America’s Test Kitchen Media Network Case Study

Boston Common Press, the Publishing Company that Produces PBS TV Show America’s Test Kitchen, Uses the Show’s Viewership to Drive Traffic to its Free Website, Building a Large Database in Which They Market Their Various Print and Online Products

America’s Test Kitchen is a weekly television show on local PBS stations, but it is more than just a cooking show. The TV program and its companion website, AmericasTestKitchen.com, serve as the hub of a well-designed network for Boston Common Press, which produces the show. The program directs the show’s 2.9 million viewers to AmericasTestKitchen.com, where, by requiring registration, the company builds an enormous permission-driven database in to which they market their various products. This strategy makes America’s Test Kitchen one of the most successful practitioners of the Mequoda Network that we have found.

  • Products the company promotes to its database include two bimonthly print magazines (Cook’s Illustrated and the recently launched Cook’s Country), three membership websites and several cookbooks
  • America’s Test Kitchen effectively feeds all these business units—all of which are very much intertwined and interdependent—resulting in an integrated system of product sourcing and support for the parent company, Boston Common Press
  • Chris Kimball, publisher and editor, says he feels that publishing business is increasingly becoming a database business. That’s also how he views the business side of what his company does, and the way to market to people with an interest in cooking
  • While access to AmericasTestKitchen.com is free, visitors must register in order to view the recipes. The result is a rich database of qualified individuals for the company to use to market its other products
  • Additional ways America’s Test Kitchen leverages website traffic is through eNotes, a free monthly e-newsletter—tips, techniques, recipes and other items, along with links that bring the recipients back to the site—and promotional ads on the site that encourage subscriptions to the company’s other websites and its magazines

Introduction

Perhaps you’re familiar with America’s Test Kitchen, a weekly television show on local PBS stations. Whether you simply came across it by clicking the buttons on your remote or are one of the show’s 2.9 million regular viewers, you’ll be interested to know that America’s Test Kitchen is more than just a cooking show. The TV program and its companion website, AmericasTestKitchen.com, serve as the hub of a well-designed network for Boston Common Press, which produces the show. Boston Common Press also publishes two bimonthly print magazines (Cook’s Illustrated and the recently launched Cook’s Country), three membership websites and several cookbooks. America’s Test Kitchen effectively feeds all these business units.

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Integrating the Business

All of the various business units that are part of the America’s Test Kitchen network are very much intertwined and interdependent, resulting in an integrated system of product sourcing and support for the parent company, Boston Common Press.

  • America’s Test Kitchen, with its 2.9 million regular viewership, is the company’s most visible entity. All of the recipes demonstrated on the show are drawn from the pages of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and are tested in the Cook’s Illustrated test kitchen, where the show is also filmed.
  • Viewers are encouraged to visit the AmericasTestKitchen.com website, which archives recipes that appear on each episode. While site access is free, visitors must register in order to view the recipes. Visitor registration results in a rich database of qualified individuals for the company to use to market its other products.
  • Besides providing the recipes, Cook’s Illustrated magazine editors and test cooks are the on-air talent for the America’s Test Kitchen television show.
  • CooksIllustrated.com, the magazine’s companion website, is a paid membership site. Its 80,000 online subscribers may access 13 years of editorial archives, product ratings, cooking tips, timesaving tools and Web-exclusive content.
  • Cook’s Country, the new print magazine, is simply a mass-market version of Cook’s Illustrated and focuses more on family-oriented or country-style recipes.
  • The CooksCountry.com website, which highlights recipes from its companion print magazine, is currently a free site—but only during the startup phase. It will become a paid membership site similar to CooksIllustrated.com in early 2006.
  • Cookbooks may be purchased through an online bookstore that is accessible from each of the three websites. Currently, about 40 titles are featured—single books, boxed sets, hardbound magazine annuals and continuity series such as the America’s Test Kitchen series, which includes both cookbooks from, and DVDs of, the live shows.

ATK Mequoda Media Pyramid

Finding Recipes That Work

For the uninitiated, America’s Test Kitchen the TV show, is quite different from the myriad culinary shows that have popped up on cable stations everywhere. Rather than focusing on a personality, a cuisine or a theme, the mission of America’s Test Kitchen and of its two sister magazines, according to Chris Kimball, publisher and editor, is simply “to find recipes that work.”

While that may sound simple, it’s not. The test cooks may bake 80 different chocolate cakes or 40 meatloaves before determining which recipe is the best one for a particular dish. Then, the editors and test cooks demonstrate that best recipe to viewers on air, present it to readers in print and post it for site members and visitors online. They also point out the shortcomings of those recipes that didn’t make the grade.

“We don’t view recipes as wallpaper,” says Kimball. “Most food magazines are really lifestyle publications, and the recipes simply go along for the ride. For us, the recipes are everything.” Also, the recipes are not necessarily “gourmet cuisine,” he adds. “Basically, we do real home cooking.”

Authenticity is key. And to that point, the test kitchen itself is more than simply a stage set. The show is filmed at a real place—a fully equipped test kitchen in Brookline, Massachusetts, where a team of test cooks have performed thousands of side-by-side recipe comparisons, blind taste tests, and equipment performance reviews during the last five or so years.

