery services sold through Epicurious were another stand-out–up an astonishing 388% in March. And even individual grocery items, which are typically not high performers for the site, were up 59%.

“Because we’ve been operating with what we call a ‘home cook realness’ always in mind, it feels like we’ve been preparing for a moment like this – a moment where people suddenly find themselves cooking more than they ever have before,” Tamarkin explained. “Our content is all about helping people be smarter, more nimble, more joyful cooks, so it makes sense to me that it is resonating at the moment.”

It’s not just food-focused websites seeing growth. In April, Discovery Network’s Food Network channel saw record-breaking ratings over the weekends, as audiences tuned in looking for entertainment, community and recipe inspiration. The network reached more than 46 million viewers, which is a 6% year over year increase, and also delivered its best month ever in Weekday Daytime ratings. Early figures for May have yet to be finalized. But a Food Network representative confirmed that it is showing a similar pattern to April.

Adapting content strategies

Epicurious was quick to fine tune its editorial strategy as stay-at-home measures kicked in. “We pivoted to pantry-building content almost immediately, creating a two-week meal plan that exclusively uses shelf-stable ingredients,” said Tamarkin. “Then we launched Cooking Through It – a series of 10-day meal plans that used hyper-flexible recipes.”

This approach allowed people to do one big shop that would last for ten days or more, in order to minimize trips out. Epicurious has also seen success with its recipe-finding tool that allows readers to search recipes based on the ingredients they have on hand. They are also preparing to launch a series of articles about affordable cooking, which will continue for the foreseeable future.

Food Network on the other hand has made only slight changes to its programming. “There is a slight additional focus on pantry staples and making sure to discuss substitutions should anyone at home not have specific ingredients. But we haven’t been hyper focused on changing the shows too much,” said President Courtney White. Their focus now is on keeping their scheduling flush with premier episodes, rather than relying on repeats.

Coping with production challenges

When it comes to planning shows from home, Food Network’s team has been quick to adapt. “Fortunately, many of our talent were fairly easy to get up and running,” White explained. “With production partners also working from home, the creativity and nimbleness to continue to create, edit, and deliver content that audiences enjoy has been an ongoing evolution.”

White explained that Food Network’s programming has been bolstered by self-shot shows such as The Kitchen Quarantine Edition, The Pioneer Woman: Staying Home, and the ‘Guy at Home Watch Party’ edition of Tournament of Champions. “We want to be there for our viewers, and now more than ever as so many find themselves sheltering at home,” White said. “We’ve enhanced the lineup with even more comfort food shows and trusted food personalities.”

For Epicurious, the editorial team is relying on tools like Zoom and Slack to communicate and discuss how to best help their readers through their recipes, menu ideas and videos. “Helpfulness is in Epicurious’ DNA. But it’s rare that we see the impact of the content we put out in such an immediate way,” Tamarkin concluded.

As audiences continue to seek out practical content to help them navigate the everyday challenges of the crisis, these brands have spotted an opportunity. Publishers who can capitalize on this surge in attention and build loyalty now will be in a strong position to maintain this engagement as we settle into the much anticipated “new normal.”

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