Yes, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl really did say that, later on in this interview, and she has compelling ideas about why.
But first, I thought you’d like to know how her thinking has shifted as someone who has blogged about food for 11 years. We’ll start with her launch of a recipe subscription service called feeding our people, and move on to how she limits social media, how she and her husband Daniel produce an income, and how they are evolving their work.
For anyone who’s never read her recipe blog, Shauna has been a food blogger since 2005 and is the author of four books, including Gluten-Free Girl Every Day, which won a James Beard award. Now, on to the interview:
Q. Let’s begin with why you started a recipe subscription newsletter recently.
A. Danny and I spend a lot of time talking about what we enjoy. What if we slowly built a list that, over time, became our full-time income? We’ve been thinking about a subscription model for about three years.
It was about the recipes. We want to give our food to people more directly. The other is that we want the community. Also the way people cook day to day, at least those who have families, is that they pick up the phone or iPad and search Google or look at YouTube videos. So we started a service for that.
Q. So now you have two newsletters?
A. The newsletter for Gluten-free Girl is free, with a new post every Wednesday. We have 15,000 subscribers. The paid newsletter for Feeding our People comes out every Friday morning.
Q. Push recipe services aren’t new, but your idea is different.
A. Now there are two or three generations of people who didn’t learn to cook from their families, and we want to guide people into cooking batch recipes and cooking from the batch.
We created a closed Facebook group for the subscribers. I’m on three days a week, and we’re doing live video and answering cooking questions. I love it because I don’t get that kind of interaction with a cookbook. When someone doesn’t have a cast iron skillet, I tell them to use whatever you have. Someone else jumps in about how to buy and season a skillet. I love the interaction.
Q. You’ve been amazing at creating community. Your Twitter feed has almost 200,000 followers. There’s another 118,00+ on Facebook and around 24,000 on Instagram. What is your secret?
A. I don’t ever pay attention to any those numbers. For me it’s about the community — how well I’m answering people’s questions, or if I’m of use.
Q. You also post things that interest you.
A. I’m obsessed with Hamilton the Musical because it’s so smart and it’s also infectious music and a giant paradigm shift. It makes me think: Before there was one way to create a musical, one way to talk about the revolutionary war… one way to be a food blogger! I like people who are willing to question themselves.
Q. You seem like you’re online all the time.
A. I need clear boundaries for myself, otherwise I can do it all the time and there’s no balance between work and life. I actually wrote an agreement about the hours I would keep. It’s pinned on the refrigerator. My phone doesn’t come into our bedroom, it’s turned off after 8 p.m., and when we’re driving somewhere I put my phone in the trunk. Danny and I work from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. when Lucy goes to school.
Q. I’m going to switch gears now and ask about other things you’re doing. How are sales going with your all-purpose flour blend?
A. They’re steady and we’re building up a following. We’re working to get the product on Amazon with free shipping. Companies are approaching us to use our flour in products too.
Q. What are your other sources of income?
A. We have income from book sales. the sponsored posts on our blog, Amazon affiliates, baking classes I teach locally, and a video series on gluten-free baking for Craftsy. We’re switching over to an ad network on our blog, so there will be revenue from that.
Our goal is that four or five years from now, we will have enough subscribers to stop doing ads and sponsors. We want to just make money from what we love.
Q. It says on your blog that you have contracted with a talent agent. How does that help you?
A. We just started that. Eventually they will build partnerships for us and actively seeking out companies to work with and appearances. They also have a licensing department.
Q. How has your thinking about food blogging changed over the years? You’re on year 11, right?
A. Yes. I’ve noticed that blogs don’t really matter any more. Very few people are starting blogs these days. There’s Tumblr, Instagram, Periscope – people can do social media without a blog. A lot of people have stopped writing. Even the notion of a website is antiquated now, because you can make an entire living from Instagram. People get a ton of followers and then get paid to include products in photos.
The world is changing so fast, and the only way to keep up is to pursue what’s of interest to you. It’s sad for people who are trying to follow rules about what’s successful, versus ‘What am I curious about?’ and ‘What do I love?’
I read a Google study that in four to five years 75 percent of the Internet is going to be video, not text. It’s very easy to be fussy in a written recipe but in 10 seconds, you can show them how to do it on video. People like to see you cook and make a connection. I like how tech is changing because you can get Periscope on your phone and start shooting.
