Not all publications are on a financial deathwatch.
Cook’s Illustrated takes no ads and charges for access to its recipes online. According to “Let’s Invent an iTunes for News,” the publication has 900,000 print subscribers (and 100,000 newsstand buyers) and is thriving online with 260,000 digital subscribers at a cost of $35 a year, a group that grew by 30 percent in 2008.
Many companies would think this way: “We can’t charge for online recipes, they’re available for free all over the web!” So how does CI manage to swing it? By being the Consumer Reports of food. It offers blind comparison tests of kitchen products and recipes that are extremely thorough, each one made dozens of times to get every detail right.
The magazine hypes its perfectionism on its “Why Cook’s Illustrated is different than other cooking magazines” page: “There’s no more authoritative food magazine. When Cook’s Illustrated endorses a cheesecake, it’s because its editors made 45 of them.” Accessing the recipes online is valuable enough that half of the site’s subscribers are people who also subscribe to the print publication.
CI also succeeds because it focuses on what it’s good at and stays away from the food fashion covered at other publications. Jack Bishop, executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated, says:
Our magazine is timeless in many respects. We are not covering the latest greatest trends, we don’t do travel, we don’t have features on the hippest chefs in Los Angeles. It’s about the techniques, equipment and ingredients that go into good home cooking, and that doesn’t change much month to month or even year to year.
In fact, the company even makes an enemy out of more fashionable cooking magazines. Founder and Editor Christopher Kimball writes:
Unlike some glossy cooking magazines, our magazine is staffed with cooks and editors not food stylists.
The company has also done a good job of exploiting all potential revenue streams by using its content on multiple platforms: cookbooks, TV show, magazine, Web site. And the web site has trumped other food sites by using illustrations and videos. Shea Rosen, food technologist at G.L. Mezzetta, on why that’s helpful:
Video and illustrations are a great way to show people how to do certain things. Other sites might tell you how to bone a chicken, but pictures and illustrations and video are much better. If you wanted to know how to dice vegetables properly, you’d want to see how the cook holds the knife.
Sample CI illustration.
Rosen also likes how CI dives deeper than the average food site:
The food science has copious amounts of information. Like if you’re whipping egg whites, why should you use cream of tartar? You might read that in a recipe — ‘use cream of tartar’ — but you might be curious why. They answer those kinds of questions for you. Or why is it good to rest a roast after cooking it and before you serve it? It’s interesting to know that.
So if you’re thinking you can’t charge for your product, think about CI’s path to success. Maybe you can be more thorough than competitors. Maybe you can offer something timeless instead of fashionable. Maybe you can repurpose your ideas so they work in different media. Maybe you can innovate by using video (or some other technology). Maybe you can go deeper than others in your field. If you do that, maybe there’s a way you can charge for something others are giving away for free.
Have an Enemy [Getting Real]
There’s more than one way to skin the revenue cat [SvN]
[Fly on the Wall] Xerox logo, long receipts, Argentina, and Cook’s Illustrated [SvN]
David Andersenon 12 Jan 09
Good post. There are many niche publications that thrive because they are focused and treat their subject with expertise and depth (and even handedness). In short, they provide real value. Fine Homebuilding is one of my favorite examples.
timon 12 Jan 09
I think this is a great example of how a business strategy can succeed precisely because of an explosion of free content on the Web.
There are so many recipes out there with very little to distinguish them (recipe ratings are almost useless, since everyone seems to substitute ingredients regularly), it’s created an opportunity for authority and quality to really stand out.
Making good-tasting food really does matter, moreso than someone might initially think.
JFon 12 Jan 09
Great post Matt. One of the best examples of a business sticking to a solid model no matter the fashion of the day.
Justinon 12 Jan 09
I love Cooks Illustrated. The science-based explanations appeal to my geeky side like no other cooking publican does. Sometimes their recipes are a little TOO precise, but I’d rather have that than not.
I think their website could use a little love (how about comments, ratings, notes to self, etc..?), but on balance, it’s worth it.
Paulon 12 Jan 09
As was mentioned their companion TV shows, America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country*, are also information-packed. They’ve added more of the science angle in recent years, and I appreciate the fact that their show is real versus roughly 98% of things on Food Network. Good quality content, little flash if any.= They’ve got their own magazine, too; just as good as Cook’s Illustrated and published by the same folks.
Joshon 12 Jan 09
There are some people who subscribe to the online version because they have made a mess of their print version of it. That, at least, is my wife’s excuse.
Joel Sutherlandon 12 Jan 09
In a world where everything is seemly free, Quality is a great differentiator.
As a consumer, sometimes I am willing to spend extra time to wade through the many free alternatives. Other times I am perfectly willing to spend money on a product I know is good.
Michaelon 12 Jan 09
That’s a good magazine. My mom gets upset with my dad if he doesn’t follow their precise instructions. “It says 100 coals!”
Martin Edicon 12 Jan 09
Julia Child worked like this. When she was writing the roast chicken chapter in Mastering The Art of French Cooking she roasted chickens for months trying every possible method and adapting those that worked to the American kitchen (at a time when garlic was considered exotic!). The America’s Test Kitchen (CI show) recipe for baked ziti is a perfect example, using a completely strange technique (adding cups of water to sauce and parboiling the ziti in the sauce) and it is fantastic. Only open-ended experimentation would arrive at that solution.
