How Hearst Turned an 8-Year-Old Recipe Website Into a Social Video Heavyweight

Delish draws millions of millennial fans with fun food content

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Unicorn Bark. Breakfast Ramen. Boozy Skittles Slushies. While these might sound like the culinary fantasies of a stoned college student, they're actually the titles of short-form recipe videos created by Hearst-owned food site Delish. And each one has more than 10 million Facebook views apiece.

Over the past year, Delish—as well as sites like BuzzFeed's Tasty, which debuted last summer and now averages more than 1.5 billion video views per month, mostly through Facebook—has managed to blow up social media feeds by ditching the serious culinary attitude and instead taking a refreshingly nonfoodie approach to food.

Although most of Delish's 5.1 million 20- and 30-something social media followers have only recently been introduced to the brand, has actually existed since 2008 when it was launched as a joint venture between Hearst and MSN. Conceived as a recipe database, it mainly targeted an older, midmarket audience looking for easy dinner solutions. But by 2015, with MSN having ended its involvement and traffic steadily declining, Delish was in desperate need of an overhaul.

Rather than try to revamp Delish's current recipe-based platform, Hearst Digital president Troy Young decided to rebuild from the ground up and brought in Food Network Magazine executive editor Joanna Saltz to lead the charge as site director.

Their first order of business was trying to figure out exactly what Delish should be. At the time, recalled Young, "we struggled with the fact that the recipe space seemed like it was so done and so commoditized, and the only player that mattered was Google." Added Saltz: "We felt the food universe was shifting away from 'cups and teaspoons' to general inspiration."

Meanwhile, Young noticed that on Hearst sites such as, readers were flocking to content about companies like Starbucks and Chipotle. "We saw that young people were really passionate about these brands that related to food but weren't about preparing food," he said. "We realized there was an opportunity to talk about food without being a recipe site."

In March 2015, Delish relaunched as a millennial-focused website combining food news (think Starbucks' latest Frappuccino release) and cooking hacks (like how to hull a strawberry with a drinking straw) along with easy recipe ideas. But it was when Saltz's team began experimenting with short, snackable how-to videos early last fall that things really took off.

On Facebook, super-shareable recipe videos that capitalized on millennial nostalgia—whether for favorite childhood foods (Tater Tot Grilled Cheese, Dunkaroos No-Churn Ice Cream) or cultural touchstones (Harry Potter-inspired boozy butterbeer, Bruce Bogtrotter Chocolate Cake from Matilda)—gained millions of views. Clocking in at under a minute each, they were more about having fun with food than actually offering instruction. "It's quite possible that you will never make it," Saltz admitted, "but the idea that you're so surprised and delighted by it that you want to show your friends."

As its audience took off, Delish also began introducing more videos featuring ideas for quick weeknight meals that proved just as—and sometimes even more—popular. (Tuscan Chicken Pasta is currently the most-watched Delish video on Facebook with over 35 million views.) They also have the benefit of actually driving users back to for the recipes. "It's important for us as a brand to make sure that we're covering all areas," explained Saltz. "We can't exist on margarita slushy shots alone."

Now, with video views hitting nearly 220 million in April, up from just 80,000 in January 2015 prior to the relaunch, Delish is looking for new ways to engage fans. The team of 10 is working on creating more content around shareable moments and experiences, whether that means having staffers review offerings at the Honeydukes candy shop in Universal Studios' The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, filming segments at this summer's X Games or using Facebook Live to go behind the scenes at a Dunkin' Donuts factory.

Saltz is also hoping to test fans' attention spans with lengthier videos—or, at least, ones that come closer to the two-minute mark. "I think people do spend time watching videos on Facebook," said Saltz. "We're not afraid to put longer videos out there. It just has to be as fun and engaging as our other content."

This story first appeared in the June 6, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.