Note to PR folk: I am not Phil Lee

I can categorically state that I am not Phil Lee, author of the Rough Guide to Norway. You’re looking for this guy.

I receive a lot of spam from PR companies, processed goods manufacturers and publishers of which I read none, but over the last few weeks, it has started arriving from Oslo. Maybe I’m big in Norway, I thought, like troll metal or fermented trout. Then I received something loosely personalised:

I saw that your book “The Rough Guide to Norway ” is coming out shorty and picking up steam via Barnes & Noble’s popularity chart. I wanted to pitch you an incredible way to build more buzz and keep the momentum moving. (this won’t cost you anything)

As much as I am interested in which shorty is coming out, just a small tip: read the About page of a blog before firing off spam. Or even better, don’t send PR spam at all.

Three things that you don’t need to be a food blogger

1. An internet connection.

Or at least, you don’t need an internet connection of your own. My first blog, Phnomenon, was almost entirely written without the internet at home. My workflow was to obsessively write and draft at home and when whatever I’d strung together approached a basic coherence, I’d walk to a local internet cafe with my USB drive to add the results. It didn’t seem that strange at the time because every blogger in the whole country did the exact same thing. People probably thought that I was strange because I walked rather than rode my motorbike there.

It probably gave the blog a pile of the quirks that are in it. With no easy access to a decent online dictionary or thesaurus, I’d just use whatever word I’d first think of.  I’d transcribe Khmer however I heard it, rather than refer to a reference.  I probably linked out to other people less than I do now. I’d only read about five other people’s blogs on any given day, because when you’re paying by the hour and earning a wage just shy of a pittance, every hour spent online counts.

I still tend to turn off my connection when I’ve got serious work to get done. It preserves a fundamental weirdness.

2. A camera.

It is very easy to obsess over gear. I certainly do. I love it.

As much as I hate saying it, a better camera isn’t going to make you a better photographer or food blogger; it just gives you additional layer of machinery to obsess about. The DSLR isn’t an entry requirement to this sport – having a DSLR just means that I take boring and characterless shots through a different lens. A different lens that I love like my own child. I’d recommend that you squeeze the most that you possibly can out of the camera that you already have, even if it’s the one inside your phone.

The Old Foodie does very nicely without one. Johanna Kindvall’s Kokblog, Pierre Lamielle’s Kitchen Scraps, Recipe Look, Lobster Squad, and They Draw and Cook are (mostly) illustrated rather than photographed – but they’re all real exceptions

It’s strange that food writing on the internet attracts such a narrow range of forms of illustration when compared to recipe books, probably because most food bloggers work alone.

3. Your name on the guest list

Writing about media events makes you mostly irrelevant in the long term. Around 60% of restaurants will close in the first three years, rendering 60% of the writing about restaurant openings pointless within the same period. There are endless uncovered stories about food, gaps in knowledge and narratives that are your own in their entirety that could serve as meatier content.

They shouldn’t need to be force-fed to you.

Getting my focus back.

The Australian food bloggers’ conference (which I’ve also written about over at SBS) seems to have had the effect of lighting a gigantic fire under the collective arses of Australia’s food bloggers. I feel like I’m back on the blogging bandwagon and have a decent reason to post again. The conference gave me real chance to assess why I do this.

My own focus has been away from Last Appetite over the past year, as you’ll probably notice from the volume of posts. This is not a mea culpa. I’m still writing, albeit 600 words a week for SBS. I chalked up my hundredth post for them a few weeks ago, which means that I’ve written the equivalent of a novel on SBS’ dime. Last Appetite fell by the wayside because I put most of my quality work elsewhere. I work hard at it and they pay me.

My focus has also changed over the last two years in Australia. Where in Cambodia, I’d wake up in the morning and point my camera at whatever happened to ride past my house, I’ve stopped doing so in Australia and this is to the detriment of writing blog posts. I’ve started to care more about the quality of my images instead of the value of a story even though I know that the words alone can carry it. This is because of a concern with how many people read my blog posts. Images sell food online and very few people want to read a thousand word post like this one. Those few people however, are the ones that I respect and want as readers; the people who are demanding, critical and taste the rising bile every time that they see a Donna Hay recipe book.

The weirdness of living back in the First World has started to wear off. I still get that strange sensation of disconnection in the supermarket and feel overwhelmed by the pointless choices but it doesn’t happen on every visit. I can even buy milk without reading the label of every variety and make choices using brand alone, like regular people must do. I spend much more of my time tending to my garden and cooking at home than interacting with the outside world. I began to think that my inner suburban pastoral life had no blog value in terms of cash or audience.

