At one end of Hyde Park in London is Speakers’ Corner, where any member of the public can show up, stand on a chair/ladder/actual soapbox and begin shouting aloud on any topic. Speakers deemed successful are surrounded by a rapt audience four or five-rows deep. When I last visited London, I was transfixed by this ritual, of people seemingly rational and completely off their rocker, and their different tacts of convincing people to stop and listen. The topics, I realized, were irrelevant, and it wasn’t about the orator with the loudest voice or wildest gesticulations. This was an art form of showmanship, salesmanship and relationship.
I think a lot about what I witnessed at Speakers’ Corner at my current job, where I’m editor-in-chief of a food and culture website called The Takeout (my company, based in Chicago, also publishes The Onion, Clickhole and The A.V. Club). To run a media site in 2018 is to stand in a park with tens of millions other dotcoms, shouting into a sea of noise, desperately hoping somebody notices. Some will resort to screaming. Others prefer deception. The person next to you may have the deep pockets to buy a microphone and amplifier, while you’re stuck using a cardboard megaphone. The digital media landscape is noisy and frenetic, with many ugly corners and fetid patches. As someone who writes, edits and publishes thousands of words each day, I (and my many comrades in media) realize our biggest competition isn’t platforms or distribution models or fighting for the table scraps of Google/Facebook ad dollars.
Our biggest competition is your attention.
I don’t pretend to have the answers. Any strategies we’ve employed at The Takeout, the sample size has only been 12 months. But our approach has worked really well for us. Our site has grown on average 15 percent nearly every month in 2018; from 2.8M page views in February 2018 to 9.5M one year later. More importantly is our growth in unique visitors, and in the last year we’ve 6x that figure (6.2 million uniques in March 2019 — according to Comscore figures, more than half of Eater and Bon Appetit’s audience). For a rinky-dink site with three full-time employees, myself included, going from zero to 6 million uniques in 18 months is gratifying.
So here it is: Everything we’ve learned in the last year about running a digital media website, and how to do it while being a good citizen of the internet. Whether you’re running a news site, a music blog, a cooking YouTube channel, a digital marketing agency, our job is to figure out what compels people to momentarily stop flicking their thumbs against their Facebook timeline, and do so without deceiving or screaming at readers. Or phrased differently: How can we run a website without feeling the need to take a cold shower to wash off the dirty shame? Without clickbait, listicles, or photos galleries? For The Takeout, it requires equal parts showmanship, salesmanship and relationship.
(Note: If you’re allergic to self-serving backstories, feel free to skip these next seven paragraphs. But you may find some of this context helpful.)
Most of my career was spent at the Chicago Tribune, first on the metro desk but for most of that tenure in the food section. Food journalists, for some reason, place a premium on the new, on what’s buzzy, on trends coming around the bend. While we had an obligation to be timely in our coverage, what I learned was the importance of writing for your audience. And at the Chicago Tribune, it meant acknowledging who our readers were: old.
Around 2009, I pitched an idea to tackle “restaurant reviews” in a manner more engaging and relevant to our readership: By writing about restaurants that have been around for more than a decade. We called this feature (in retrospect, regrettably) “Home Plate.” These 800-word features were approached as vignettes of the restaurant, focused around a character (perhaps a longtime server with war stories for miles, the sweet curmudgeonly owner, the immigrant who arrived penniless and worked his way to head chef and found the American dream, etc.). We would mention certain dishes, ideally ones on the menu since day one, and try to articulate its lasting appeal. What would make these especially fun to write, unlike the static snapshots of most restaurant reviews, was the ability to exercise our storytelling muscles. There’s forward momentum driving the column’s narrative. Plus, unlike newer restaurants that are more likely to change, we’d be writing features on an established restaurant set in its ways (I don’t mean that pejoratively), and therefore, your dining experience should you visit would likely be similar to what you’ve read. Essentially, “restaurant reviews” with a long shelf life.
(Here’s one I wrote on Gene & Georgetti, one of Chicago’s oldest steakhouse, and one on Katsu, a beloved Japanese sushi restaurant that sadly closed in Nov. 2017.)
What was revealing was “Home Plate” generated more reader feedback than any other restaurant reviews I’ve ever written. The e-mails arriving in my inbox would mention how the restaurant was their grandma’s favorite, or that they’ve been weekly patrons for 30 years. The word “memories” appeared in most messages. A lightbulb went off: The ability to tap into a reader’s nostalgia, to evoke warm and fuzzy feelings, is a powerful if underused tactic to engage with our audience. Why do readers born in the 1980s (like myself) enjoy stories about Mega Man 2, SURGE soda and Double Dare? Because they’re indelible pop cultural hallmarks of our childhoods. They make us feel young again. It’s a nice feeling.
