Wednesday, May 2, 2012

How to build a community: Food Bloggers Los Angeles

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Food Bloggers Los Angeles, May 2012 (photo: James Abke)

When I started this blog in 2008, it was just me and my keyboard. I enjoyed writing, got into the rhythm of blogging, but I was lonely. I only had a few readers and wasn't sure how to get more. I ran into technical roadblocks daily. I had lots of questions and no one to ask.

Then I went to my first food blogging conference and discovered that I was by no means alone. Though it had been invisible to me, the food blogging community already existed. The conference drew hundreds (!) of food bloggers, including a decent-sized group from greater Los Angeles - most of whom had never met each other in person before. Twitter friends are great, but I longed for food blogging friends in real life.

When Patti Londre (the voice behind Worth the Whisk and owner of Camp Blogaway) and I decided to start Food Bloggers Los Angeles - FBLA for short - neither of us was sure where it would go. But we both sensed that the food blogging journey we were on would be more interesting with friends along.

Patti and I networked like crazy, spread the word and arranged monthly meetings. The group grew from a handful to a dozen to a small army. We invaded each other's dining rooms for potlucks. We drew on each other's expertise for discussions on SEO, Google Analytics, how to work with PR people, traffic-building strategies. We threw in community service projects and the occasional food crawl. And some months we skipped meetings and had plain old parties instead. Because, as it turns out, we really enjoy each other's company.

Patti Londre of Worth the Whisk and Gisele Perez of Pain Perdu at Trufflepalooza 2011 (photo: James Gierman)

FBLA continues to grow. New members show up at each meeting. We are an open-door group; anyone is welcome, including PR people, local chefs and restaurant owners, and food companies. Blogger-friendly brands send samples and treats to our meetings, and we're grateful for those relationships. Best of all, we've made friends, good friends, who understand and appreciate the obsession we all share.

But here's the kicker: The amount of concrete progress each of us has made as bloggers because of FBLA is equally staggering. Collectively, the members of FBLA have:
  • Gained inbound links and drastically increased our organic search rankings as a result of photographing and writing about each other's potluck contributions.
  • Grown our traffic and audiences significantly because of the help and advice we've gotten at meetings.
  • Improved our photography, writing, editing and technical skills.
  • Appeared in newspapers, in magazines, on the radio and on TV. 
  • Gotten paying work as food writers, recipe developers, chefs, caterers, cooking instructors, video hosts, web developers and social media professionals.  
I know I'd be in a very different place were it not for the support, wisdom and generosity of FBLA. Thank you, friends. I look forward to sharing many more years of obsession with you.

Just do it

Bloggers: Are you thinking you might want to start a group like this in your area? You should, whether you blog about food, kids, cars, stocks or hamsters. Here are a few pieces of advice.

1. Don't wait for someone else to do it. Guess what - they probably won't. If having a community is important to you, take the reins. It's neither difficult nor extremely time-consuming. It just takes a little organization and the willingness to be bossy.

2. Make a schedule and stick to it. We do something every month. It took us a while to figure out what worked best for everyone given work schedules, family commitments and L.A. traffic. We mostly meet on Saturday or Sunday mornings, when the majority of members seem to be able to come.

3. Change up your location. This is particularly important for us given the sprawl of Los Angeles. We alternate neighborhoods because no one is truly centrally located.

4. Yes, your house/apartment is big enough. The point is being together. No one is expecting the Martha Stewart treatment. Get over it. If you don't own enough dishes or flatware and don't want to use disposable, have everyone bring his or her own. Think how interesting the photos will be!

5. Take advantage of each other's strengths. Create opportunities for those with particular skills or knowledge to share with the group. You won't believe how much you'll learn.

6. Write about each other. Post summaries of interesting discussions. Interview or profile fellow members. Guest post for each other. Do round-ups around a theme or holiday. You'll get interesting content, and you'll each reach the others' audiences. 

7. Make friends with the media. Invite a local newspaper reporter or radio producer to your meetings. Your local paper might find a taco crawl with a bunch of food bloggers extremely interesting. Start with the reporter who covers your topic and invite him or her to come as a guest (or a guest speaker). Once you've got a relationship, coverage may follow. Remember, most newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations have blogs too. They're always looking for interesting community items.

