Foodie publisher Serious Eats gets serious about video

Serious Eats, a James Beard-winning food website from former New York Times dining critic Ed Levine, has made a name for itself among foodies interested in cool casual dining, neighborhood eats and meticulously tested recipes. Now the publisher wants its fans, as well as others who might not know the Serious Eats name yet, to seek it out for entertaining food videos.

Its first notable project is “The Food Lab,” a six-episode Web series based on Serious Eats’ popular food-meets-science column of the same name, which explores the “sometimes complicated scientific principles behind everyday cooking — and how you can use science to cook better.”

“The Food Lab” is something of an experiment, because according to Serious Eats’ chief content officer Chris Mohney, he doesn’t have a video strategy yet — but he’s aware of the need for publishers to do video and has the full backing of Serious Eats’ new parent company Fexy Media, which acquired the website in June.

Up until now, Serious Eats has barely dabbled in video. Its YouTube channel is approaching 17,000 subscribers and 4 million views, and the content is largely cooking videos of varying styles and quality. None of them have hit.

When Mohney joined Serious Eats last November, he knew that had to change. Lexy’s acquisition of Serious Eats helped, as the digital media firm is “obsessive” about Web video and has promised Mohney significant funds. “The biggest chunk of change they are giving us post-acquisition is a substantial budget for video,” said Mohney, who says his monthly budget will be “pretty close” to the total budget for “The Food Lab” series, which cost in the “mid-to-high five figures.”

What Mohney doesn’t want to do is just become another food video publisher. “When I started, we had the typical limited margins to play with,” said Mohney. “From my experience, there was zero point in continuing with that stuff, because it would just be swallowed up by the millions of other people doing the same thing.”

The food video space is indeed cluttered. For instance, food content drove 1.1 billion views on Facebook and 484.3 million views on YouTube in the last 90 days alone, according to video analytics firm Tubular Labs.

Serious Eats plans to differentiate by focusing on formats beyond recipe and travel/lifestyle videos, which everyone else does. (“The Food Lab” is a good example, as it approaches food from a nerdy, scientific angle.)

The audience is certainly there. According to Mohney, Serious Eats is consistently doing more than 10 million uniques per month. (ComScore pegged its U.S. “multiplatform” audience at 6.5 million uniques in June.) The preexisting Food Lab column that the video series is based on is also the most popular thing on the site, responsible for 7 percent of total traffic, according to Mohney.

The distribution plan for “The Food Lab” is rather interesting. Instead of putting the content on its own site, the series will be sold exclusively through Vimeo, which advanced some cash to produce the show. Vimeo was confident in offering funds because of a successful Indiegogo campaign Serious Eats ran to secure additional funds for the show. It’s something Vimeo frequently does with its content partners, said Mohney, because it demonstrates true audience appetite for the programming. As part of Serious Eats’ deal with Vimeo, “The Food Lab” will be exclusive to Vimeo On Demand for at least 60 days, after which Serious Eats is free to look for other syndication platforms.

That said, Mohney is looking at a range of distribution platforms and models as Serious Eats increases its investment video. This includes, which is launching a new design next week. Initially, there won’t be a video hub because Serious Eats doesn’t have enough content, but that won’t last for long, said Mohney.

One key focus is to produce an ample amount of great content that attracts the attention of advertisers. “If you’re talking to an advertiser and you say, ‘Give me half a million and I’ll make an awesome video,’ they’ll say, ‘Well, yeah, anyone can do that,’” said Mohney. “They want to see that you can do great editorial stuff on your own, and then they’ll want to be next to it.”

For Mohney, the next six months are still about experimentation and learning. “We have zero historical data about how our audience responds to video,” he said. “And zero data on how we can use video to expand our audience beyond the core base. We need to do both. Preaching to the choir doesn’t increase your long-term viability.”

Image via Inna Sokolovska / Shutterstock

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