Q. As a word-based person, this terrifies me.
A. Well, words will matter more and people are still buying books and want to read. For me it’s always about telling a story.
Q. Okay, I feel better now. How has Gluten-Free Girl changed over the years?
A. When I started in 2005, it was just a place to write. It started from long emails to friends. It’s been a surprise. I met Danny, married, I got a literary agent.
It was all fun until 2010 until the business of blogging began. I went through a few years where I felt awkward because our blog is based on our family. Then I fell in love with drag queens and how they completely embody a character. Danny and I talked about it a lot. We decided Gluten-Free Girl is our drag name, and now it’s been a blast for the past few years.
My blog voice is reassuring, contented, and distilled into a peaceful place. People want to come back for that.
Great interview and insights. Thanks for sharing!
You’re welcome Ally. Lots here to chew on, as it affects your own career.
Michelle Wolff says
I love this – I just figured it out for myself a few months ago and it’s been so freeing – “The world is changing so fast, and the only way to keep up is to pursue what’s of interest to you. It’s sad for people who are trying to follow rules about what’s successful, versus ‘What am I curious about?’ and ‘What do I love?”
I love that Shauna said that too. I should put it in bold or something.
Kate McDermott says
Two things that really struck a chord with me:
“I need clear boundaries for myself, otherwise I can do it all the time and there’s no balance between work and life.” OH I sooooo know that one.
And, “I don’t ever pay attention to any those numbers. For me it’s about the community —” Shauna and Danny keep it real.
Hi Kate! Oh yeah, I think we can all relate to social media and work creeping into what’s supposed to be our off time. I loved her comment about locking the phone in the trunk.
I am sure she’s proud of those numbers, but she doesn’t seem to be accumulating them for a grand marketing scheme.
I’ve been fangirling it for both of you for a few years now. As many of you know, Shauna started the flour company on kickstarter. I was happy to contribute since I have been following Shauna for so long. I am sad to say that the rewards were often late or missed entirely. I’m hesitant to join a subscription service hosted by Shauna, even though I love her writing and her spirit. Shauna isn’t great with comments left elsewhere, so hopefully she will see this and respond!
Katie, since this is my blog, you can expect a response from me. I don’t expect Shauna to see this or respond. I suggest that since you have a complaint, you contact her through her blog or social media.
Shauna hasn’t had comments up on her blog in months, but I will continue to try emailing her. Thank you!
I asked her on Twitter if she was still doing her newsletter because I hadn’t gotten one in a long time, and she blocked me. I don’t know what I did wrong. I asked her husband about the newsletter but he never answered. I thought she said that Twitter was the best place to ask her stuff but maybe I am wrong.
Okay. This kind of stuff has nothing to do with my interview and is between you and Gluten-Free Girl. It’s my second comment like this and I think it’s inapropriate. Please direct your concerns to Shauna.
This is,interesting and you asked very good questions. I wish people were more willing to answer hard questions about dollars and cents, though. So many bloggers glide past the income vs. expenses questions, yet that’s the stuff small business owners need to know.
That is the hardest thing, Marina, to talk about money! I understand. The best way for you to find out is to get to know some people in the business and ask them for specifics. It’s easier when it’s 1 to 1 versus at a conference or in an interview.
Yes, an interview if your a journalist, but most people don’t want to give out financials to random strangers even at a conference. That’s what I was hoping to see here in your post. Questions like:
How do sponsors figure into this sort of writing?
Do bloggers still need day jobs?
As a writer who took the freelance leap three years ago, I depend a lot on my blog to generate income. If anything, you have to diversify and be a writer slash blogger slash [insert occupation here] to make it. Bloggers are now being called “influencers” and Shauna’s interview simply drives home how times are changing and how it’s up to us to keep centered.
Yep. We have to change but we still strive to do what we love. It’s just uncomfortable sometimes to make these kinds of shifts.
Shauna’s a pioneer. I applaud what the GFG brand’s doing and how they’re going about it.
I think so too. Starting 11 years ago gave her a huge advantage, but she has continued to evolve, both professionally and personally, and to think deeply about what kind of work she wants to do.
hallie dunkirk says
Her free newsletter has 15K subscribers; the paid Feeding Our People has under 100. I don’t have an MBA, but…
Yes. She just launched it!