By 2015, I was 11 years into my job at the Tribune and beginning to feel the burn out. Accelerated by a new editorial mandate that included ginning up page views via photo galleries and best-of lists, I figured it was time to leave and try something new. My wife was seven months pregnant; a buyout offer with three months of salary dangled in front of me. I left my comfortable job with nothing lined up.
Our son arrived in the new year, and for the next six months I was deep in the wilderness of unemployment anxiety and an irregular sleep schedule. But in July 2016, The Onion reached out. Their non-satirical pop culture site, The A.V. Club, was interested in launching a food vertical and thought I’d be interested in running it. The idea of building a site from the ground-up was intriguing. Several days after I accepted the job, my infant son began sleeping through the night. It was in every sense a life-changing week.
I spent a year running Supper Club, the food section of The A.V. Club whose name is a nod to our site’s Wisconsin roots. I’ll be brief about those 14 months, since a lot of the lessons learned then were refined and applied for the launch of the eventual standalone spinoff site, The Takeout. I will say this: Before I arrived, the scant food coverage at The A.V. Club had an air of “can you believe we’re eating this shit?” about it. We tried the latest fast food outrage and taste-tested lube. Coming from daily journalism, I thought there was a better way to elevate the discourse while maintaining some levity (humor is after all in our DNA). To lazily borrow a metaphor that just happen to be about food, we can’t just be serving ice cream for dinner every day. The question, then, was how to cook a balanced meal that is damn delicious, one that people will want to eat tomorrow and the day after that?
PART 1: FINDING YOUR MOTIVATION
I was given six weeks to launch what would become The Takeout. This included hiring staff, setting the editorial agenda, assigning/writing enough stories to be several weeks ahead. I was thinking through a thousand questions, from logo design to payroll to reserving rooms for daily meetings. Putting out fires became a perverse game of whack-a-mole. My life until launch day was spent in the weeds.
Should you find yourself in this situation, one where you’re tasked with launching a monumental project in a short time span, let me make a suggestion. But first: Take a step back. No, further.
You know what, turn around, jog 30 seconds in the other direction and then turn back around.
Before anything else gets decided, you must question your motivation. Here we use a ploy popularized by Simon Sinek, who wrote the book every start-up will claim to have read: Start With Why. (My review: A wonderful one-paragraph idea stretched into book length.)
In our case: Why does our site need to exist? We can’t just copy an existing site and make enough tweaks to call ourselves different. (The iPod came out in 2001 and has sold a gazillion units. The Zune came out in 2006 and was discontinued six years later.)
So what’s our why? Finding out was a process of elimination. We’re not a local outlet, so our ‘why’ isn’t: “To be Chicago’s indispensable guide for restaurant news and recommendation.” We don’t have the globe-trotting ambitions of Roads & Kingdoms, so our ‘why’ isn’t: “To tell human stories from all corners of the world to help better understand each other.” We have no interest in preening ourselves in professional accolades, so our ‘why’ isn’t: “To be a perennial winner of food journalism awards.”
Figuring this out was the hardest part. Luckily, I had 14 months of running Supper Club and that helped arrive at our ‘why.’ Which is: “The Takeout aims to improve your life through food.”
Getting to our ‘why’ was the vital first step. Next, asking ourselves: What can we do that others aren’t doing?
For this we must assess what else is out there. What other websites mixed food features, recipes and timely news? Those include Thrillist, Munchies, Eater, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Food52 and Serious Eats. They all had one thing in common: All have home bases within five square miles of Lower Manhattan. We’re based in Chicago. I’d like to believe living outside the New York media bubble (which itself obviously has advantages) and not enmeshed in the social circle of journalists, publicists, food industry and ideas, would bring a different perspective to the way we’d approach food journalism. (To be clear, I have great admiration for those sites and have dear friends who work at those publications.)
Perhaps, we can take advantage of our geography and offer a Midwestern perspective? One of my first exercises was to play word association. What do the words “Midwest” and “food” evoke? Cliches and generalizations were fine; there were no wrong answers:
Deep fried foods, breaded pork tenderloin, food on a stick = state fairs, road food, Stove Top Stuffing, cream of mushroom condensed soup, casseroles, chain restaurants, Jell-O salads, slow cookers, tailgating culture, cheese and butter (Wisconsin!), Upper Midwest = Germanic foods (sausages, pickling, beer), Scandinavian food influences in Minnesota, Great Lakes food culture (freshwater fish fry, cherry pies, frog legs), fine dining culture in Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, barbecue in Kansas City, Americana…
Americana. It’s that last image of apple pies, red-white-and-blue bunting, fireworks on the Fourth of July that appealed to me. I loved the idea of food writing that didn’t involve buzzy up-and-coming chefs, or the fetishization of “latest and greatest.” (Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen was — and remains—a source of great inspiration.)
