Everything I've learned on one vertical in 2 months

How concepts like SEO Moat and B2B Paid Communities rule food blogging

I'm validating a new side project: a Gumroad for food bloggers. I knew almost nothing about this vertical before starting the project, but I figured a way to help an audience of mostly women increase their income would be fun and rewarding.

It's been both, but what it's mostly been is one hell of a learning curve. For the past two months, we've been interviewing food bloggers, people who work in the food blogging industry (Wordpress developers, consultants) and reading a lot of food blogs. (Hey, I've also learned some new vegetarian recipes!)

Deep diving into a new vertical was a very interesting exercise for me. I saw patterns that are repeatable across other verticals I've worked with in the past. In the case of food bloggers in specific, concepts like SEO moat, B2B paid communities and fabricated scarcity were loud and clear.

I wrote this post to summarise the key learnings from our desk research and interviews. I think this article is useful for both passion economy founders and growth marketers from all industries. It should give you some interesting acquisition ideas.

Now let's get to it -

1. Food bloggers are very open about their earnings

Food blogs share their earnings and expenses in public income reports

Monthly income reports are popular among this vertical. Some bloggers share monthly how much they've earned and spent. The reports are thorough, including split downs per revenue source. This content is very popular with other food bloggers. They use this type of content to include affiliate links of services they use (hosting, ad networks, email tools, etc) to generate extra income.

Their two main sources of revenue are ads and affiliate, I'd estimate at 70/30. Some food bloggers sell products - like ebooks, physical books or courses (like Pasta Social Club or Canelle Vanille)- but this is, at this stage, a smaller group.

2. SEO is their main acquisition source & the most successful blogs have an SEO moat

If you've ever wondered why posts usually start with a long and unrelated story before getting to the part that matters — the recipe — yes, it's aaaaall keyword stuffing. Because of their ad-based model, food bloggers have one key metric they optimise for (pageviews) and retention usually doesn't play a part.

They have two main acquisition sources - SEO and Pinterest - but I'd estimate that on average 70-80% of their traffic usually comes from search. For the A Sassy Spoon blog, Bing + Google corresponded to ±70% of her 2019 traffic. If you include direct traffic, it's 80%.

I read recently about the interesting concept of an SEO moat: it's when a company's SERP dominance (e.g. Hubspot) becomes a competitive advantage. Because most food blogs are targeting the same keywords, fighting for the same eyeballs and using the same acquisition source; revenue is heavily skewed towards blogs with a high domain authority.

Although there are new blogs coming up (and we've been interviewing people getting started on the journey), they're fighting an uphill battle. Competing - with a brand new domain - for a highly competitive keyword is no easy feat. And it's competitive. The average domain authority for a first page impression for "banana bread" is higher than it is for "payment software".

3. There's a big B2B paid community that teaches food bloggers how to earn a revenue (and they do a great job with acquisition)

In my last article, I briefly covered how we're seeing a growth of interest-based B2B online communities and I used the example of Everything Marketplaces, launched on Product Hunt a month ago.

Food Blogger Pro is a paid community (charging $35/mo) launched by a successful food blogger (A Pinch of Yum) and her partner. They offer two main products: 1) A community forum where bloggers connect with each other. 2) Digital courses (videos, guides, webinars) where they teach bloggers how to monetise and grow their food blogs' audience.

Although I don't have their current number of recurring subscribers, their forum has over 14,000 registered users (I'm UID #14,075). The success of Food Blogger Pro was only possible due to the previous success of their original food blog. They use their personal brand to bring authority and their food blog to generate awareness.

Food bloggers read other food blogs. Therefore, it makes sense that one of the acquisition sources for Food Blogger Pro is A Pinch of Yum. They convert their blog’s readers into Food Blogger Pro subscribers in multiple ways.

One way is through their non-defunct income reports, but they seem to do a particularly good job at converting email leads. All email subscribers to A Pinch of Yum are put into a drip sequence and asked if they're food bloggers themselves:

Readers that click on one of those options are put in a separate drip campaign. This gives Food Blogger Pro an opportunity to showcase their authority and their B2B communities & tools. Asking email leads a question to understand their interest and using a click-tracker to customise the follow-up campaigns is a great and simple way to improve your funnel.

One of the Welcome emails asks readers if they have a food blog

Customised drip campaign based on reader’s previous click

(There are a lot of other good examples of paid communities on this thread on Casey Newton's Twitter. This is a topic I've been getting into lately.)

4. Ad networks use minimum thresholds & scarcity to generate demand. They're also deeply loved by the food bloggers

Since programmatic advertising is the biggest revenue source for food bloggers, which ad network they choose plays a huge part in a blog's success. The most popular ad networks used by food bloggers all have "minimum thresholds" a blog must hit before becoming a publisher. Blogs also have to go through an application process.

Here are some threshold examples from the Ad Networks I've seen food bloggers using:

  • Monumetric —> Minimum of 10,000 pageviews/mo

  • Mediavine —> Minimum of 25,000 sessions/mo

  • AdThrive —> Minimum of 100,000 pageviews/mo

This has an interesting effect, as the blogs often celebrate and shout from the rooftops when they are big enough to join one of these ad networks. Below is a selection of screenshots of blogs praising their ad networks:

Food bloggers use their income reports to keep readers updated on which ad networks they're using (https://midwestfoodieblog.com/)

Bloggers see reaching an ad network's minimum threshold as an achievement (https://www.cassiescroggins.com/)

Food bloggers are very appreciative of their ad networks (https://www.bowlofdelicious.com/)

And here's a summary of my other learnings:

  • Online Communities: Some food blogs are creating their own communities for their readers, like Mom Eats Paleo. Usually, they're Facebook groups and they're used to engage with their audiences & get feedback. This could be the early stages of building for retention from this audience.

  • High CPMs: CPMs for food blogs are higher than what I expected. My experience with programmatic advertising is mostly from traffic in Europe, so this could just be personal bias. But I've heard from food bloggers that, pre-coronavirus, they had an average session RPM of $18. These high numbers, though, are usually reserved for American traffic.

  • Undeserved audience: Apart from Food Blogger Pro, Slickstream and Wordpress plug-ins, there's not much built specific for this vertical. Companies like ConvertKit and Patreon are targeting online creators, but they're not offering features catered for this audience. There are companies in the food space - like Platejoy (funnily enough from my YC batch) - that sell paid subscriptions to meal plans, but they're not a SaaS. Instead, I'd see them as an alternative to food blogs.

  • Struggling to differentiate: You've probably noticed that most food blogs look similar. To me, this is a consequence of food bloggers mostly depending on SEO to hit their core metric (pageviews, translated into RPM). They're using the same strategy and chasing the same keywords. Hank Shaw's blog is a great example of unique differentiation.

That's it! Hope you enjoyed learning more about food blogging. Just a couple things before I sign off:

  1. I'm still exploring this space still searching for people in the food blogging industry to talk to or interview to. If you know someone that fits the bill, please send intros or forward them this article.

  2. This newsletter is a WIP as I'm still figuring out what are the most valuable topics to write about. Is there a topic you think I should cover? Then let me know.