Before there was Facebook, Instagram, BuzzFeed, and other prominent online publications, food culture only existed in “real life.” Printed cook books and in-person collaborations were the main sources of discussion surrounding food for a large part of our history.
Enter the Internet. And more importantly (years later), enter Spoon University.
“My partner [Sarah Adler] and I started this as just a print mag at Northwestern in fall 2012. It was a passion project. We wanted to bring people together around food. We did these guacamole-making competitions—guac-offs. And we were always throwing potlucks. We thought it was strange that there was no publication around that. Senior year we launched the print magazine. Then we launched a dinky website in fall 2013, with five [college] sites. I was a communications studies major; Sarah was a journalism and religious studies major—and now she’s our coder!” – Mackenzie Barth (CEO and Co-founder)
As explained above as well as in a Yahoo Food article, Spoon University began as a print publication in the fall of 2012 at Northwestern University. Co-founders Mackenzie Barth and Sarah Adler were seniors at the time and started Spoon as a food resource for college students, aimed at making food make sense to a group who may be cooking or making food-related decisions for the first time in their lives. The website launched in fall 2013 with five college chapters, as students at other schools had contacted Barth and Adler about starting Spoon at their schools.
Here are some of the issues of Northwestern’s print version of Spoon University:
Fast forward to 2015 and Spoon University now has over 100 chapters.
That’s a huge change from its previous status as a single print publication.
Geared with a mission to “bring people together around food,” the startup company claims to be “building a network for millennials, by millennials.” It explains on its About page that when browsing the site a reader will find simple recipes, the “most obvious hacks you can’t believe you didn’t know,” and reviews of restaurants around campus. Articles also cover topics such as food industry news, health tips, lifestyle pieces, and BuzzFeed-style quizzes.
The publication has content partnerships with the Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Yahoo Food, BuzzFeed, and USA Today College. Articles that students write are not only seen by Spoon’s audience, but also have the potential to be featured on these big-name sites.
So what makes Spoon University’s content so great?
There are two general categories of content on Spoon: national content that is relevant to anyone, and local content aimed at students at a particular university and/or people in the surrounding area. Articles often include catchy headlines, a light-hearted tone with clever comedic elements, and always include high-quality photos. Videos have recently entered Spoon’s field of expertise, used as a way to demonstrate recipes and “how-to’s” in a quick and visually-stimulating way.
Spoon University’s website as a whole is streamlined and very enjoyable to view. A reader can scroll through trending articles, choose from one of the categories at the top of the page (“Make,” “Read,” “Watch,” or “Eat Out”), search a particular topic or word, and see the newest articles in the “Hot off the Press” sidebar. If that sounds like too much work, you can also sign up for their weekly newsletter and receive an email with a curated list of articles chosen by the staff at headquarters.
In terms of articles, key themes and trends can be seen across the site:
- Casual language similar to that of college students
- Local articles that highlight establishments around campus
- National articles that college-aged people in particular would be interested in
- Articles that tie in aspects of popular culture
Take a look at some examples of recent Spoon articles:
An important characteristic of the content Spoon University produces is crowdsourcing – or the process of getting work or funding (typically online) from a crowd of people. Without the 3000+ people that contribute to Spoon, the publication would not possess the quantity nor depth that it does today.
Spoon’s “crowd” is made up of college students, employees at HQ in NYC, and even national contributors that contribute remotely. This fact is especially important for Spoon’s voice. The publication prides itself on being geared towards college students and it has the first-hand perspective to back that up. A college-aged reader can find comfort from the material on Spoon, especially knowing it was written by someone their age who most likely is experiencing the same types of things that they are.
Even with its widespread and arguably fragmented crowdsourcing technique, Spoon places a strong emphasis on community. Besides the actual publication itself, Spoon University is a community for food-lovers. Each chapter holds monthly events—all focused around a theme such as “Health” or “Senses.” The HQ staff in New York allocates a lot of time and energy into providing a supportive community to help the college students achieve and surpass their goals as a chapter.
Spoon University has a presence on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Snapchat. Each chapter has its own Twitter and Instagram account, and there is a single national Facebook, Pinterest and Snapchat account run by the staff in New York. Chapters are often given the chance to takeover the Snapchat account, and show the rest of the community what they are doing at their particular school.
In terms of significance, I believe that Facebook and Instagram are Spoon’s most valuable social media platforms. I think Snapchat is very important as well (especially in fostering their community), but it is much harder to quantify the success that results from Snapchat.
Facebook is an essential way of promoting Spoon University’s content. Spoon constantly posts articles and videos to their page in order to increase pageviews as well as interest in the company as a whole. Facebook is also an important vehicle through which members of its community can share articles and the essence of Spoon with the rest of their network. It has become a common trend for people to share articles, videos, and websites to their Facebook friend’s Timeline, and Spoon is quickly becoming a prominent part of this digital space.
In addition to spreading awareness about their content, Spoon uses its Instagram account to create and sustain an online community surrounding food. More often than not the account’s posts do not even mention the publication, but are instead re-posting a user’s photo and giving them a shoutout. Instagram users can use #spoonfeed in the captions of their photos in the hopes of Spoon “re-gramming” them. Spoon always gives credit to the original photographer, which is a key way of expanding its community.
Since videos have increasingly become a focus on its site, their posts on Instagram often promote a new video and direct followers to a link in their bio. Spoon is also forming partnerships with companies that are not publication-based, for example they recently partnered with UberEATS to deliver cookie dough around NYC with a special discount. Instagram is a successful way for Spoon to advertise these promotions in the hopes of gaining the attention and participation from their 87,000+ followers.
In an ideal world (or maybe just my ideal world) Spoon University would have no monetary intentions and would solely produce content for the sake of its community and readers. The publication is not far off from this strategy in terms of producing with its community in mind, but it has worked on many experimental campaigns with brands—including sponsored content, social advertising, and experiential marketing.