For this site to even think about succeeding, we needed speed and a long runway to take off. It’s harder to do that if the tarmac is crowded. We had to find our own runway.
Food coverage differs from most other arts coverage. If I’m on Pitchfork, I could read an album review and stream the Spotify embed immediately. I can read Alan Sepinwall’s TV reviews and watch the shows on the Netflix app on my phone.
But say you’re a food site that published a roundup of America’s best new restaurants in 2018—there’s less of an emotional connection for me, because chances are I can’t visit those places. Restaurant coverage works if you’re locally focused. I read about a dish, I salivate, I drive 15 minutes and experience the restaurant in living color. Beyond the vicarious thrill, national restaurant coverage is a terribly expensive undertaking and the ROI — and there’s no money in prestige — is lousy.
We’re a site hoping to reach a national audience, so food coverage requiring the reader to travel and spend large sums of money to experience isn’t a worthwhile endeavor for us. If we were to review food, it should be food a reader in Chicago, Missoula, or Wichita could all experience. That meant the newest burger from a fast food chain, the rotisserie chicken from Costco, or a blind taste test of bottled ranch dressing. Some of my food media colleagues may think: “You’re legitimizing chains and mass-market brands — lowest common denominator food.” I think this is dead wrong.
Food writers can be an elitist bunch, and shitting on “low food” has long been sport. One type of headline I see a lot and dearly despise is: “We ate Taco Bell’s Naked Chicken Chalupa so you don’t have to.” (emphasis mine) If food critics are supposed to reserve judgment, we’re setting the baseline that all fast food is beneath us.
So the first rule of The Takeout: We celebrate high and low foods with equal reverence. We apply the same critical standards towards Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburger as we would a dish at a three Michelin-starred restaurant. The Takeout would be a safe space to geek out on the food and drinks you love.
Our mission statement was beginning to form: We want to improve people’s lives through food. We intend to exude Midwest geniality in the topics we covered and through our tone. We will avoid yucking on someone else’s yum.
We launched The Takeout on Nov. 15, 2017. Each day, we would lead our site with 3–4 showcase stories, a mixture of recipes, essays, deep-dives into regional culinary oddities, advice columns, and reported features. Those marquee pieces would be supplemented with short and timely Newswire items.
As a longtime newspaper journalist, I’m cognizant about the plight of news aggregation — that is, those who lift and rewrite other people’s reporting with zero or cursory attribution. Our policy is when at all possible, we use a news item as a jumping off point for something more original. When Kylie Jenner admitted on social media she inexplicably has never eaten cereal with milk, rather than expressing faux TMZ-style outrage, we turned it into a staff discussion in which we confessed to foods that we, as professional food writers, have never eaten.
When a New Orleans restaurant sued Gordon Ramsay over its portrayal in Kitchen Nightmares, we added context and turned it into a mini-essay about the flaws of restaurant portrayals on reality television. Ditto a news item about a mother who blamed Flamin’ Hot Takis as the reason her daughter’s gallbladder had to be removed — Takeout staffer Gwen Ihnat interviewed her daughter about whether parents have any control over a child’s eating habits. Of course there were times when we (read: I) tried something and it didn’t work: This, about 7-Eleven’s delivery app, devolved into some indulgent, D+ Creative Writing 101 exercise.
That’s our mix: Three or four marquee feature stories daily, about 10 timely news pieces, and an end-of-day open thread called Last Call where we share non-food articles, YouTube videos, and converse with our commenters. We just hoped readers would click on some or all.
PART 2: THE 4 STEPS OF INTERNET USAGE
You can break down the behavior of a digital media consumer into four sequential actions. You can’t skip any steps; one follows the next.
1. User sees headline
This is your elevator pitch. There is nothing. More. Important. A lot of competition are out there, and so the strongest headline wins. And winning means…
2. User clicks
This is the sell. Of all the enticing things on the internet, the user decides to give your headline the time of day. Pat yourself on the back if you’ve gotten this far.
3. User reads
This is the goods. You’ve made the sale, now you’re delivering on the promises of the headline. What sort of impression will you leave the reader about your site? That click better be worth it.
4. User returns
This is repeat business. User clicks something else on your site, or ideally, bookmark your page. How you convince the user to become a loyal reader depends on how much you can light up their brain.
