10 Questions with Alaina Browne of SeriousEats.com

seriouseats-logo-whitebg.jpgA couple years back, I had the pleasure of working on a project with Alaina Browne when she was with Mule Design. It was a lot of fun, so you can imagine how pleased I was to find out that she was married to my internet friend, Anil Dash. It’s a small damn world in this industry!

Alaina is now the General Manager of SeriousEats.com, a very cool site dedicated to….well, read on for the details!


1. Who are you and what is Serious Eats?
I’m Alaina Browne, General Manager of Serious Eats. Serious Eats is a website focused on celebrating and sharing food enthusiasm through blogs and online community. Our mantra is “passionate, discerning, inclusive”.

2. The site has blended traditional content with blog style and format. Why not create a more “traditional” cooking site?
I think the simplest answer is because we’re a bunch a people who love to eat, so we’ve created a site that’s about that — eating and our food enthusiasm. What we’re doing is surprisingly unique. There are plenty of recipe/cooking sites (Epicurious.com, RecipeZaar.com), and dining sites (Yelp.com, Eater.com), but few that break out beyond those niches the way we do to cover everything that’s delicious, important, and fun in food.

3. The front page doesn’t display full articles for every post – several are shown just as titles and links to comment. How does this editorial process work?
We call these short posts “quick bites” and they’re items we run across during the course of the day that we think are worth sharing with our readers, and don’t involve additional editorial comment from us. In terms of how something becomes a “quick bite”, we have a project in Basecamp where everyone on the editorial team posts, shares, and vets links. It’s not the ideal tool for the task, but it works!

4. When I look at the About Us page, I see that most, if not all of the staff are food bloggers in their own right. How does this passion affect the outcome of the Serious Eats site? (Both good and bad)
I think our combined passion is what drives our success. We’re doing what we love, and it shows. I think it also gives Serious Eats a very conversational (as opposed to hierarchical) feel that’s makes people want to stick around. The only negative is that some traditional print media in the space is reticent to give us coverage because they view us as competition, and executing and succeeding in the online space in a way that they’ve not been able to.

5. Your site is highly niche, something that tends to scare many people who think that advertising models only work within the context of “include everybody!” concepts. How would you address that concern?
I think it actually works to our advantage because the opportunities in our niche, the online food space, are tremendous. And even within the food category, there are niches within niches. We’ve partnered with Scripps Networks (Food Network’s parent company) to represent our advertising inventory. We bring them an audience that they don’t reach
through Foodnetwork.com, and we’re able to take advantage of the existing relationships they’ve developed with advertisers we want to connect with.

And it seems to work for other sites in this space — Allrecipes.com was acquired by Reader’s Digest for $66 million, and Scripps bought Recipezaar.com for ~$25 million.

6. You have a somewhat unique take on “conversation” from users of the site, implementing a user driven conversation through blog-like message posting rather than traditional message forums. Why the twist?

A couple reasons. Managing multiple back end platforms is a headache, and many forums are overbuilt with features — they’re built for geeks, by geeks. One of the hardest parts of starting a community is making it feel like a community, even if it is a small one. The architecture of traditional message forums makes for a space that is intimidatingly empty until it’s not. Our system of blog-like messaging gave it in a more intimate feel, allowed the the community and conversation to grow organically, just as it would in the real world at a cocktail or dinner party.

7. Tell us a bit about how your community moderation and management process works. In a niche community, do you see less need for content moderation?
Our biggest tool for community management and moderation is prohibiting anonymous commenting by requiring commenters to register. It’s a very low barrier to participation that stops most drive-by commenters — folks who just show up for a pile on. I think the tone of the site (keeping in mind “passionate, discerning, inclusive”) is more responsible for the need for very little moderation than the niche.

8. How how the use of an open source platform like Movable Type helped (and hindered) your site development?
Choosing Movable Type as our publishing platform was the primary reason we were able to meet our launch deadline. And as bloggers familiar with the platform, we were even further inclined toward MT. Post launch, it’s been easy for us to add new features and functionality thanks to MT’s plug-in architecture and the smart folks at Apperceptive. There’s a whole range of content management solutions out there and none of them are perfect — they all come with their own
headaches, it’s a matter of choosing which flavor of headache you can live with.

9. What do you not see Serious Eats users doing much that you’d love them to use more often? What feature(s) would you just love to implement, if not for those pesky technology/time/budget limits?
I’d love to see our members and readers use their profile pages more! They’re a great way to share a little bit more about yourself with others, and to check out someone else’s latest posts and comments.

10. Any parting words, or new upcoming features you’d like to share?
What’s upcoming is more and more people are joining the site and sharing their stories. That’s the most fun part of my job — watching as people find their way to our community and discover that Serious Eats is full of other folks just like them, and soon enough they’re a regular. It’s really satisfying to be a part of that process.

As far as new features? More deliciousness!