Recap: 2 years at America’s Test Kitchen

This is a really bittersweet blog post for me because I’m leaving America’s Test Kitchen and moving on. It really was a dream job, where I got to write, talk and think about food all day long. I got to create an entire department and work with incredible colleagues. I met and made friends with inspiring food bloggers all across North America.

I really regretted not writing a blog post about the work I did at the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye when I left, so I’m determined not to make that mistake again. Here are 7 things I got to do at the Test Kitchen:

1. Launch the social media feeds

Even though the television show has 2 million viewers every week, and the magazine has 1 million subscribers, America’s Test Kitchen did not have a social media presence when I was hired. And when the Test Kitchen finally got onto Facebook and Twitter, the response was overwhelming. Twitter became our hub for networking with bloggers and other media, while the Test Kitchen Facebook (including Cook’s Illustrated) was the spot for sharing recipes, customer service, and the much loved Facebook Fan Photo of the Week.

I also launched the YouTube channel, initially populating it with clips from the TV shows and behind-the-scenes videos. Then, we took a page out of the Old Spice marketing handbook and asked Test Cooks to answer simple cooking questions from Twitter on video that we posted to YouTube. Eventually, Christine Liu and Mari Levine from web editorial started creating some amazing “Super Quick Video Tips” which quickly started getting regular features on Lifehacker and other websites. In 2 years, the YouTube channel went from 0 to 1.7 million video views.

While it was relatively easy for our brand to find a community on Twitter and Facebook, I had to work a lot harder to get the community to engage on Tumblr. It was a younger audience that didn’t know our brand, but I knew would love our content. With Tumblr posts, I had to consistently pitch our content and rely on the strength of our editorial to get any reach at all. After 8 months of posting without getting any feedback at all, we suddenly snagged a few features on the #Food featured tag, and quickly picked up thousands of followers and started getting hundreds of reblogs and notes regularly.

2. Stay ahead of the curve

While I don’t think it’s smart to spend time on a new social media network simply because it’s new, there are a few communities that we’ve invested in that I think I have paid off. Pinterest’s audience (many moms and cooks) was a perfect fit for ours, so we were ahead of the curve by including Pinterest buttons on our pages and starting Pinterest scavenger hunts. Today, the community sends more referrals through Pinterest than almost any other social network (except maybe Facebook, on certain weeks).

In terms of social media, Christopher Kimball always encouraged us to establish the Test Kitchen as a real place in readers’ minds. Instagram was the perfect place to capture taste tests and special moments in the Test Kitchen and share that live with our audience. Using Ifttt, I syndicated these photographs across Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

And finally, within the last few months, I made a concerted push for our Google+ page. Like Tumblr, I see an investment in the future, particularly in establishing some good SEO karma with the search gods. And like Pinterest, I see an audience that fits our niche (science and geeks), and write my Google+ specifically for them. But most importantly, I really believe the Test Kitchen should be doubling down on internet video and working toward an online TV show in the next 5 years. Google+ hangouts, or live streaming on YouTube, should be the first step. I experimented a bit with UStream at the Test Kitchen, and last big initiative I worked on was hosting our very first Google+ hangout with some really amazing bloggers. I was so thrilled to get this under our belt.

3. Create The Feed

Back in 2010, with all of America’s Test Kitchen’s online content behind a paywall, there was no way to get to know the brand online. If you didn’t watch PBS, or read Cook’s Illustrated, it was very likely that you didn’t know what the brand was about.

The Feed was the brainchild of my boss, Barry Kelly, and I got to lead the project. The entire purpose of The Feed: to introduce the online audience to America’s Test Kitchen. For weeks we hashed out what the editorial should be, worked with the guys at Upstatement to design and develop the site, and took way too long to decide on a site name and URL. The initial building stages were probably one of the most fun and rewarding periods of my time at the Test Kitchen. We spent a lot of time focusing on streamlining editorial tools to make updating content easy — and WordPress was a welcome reprieve to the editorial team after they had struggled with a clunky CMS for years. The best decision we made in the whole project was to bring on the extremely talented Christine Liu to the team, who brought The Feed a lot of success with her witty editorial and attention to detail.

Within months of launch, The Feed received hundreds of thousands of page views and quickly established its place in the online food community, getting regular links from sites like Lifehacker, Food52 and The Kitchn. One of our biggest successes, How To Make Cold-Brew Coffee, received 2,900 Facebook likes and even a nod from Wikipedia.

The Feed finally got the Test Kitchen into the daily news cycle, and gave the company an online presence. And after successive hits with Homemade Nutella, Homemade Bacon Jam and Homemade Sriracha, the DIY book was born. It’s the first Test Kitchen publication that was “reverse published,” or born from our websites.

There are a few things I personally love about the site: it features behind-the-scenes photographs of the Test Kitchen with hilariously punny headlines from Steve Klise; Test Cooks get to show some personality with the entirely original DIY blog; and the community section of the site rewards community members who engage with the Test Kitchen on social networks regularly (i.e. Twitter Fan Photo of the Week, Blogger Spotlight).

4. Hack together infographics

I was very lucky to work at RedEye in my first job out of college, where I was surrounded by smart designers and editors who taught me the importance of eye-catching presentation. Within few months of working at the Test Kitchen, I knew that I wanted us to make some sweet infographics. My reasoning: We were Cook’s Illustrated!