PART 3: HOW TO LIGHT UP BRAINS
Humor and Surprise
A colleague at Onion Inc. told me the two types of content shared most on Facebook are funny videos and how-to videos (social media research has shown something is more likely to be shared if it contains the phrase “will make you” — i.e. “This ice cream cake recipe will make you a hero at birthday parties” )
Let’s tackle humor first. Traditionally, food writing is as funny as a throbbing canker sore. What little humor attempted tended to veer into shock humor — dare recipes, stunts, a reliance on expletives.
We don’t set out to be funny. But we strive to surprise — through an unorthodox story form, a knockout headline, or the premise itself — with humor often a byproduct.
One way is taking a serious approach on a silly premise. In “How to eat candy, an exhaustive guide,” Takeout contributor (and former The Onion managing editor) Marnie Shure presented her best practices for eating 27 varieties of candies. The humor came in Marnie’s extreme specificity, plus the sheer volume of candy varieties tackled. But my favorite part is, should you follow this guide, you can actually come away with practical information for better enjoyment.
In “I have brought great shame upon my family deep frying butter,” the conceit was to recreate “deep-fried butter,” a staple of the Texas State Fair. It’s self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheek, but beneath that is a real recipe that tastes, wouldn’t you know, pretty delicious (reminiscent of a hot croissant). Same with “Dear God what have I done: Behold the KFC Skinwich,” in which we attempted to punch up the piece not just on the outrageous premise, but with sight gags or invoking the Book of Revelations in the recipe instruction. We do our share of serious journalism, but once in a while we allow ourselves to be silly. We play the silly card sparingly, so when it does show up on our front page, it’s an unexpected departure from the norm. We strive to write authentically, which for us means in a manner that entertains and amuses us. Doing so keeps us sane.
Where there’s good opportunity for surprise is in the headline. We’ll cover the importance of headlines later, but for now, know we work hard to craft something that elicits a chortle or, if we’re lucky, a guffaw:
I mentioned above the two types of posts shared most often on social media are humor and utilitarian content. Stories that are useful and practical directly services our “why” — to improve your life through food. Which is why we love sharing tips, tricks, techniques, life hacks, from books we come across and chefs we interview.
In our weekly story ideas meeting, we often devote time to asking ourselves these questions:
- What gives us the most trouble?
- What areas would we like to improve at?
- What haven’t we mastered?
- I’ve always wanted to know why ________?
- Is there a quicker, better way to ________?
- What secret technique do we know that others might not be familiar?
Sitting down with a notepad and pen and jotting down answers to those questions almost always yield usable ideas. Spending a few quiet moments each day accessing the curiosity lobe in your brain can pay dividends. It’s a practical form of meditation.
Another well to tap: Write what you know. I’m Chinese, and I love eating xiao long bao — the soup-filled Shanghai dumpling that bursts with broth when you bite in. I wanted to write a guide explaining how to experience these dumplings to maximum enjoyment. (In retrospect, the headline The correct way to eat xiao long bao, the world’s most magnificent soup dumplings was a bit pedantic, and if I had a re-do I’d make the headline less internety and hyperbolic.)
Perhaps the biggest benefit to utilitarian stories is they have a long digital shelf life. With proper SEO, these evergreen posts have a greater chance of resurfacing in searches, with as much relevance in three years as it would today. Useful stories have long tails, and that’s a smart return on investment.
At The Takeout, we go out of our way to make the stories as blatantly useful as possible, to the point of bold-facing the practical bits. Here’s how that looks in practice, in How can you tell if blue cheese has gone bad?
A favorite recurring feature is called “How Do You Take Yours?” For each column we choose one dish, such as roast chicken, grilled cheese sandwiches, scrambled eggs. Then we solicit chefs and food writers across the country for one tip/trick/technique that will improve that dish. We run tips from about 10 chef, each no more than 100 words. Our thinking was to offer a barrage of rapid-fire advice, where readers can quickly come away with at least 2–3 new ideas they would try. It’s bending over backwards to give readers easily digestible information, like a life hack lightning round.
Here are a few more stories that exemplify our love for useful stories:
Does beer taste better from a can or bottle?
Is it safe to leave butter unrefrigerated?
A 60-second intro to Cuban food
Which summer greens should you tear, snip, or chop?
How to get started with brewing kombucha
Chicago, where I live, is steeped in improvisational comedy culture, and one of my favorite phrases I hear from improv friends is to “play to the top of your intelligence.” One could interpret that a dozen ways, but for me, it means to not dumb down your writing because you feel your audience wouldn’t understand. I can say with authority that most Takeout readers are smarter than me, with powerful bullshit barometers, so we owe it to not offer calorically empty internet content.
