Written by Patty Rasmussen Tuesday, August 21 2012
Snapshot: Esmee Williams, Vice President, Brand Marketing, Allrecipes.com
Anyone who’s ever looked at the clock and wondered, “What am I going to fix for dinner?” is a member of the Allrecipes.com target audience. And 2 million people a day turn to Allrecipes to help answer that and other food preparation questions.
As vice president of brand marketing for the Seattle, Wash.-based website, Esmee Williams is tasked with building the Allrecipes brand to the outside world. She recently led a nifty marketing campaign called “Fix Dinner” to encourage commuters in a Los Angeles transit station to engage with Allrecipes using their mobile device. Williams and her team gather vast amounts of data and research to create innovative ways to engage the audience and meet the needs of their advertising sponsors, and they’re pretty successful. Allrecipes just celebrated its 15th anniversary, and the site boasts over 7 million registered members, with 17 sites serving 22 countries in 11 languages.
Williams had a solid career in brand marketing and communications having worked at Nestle, McCann-Erickson and Vivendi Entertainment before joining Allrecipes in 1999. Away from the office, Williams enjoys being outdoors with her family at their home in Washington state.
Womenetics: Who is your target audience, the working or non-working mom having to figure out what’s for dinner?
Esmee Williams: Yeah. It’s so funny. We looked at where people were coming from before they came to our site, and we discovered that a lot were coming from Facebook. They weren’t visiting other food site content. It’s more like they were checking on their social graph, looked out the window, saw the yellow school bus and thought, “Oops, guess I better figure out something for dinner.” We design products for families, but we consider families to be any instance where two or more people are sharing a meal together.
Womenetics: What does your job Allrecipes entail?
Williams: My [brand marketing] team is focused on creating awareness for the brand, getting people to evangelize and advocate for Allrecipes and creating a deeper and emotional connection [to the site] on a global scale. We have 17 sites serving 22 countries in 11 languages. My team manages everything about brand identity. We really break it down into three separate segments. At the top of the pyramid we’re reaching out to influencers – primarily communicating and building relationships with people who have influence, who have an audience. In the middle tier are advocates. Those are folks who are advocating on our behalf. We have a direct relationship with them. We have consumer advocates. We’re nearing 8 million members on the site; we have a really active and engaged audience. But there are certain individuals who rise above the rest in terms of their passion for the brand and their willingness to contribute content. They’re our “Consumer All-Stars.”
Another branch of advocates is our advertisers. The majority of our revenue is coming from advertising sponsorships from major brands that want to connect with family decision-makers. Employees fall into advocates category as well.
At the bottom of the pyramid are our enthusiasts – they’re the greatest number of people. We tend to not have a direct relationship with them but connect with them through social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Allrecipes, StumbleUpon, Blogger. Any time the Allrecipes brand is appearing in any place that isn’t the website, my team gets involved.
Womenetics: How did you identify your Consumer All-Stars?
Williams: We looked at their behaviors on the site. We have a broad number of people who contribute to the site, but we looked for people who contributed a disproportionate amount, had the greatest range of involvement – not only contributing ratings and reviews, but uploading photos or having a blog. We also wanted to pay attention to their voice – those people who had the right voice for the brand. It didn’t mean they had to like everything they interacted with, but we wanted the content they contributed to be valuable. A review that says “Looks good” or “I’m going to try this,” isn’t as helpful as one that says, “Wow, this is really great. I live in Denver where the altitude is higher, so I adjusted the cook time by 15 minutes.”
Womenetics: What practical ways do you attempt to create an emotional connection between your website and your audience?
Williams: At the base of it, Allrecipes is a product that people connect with through technology, which tends to be pretty impersonal. We don’t have a storefront where we can engage individually. What we try to do is recognize and reward those individuals who are responsible for the success of our brand; that’s our community. Whereas a lot of other communities look to celebrities or experts to connect with our audience, that’s not our approach at all. We want to give credit where credit is due, and it’s our community that does that.
My team builds campaigns. For example, we have one right now that’s called #RecipeForHappiness. It’s about celebrating those things in our community’s lives that are important to them. The reason for their visit is food – maybe they’re looking for a brownie recipe – but the ultimate goal is to make a gathering more special or a birthday party unique or bring something to a potluck dinner. It’s all those other things in their lives that we want to help celebrate. We provide ways where we can connect with them, but more importantly they can connect with each other.