You don’t need an MBA to calculate that $1000 a month in the very beginning is pretty good start!
Nicola Miller says
UGH, image-based = even more dumbed down.
I have over 3000 books on food, am what you’d call a super-consumer but I would never watch a recipe being enacted on Youtube. Tried it and find it leaves me feeling unsatisfied, although it is clear that a lot of people do like it.
As for blogs being a thing of the past, not according to the Guardian who have two very popular bloggers writing weekly columns for them. The reason? They can write and good writing cannot be easily produced by a talent agency. The food and cook books that endure and don’t end up in discount stores and charity shops are the ones with great writing, recipes that work and have a strong voice.
I suspect that the trend for video content is just that and as the internet was once word-based, it will shift to VT and then shift back. There’s also a growing appetite for long-form food writing and actually the NYT recently reported that the content that does especially well is a combination of trivial short-form and 8000+ worders where the author can really go into depth. The latter has generated some of the highest reader rates.
Well, all I can think of is that you are not the target consumer of image-based content on the internet. Perhaps, like almost all other media, it is based on serving those younger than us.
Interesting observations, Nicola. Thank you.
I am a huge fan, and friend of Shauna’s, but I think her comment that ‘blogs don’t matter’ is a generalization that can’t be applied to everyone. In the beginning (when Shauna began) there was a big difference between a website and a blog. A blog was a place to voice your opinions. A website was a place where stuff was sold.
These days I waffle between calling my own site a blog or a website, since I not only express myself (as an old fashioned blog) but also sell stuff (tours, books, apps). In the end, I think that the business model of bloggers has changed a lot. And that is what Shauna, and other longtime food bloggers, are trying to address.
These days many of us have our blogs/websites as a platform from which to make a living. The idea, I think, is to drive people to our sites to find out more about us and our products. This can be done the old fashioned way, with blog posts. Or, as Shauna says, through other, ever changing channels (periscope, instagram, youtube, snapchat).
BUT (and this is a big but) I still think that if you don’t have some sort of compelling content on your site, it dilutes the effect. Shauna now has a HUGE inventory of recipes on her website, and that continues to draw people to her. So maybe she doesn’t see the need to supply ‘free’ content anymore, and is moving to a subscription based newsletter. Unfortunately, at least as far as I can see from other colleagues, this model is not working so well.
On the other hand, direct marketing, with a monthly FREE newsletter, which then provides information about other paid services, is a winning formula that I’ve been using for the last year.
Anyway….all very interesting stuff Dianne, as always! Thanks so much for continuing YOUR blog, which I find matters very much!!!
Thanks Elizabeth. I agree with your thoughts about moving from blog to website to make a living. She’s saying people can also make a living visually, with YouTube and Instagram, without writing. That’s not going to be my thing or yours, because we like to write, but hey, more power to them. Room for everyone, is her message, I think.
Maybe it’s more that blogs are not the only way to enter the market. Remember that when she entered it, there was no social media! A shocking thought now.
Sally - Mycustardpie says
“Who knows how long blogs will be around” Those words were uttered by me only today. I too have observed the trend for people to set up Instagram and other platforms and not blogging and wondered about the future. For sure the sense of community has faded. What Shauna is doing is a shift in thinking and pretty sensible. Amy Lynn Andrews (not food) is someone I’ve watched with interest. She restructured her blog to a more static site – she updates the core information regularly – and she relies on an email list to communicate. Like you I resist the move away from me the word but maybe it’ll help focus a smaller group of people who want to read towards good quality written content.
Amen to good quality written content. People are always going to want that.
Like you, I also notice that some people have set up websites instead of blogs, or moved from blogs to websites, and the rage nowadays is to build your own email list so you won’t have to rely on the vagaries of social media.
Sally - Mycustardpie says
Sorry about mistakes in comment. Written on phone in bumpy taxi
I’m impressed that you could write all that on your phone!
Maureen C. Berry says
I love to see what other people are doing in this ever-changing foodscape of a world we live in. It is obvious that GFG has found her niche. Two things are super clear to me. She’s got a knack for storytelling and isn’t afraid to change. Because one thing is certain, change is inevitable!
Thanks as always for the stimulating thoughts!