Piling on the Dough

What’s most interesting about the business model of America’s Test Kitchen and all its related business units is that none take outside advertising—no one, nowhere, no how, no time. And the websites have no affiliate programs or reciprocal links.

Of course, ads for the company’s own magazines, books and site memberships are all over the websites. The revenue for all product areas derives solely from circulation sources: magazine subscriptions, newsstand sales, website memberships and book sales.

  • Cook’s Illustrated magazine has 675,000 subscribers who pay $24.95 for an annual subscription (six issues); for the newly launched Cook’s Country magazine, the annual subscription price is $19.95.
  • About 100,000 copies per issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine are sold on the newsstand (more than Gourmet sells on the newsstand per issue, according to Kimball) for $5.95 each; Cook’s Country‘s cover price is $4.95.
  • Some six million visitors per year show up on the CooksIllustrated.com website, the bulk of whom are, most likely, the 80,000 subscribers who pay $24.95 per year or $3.95 per month to access the online content. An estimated half of site subscribers pay the discounted rate of $19.95 for those who also subscribe to the print magazine.
  • List prices of books range from about $15 for a single title to more than $200 for some boxed sets.

The America’s Test Kitchen television show, which is broadcast on public television stations, does have underwriters to cover production costs—filming, editing and delivering the program to the local stations. “But that’s strictly a relationship between the producers and the underwriters,” says Kimball.

Cook’s Illustrated, and the company’s other products, cannot be promoted directly on the TV show due to public television rules and regulations, which are very limiting. “You could watch the show without ever realizing that Cook’s Illustrated is involved in it,” he says. Viewers are encouraged, however, to go to AmericasTestKitchen.com, where they can register for free to access recipes. That generates a lot of names for the company’s database, which is then used to promote the print magazines, the paid websites and the cookbooks. The database is used for marketing purposes and cross-promotions “wherever it makes sense,” says Kimball.

“We feel the publishing business is increasingly becoming a database business,” explains Kimball. “Ultimately, that’s how we view the business side of what we do. But we don’t view our various businesses as separate universes. We have a single database of people with a strong interest in cooking. It’s a large database with lots of names from lots of sources, and we have lots of ways of sorting through them.”

As for demographics, Kimball says he could care less, because he doesn’t sell advertising. “I have no idea who our audience is in terms of age or gender,” he says. “The determining factor for targeting our direct mail promotions is an interest in cooking.”

Calling All Good Cooks

According to Kimball, the America’s Test Kitchen audience is “anybody who has an interest in good cooking. Plenty of people cook because they have to, but they hate it,” he suggests. “Our audience has an interest in the cooking process and values heavily tested recipes that really work.”

While America’sTestKitchen.com is a huge source of prospects for the magazines and paid website(s), finding customers is also accomplished in ways that are not very different from most publishing companies—direct mail, for instance. “We do a lot of direct mail,” says Kimball. “We also do package inserts. And we have lots of partnerships. Since we’re purely editorial driven, we can do projects with companies.”

On the other hand, unbiased reviews of brand-name cookware, cooking equipment and pantry ingredients are also an important part of the editorial content, so certain things cannot be done with certain companies. “Given the nature of the consumer reporting that we do,” says Kimball, “we have to be very careful about how we deal with other companies and with which companies we deal. For example, we couldn’t have a cookware manufacturer as an underwriter of the TV show, even though it isn’t a direct relationship with the magazine. We might have a major appliance manufacturer as an underwriter, though, because we don’t rate major appliances. Or we might do a project with a company such as Starbucks or Amazon or Williams-Sonoma.”

Driving Website Traffic

As for using marketing efforts to drive people to the websites, Kimball succinctly says, “We don’t. We have yet to find a method of spending money to generate names coming to the site in any substantial volume that’s also economical. And I don’t really believe in doing that anyway. A lot of hugely successful sites, with huge numbers of visitors, don’t do any marketing. So I think you have to be cleverer than that. We’re out there in the public every day.” In fact, that seems to work.

Efforts aimed at keeping visitors coming back to the sites, however, are alive and doing well. CooksIllustrated.com offers eNotes, a free monthly e-newsletter, which is about 90 percent editorial—tips, techniques, recipes and other items, along with links that bring the recipients back to the site—and 10 percent promotional ads that encourage subscriptions. The goal, of course, is to convert any of the 650,000 newsletter readers who aren’t already subscribers to the paid website or print magazine(s) and to sell books. Whether (or until) that occurs, the newsletter subscriber names still represent a huge addition to the company’s unified database—and we already have discussed its value to the company!

Conclusion

How does Kimball know that he’s on the right track? “I don’t care about the number of site visitors,” he says. “I care about what happens to those people when we contact them or when they come to the site.” For example, Kimball does look at open rates for the e-newsletter and click-through rates on specific items. And with a 40 to 50 percent open rate on just over a half-million or so people—that’s good!

“Everything we do is heavily influenced by surveys and focus groups,” Kimball explains. America’s Test Kitchen conducts a substantial amount of research—email and print surveys and focus groups—to determine exactly what its audience wants. “We don’t believe in simply giving them things that we think they should have,” he adds, “as so many other editors do. If people don’t want all-beef meatloaf, I’m not going to force it down their throat!”

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