One way we approach this is with stories that satiate curiosity. Along with utility, both are what I consider scratching-the-itch journalism — the best pieces are eyelids-clenching satisfying and make your brain go ahhhhhhhhh.
Serious Eats’ J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is one of the best things about the internet. The M.I.T. graduate and chef applies scientific rigor to recipe-testing in a gloriously nerdy way that’s also practical to the home cook. As a childhood fan of Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy, I wanted to bring that playing-to-tops-of-intelligence sensibility to The Takeout with stories that scratch the itch in your brain.
We were lucky to find Dave McCowan, who works at the physics department at the University of Chicago and also happens to be a huge food enthusiast. During a callout for new contributing writers, McCowan’s background caught our attention, and soon he began a column for us called Food Science. It’s geeky and accessible, and one of my favorite recurring features on our site, consistently ranking among our most-read stories:
For the rest of us without a physics degree, we have a separate feature called Burning Questions, tackling such curiosities as why we eat raw beef and fish but not raw chicken, are there any benefits to drinking raw eggs a la Rocky, and what exactly is that delicious brown sauce found in Chinese takeout?
A particularly enjoyable recent read was Derek Thompson’s Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. He writes about striving to create an “aha!” moment:
The most special experience and products involve a bit of surprise, unpredictability, and disfluency. Imagine entering a room full of strangers. You look around for somebody you know but you cannot find a single recognizable face. And then suddenly there is a parting in the room, and through the crowd you see her — your best friend. The warm feeling of relief and recognition bursts through the clouds of confusion. That is the ecstasy of sudden fluency, a moment of eureka. Pop culture is a parade of these eureka moments large and small. Crossword puzzles design for confusion followed by coherence — aha. Great storytellers excel in creating tension followed by a cathartic release — aha.
This is the pleasure of satiating curiosity. A difficult concept or a lingering mystery suddenly comes together, finally making sense, the pieces falling into place in your head. It is incredibly satisfying. It scratches the itch. It makes your brain feel nice.
Remember the “Home Plate” feature I mentioned earlier, the Chicago Tribune column that profiled classic restaurants? At The Takeout, we’ve made the conscious decision to focus less on forward-looking trends (“Garbanzo beans are 2019’s hottest ingredient!”). Rather than focus on “what’s next,” we prefer “what was great before.” The comfort dishes of your childhood. Snacks from the ’90s. Restaurant menus from 1910. Steak Diane, Baked Alaska, Dover Sole. The pleasures of liver and onion. Why we used to eat turtles but not anymore. Resurrecting the food traditions of yore. We urge our contributors to pitch pieces that tie back to a memory, because those stories tend to have a narrative arc that drives the story forward. Writing about tamales in an abstract, academic way isn’t as compelling as telling a story about peering over the counter making tamales with your abuela.
Rather than prognosticate upcoming food trends, we revisit food trends from 50 years ago with Old Folks Food Week. Instead of highlighting the hottest cookbook from the Instagram celeb-du-jour, we give praise to the enduring pleasures of church cookbooks.
Nostalgia is about evoking pleasant memories, and few emotions are more personal and powerful. It’s hard to give me the warm and fuzzies with endives, even if they’re the buzzy ingredients of the moment. But I do have more emotional attachment to grilled cheese sandwiches, and if you show me creative ideas to up my grilled cheese game, I’ll listen.
High Arousal Stories
One influential book to our site’s growth is Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On. If your job involves making things (art, music, sentences) and wanting people to consume it (download, listen, subscribe), this book is a must-read. If you work in media, I particularly recommend chapter three. These 32 pages focus on why certain articles made The New York Times most-emailed stories list, and how emotions play a central role.
Berger conducted a study at Stanford where he and colleagues collected a six-month data set of Times articles — nearly 7,000 pieces. He wanted to find out the traits of stories that go viral. For starters, Berger and team discovered stories about health and education were more likely to be shared on social media. It made sense: Articles useful to readers or could improve their lives resonated. Science stories, in particular, often appeared on most e-mailed lists, and Berger attributed one emotion: awe. Think of what else goes viral: A huuuuuge explosion. Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent. A guy who can demonstrate the evolution of dance in six minutes. A thousand Filipino inmates recreating the “Thriller” video. They all make you think “whoa!” and inspire awe.
One might think stories that elicited any sort of emotion meant an automatic click. But not so. While humor and happy stories resonated, ones deemed sad were 16 percent less likely to make the most e-mailed list. But this doesn’t apply to all negative stories: articles that elicited anxiety and anger often made the list.
What Berger found was it wasn’t about stories that were positive or negative. What made readers share within their social circle were stories with high or low arousal. Arousal makes your heart beat and your palms sweat. As Berger writes: “When aroused we do things… arousal kindles the fire.” Click. Share. E-mail.