When I started blogging, I didn’t care if anyone read my work apart from a small group of people that I know in person. The idea that anything that I wrote had any monetary value was not a consideration that I made. Over the past two years, I got waylaid by making money with my blogs but have since realised that starting blogs or websites with low quality content in high value industries is much more lucrative than good writing about food. The fall of Gourmet magazine is testament to this.

As another example, this site which I own and use to test Google Ads is one page long, has virtually no content, but earns more than my few years of work at Phnomenon. If you click the ads, I’ll get somewhere in the vicinity of one to five dollars a click. Yes, it’s a travesty but a lucrative one. In a few years, I’ll be able to sell it for a few thousand dollars. I would not be able to make the same cold-hearted decision about a food blog that I’ve written because the sites are worth more to me than I could imagine a sane person paying.

For making money, quality content online is of little benefit. It’ll help you get a job providing content for someone else and be respected by your peers but won’t necessarily pull in a valuable enough audience to make advertising a viable option (yet). By viable, I mean making a minimum wage. Currently, the most valuable audiences online are those which are about to make a high value purchase online. This is why newspapers are spiralling the online drain – the valuable crowd is somewhere else.

So I’m going to stop giving a fuck about making money or building a larger audience on Last Appetite and get my focus back to where it once was: covering food stories in a way that nobody else writes about for the small group of people that I care about. I’m making good money elsewhere, online and in my day job, and my friends don’t want to see ads and don’t click them in any event.

Also, related to the conference, I’ve decided to go postal on any food bloggers accepting free shit from public relations folk.

I don’t mind if you attend press events or restaurant launches – the line between journalist and blogger has ceased to be meaningful and attending such events comes with the territory. But you don’t need to write about it. The bloggers whom I value most are the ones that set their own agenda.

As soon as you start talking about the awesomeness of the goodie bag or whore out your blog for a meal or an overpriced bottle of pomegranate extract, then when I link to you, you get a nofollow tag, forever. If you’re on my list of Australian food blogs, I’ll also mark that you have accepted cash or other incentives in exchange for comment in the past. If I wanted to read someone’s reworking of a press release, I’d buy a newspaper because at least that keeps a young journalist employed.

Four tips for food blog PR

There has been debate on the Australian food bloggers group about opting in or out of the public relations onslaught, mostly because when it comes to food blogging, some PR people act like dicks.

It is no great secret that Australian business is a long way behind the US when it comes to online PR. It is something that an Australian PR agency might tack on to their services but few (if any) specialise in online in Australia or do it consistently well because there is not a great deal of cash in it for them yet. As it is dawning on the industry that print media as we know it is doomed, jumping on the social media bandwagon is the action de jour.

My four tips:

1. At the very least, read some of the food blog before you fire off a press release.

It’s not that hard to work out the topics in food that are of genuine interest to a particular food blogger. Read their blog. You’ll soon discover that food blogging is a broad church and it is not likely that your clients’ product will align with the interests of all food bloggers. If you’re doing your job, you should be able to find a good fit somewhere.

Unlike print media, unpaid food bloggers are under no compunction to put out regular editions or posts. There is no pressure to fill column inches and so this negates the need for bloggers to trawl through press releases at the end of the day just to churn out a few hundred words. For most food bloggers, press releases have zero value.

2. Even better, don’t send a press release at all.

Cut the “positioning” bullshit. You’ll get much better results if you engage in intelligent conversation because for most food bloggers, intelligent conversation is their modus operandi. If there is nothing intelligent that can be said about your client’s product (or your client’s product does not relate to food for humans) then just maybe you should question your future career in public relations.

Approach this as if you’re forming a relationship that will last forever. Most food bloggers don’t think in terms of discrete campaigns or product launches: the biggest mistake that PR folk make when approaching any social media is that they expect that it will last for the life of the campaign and not any longer. If you burn bloggers early, it is likely that you’ll have to work extremely hard to get them back on side for any future campaigns or other unrelated clients.

3. Link to me and send me traffic.

If you want me to sit up and pay attention to your (or your clients’) website, link to mine and send good traffic; the traffic that reads more than a single page and adds comments. I segment my traffic and notice that behaviour. Write your own food blog or get somebody to write one who cares rather than spamming out press releases. I still wonder why clients would ever trust an agency to do “blogger PR” when the agency (or its staff) do not run a blog.

4. If all else fails, food bloggers are very easily bought.

Most food bloggers love free shit; especially meals and the feeling like they’re receiving something exclusive. You’ve only got to look at this food blogger meetup organised by Club Med just to see that even if your food is not necessarily the greatest in the world, you can still buy fawning coverage by some of the world’s biggest bloggers. POM juices got coverage aplenty simply by mailing out juice and holding a competition. The trick is permission and not expecting anything directly in return. Ask people’s permission to send them free things. Ask for their advice rather than “write about this in your next blog post!”.