8. Support each other. It's not a contest. The better you all do, the better each of you does.

9. Throw the doors open. I've had bloggers roll their eyes when I tell them we welcome PR people and brands to our meetings. I don't see the point of exclusivity. We're all in this together, trying to figure out how food bloggers fit into the world of professional media. We've all got a lot to gain from building strong relationships. Also, FBLA's food brand friends have been integral to the success mentioned above.

10. See number 1.

Are you ready to build your community? Just do it. You'll be glad you invested the time and effort.

Got questions? Need more advice on building your own community? Leave a comment below....


Valentina said...

What a great post! I am so happy to be a part of FBLA! I've made good friends and learned so much! So, thank YOU!

Christina | Christina's Cucina said...

Thank you to all the members who so graciously welcome and include new members (me!) Especially you, Erika, for still making me feel welcome when I showed up for my first FBLA meeting on your doorstep (on the wrong day) with a huge tray of madeleines and a lot of embarrassment! :)

Jeanne @JollyTomato said...

Great post, Erika! Thanks for sharing this, and for all that you do to create and sustain such a vibrant community of food bloggers in L.A.!

showfoodchef said...

Love the post and your spirit of community. I miss a lot of the meetings, but I always love the ones I can attend. You and Patty have made food-blogging an inspiring journey and created a family of friends and encouragement. It's a wonderful achievement!

Lana said...

Erika, all I can say is thank you from the bottom of my heart! I was raised to rely on the network of people around me, and this group makes me feel like I belong here. I am grateful to you and Patti for allowing us to get together, learn, and make friends. Our FBLA meetings are my favorite days:) Have a great day, my friend! Hugs!

Sarah said...

As someone who follows your blog primarily for the recipes, I have to say that this post was a lovely surprise. My day job is working with communities on community and economic development, and I always love to find examples of the power of cooperation in building community.

I always use a food reference when I talk about this to communities; "there is always enough pie to go around, quit worrying about getting the biggest slice of the pie!"

Erika Kerekes said...

Valentina, Christina, Jeanne, Cathy, Lana: No thanks necessary. It's my favorite day of the month, too.

Sarah: I love that quote. For us, I actually think the pie has gotten significantly bigger since we started our community, because we're the ones figuring out what the pie potential is. We create our own growth and promotional opportunities - which is good for everyone!

Patti at Worth The Whisk said...

THANK YOU Erika... Excellent post, and not 'cuz of your generous credit to me. You captured the essence of building a community. Do It. Don't Stop. Go.

susan said...

great article, Erika. Community is key and it does take a village. Looks like a great group - so sorry I missed this one!

Kristen said...

This is such great information, Erika. Thank you so much for sharing.
We started a group for bloggers in Kansas City last year and it has really taken off. I'm excited to take it to the next level and am anxious to see what that will be.
Meeting with likeminded professionals in a social setting is such a great thing. Way to go!

Erika Kerekes said...

@Kristen - there's a food bloggers' group in Kansas City? I just got back from KC (for work) and am likely to be there again in the next few months. When I know my schedule I'll get in touch - maybe we can plan a meetup!

deena @ stay at home FOODIE said...

Erika..thank you so much for getting the FBLA going. It's an amazing group.

Unknown said...

I will always remember the kindless of FBLA folks when I was a new blogger and didn't know anybody here in San Diego. You guys are the best! - Liz the Chef

Cheesy Pennies said...

I'd love to come to the next meeting! Please let me know where and when.

Geez Louise! said...

Such a great group, so happy I found you all.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Erika! And kudos to you and Patti for all your hard work bringing these great folks together!

HealthnutFoodie said...

Erica -- I would love to connect with you and Kristen when you come to KC as well. This article was so inspiring. I love the idea of working together to build a presence in the community. Our blog group is so fun, but I can see it turning into so much more. Thank you for your willingness to share what you all are doing. I moved from LA to KC almost two years ago; the bloggers there do such a great job of supporting each other.

Priscilla - She's Cookin' said...

I'm proud to be part of this amazing group! I don't make it to many of the meetings, but when I do I always come away inspired. Thanks for all you do and share :)

Gerry @Foodness Gracious said...

Hey Erika, Thanks for your input and knowledge at camp last weekend! It was a blast and I hope to attend more FBLA meetings in the future :)
Take care..

Shawn @ I Wash...You Dry said...

I wish I lived in LA! I was born there, does that count!? Looks like a great group of bloggers!

Kurt Penberg said...

This is a nice post in an interesting line of content, great way of bring this topic to discussion.

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