High arousal includes the feeling of awe, excitement and amusement, as well as anger and anxiety. Low arousal would be contentment and sadness.
Plenty of websites write stories designed to outrage you. Stories of people done wrong and justice unserved. Food journalism rarely incites, so at The Takeout we make an effort to find stories that elicit the positive spectrum of high arousal.
We want to get you excited with a clever new hack: By roasting the chicken directly on the oven rack, the juices and fats can drip directly onto the vegetable tray below while the skin gets crispy all-around. We regale you with war stories from a longtime bouncer who worked St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago’s rowdiest bar neighborhood. We want you to think “whoa” with this unusual menu trick to create an affogato at McDonald’s.
Excitement. Amusement. Awe. Those three stories were among our best-performing stories this last year. We work to raise your heartbeat.
PART 4: NUTS AND BOLTS
The previous section dealt with more cerebral approaches to make your posts emotionally resonate. This section focuses on actionable steps for your site.
Headlines! Headlines! Headlines!
If you walk away with one tip, let it be this: The headline is the single most important element that determines whether someone will click. It is your elevator pitch. Your first impression. The first words out of your mouth as you shout over the sea of voices at Speakers’ Corner.
At The Takeout, we spend an inordinate amount of time workshopping headlines. Sometimes it may take 10 minutes in our Slack channel to craft just five words. It can be an exasperating process (just ask my staff), but by the time we hit publish we’re confident our headline is bulletproof.
Here’s what we’ve learned about headline-writing over the past 12 months:
1. Don’t go for the knee-jerk (unless the knee-jerk is aces). This interview with writer/director Adam McKay (SNL, Anchorman, The Big Short) talks about what he learned from improv comedy guru Del Close, and his philosophy on the “third thought” is something we abide by:
2. Going for your third thought prevents your headline from sounding too “internety” (a term I first heard from former-The A.V. Club editor Sean O’Neal). Internety headlines … you know ’em, you hate ’em:
- We tried _____ so you don’t have to
- 7 things you’ll never believe is ______ (and #5 will freak you out)
- 15 mind-blowing _____ guaranteed to ______
If it sounds like a Buzzfeed or Upworthy headline, come up with something else. I’m certain no one notices, but sometimes we’ll emulate Clickhole’s satirical headlines that are actually commentaries on clickbait culture:
3. Place your most impactful words at the beginning or end of your headlines; don’t bury them in the middle.
4. Strong verbs are more important than strong adjectives.
5. Say it in as few words as possible.
6. Choose clarity over cleverness.
7a. Push hard to finesse that headline, almost to the point of discomfort. Treat it as you would five extra burpees to finish the workout. Here’s one more mixed sports metaphor: Approach each headline as an at-bat, where a millimeter adjustment can be the difference between a pop out and a home run.
7b. That said, set a time limit. “Let’s spend two more minutes workshopping this headline” is a line I often type in our Slack channel. Parameters instill creativity.
8. Be cognizant of SEO, but don’t necessarily be its slave. We’re not reinventing the wheel with our SEO game. But there is an art form in writing a headline that’s SEO-friendly and elegant, without it reading like you’re purposely gaming the system.
9. Humor is about upending expectations. Twitter comedians are brilliant headline writers. You start reading a sentence and your conditioned mind jumps ahead and fills in the blanks. But then an unforeseen word is used, a trope gets flipped, a cliche gets nipped in the pfflud. Humor is the result of that pleasant, surprising jolt in your brain.
Take chances with form
All through journalism school and the first 12 years after college, an archaic style of writing was beaten into my head, to the point I didn’t know how to write any other way. When I joined Onion Inc., I had to unlearn how to write in Newspaperese. (Journalists know how it goes: Anecdotal lede -> Nut graf -> Quote -> Some context -> Yada yada yada)
At The Takeout, we don’t experiment with different forms for the sake of being different. Rather, we want to be unmoored from what “food writing” is supposed to be. And if 20 other sites are writing the same story in roughly the same way, why not have an original take? Why not surprise the reader with the unexpected? Such as writing about the annual return of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte as a poem. The discontinuation of a Taco Bell dish in the form of a eulogy. A story about rowdiness at a Guy Fieri restaurant as a multiple-choice quiz. A police blotter item about some guy stealing grapes at a Florida supermarket as a screenplay.
Sometimes the execution falls flat and it doesn’t work. We don’t care. The question we ask ourselves isn’t why, but why not?