Josh Con 12 Jan 09
I love Cook’s illustrated!! They speak to the very engineer in me, as dishes are tested and adjusted. Also, because they talk about the process (i.e. add eggs to give more custard texture), you can easily hack their recipes to make it more to your liking (i.e. use half an egg to have less custard feel). There simply is no batter place to find a recipe that works and teaches in a very practical manner.
The only thing I warn folks about is their website/customer service experience. They are one to two generations behind typical sites. At times the site will just freeze up and will take forever to load. Also, aspects like account management is via a different system and it takes as much as 2-3 days for things like address changes and charges to hit online system. Strange in a world where most online changes are immediate.
Rayon 12 Jan 09
My best burger recipe comes from Cook’s Illustrated.
Joshwaon 12 Jan 09
Just because a food magazine has food stylists doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also have cooks and food editors who test every recipe just as rigorously as Cook’s Illustrated does.
Cook’s Illustrated isn’t objectively better, it just has a different editorial focus (American basics and food science) than other mags (e.g. Food & Wine does chefs and trends, Gourmet does food as fashion and politics, Saveur as the National Geographic of food, Martha as, well, Martha).
Edenon 12 Jan 09
Very interesting that you highlighted CI and CR. I subscribe to the print and online versions of both. I didn’t hesitate to pay for the online content either. They both provide a high quality product at a very reasonable price.
As far as trying to sell a product, I think you clearly need to offer high quality, but you’re also going to need to add a unique factor like the above two publications. Like the author said, you can get recipes anywhere, but you can’t get the ‘best recipe’ (based on hundreds of tests and with video of how to make it) anywhere else.
Hasan Luongoon 12 Jan 09
very nice example from NYTimes. my wife is a private chef in the bay area and a total perfectionist. she gets a few different food magazines but only really uses CI in her active day to day cooking. The magazine does stunningly detailed reviews and examples, and their picks for products are usually spot on.
As you guys mentioned, its the quality and principles behind the content. Whats so tough about the news business is that as they make cuts quality declines and then more customers leave. Additionally many news sources want to be fluff and trend focused and then are surprised when the fluff blogs eat their lunch. many great analogies to take away, thanks for a great out of the tech box example.
Taruson 12 Jan 09
I was a Cooks subscriber for almost ten years, but their customer support sucks. Give up trying to reach a human if you have a problem, and this was even after their site was hacked and a lot of credit card information was stolen. Finally, it appears they outsource the sale of complementary products such as books to a very aggressive telemarketing firm who ended up calling me at home at odd hours even after I requested to be removed from their list.
So a great content model still can’t make up for customer service. If you forget there are people involved the people will forget about you.
Jakeon 12 Jan 09
Simply the best recipes, I have never had any of the following fail after using Cooks Illustrated: Hummus, Chicken Tikka Masala, French Onion Soup, Waffles, French Sauced Chicken, Turkey Gravy, Roasted Turkey breast, the list goes on and on and on.
Alexon 12 Jan 09
The dark side of Cook’s is their propensity to send you cookbooks you didn’t ask for and to make well-nigh impossible to unsubscribe from their website. I love the content of Cook’s, but (as a consumer) have some serious issues with how they run their business. YMMV.
Benjyon 12 Jan 09
I really enjoy CI’s show on PBS… sounds a lot like the magazine from the description here in that it’s about tested and re-tested recipes and techniques, informative blind product comparisons, etc. It’s about the food and the tools… not the personalities—like many of the Food Network shows have become. In fact, I tend to enjoy many of the PBS cooking shows more than the Food Network ones for that reason these days….
DJRon 12 Jan 09
CI’s recipes, product reviews, etc are great. But I gave up my subscription to the magazine because – despite calling the company and writing to them – I could not stop endless marketing calls trying to sell me their cookbooks, etc. I dropped my subscription to their website after user credit card details were hacked. Now I sometimes buy the magazine at a newsstand or copy a recipe from it at the library.
Christineon 12 Jan 09
As one of the half of their subscribers who pays for online access as well as a subscription to the mag, they’re one of the only publications I know of where there is real value to having both. As a personal chef, I cook every day and draw from many recipes sources in addition to my own – magazines, free web sites etc. Having online access to recipes and techniques is essential for quick searching, and CI’s thoroughness, impartiality and focus on just cooking makes it worth the money. I don’t actually use that many of their recipes, but the technique illustrations and explanations are a great help in developing my own recipes. What I love most are the impartial reviews of products, tools etc. When you’re in a grocery store that’s out of your regular brand of, say, chicken stock, it’s great to know that CI tested 10 brands and recommended one above the others, so I can make an informed choice for my clients. That’s why I get the mag; so I can read it cover to cover and tuck those nuggets away for future reference. Knowing I can look it up on the web later also makes me feel less guilty about recycling the mag. I never thought about applying their model to my own business, but it’s very interesting food for thought.
