Print may be facing an uncertain future, but magazines like Taste of Home are finding ways to do more than just keep afloat. Last year, Taste of Home’s print ad pages grew 9.2 percent year over year, its digital traffic increased by 56 percent year over year, and the mag was among the top three publications in terms of social engagement. (The TOH brand as a whole gets 50 million-plus impressions each month.) Even its popular Live Cooking School events have expanded — online. Editor-in-chief Catherine Cassidy, who’s been at the helm for more than 10 years, credits the magazine’s success to its being especially in tune with its readers:
“We are based in Milwaukee… and I find it to be a huge benefit to live in an area where you walk among your customers all the time. When I see someone pick up Taste of Home in a grocery store, I’m all over them, like, ‘Oh, what made you pick it up?’ So I think it gives us an interesting advantage.”
Here, Cassidy answers five questions on the mag’s community of sharers, why she’s found it beneficial to “ski the conditions” and more.
FBNY: You were named among 2014’s Most Intriguing People in Media by Min. What was that like, and to what do you owe that recognition?
Catherine Cassidy: Well, it was an honor and a privilege. Most of my career, I have worked outside of the New York City media, and — Taste of Home is a very, very big brand, but I don’t move in New York City circles, so it really was cool to be recognized in that group of people.
Our brand is really unique. We have scale and we have engagement at the same time. It’s really vast. We have a lot of customers, but they love Taste of Home — they love us, and in every platform that we’ve expanded to, we continue to delight customers. And the fundamental reason is that there’s a great deal of trust of our brand, because all of our recipes come from our readers, so they sort of invent the brand themselves by sharing their recipes with us and their stories with us. I feel like I’m not really the powerful editor; I’m kind of a steward of the brand and it’s the customers who inevitably shape what our magazines and our books and our website become.
FBNY: The magazine has seen large growth, on both the print and digital sides. How has your team accomplished this?
Cassidy: I think we really listen to our customers. And I was saying this at the Min breakfast, if we listen to them and understand what they like and what they don’t like, that, yes, they do cook with cream soup and they eat Jell-O and they go to church and — you know, if we really tune ourselves to that and get out of the way and create the product that they want, it grows. I have an amazing team. They’re very, very much in touch with what our readers and our users are looking for. And honestly, one of the things that we’ve been focused on very much the last three or four years, is what I call ‘back to the future’ — you know, looking at the older magazines and [figuring out] what was the magic then and how do we replicate that in a modern way for today. [For example,] looking at the issues from 1993, the photography is funky and old-fashioned, but people loved it.
FBNY: What’s the secret to your success on social media?
Cassidy: People love to share. We have over 3 million Facebook fans. They love to talk to one another. They always have. We used to have a column in the magazine called ‘Does Anyone Have…?’ and literally people would write letters and say, ‘I have this recipe that my grandmother had. It used baking chocolate and cinnamon’ and blah, blah, blah, and we would publish it and then people would write letters to this person answering their question. We kind of were doing what social media does before there was ever a Facebook. If you go onto our Facebook site, we will put a post up, ‘Here’s a great recipe from so-and-so,’ and within an hour it’s got 1,000 likes.
And they love Pinterest. It’s been a real boon for us. At one point we were getting more referrals to our site from Pinterest than any other media. Our teams work together to put in the [print] magazine things that we — we call them the ‘pinniest.’ Like we [featured] a bunny pancake. And it just rocked throughout social media, to a point where it was picked up on the “Today” show as something that was trending. We’re kind of pushing content all around the wheel, so to speak.
FBNY: What are some lessons you’ve learned in your editorial career that you’re applying to your current position?
Cassidy: To do the things that you fear, because that’s what really makes you step outside of your comfort zone and grow and change, and it’s something I say to all of my teams. Don’t be afraid. That’s been a guiding principle that has shaped my career, and I think it’s just good advice, period.
At the same time, one thing my staff hears from me all the time is, ‘Ski the conditions.’ You can’t do things the same way all the time or you’re going to fail. Skiing the conditions in this business means watching out, looking at trends, what’s happening; what is our competition doing; what are they not doing; do I have the right team in place. I’ve been through six different management teams since I’ve been here. And I think it’s partly because, you know, someone leaves and another administration comes in and you say, ‘Well, OK, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and I’m going to do what I need to do.’
FBNY: What’s next for Taste of Home?
Cassidy: Last October, we launched the initial five courses of our new Taste of Home Online Cooking School. We’re really excited about that. It’s the largest live cooking school show in the country, and it was just a natural next step to take.
And now we’re just launching our new Big Books. Our Big Book for this season is Taste of Home’s Easy Weeknight Dinners. We still publish lots of books every year and lots of special interest publications, and we have a sister publication called Country Woman. We’ve taken that under the Taste of Home umbrella, and so the first newly redesigned Country Woman will be our June/July issue. So we have a lot going on this year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.