You’re welcome, Maureen. I agree that storytelling is very important to Shauna. If you look at her recipe database, you’ll still find a story at the beginning of each post, followed by the recipe.
We are all trying to keep up! I guess the questions is –sometimes — keep up with what? So many choices, so much to learn.
Maureen C. Berry says
Yes! And your last question, “Keep up with what?” is loaded!
I feel I have to stay true to myself and not be a media whore or slave. Yet if I don’t branch out, I’ll certainly fall behind. It’s overwhelming some days to find that balance.
But. I just learned an incredibly simple meditation breathing technique, Nadi Shodhan. I started a meditation course to help cope with anxiety and stress. Anyway, this five-minute alternate breathing method keeps me at peace and my heart rate low and steady. You should give it a try! Amazing results I tell you.
Shawna Godwin says
Saying that she doesn’t pay attention to the number of followers across various social media platforms, when those numbers translate directly to paid sponsorships, book sales and class registrations, struck me as disingenuous.
I kept reading because I was curious about her pronouncement that “blogs don’t matter anymore,” but it was hard to get past that. While I understand the value of a provocative title, her assessment is so simplistic (despite having read “a Google study”), and she doesn’t go into any depth regarding the basis of her statement. Video “matters” more because it takes up more space than text?
“Because you can make an entire living from Instagram. People get a ton of followers and then get paid to include products in photos.”
I’m not sure what her point was, given the context, but was anyone else reminded of the underpants gnomes?
Phase 1. ???????
Phase 2. Get a ton of followers
Phase 3. PROFIT
Amy Halloran says
When BUST magazine was still a zine, they boasted “Writing, Like Crime, Doesn’t Pay.” I’m still trying to make that statement false, but don’t really see an end to my day jobs in sight. Those jobs–teaching and running a food pantry and community meals program– feed my writing, and feed my social side in a way that life at the desk cannot.
It is really interesting to see people try to find the right venues for food writing on this shifting ground. Thanks Dianne for a great little dive into these questions and this territory.
You are welcome, Amy. Yes, best to keep your day job, unless you want to add lots of business and marketing skills that will help you grow your writing career, as Shauna has.
Interesting interview, but Shauna Ahern’s statement that “75 percent of the Internet is going to be video, not text” is incorrect and misapplied. The study I believe she is referencing is actually a Cisco (not Google) study (http://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/service-provider/visual-networking-index-vni/mobile-white-paper-c11-520862.html), and it projects that 75 percent of the world’s roughly 30 exabytes of mobile data traffic in 2020 will be video (up from 55 percent today). This study does not suggest that 75 percent of the Internet will be comprised of videos. It just indicates that the consumption of video files, which are vastly more data-intensive than text content, will continue to grow. While it’s possible that blogs are not as prominent in the zeitgeist as they once were, this study should not be cited as evidence that “blogs don’t matter.”
Thanks for providing the link. Her comment about blogs not mattering was more about how people launch an online business today, that you can do so as an influencer on Instagram, for example, where writing is not so relevant. When she launched her blog, social media was just getting started.
Wow, such an interesting interview and discussion going on in the comments. WAIT, did I just say discussion in the comments? Yep…and that’s the whole reason why I believe blogs are still relevant and will continue to be.
Blogs can create mini-communities with lasting relationships. I have found some of that on IG, but I still think blogs are the best format for that.
On a separate note, I’m coming up on my 7th year of blogging (the longest I’ve ever stuck with ANYTHING, ha), and this will be the first year I’m going to make a profit. In other words, I’ve finally transitioned my hobby to a business, thanks to finally getting picked up as an influencer by brands who see my history of a blogger as credibility to pay me for my time and influence.
Long live the blog and bloggers! :0)
Oh Carrie, I am in mourning about comments. A few years ago it was nothing to get a long conversation going, and now it is harder than ever. There are so many other places to discuss these kinds of issues. So thank you for enjoying them. And congratulations on making a profit. That is a rare feat indeed for a blog.
The tide has already started turning back to blogs/websites with massive Instagram accounts being found out to have bought followers. The trend has to do with the realization that Google is one of the few companies that can actually prove real traffic and interactions, compared with the fact that you can buy followers on EVERY single platform! It’s happened recently more in fashion than food, but I’m predicting someone in food is going to be outed pretty soon for buying followers. Google at least has ways of weeding out bots and bought traffic – with the very real consequence of your site being sandboxed should you ever be found out- while these social media accounts can be faked easily.
