How Independent Publisher Food52 Used Email to Handle Thanksgiving and Cyber Weekend

And everything in-between.

The brand received additional marketing support from Agency Within. Food52
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Food52, a site known for its recipes, community and carefully selected products, wants people to eat thoughtfully and live joyfully. In order to accomplish that, the content and the commerce halves of the company must work together.

Black Friday, Cyber Weekend and other holiday sales represent about 35 percent to 40 percent of the company’s total revenue for the entire year, according to brand president and co-founder Merrill Stubbs.

“We all love this time of year because it’s so buzzy and fun,” Stubbs said, “but there’s a fair amount of pressure. It’s our moment to shine and to be creative and helpful. We don’t want to let anything fall through the cracks.”

The brand redesigned their Shop pages the week before Thanksgiving and invested in back-up servers that could handle any wild traffic increases; with lessons learned from previous years (on Black Friday 2016, the site’s sales tax calculator broke down, making it a “tax free weekend” for shoppers) and additional marketing support from Agency Within, the many teams of Food52 were as prepared as they could be.

Most emails, especially those including marketing messaging, had backup plans in case sales weren’t hitting their goals; editorial franchises and creative imagery shoots had been planned in advance to provide both fresh content and much-needed advice; and, with the help of online services like Google Drive’s products and Slack’s messaging service, the company was ready to enjoy the holiday, be there for its readers and direct them to its hundreds of unique products.

“We’re not a discount company,” said CEO and co-founder Amanda Hesser. “While there’s a focus for us on Black Friday and the whole weekend, we know we’re a trusted resource for our readers. It’s important for us to stay true to ourselves as a company.”

Adweek spent several hours over multiple days with the team, including in their Slack channels, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Wednesday — The Plan Before The Storm

7 a.m. — A minor hiccup: a promo code was scheduled ahead of time and advertised on the site but not activated on the back end, meaning 38 customers didn’t get the discount they were promised and had problems checking out. The customer care team at Food52 reached out to those affected, explained that the code should now be working, and everyone hoped for the best. That particular promo would run through Sunday, so the marketing team believed those customers would return or those sales would be made up.

12 p.m. — The issue from that morning was addressed during the last in-office holiday planning meeting, where representatives from each department attended either in person or via Google hangout; a majority of Food52 staffers had already begun traveling home for the holidays.

The biggest solution to come out of that meeting was yet another Google sheet, a list of the marketing messages, promotional emails, site-wide banners and promos, the upcoming holiday menu maker (which will be released on Tuesday with over 200 possible recipes), and anything else that needed to be double-checked before going live. Each item was assigned an “owner” and a backup quality assurance checker.

Stubbs jokingly noted that it would almost take more time to build this document than it would to do everything on the list; everyone agreed before eagerly continuing to itemize the next five days of messaging. It was decided that each day, they would review the following day’s emails.

With changes to be made as needed, a look at the busy weekend's email boards.

The meeting also gave each team the opportunity to update everyone else on the progress they had made and were expecting to make; one social video alone got 2,000 more views since the meeting had started.

The creative, buying, marketing and social teams were still working out exact images for posts and promotions across the site and on their distributed platforms. Every link on every scheduled post and email has to be double-checked in addition to seeing if Food52’s merchant/vendor partners would have enough stock for some of these high performing items.

Some vendors make each item to order and would not have the capacity to fulfill all of them if a tsunami of shoppers placed orders within a small timeframe; one porcelain butter keeper artisan sold about 1,000 units through Food52 the weekend previous, and therefore would have to be swapped out in any promotional emails.

1:30 p.m. — Suzanne D’Amato, editor in chief, took the early shift this morning to work The Hotline, a Food52 year-long feature that gets extra attention during the holiday season. She answered “burning” questions submitted by readers from 8 to 10 a.m. before passing the baton to another member of her team; they were on a two-hour rotation through Thanksgiving evening. A few folks had questions about dry-brining their turkeys, while a few brave home cooks wanted opinions on serving food past its expiration date during their family’s Thanksgiving meal.

From this point forward, D’Amato and her team would be dealing with their readers’ 11th-hour problems as well as their own family’s meals; she and her husband only just remembered that they’d need to cook breakfast, too, as everyone had become all-consumed with planning for the dinner.

“We’re trying to really be there for our readers and think about the great recipes they come to us for,” she said. “This is a time to transition from Thanksgiving into all the other upcoming holidays, too, so we’re exploring what this time of year really means to people.”

Between the editorial and video production teams, over the next few weeks, new and experimental series about cooking, family, mistakes and greatest moments will be released over the next few weeks.

2:30 p.m. — Another “last” meeting for the Shop team, the buyers responsible for maintaining vendor relationships, new featured products, and the online store’s inventory. Today, they were checking over the next few marketing emails to reflect changes or product swaps Stubbs and Hesser requested to ensure a smooth check-out process for customers. Like most of Food52’s staff, the Shop team has been planning with the marketing and merchandise teams for months and has frequently coordinated with over 450 vendors for the site.

The process included yet another extensive Google document (which reminded this reporter of those conspiracy theory boards full of red strings and newspaper clippings, but far more organized and color-coded). A few teams had access to the doc and were assigned a color for any last-minute comments.

The team only wanted to make changes they believed would truly “move the needle.” If they needed to offer a higher-priced item in a discount email that they hadn’t previously, they were fine with “chasing the money.”

The four people in a conference room full of mismatched and bespoke wooden chairs completed an elevated logic puzzle of checking what goes where, which email is sent to whom (and when!), which products no longer fit the theme, etc. Some emails are sent to nonshoppers of the site, some are sent to long-time shoppers or customers who have bought that specific item in the past, but none will feel too promotional in nature.

Thursday — Thanksgiving

12 p.m. — Teams checked in together on Slack to review stock inventory, Black Friday’s email messaging and how they were pacing so far on sales.

With all systems go, and thousands of readers trying to figure out if they had already messed up their turkey, the marketing team anticipated the day’s sales to top out at least 180 percent higher than last year’s Thanksgiving Day sales. Thus, they decided to move forward with Friday’s Plan.

A post shared by Food52 (@food52) on

Friday — Black Friday

10 a.m. — With Thanksgiving in the bag, Food52 put even more focus on the marketing emails and sales forecasts in order to reach their goals for this year. Though using free shipping as a promotional tool worked well in the past, the teams decided not to use free shipping as a promotional offer this year so it wouldn’t impact overall margins as much.

There was much discussion that morning about pacing; by 10 a.m., sales were up 92 percent by 10 a.m. vs. Black Friday 2016. Still, it didn’t seem enough to reach sales targets. From midnight to 10 a.m. last year, sales made in that time frame accounted for 15 percent of the day’s total sales; this year, the pace was at 11 percent for that time range.

Should the next emails be sent out in segments rather than to larger groups in order to hit a more targeted audience? If their pacing overall was higher in sales, did they need to move their last marketing email earlier in the day to match the online shopping habits of their customers? Different teams began to show different numbers and percentages, which added to the confusion of deciding what to do with the all-important emails.

@samimain Sami Main is social editor for Adweek, where she posts Adweek content onto social platforms and looks for creative ways to communicate what's new.