Take advantage of Google Trends
Google Trends is our friend. It should be yours. Why is this free service essential to a digital media publisher? Let’s say you’re posting a beef short ribs recipe for the slow cooker. Obviously, you’d like the recipe to show up high on Google’s search results. But what if I told you nearly twice as many people type “crock pot recipes” into Google search as “slow cooker recipes?” It’s essentially the same cooking device, only “crock pot” happens to be a more commonplace term.
How do I know this? I inputted “slow cooker recipe” into Google Trends, then compared it to “crock pot recipes,” and just for kicks threw in “Instant Pot recipes.” The results:
With proper SEO and friendly consultation from Google Trends, we’re exposing ourselves to nearly twice the potential audience by just tweaking a few words in the headline and story. Don’t live and die by it, just make Google Trends your friend.
Short, recurring, novel features
Set your site apart is by coming up with recurring features that are short, novel and easily repeatable. Novelty is a key feature — for us, every time we hear the premise it should ideally amuse us.
One of those features is called This Month In Overturned Trucks, which we describe as “The Takeout’s monthly roundup of overturned trucks spilling shit over public roadways.” (We don’t include those involving major injuries.)
Another recurring feature/running joke is called Is a Hot Dog a Sandwich?, in which we ask very important people this exceedingly silly question. Inspired by the debate series between John Hodgman and The Sporkful’s Dan Pashman, as well as Stephen Colbert asking Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the novelty in our version comes in how big of a name we can score, and how willing (or unwilling) our celebrities play ball. Sometimes their bemused and indifferent reaction is the best part (see Paul Giamatti). Among those who have consented to this silly question: Rita Moreno, Angela Bassett, Roger Federer, Andy Samberg, and with arguably the best answer of all, Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me’s Peter Sagal.
By a country mile, our most successful feature is an advice column about restaurant etiquette called The Salty Waitress. Written from the voice of a grizzled, chain-smoking waitress, our Salty writer dispenses wisdom from tipping and cold dining rooms to over-chatty servers. The weekly feature proved so successful we upped its frequency to twice-a-week.
Turning passive users into super fans
An important metric we track is what we call the “Super User,” defined as someone who visits our site more than 15 times a month. An advantage of being in the Fusion Media Group network (Gizmodo, Deadspin, The A.V. Club, Lifehacker) is our commenting community is active and incredibly engaged. Sometimes you wonder if they spend all day refreshing our site (which is great!), because within minutes of an article’s publication the same dozen commenters always chime in. We love it, because cultivating this audience is essential to our growth. Though they make up only 0.5 percent of total users, they account for 15 percent (!!!) of total page views. These are the folks whose brains we were able to light up, the passive users we were lucky to convert into fans. (Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly penned an influential essay in 2008 called the 1,000 True Fans concept that’s relevant to any digital media company.)
Wading into the world of online commenters can quickly ruin your day, but we make an effort to not only respond, but engage with readers and make them part of the story. We’ve been fortunate our commenters self-police one another and keep our board mostly civil and respectful. And they inspire many story ideas, too.
I’m reminded of the many moments at the Chicago Tribune when some angry e-mail would arrive in my inbox over something I wrote. For a while I just wouldn’t respond. But then I started writing back, and I decided I would kill with kindness. More often than not, their return message would strike a far more conciliatory tone. They would even apologize for coming off so brusque. The lesson is that as soon as readers realize they’re interacting with a human, and not a faceless avatar on the internet they can scream at, the tone becomes far more diplomatic.
It’s why at The Takeout we proactively engage with our commenters, responding to their questions, praising their smart suggestions, admitting to our mistakes and issuing mea culpas when we screw up, even calling them out if what they say is unfair. We even treat our commenting community as a de facto Takeout staff writer.
One of the features we started is called Thanks, Commenters! We’d publish a recipe and almost always a commenter will offer some brilliant twist or insight to the dish. Some rise to the level of us trying that idea. So why not turn it into a story and give them credit? One commenter suggested we take Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay Biscuit mix and use that as a flour dredge for fried chicken — here’s the resulting story. Another reader offered a cobbler recipe that sounded too good to be true: chopped fruit + cake mix + soda + bake in oven. We wrote about this too (though the results weren’t as successful).
My favorite example came from one of our longtime readers who goes by President Zod. He left a comment to one of our writers, Allison Shoemaker, who happens to mention she side gigs at a whiskey shop.
Rather than respond in the comments section, I asked Allison to turn it into a full-fledged story, and calling out our beloved President Zod as inspiration.
Another time, I wrote about how folks should buy a $15 can of Spanish tuna at least once in their lives. One longtime commenter, Just Another Gawkfugee, promised he would order a can based on my recommendation (which is incredibly gratifying to hear if you’re a food writer). So I told him: If you spent all that money and don’t like it, let me know and I’ll mail some Takeout swag. That’s my satisfaction guaranteed.
