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Food Network and the Internet Part One: FoodNetwork.com
Wednesday, December 26, 2007 | posted by Mike

Welcome to part one of a three part series: Food Network and the Internet...a short and (hopefully) not too wonky look at how the Food Network's current and possible future online strategies. Today's part will focus on the Food Network's Website.

Running a Website isn't easy. I've been doing it professionally, semi-professionally and on a pro bono basis for ten years. That's probably about three lifetimes in Web-years. And I've learned that a Website, particularly one that represents a large company or presence, requires constant attention, nurturing and investment. Plus you have to balance the needs of the site with the needs of everyone else in the organization that wants to use it for his or her purposes. Plus you have to "keep up with the Joneses (i.e. the state of the art competitor sites)." Plus, every once in a while, you need to tear it down and build it back up. It's a strange and delicate combination of growing a temperamental plant while at the same time pruning its branches and harvesting its fruit -- but making sure that you don't prune or harvest too much.

In other words, here is my advice to you: Don't go into Web communication or marketing.

I kid (kinda), but it's helpful to keep in mind all of those competing interests when we talk about the state of the flagship Website of the Food Network.

The topic of FN.com (and for this series in general) came about from a couple of posts on some other sites a month or so back. One, from Adam over at Men in Aprons, took the Food Network to task for the cluttered state of the site's home page.

It's bulky and clumsy. It's packed so full of junk and ads that the site barely loads on my computer. You've tried to make it do so much with such a weak server, my tiny little eMac can barely stand to make the request. All I wanted to do was find a recipe from an episode of Everyday Italian, and you made me wait 5 minutes. That's 5 combined minutes from the time I requested your home pages, plus all the searching and page loading.

Look, my love, you need to trim it down. You have an incredibly popular cable channel with a companion web site. They need each other like I need you. But with all the gaudy graphics, databases, and ads, the side just loads too slowly. It seems that with all the ideas of what you COULD do, no one ever asked if you SHOULD do it.

Adam hits the nail right on the head. As a point of comparison, take a look at the FN site from one year ago, two years ago, three years ago and four years ago. In a nutshell, it's largely a series of variations on the same theme, but with a dramatic increase in the number of features, ads, content blocks and links to the online store. Adam's line (bolded by me) about COULD vs. SHOULD nicely illustrates how we got to where we are with the Food Network site.

You see, incremental and "on-the-fly" upgrades and additions to site may seem like a good idea at the time, but you end up with a bit of a Frankenstein's Monster of a site -- a patchwork of mismatched pieces with end up having a negative overall impact, mostly because they diminish the prominence of the most important content. In this case, it's the access to the Network's programs and personalities, which is what brought Adam to the site and which is likely the reason for a large number of visits.

I don't say this as a criticism of the way the site is run. This happens. It has happened to me on site's I've worked on. But the truth of the matter is that most often, the only truly effective way to counteract it is to go back to square one with a complete redesign. They can keep elements that work from the current site. If the features generate traffic, keep them. If the links to ads and the online store generate revenue, keep them. But what's missing from the site is the ability to identify the stars and programs that likely got the visitor there in the first place, and to quickly get to that content. Although FN.com may be aiming to be some sort of portal or destination for all things food, they would likely be better served by providing a better user experience -- getting visitors to the information they seek and then providing the harder sell.

Can we expect a comprehensive overhaul of the site? Well, if we look at the Network's sister sites, the answer is "possibly." HGTV's site has a similar look and feel. Fine Living also features a similar appearance, but does a significantly better job of limiting and organizing the information. DIY and Great American Country, however, sport a cleaner, more modern look. Whether or not the interactive group at Food Network rebuilds the site from the ground up, here's hoping that the next generation of the site goes in a more "minimalist" direction. We could go into the particulars of how we would tweak this part and move that content box, but that's besides the point. Besides, that's why the agencies get paid the big bucks!

So, that's the mother-ship. But a post by Jacob over at food network addict about a negative critique of the sub-site for Ace of Cakes illustrates another issue: the identity of individual shows within the overall site.

OK...the Ace of Cakes site's organiztion is pretty bad. How do you know it's bad? Upon arriving, you're greeted by a pop-up bubble that says: "Learn how to use this site by clicking this help button." No thanks! (That said, the AoC site is reasonably well-crafted and FAR from the most grievous abuse of Flash that I have seen...I challenge you to figure out how much a pound of whole bean coffee costs on La Colombe's site. Love your coffee, hate your site!)

But the important part of this story isn't that the Ace site is good or bad, but that it shows a willingness to build out a mini-site that reflects the identity of an individual program. For all of the talk of conformity and homogeneity at the Food Network lately, it's a smart strategy to provide an online space that pulls you into an online experience. If you look at the sub-sites of any of the broadcast network sites' tent-pole series (think Lost, Heroes, Gray's Anatomy), they're all fully-branded and provide content that enriches the viewing experience.

Food Network isn't just a television venture any more. It's now one of the key parts of Scripps Interactive. And if there is one thing that I've learned about the Web, it's that people don't mind giving something to get something. They'll click on your ads and buy from your store, but they're only going to keep coming back if your site provides them with the information, experience and feel they've come to expect from your network and shows. And only if it doesn't take them five minutes to track down that Everyday Italian recipe.

Come back tomorrow for part two of the series, which will look at the Food Network's approach to social networking and consumer-generated content. I really promise to try and make tomorrow's post a bit shorter!



Hi, I'm Mike and I created TVFoodFan.com as a place where you can come to get the latest news and views about what’s going on in the world of culinary television.

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