Online foodies might watch the Food Network and read Home Cooking, but these enthusiasts also crave a taste of the underground. They want a crab cake recipe their friends haven’t read about. They want to post and boast their own creations. They want culinary tips, ideas and feedback from common, like-minded cooks.
And guess what else? They’re not all housewives. They’re post-grad urbanites, barbecuing bachelors and dorm-room dollar-store shoppers.
A niche community of enthusiasts in the midst of a youth movement. Sounds like a recipe for a social-media overhaul.
And the food sites are catching on, supplementing the protocol e-zine format with souped-up community interfaces, user-generated content and third-party applications for the social networks.
The new-and-improved Chow.com, a conglomeration of Chowhound.com and the late CHOW Magazine, is at the helm of the foodie-meets-techie movement, flanking its vibrant online community with RSS feeds, podcasts, videos, Facebook widgets and, most recently, a soon-to-be-launched “wiki-recipe” feature.
CNET acquired CHOW and Chowhound last year, and the sites joined forces in May with visions of a fervent, ground-up community. Today, they attract two million unique monthly visits. Editor-in-Chief Jane Goldman took some time to talk to us about CHOW, recipe hacking and Online Food 2.0.
Online Journalism Review: First off, could you give me a brief history of the CHOW and Chowhound.com relationship?
Jane Goldman: Jim Leff co-founded Chowhound in 1997, and he sold it to CNET in March 2006. During all those years it was staffed with volunteers, paid for by the founders and a few occasional donations. I founded CHOW magazine with Carol Balacek, who ran the business side. It was completely unrelated to Chowhound. It was a print magazine, and the first issue appeared in November, 2004. CNET acquired CHOW magazine in April 2006. CNET’s intention was to combine the two, and we all started working for CNET in May.
OJR: At first glance, Chowhound.com isn’t much more than a message board on a magazine website, but it seems to be an increasingly significant piece of Chow.
Goldman: The site CHOW.com incorporates editorial content from CHOW and discussion boards from Chowhound. And yes, we’re trying to make the whole thing as interactive as possible.
Goldman: Chowhound & Chow are driving traffic to each other, but Chowhound is the bigger site, so it probably drives more to Chow. Google drives a heck of a lot to both.
OJR: How did the CNET deal drive traffic to Chow? Was there an immediate impact? Can you compare that with the traffic growth when Chow/Chowhound actually merged in May?
Goldman: The site was launched in Sept. 2006 as chow.com, with the URL chowhound still used (as it still is) as one way to reach the message boards. Chow had been primarily a print magazine, so in one way it was a brand new launch.
There’s another example of two sites that work together at CNET: gamespot and gamesfaq. They live under one umbrella, but they’re quite different.
[Heather Hawkins, Chow’s spokesperson, followed up later with additional information: Chowhound traffic was not tracked until it came on board to CNET Networks. (If you could have seen the previous design of the site, you would see why. It had plenty of users, but wasn’t optimized for things like search, tracking uniques, etc.) CHOW.com did not have a content-driven website before they came on board — it was a landing page for some repurposed magazine content and an invitation to subscribe to the print pub. We can say, though, that traffic is up more than 240 percent for CHOW.com (including the Chowhound message boards) since launch a year ago.]
OJR: Would you have any advice for two other sites thinking about a merger or that might be trying to merge?
Goldman: Considerations when you’re thinking about putting together a couple of sites–about technical stuff & search engine optimization, about branding, about how you can count traffic.
OJR: Chow.com seems to have a younger vibe than its competitors. You’re sort of the urban post-grad to their suburban housewife. Was that the positioning for the print version of CHOW, or did it sort of come with the CNET purchase?
Goldman: CHOW is definitely meant to have a younger feeling. Our users are, in fact, younger than those of the other food media, by a significant margin. Median age for our people is in the 30s; median for most other food properties is in the 40s. Our design is a little less fussy; our stories are a little more offbeat; we care a lot more about interactivity and web tools. And our information and our sources are top-notch.
The whole idea for CHOW magazine was to serve a younger audience. I knew I loved the subject matter, but I couldn’t find any media that covered it the way I wanted to hear about it – food I wanted to eat, subjects I was interested in, parties I wanted to throw. And how to cook. So I started the magazine. And now, thanks to our contributors, I know why ice cream gives you a headache, and how to make my own pancetta. Our users are, I think, often quite sophisticated eaters, but fairly primitive cooks. We explain to intelligent people how to do things they don’t know how to do. And why they’d want to. And we entertain them in the meantime. We also have quite a lot of men. Traditionally, food media was for women. The Food Network helped change all that. And we’re pretty much gender-neutral.
OJR: I read about a “wiki-recipe” program of sorts that you’re testing. Can you tell me more about that?
Goldman: “Hack a recipe” is a feature that we’ll be launching in a few weeks. You know how you’re always tweaking recipes after you use them a few times? Adding a little more garlic, using a little less butter? Well, now you can memorialize those changes and save your own versions of our recipes. (The originals stay as originally written.) Plus you’ll be able to publish your own recipes on the site. And, of course, other people will be able to hack them and comment on them.
OJR: You seem to have your finger on the social technology pulse, from RSS feeds to podcasts to blog tracking. Any more exciting social networking ideas on the horizon?
Goldman: It’s a lot of work to build a website that does as much as CHOW does. But it’s still got a long way to go. We’ve got all kinds of new features that we’re planning to put into place. More video, more restaurant mapping, more recipe tools, more interaction among the users.
As for as social networking goes, this is a very active, involved community. The quality of the discussions is unusually good. Part of what we do is just to try to keep it that way. We have experienced moderators who work around the clock keeping people on topic — and, occasionally, keeping them civil. And the Chowhounds have been arranging their own gatherings and meet-ups for a long time now. We’re trying to make it easier and offer some tools that will help.
OJR: Has the balance of community features like those and original content such as feature articles and expert reviews shifted at Chow.com? If so, how does that affect your position as editor-in-chief?
Goldman: As editor-in-chief of Chow.com, that means that I pay attention not just to the content and the presentation, but to the entire user experience. So if our Chowhounds are unhappy with the way the search functions, then I have to figure out with our engineers, designers and editors how to make it better. Fortunately, we have some amazing engineers who have excellent editorial sense.
OJR: You state on the site that recipes are at the heart of Chow. Don’t all food sites cater primarily to people looking for a great new recipe? Do you think you approach it differently?
Goldman: Recipes, right now, are the heart of the editorial part of CHOW, and restaurant discussion is the heart of the boards. But the home cooking boards are growing a lot. And we’re working on tools to get the recipes from the boards into the recipe database on the site, so they’re searchable just like the other recipes.
OJR: Finally, ever browse the Chowhound boards for recipes yourself?
Goldman: I definitely participate in the boards. I wanted a particular bottle of wine recently that I couldn’t find. I posted the question and in 30 minutes I had three good suggestions.