Womenetics: You’re celebrating your website’s fifteenth anniversary. What’s new to keep the site fresh?
Williams: We’re always looking to improve the consumer experience; [the website] has to improve because technology is moving so quickly. We tend to think of Allrecipes as high tech/low tech. We want to make it as easy as opening up the pages of a cookbook or a magazine to the end-user. The site is a lot different today than when I first joined the company. Back then, the primary way to engage was by submitting recipes. It wasn’t until 2000 that we introduced ratings and reviews, the recipe box, and in 2005 we layered in photos and personal profiles. Three years ago we added in a supporting (paid) membership, which included an interactive menu planner and personal blogs. We’re really lucky because we have nearly 2 million people coming to the site every day and have a strong fan base. We pay attention to the trends on the site, but we also run a lot of surveys. We are truly a community-driven brand; we never have to guess in terms of what we think would be of interest to our audience. We can go out and ask them.
A couple of big examples of recent innovation are mobile. A year ago about eight percent of our audience was accessing the brand through a mobile device. Now, 12 months later, it’s one out of every four visits. We expect one year from now that half of all visits will be from mobile devices. Our apps have been downloaded 14 million times. We introduced mobile versions for all 17 of our international sites. The other area of focus is video because processing times have gotten so much faster. We’re creating content for not just Allrecipes.com and our mobile sites but also places like YouTube where people are looking for how-to solutions. Behind the scenes we have a really talented development team that develops these features. It takes a lot of innovation to bring them to life in a way that’s easy, seamless and intuitive.
Womenetics: What was the motivation behind the “Fix Dinner” campaign/initiative and what did Allrecipes derive from it?
Williams: We know from the comments of our community and research that often the hardest part of making dinner is trying to figure out what to make. We know that mobile apps equip cooks with everything they need, no matter the place, time, motivation or need. We wanted to see what we could do to provide ideas on the commute home. Since many people funnel through transit stations, we thought it would be the ideal place to access the recipe. Our test market was Los Angeles. We looked at the most viewed, highest-rated recipes in LA and featured them in the campaign. Then we attached the content to QR codes (quick response matrix bar code), so people could just scan them into their phones. We found that the dishes we promoted increased the page views by 33 percent during the campaign; we know it worked. The QR codes weren’t necessarily the way people engaged with the campaign, but we know the campaign drove the site views and got the juices flowing. We’re already looking at expanding the campaign to other markets in the fall.
Womenetics: What’s the biggest challenge in your job?
Williams: The challenge is to make it not seem like technology. This space is complex and moving face and can be daunting. Our website is just one of so many things ‘brand’ folks have on their plates, so we try and help more easily understand our site and the space it inhabits to give them solutions and confidence that their goals will succeed.
Womenetics: Is it fun to work around the food world?
Williams: This job is a passion for the employees that work for Allrecipes and one of the reasons is because food is so fun. Everybody has to eat; everybody has a story. Food is a way to find similarities and differences. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to figure out what we’re trying to help our community to do. For us to be part of helping them be more successful is really rewarding.
In early August we had our Consumer All-Stars here in celebration of our 15th anniversary; we flew them in. It was amazing to see the friendships they formed with each other as well as how they use the site. We’re moving so quickly sometimes we don’t take the time to stop and see what we’ve achieved. To have those individuals here, joining us for our celebration, gave us the opportunity to see the difference our products are making. And we do have a kitchen here in our offices in downtown Seattle. The elevator opens into a huge kitchen and seating area. That’s where we gather. People eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there, sharing stories, connecting. You’d be amazed. We all look over each other’s Tupperware.
Womenetics: Away from work you have a busy, active family with children. Do you sometimes find yourself in the same boat as your target audience, wondering what’s for dinner?
Williams: Our president Lisa [Sharples] always says I embody the brand. I have two kids and cook at home a lot, but it’s not something I have a lot of time to do. I grew up in a household where my mom was French, and I didn’t realize that every family didn’t sit down to dinner together or talk about food all the time. I also had a pretty adventurous palate, but once the kids came along that screeched to a halt. Now I had to cook meals to please four different palates, and I had to do it quickly. I am pretty lucky that I come to work and solve my own problems! If I ever get home and don’t know what’s for dinner I think, “Do I really have an excuse?”
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Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD and Blue Ridge Country.