He tried it, and thankfully loved it, and responded with a thoughtful review of his own. Still, I sent him a package of Takeout swag anyway, just to thank him. And I hope it means he’ll now read The Takeout every day.
We don’t mention this to pat ourselves on the back — what I hope these gestures signal is we sincerely give a damn about our readers, and we’ll go out of our way to listen, engage, and nurture that relationship. We’ll thank them for their contributions, we’re not afraid to push back when need be, and we’ll own up to our mistakes quickly and publicly. It’s just like any relationship: a successful media outlet operates as a candid conversation.
PART 6: OUR DIRTY LITTLE SECRET
There’s a moral imperative in all this. The internet is magical and brings a lot of joy and knowledge to our lives. It can also be a soul-draining cesspool. As digital publishers, we have the choice to feed the online beast with either nutrients or junk. I think a lot about what it means to be a good citizen of the internet, and sometimes it means leaving page views on the table. It’s not just deception, hyperbole, or faux outrage, but also judgment, cliches, pretension and unjustified provocation. No, we don’t always practice what we preach. But we try to follow our north star.
When you’re seeking your site’s motivation, you must also be brutally honest, cutting pleasantries and bullshit in pursuit of the “why”: Do you want this website to make you rich? Do you want professional awards? How bad do you want to beat the your competition?
Here’s our dirty secret: Our staff works damn hard, but we don’t kill ourselves. We’re a start-up digital company, we’re in at 9 a.m. and almost always out the door by 5 p.m. We have an unlimited paid time off policy, go on hour-long lunches if need be, and take naps/meditation breaks during the workday if we so choose. None of us have aspirations to become internet famous. We don’t have quotas, and we don’t sweat it if we don’t meet our weekly metric goals.
What we do is write stories we’re proud to publish, crack jokes on Slack, cheer each other on, and adhere to the principles as laid out above, all in service of making people’s lives better through food.
There’s a fantastic book called It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work from Basecamp’s Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and there’s a line that really resonated:
The business world is obsessed with fighting and winning and dominating and destroying… We come in peace. We don’t have imperial ambitions. We aren’t trying to dominate an industry or a market. We wish everyone well. To get ours, we don’t need to take theirs.
- First and foremost, find your motivation and articulate it in one sentence.
- Ask yourself: “What can we do that others aren’t already doing?” — which is to say, don’t be an inferior version of someone else’s original idea.
- Make things that lights up the reader’s brain.
- Strive to surprise, allow the humor to emerge organically, and write authentically in a way that keeps you entertained.
- Write stories that are helpful to readers, in ways that can improve their lives.
- Satiate their curiosity.
- Assume your reader is smarter than you.
- Find opportunities to create “aha!” moments.
- Use nostalgia to evoke pleasant memories.
- Create things that bring a sense of awe.
- Scratch the itch in your audience’s brain and you’ll get them to care — and you’re well on your way to instilling loyalty.
- The headline is your elevator pitch. Spend as much time as possible to finesse it to perfection; a one-word tweak can be the difference between 10,000 and 1 million page views.
- Reject anything that sounds too internety because it leaves a bad taste with readers.
- Think of recurring features that are short, quirky, and easily scalable.
- Find ways to turn passive readers into loyal fans. Try the relationship with your audience as a dialogue. Let them know you’re grateful (and actually mean it).
- Think about who you’d want your audience to be, then serve them with pride, dignity and good intentions.
- Working long hours isn’t a badge of honor. It means you’re not using your workday hours smart enough.
- Be a good citizen of the internet. Leave the internet better than how you found it.
A note of thanks
The Takeout would not be possible without my trusted team: Kate Bernot, Gwen Ihnat and Allison Shoemaker. A special shoutout to former staffer Jen Sabella who helped birth the site. Our site would not exist if not for Mike McAvoy and Kurt Mueller of Onion Inc., Josh Modell who hired me, and all my colleagues at The A.V. Club, The Onion and Clickhole — this is the best job I’ve ever had, and you all are the reason why.
Kevin Pang was editor-in-chief and founder of The Takeout, the food and culture site from Onion Inc. (The Onion, The A.V. Club, Clickhole). He is a five-time nominee for the James Beard Foundation Award in journalism and a winner in 2010. He has contributed to The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Saveur, Lucky Peach, was a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, and co-directed the documentary For Grace, which just completed a 4-year run on Netflix.
He is currently Creative Director of the Chicago marketing firm M. Harris & Co. and is pursuing his MBA at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He can be reached on Twitter @pang or at kevinpang.com.