Fortunately, Elaina Natario, a kick-butt designer who had interned with me at the Boston Globe, was also working at the Test Kitchen. She and I first experimented with creating infographics for, a magazine that I created. When that one infographic on Denizen got 10 times the amount of views a typical article gets, we knew that it was something we wanted to do at the Test Kitchen.

With lots of help from our friends in the design and web editorial departments, we put together an infographics taskforce. Because infographics weren’t a part of anyone’s job description, everyone put in what extra time they had to it. And what these talented folks assembled was incredible.

Elaina’s first infographic for the Test Kitchen was immediately linked to by LifeHacker. Then, combining the editing prowess of Mari, Christine and Doc and the design skills of Jay Layman, the infographics team cranked out Cakes Throughout U.S. History. It was linked to by The Huffington Post and even tweeted by Pee Wee Herman!

My personal favorite was the 12-Step Path to Recipe Perfection, written by Mari and Christine, assembled by Elaina and Erica Lee, with incredible illustrations by Lauren Pettapiece. It was the first time the Cook’s Illustrated recipe development process had been documented anywhere — and it was the most engaging, gorgeous documentation I’d ever seen. I constantly used it on our social media feeds to introduce our brand to new audiences.

5. Meet Inspiring Bloggers

Here’s what I love about working with food bloggers: they are all self-made. You can’t be “born” into a great food blog, it has to come with consistent hard work. I’m not talking about the publication food blogs, I’m talking your regular, mom and pop, played in small clubs in Brooklyn, “I made it myself” type of food blog. Food blogging is thankless, and when you start out, you just need to do it every day, every week, until people start reading you. And the ones that are successful are powered by creative people who have a unique voice or perspective to share with the world.

At the Test Kitchen, I was paid to meet and talk to all of these amazing bloggers. My blogger outreach programs started with me cold-emailing bloggers to attempt a book campaign, and transformed into me giving Test Kitchen tours to every blogger that came by (including!), traveling to San Francisco (photo) and Seattle to meet with bloggers in person and assembling huge campaigns like blogger scholarships or dinner parties. (You can read a full recap here).

When I started working at the Test Kitchen, I knew that food bloggers were going to be an important part of our marketing strategy, but I had no idea that it would also create some of the most inspiring relationships. Every morning, I skim a hundred or so food blogs with my Google Reader, pausing to read some of my favorite ones (there are so many). At the beginning, it just seemed like skimming websites. But now, it feels like catching up with old friends.

6. Establish an Internship Program

Of all the things I worked on at the Test Kitchen, the one I am the most proud of, and the most humbled by, is our Social Media Internship program. It was built upon the lessons I learned at RedEye: how to put together a brand ambassador program, and establishing an internship program that encourages creativity and independence.

Here’s how the program is structured: there are daily tasks (like answering tweets and Facebook posts), weekly tasks (like writing blog posts), and a 10-week long intern project. The intern project is something the person “owns” from start to finish. Depending on what the intern is interested in, we figure out the idea and structure together. Then the intern executes the project on their own (mistakes and successes alike), and I do a final review before we publish.

I would not have loved my job as much if not for the interns. They motivated me with their energy, enthusiasm, positivity and creative ideas. I was always super stoked to see their intern projects turn out successfully. And we had a lot of successes: Dish It Your Way, a food blogging challenge; Food and Friends, a national dinner party extravaganza; Fresh Food Challenge, a reason to visit your local farmers’ market; Confessions of a Cooking School Student, a culinary blogging journey; Diary of a Recipe, the story of a Cook’s Illustrated recipe; The Pinterest Project, a massively addictive scavenger hunt; Blast from the Past, a reblog contest; Cooking Through The Decades, a historical cooking challenge; Secrets of the Test Kitchen, a wildly popular glimpse behind-the-scenes, and Ask the Test Kitchen, where we answered Twitter questions via YouTube video. I can’t believe the amount of amazing stuff they accomplished. We were very, very fortunate to have amazing interns who were all team players. (You can read more about the program here).

7. Love My Job

More than anything else, I had so much FUN at my job. I got to hang out with really great people every day and create engaging projects (while taking breaks to play Office Olympics). I know it’s rare to get this much creativity and independence in a position, and I so appreciated it. And, I learned a lot. As someone who has never worked in the book industry, I learned a ton from Sales Director Emily Logan and Executive Editor of Books Lori Galvin, who were both kind enough to let me tag along while they shared their insights. And I can’t even begin to cover all the food knowledge the test cooks shared with me over the two years.

I’m going to close with one of the most fun projects I got to put together while at the Test Kitchen: the Learn To Cook social media campaign. Together with Amy Scheuerman, we assembled a Tumblr contest where the winner got to fly to Boston and cook with television’s Bridget Lancaster for a day. I mean, how awesome is that?! Take a look at the video (a big thank you to the talented Nick Dakoulas for putting this together, and Ian Stanley for coming to Boston!).

Well, that’s it for the recap. It’s like a diary entry that waited 2 years to be written. If you like what you read, apply for my job — otherwise, this will be my replacement. My last day is Thursday, and then next week I’m off to join the VIP Team at WordPress, where I get to learn from some really smart people and work from anywhere in the world. Hooray for new adventures!

Photo at the top: Me posting to the “Wall of Awesome,” in the Test Kitchen, which we updated every week with Twitter and Facebook fan-submitted photos of Test Kitchen-inspired meals.