How America’s Test Kitchen Makes Money Online

Some people prefer books, some the web, some magazines. Using multiplatform publishing, ATK delivers users the content they want, how they want it.

Chris Kimball, Founder of Boston Common Press, believes that the key to the modern publishing business is to sell different versions of the same product to a broader audience.

“Some people thought video would hurt movies,” Chris says, “I never did. Watching a movie on video is a very different experience from going to a theater. Video did take away some sales from movies, but the whole pie got much bigger.”

Chris has gone from a publishing a single cooking magazine, Cook’s Illustrated to a growing media empire that spans books, another print magazine, membership websites, a TV Show on PBS (America’s Test Kitchen), email newsletters, DVDs and a few partnerships such as the recent “Get Inspired” initiative with Shaws that features America’s Test Kitchen recipes throughout the store.

Chris knew he needed a brand that was bigger than Cook’s Illustrated and that could span easily across different media. Hence, America’s Test Kitchen was born as the “uber” brand with a very simple editorial mission: to provide cooking enthusiasts with recipes that work.

The central product of ATK—tested, proven recipes and useful equipment reports—is packaged and repackaged for distribution in an extensive portfolio of media platforms. New products are grown out of the old and tested. If they succeed they are added to the mix.

With this method, ATK delivers:

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Who ATK Aims to Please

The information produced by this prodigious effort is directed at people who have an interest in cooking. They may or may not consider themselves good cooks when they come to ATK. In either case, they have much to learn from the testing done for them.

Many ATK customers find out that the reason their cooking was not so good had more to do with the quality of the recipes they were using than with their skills. When they use the successful recipes from the ATK, they too are successful.

To make it perfectly clear that the customer is the primary focus, ATK accepts no advertising in any of its media vehicles. This places it in an unusual position for a publisher, similar to that of Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports. While the TV program has sponsors who underwrite the PBS direct production costs, all ATK revenues come from its readers, users and viewers. The sponsors do receive credit at the front and back of the show as well as prominent links on the ATK homepage.

As Chris puts it:

“We’re very scientific about publishing. We have to be to serve our readers properly. I disagree with editors like William Shawn, deceased New Yorker editor who, when asked how he decided what readers wanted in the magazine, told Conde Nast’s Sy Newhouse, ‘Well I don’t care what they want. I edit the magazine for me.'”

Chris Kimballs’ Editorial Mission: “Recipes That Work”.

Chris has an impressively simple summary of his editorial mission: Recipes that work. ATK is, at heart, a laboratory. It tests thousands of recipes, techniques and common kitchen equipment every year.

ATK decides what to test by doing extensive surveys. Thousands of questionnaires go out every week asking people what they want to read, as well as what recipes and equipment they want to see tested.

Chris says he has found that the people who make the best cooks are not necessarily the best writers, so he employs writers to create articles about the recipes for his magazines, books, and websites.

Everything goes through multiple rounds of testing in the kitchen, and if successful, gets sent to thousands of volunteers who have agreed to try it. If it passes that test, it gets published.

Once the article is published, readers are asked if they read the article and what they thought of it. Then they are asked if they actually used the recipes and if so, could they please rate the ones they used.

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Editorially, Chris is dedicated to an unusual level of control. “Our philosophy is to do everything inside editorially. Unlike most publishers, 100% of our content is created inside, so we can control it.”

On the other hand, he believes in farming out everything else. “We are great believers in finding people outside who can do the work.” For example, ATK farms out printing, fulfillment, Web hosting, TV production and distribution. As Chris puts it, he does not want to own and manage a vacation home, he wants to stay in a hotel when he visits.

The heart of the organization is the test kitchen, and the director of the test kitchen reports directly to Chris. The kitchen does testing for three “recipe” divisions, Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country and the book division. Each of these has an editor in charge. There is also an overall editor in charge of these people, who works directly with Chris.

The Two Keys to ATK’s Success are Research and Multiplatform Publishing

In our opinion, there are two primary keys to ATK’s success. One is research. ATK uses research to find the best recipes and cooking equipment. It uses research to test its findings with its customers. And it uses research to find out how successfully its customers use its products. The whole approach is as scientific as publishing can be.

The second key is multiplatform publishing. The same information is packaged and repackaged in different formats. Some people prefer books, some the web, some magazines. No matter how you like your information, ATK can deliver. And their database marketing system does an excellent job of making sure everyone has every opportunity to buy the products best suited to them.

Comments
    William

    I love America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. Of all the cooking shows I have watched I will have to say those two are my favorites and I am remiss if I happen to miss watching them on a Saturday, because the information presented, especially the science bit about cooking, is very useful.

    Having said that, I do have one complaint. I want to try out recipes of what I saw on the TV. So when I looked for them on the show’s official websites, they were greyed out on the pages with a pop-up of a 14 day free trial. But after the free trial how much is it going to be? No information at all about that.

    Advertising that you may find recipes on these websites but not telling people that they have to pay for them up front is in my opinion not only unfair, but an unethical and misleading business practice, and I am not the only one who thinks so.

    And I have read comments online from people who have subscriptions to Cook’s Illustrated Magazine that they are upset that they have to pay more online for a perk they should already have as a subscriber anyway. Other complaints from people interested in ATK include overpricing on their online cooking school, and sending unasked for merchandise to subscribers, such as cookbooks, and billing them. Very unethical indeed! The Cook’s Illustrated franchise may as well rename themselves pirates, because that is exactly the reputation that these business tactics garner.

    The following links to websites illustrates that point:

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/838244

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/803946

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/803946

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/313034

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/824447

    The CI franchise would do well to rethink their merchandising model. Unless, of course they don’t really care and truly are the greedy sobs that they seem to be. Maybe an organized boycott and a visit from the BBB could convince them.

    Reply

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