One year in: How the Times of London taps into Instagram’s food scene

Last September, The Sunday Times felt it wasn’t giving its readers enough food content to chew on. So it increased its output from just a few pages each week to a monthly food magazine, The Dish.

“The world of food has expanded to include things like food production, sustainability, healthy eating,” said Laurel Ives, editor of the Dish. “There is a lot more to say that we felt we weren’t able to do at the time.”

Instagram, because it’s a more visual medium, has been a priority for The Dish, which has grown its following to 60,000 since September by posting around six times a day and handing over the accounts to chefs like Dan Doherty, head chef at London restaurant Duck and Waffle. Popular videos, like a baker kneading sourdough, are fetching near to 9,000 views.

It has been quick to jump into Instagram Stories, getting 3,000 views for its early videos (publishers like British Vogue claim they are getting tens of thousands of views).“We’ve been posting recipes as well as ‘here we are in this restaurant,’” said Ives. “They are more rough and ready and raw, a behind-the-scene snapshot.”

the dish
Instagram take-over — Dan Doherty, head chef at Duck and Waffle

Initially the idea for The Dish in print was to feature recipes and celebrity chef columnists, like Jamie Oliver. After the first few issues, the team found that health articles, the rise in popularity of raw milk or the ugly side of gluten-free diets, were performing above their place in the rung of the magazine.

“We wanted to key into trends and get our investigators to debunk the myths,” said Ives. Pieces on the importance of microbes in your digestive system were good jumping-off points for the publisher to get people talking on social media. The Times has recently made its paywall more flexible with registered access users viewing two articles a month, otherwise people can only view the articles online if they are a member. According to the publisher, it has over 400,000 subscribers paying for print and digital bundles, but the publisher posts the links on Facebook with questions to get people talking. The Times said pieces typically receive between 50 and 200 comments on its main The Times and Sunday Times Facebook pages.

Food publishing on social media is a cluttered space. Digital-first titles like BuzzFeed Tasty and Tastemade have a strong hold on short, snappy Facebook videos. As a traditional print publisher entering this space, The Dish had to be lean.

“Those brands have made The Dish up its game,” said Ben Whitelaw, head of community and digital development. “The Dish has been like a startup in its approach to social media,” he added, meaning that the publisher has been able to experiment without being in front of huge audiences, and a core team of four editorial staff writes articles as well as manages the social media posts.

The Dish also sends out a weekly newsletter to The Times subscribers, featuring content from the magazine, social, as well as some exclusive content, like the 60 Second Sommelier, tips from wine critic Will Lyons on tasting, pairing and the right bottles to buy. Since September, it has grown its user base from 12,000 to 18,000 and has an open rate of nearly 40 percent, according to the company. Email marketing benchmarks from Mailchimp rarely scale 28 percent. This offers an attractive place for advertisers to sponsor content.

But The Times has a ways to go to work out how to drive people from social back to its owned platforms if it really wants to monetize its social audience. The plan is to build out Whitelaw’s social and community team of six people to include video specialists and analysts and experts in SEO, which had previously been an under-utilized channel.

“We’re moving away from social media editors, people who post to these accounts, and more than ever should be using data to inform these decisions,” he said.

Images courtesy of The Dish, via Instagram.

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