Not only that, there was just a recent update on not only Pinterest on how people view your pins and then they changed Instagram! Nevermind that Facebook already hooped people, the social media platforms are limiting your content getting to viewers over and over again…and it’s not going to stop. Soon you will have to pay for almost everything you want to get to your followers. Facebook is basically there already, barely anyone sees your stuff. Instagram is already charging $$ and changed how many people see your photos. Pinterest as well.
Build your website. Craft it. Control it, control the quality, what people see and you will LAST. If you think social media is all the future holds, you’re going to be left hanging – as so many Instagram people were recently – because you didn’t build the most important thing of all : your blog. It’s the only remaining place that YOU get to control your content.
Yes, this is the current thought, that we have to control our content and followers. That is what Shauna is doing by keeping her blog and website, and by owning two newsletters, as she controls the subscribers and content. Social media is fickle. So are publishers, for that matter!
K ari - "Chef and Steward" says
That last comment by Karlynn has made me re-think my position. Yes I noted that social media was making it increasingly hard to reach your following (and even your friends for crying out loud). I also note that sometimes it seems like you are fighting a losing battle when you see the way they keep on changing their algorithms to force you to spend to be seen. They are media- just a new kind- operating on multimedia platforms. In fact before the term “social media,” there was “new media” and then “social networking.” That’s what it is. The difference is that unlike traditional media platforms, they actually do not create content nor build their own audience. They only provide the platform for content publishers to create interesting content and then pimp them to get their own content noticed by their own followers, who they have already engaged and converted.
I have noticed that many bloggers have neglected really good blogs hunting for social media numbers because advertisers are now defining “Influence” in numbers and everyone wants to get paid.
Advertisers like to quantify and for them followers are more important. It doesnt matter much to them that some followers are bought nor that some have very little or no real influence or credibility.
Plus there is the issue of clutter. LOTS more people publishing stuff online means lots more stuff to go through and to be able to penetrate through to be heard.
It seems like with the excess of blogs around, it is harder to be seen and to get people to view your work. Even gmail has decided that it needs to weed out your blog subscriptions from your inbox, which makes it even harder to get your blog subscribers to read your content, because it no longer shows up in their inbox.
The tide is changing yet again. Blogging long term is not for the faint of heart. Neither is microblogging… or vlogging. It takes lots of discipline and commitment and the ability to see past the present and press towards a certain/uncertain future. I have seen more and more of the big namers getting frustrated for having “sold out”or lied to their following for one reason or another.
At the end of the day, it comes down to relevance as well. If you feel you have something to say then by all means do not let anything shut you up. There is plenty for all of us.
Hello Kari! Lovely to hear from you. I don’t know how I missed meeting you in Dubai.
This is a terrific essay about the vagaries of social media. Your close is what it’s all about. In the end you do what you love (and maybe take some risks and experiments, as Shauna details), and we are privileged to be in a position to do so.
Lyndsay // Coco Cake Land says
Wow. Lots of insight here. Love this: “The world is changing so fast, and the only way to keep up is to pursue what’s of interest to you. It’s sad for people who are trying to follow rules about what’s successful, versus ‘What am I curious about?’ and ‘What do I love?’” I wholeheartedly agree. A few years ago I briefly tried blogging around trends and it felt terrible. I now blog about whatever i feel like (while still having photos of cakes/desserts somehow!) such as a Star Wars movie review, my breast cancer treatment, the ups and downs of parenthood, etc… ^__^ I’ve been blogging since 2008 and have witnessed the shift (fall?) in blog readership and comments. Great interview – thank you!
Lyndsay, wow, you cover a lot of territory! I don’t feel comfortable straying from the core, but I find a pretty wide range of things to write about within food writing, so it works for me. Might as well do what you love, eh? It’s the best way.
So what happened? GFG no longer blogs, doesn’t send newsletters and the flour project was pretty much a failure.
Your comments are not accurate, Marina. She still blogs and sends out her newsletter. I don’t know why she quit the flour business, but there is no reason to assume it’s a failure.
In her book she wrote about it being a failure.