This past spring Spoon raised $2 million in fundraising from venture capitalists. It’s reassuring to hear the ideas the cofounders have for what to do with this huge monetary gain, and in a Food Republic article from August Sarah Adler notes that this money can be used to increase Spoon’s sponsorships. She explains how Spoon can help other companies who are struggling to reach a millennial audience and, “could help those conversations happen in a more authentic and more effective way that would not only better meet brand goals because they could actually get their messages across, but better meet the user’s goals, too, because they don’t want to be annoyed by advertising.”
So how does Spoon do it?
I was able to identify some (but definitely not all) of Spoon University’s core strategies, specifically based on the information detailed above.
- Produce content that feels raw and authentic, specifically for college-aged people
- Crowdsource content in order to grow the publication and successfully connect with its intended audience
- Utilize social media to create and foster a food-based community
- Connect with prominent people and companies in the food world in order to increase their presence within our culture
- Help fortify future leaders in digital journalism, marketing, and other related fields by working directly with college students
I am especially interested in this 5th strategy, so I’ll leave you with some statements from Spoon’s About page that explain the motives behind this practice.
We are also helping teach the next generation of journalists, marketers, and event planners the best practices in digital media.
Our program called “Secret Sauce” offers skills and training on how to be a leader, create incredible events and have your photos, videos and articles seen by millions.
To get some more first-hand insights, I had the opportunity to ask Mackenzie Barth some questions about Spoon University.
SE: When you first started Spoon did you think it would grow to be as large as it is today?
MB: No! Spoon started as a print magazine at Northwestern because Sarah and I wanted a place for students on our campus to come together to talk about food. It wasn’t until senior year when we starting getting emails from people at other schools that we considered helping students in other places build similar food communities. We tested it out at 4 other schools to see if the structure we created at Northwestern would work at other schools, and turns out it could! People were excited to have this opportunity at their own schools but also be connected to something larger, like the national Spoon University network.
SE: How have Spoon’s strategies changed since its beginnings?
MB: They’ve changed a ton. There didn’t used to be strategies, and now there are! So that’s a huge change in and of itself.
Since there are so many people who want Spoon at their schools now, and only a handful of people at HQ to help everyone make it happen, we’ve had to streamline the process of launching a chapter pretty significantly. Now, chapters are grouped so they can share ideas and strategies with each other and launch at the same time. It allows us to have a bigger impact at many schools with just a small team.
Developing Secret Sauce to be a skills and analytics tool, chapter management system and roster has been a another important way for us to be able to keep track of the thousands of Spoon members and give them the resources they need to be successful.
SE: Which social media platform do you believe is most important for Spoon?
MB: It’s hard to say which is the most important, since they all play such different roles. Facebook is best for promoting writers’ articles and building our readership. Lately it’s been a great way for us to share videos too. We’ve built a very engaged community of visual food lovers on Instagram, where we can highlight the most aesthetically appealing food, rally people around a #spoonfeed hashtag and have fun creating content that’s native to Instagram.
SE: How do you think digital media has influenced food culture as a whole?
MB: Digital media (and technology in general) has made food a lot more real for people and forced more than just “foodies” to start thinking about what they put into their mouths. It’s opened people’s eyes to where your food comes from, so you can demand higher quality food and ingredients you can actually pronounce. It’s allowed people to become active participants in the food culture and shape their identities around it. Now anyone that has an interest or curiosity around food can publish an article, make a video or post a photo of what they’re eating. Food is not just sustenance anymore, it’s a way of life.
Before getting into my opinions about the future of Spoon University, here is Barth’s response when I asked her what her hopes are for the future of Spoon.
“I hope that we can continue to bring Spoon to more people. To help bring young food lovers together to build tight knit communities and give them the tools to create amazing work, whether that’s through articles, videos, photos or real life experiences, so they can have an impact on an even larger audience. I also hope we can continue to improve Secret Sauce to be a true education tool, so people can join Spoon and feel fully prepared to enter the real world after graduation with a leg up on the competition.” – Mackenzie Barth
Do I agree? Of course. (Because who would argue with the CEO?) But I do have some additional predictions as well as hopes for the future of Spoon.
More video content
Videos are a fast-growing asset to any business, but especially online publications. Video content offers the quick source of information that people with busy lives are looking for. As a college student you probably feel like you sometimes don’t even have time to brush your teeth, let alone sit down and read an article. Videos solve this problem as they convey messages not only in a short amount of time, but in a visually-appealing and entertaining way that will grab the attention of their audience. I believe Spoon will continue to create videos and will eventually prioritize videos at the same level as written content.
Stronger worldwide presence
It’s clear that Spoon University is all about spreading awareness for itself. Whether through pageviews on articles, likes on Instagram posts, or word of mouth chatter among a community, Spoon aims to grow its vast food community. I think this is important for Spoon’s future, and that most of its decisions are made with this goal in mind. In the future, digital media will (somehow) be even more vital to our lives than it is now, hence online publications will be the norm when it comes to journalistic and even entertainment purposes. To me, the future of Spoon means not only the addition of more and more college chapters, but a vast worldwide network of food-lovers.
Will not succumb to advertising
This is definitely more of a hope of mine than a precise prediction, but Spoon’s strategies as well as the values it stands for make me relatively optimistic. Spoon University emphasizes how important its community is, and offers many ways for people to feel like they are a part of this community. Even with brand partnerships, I do not think Spoon will adopt the infamous BuzzFeed-esque paid posts or inorganic content in order to please advertisers. If this were the case, Spoon’s readers would no longer be its priority and I think they value their ever-growing community too much to ever sacrifice it in this way.