Deanon 12 Jan 09
Spot on about the customer service. It’s my only complaint about the magazine.
As for why it’s better than the other magazines. The others might make a recipe three or maybe even ten times (although I doubt it) CI goes the extra mile and makes it until it’s right.
Everything I’ve tried that looked good in the magazine has turned out fantastic. Every single thing.
Devonon 12 Jan 09
I’ve known a few people that have worked for that company in the past as interns or otherwise. From what I’m told, they stay afloat by not paying their employees very well at all and recycling content. They somehow get you to pay for the same content several times. Do you think the information on their website is any different from the magazines?
On a different note. All I needed in order to confirm what my friends had told me was to read the only quote from Christopher Kimball. I’ve heard that he’s very arrogant and dismissive. It’s too bad.
I’ll stick with the free foodnetwork.com . $35 is way too much for such a terrible website.
joshwaon 12 Jan 09
Welcome to editorial. Content reuse is the name of the game, since producing content is expensive—ever think of how many dozens of eggs they go through to test the 28 different variations of the custard?
zephyron 13 Jan 09
I wonder if magazines that start-off online could pull this off, or if it requires a well-established offline brand…
Noelon 13 Jan 09
What I want to know is why someone who works as a chef for a living found out about the Signal vs Noise Blog!
christineon 13 Jan 09
I too have heard the employees are mostly paid low salaries…it’s a bit along the lines of “you should feel lucky enough to get a job here in the first place.” But frankly, lots of would-be chefs I know feel exactly that way! It’s tough competition to get even the lowliest kitchen asst job there…but those who do tend to stay a long time. Badge of honor, I guess.
And yes, content reuse is the name of the game – produce it once, and sell it many, many times, in different ways. I wish I could do the same.
What I want to know is why someone who works as a chef for a living found out about the Signal vs Noise Blog!
Oh, the 37 signals movement reaches far and wide! That, plus I’m married to a software guy who emails me this stuff ;-)
Brianon 13 Jan 09
Cook’s is notorious for all sorts of shady practices. The feelings of all the actual cooks I know (accomplished professionals, educated chefs, advanced home cooks, etc) are summed up by my wife: “I guess if you’re the sort of person that wants anal retentive, laborious recipes, you’re probably the person that would pay for it.”
Raminon 13 Jan 09
I was a long-time subscriber and still use their cookbook. One of my favorite features is where they explain how the alternative routes they took on a recipe ended up.
The thing that has turned me off a bit is that when it comes to recommending brand-name kitchen equipment and foodstuff, it’s not at all clear if there is any sort of ‘sponsorship’ involved.
My guess is there isn’t, but the magazine isn’t very clear about this. They claim they take no ads, but there are lots of other sorts of ‘arrangements’ brands make with publishers and websites that do not necessarily qualify as outright ‘ads.’
I’ve written them a couple of times and asked if they could clarify their arrangements (if any) but haven’t heard anything. I ended up (sadly) letting my subscription lapse because of that lack of transparency. It nagged at me every time I looked at their product or food recommendations. Hopefully, they’ll put up a big fat statement right up-front in their print, web, and video releases, openly explaining their product selection process and relationships with brands.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t care if they do have a relationship. It’s just that I’d rather know about it upfront if I’m asked to trust their product recommendations.
Kellyon 13 Jan 09
While I don’t agree with Brian that only certain types of people will pay for Test Kitchen content, I do think they lose a bit of their appeal with some overly laborious recipes.
That said, most of their stuff is really good. In many cases they have recipes where they try to extract great flavor from a dish in much less time than the traditional recipe. I’ve certainly had better luck with their recipes than any of the other popular cooking magazines
Steve Baueron 14 Jan 09
Awesome post, man! This alone has enough organic material in it to serve as the only required text in a college-level class on entrepreneurship and marketing.
How to differentiate, how to add value, how to develop outstanding relationships with your customers, and so on.
Academic and conceptual thinking tends to suck life out of life.
Consider this example…
A jolly little old lady owns a cute little inn in the countryside. She cooks all the food served at breakfast herself. One of the items served is her secret home-made raspberry jam. When you eat it, you know there’s only one of its kind in the world. And because she’s so nice, she gives you a jar to take home when you check out so you can have some more.
So this consultant-professor-whatever happens to stop by during his trip across the country.
Needless to say, he’s impressed by the service he gets at the inn. But what really blows his mind is the free jar he gets as he’s leaving.
So he thinks… “Hmmmmm, this is a loyalty program… More businesses should do it.”
The rest is history.
The problem here is the fallacy in his thinking.
Her giving away a jam jar has nothing to do with a profit-minded loyalty program and everything to do with being genuinely nice.
Loyalty program: sterile, cold, fake, BS
Little lady inn: organic, rich, genuine
We can feel that stuff in our bones.
Bob Smithon 15 Jan 09
Why get both magazine and website? Isn’t the website a copy of the magazine? Also, does the website sub get both Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country?
Cormacon 15 Jan 09
@Steve Bauer You are right, of course! Why does it even need to be said? Because you’re not right, even though I wish you were … people lap up corporate bullshit every day of the week
This discussion is closed.