Food52 Turned Instagram Into Its Fastest-Growing Social Sales Channel

With its impeccable food styling, Food52 has always been a natural fit for Instagram.

When the online food publisher started posting on Instagram, it viewed the platform as a place for community building and brand awareness, said Kaitlin Bray, Food52’s director of social media director. But as Instagram cooks up more shopping-driven features, Food52 finds the social platform quickly catching up to Facebook as its strongest commerce channel.

“Facebook used to be where our commerce efforts were focused,” Bray said. “But with the different ways to tell stories through Instagram, it’s been closing the gap as our largest commerce driver.”

Food52 uses a mix of Instagram-native commerce products and its own tactics to showcase products to its 2 million followers. It strives for a natural blend of content and commerce. Links to buy a cake stand in a post, for example, provide a utility to readers. Posts highlighting a product should be interesting or entertaining even if someone isn’t in a shopping mood, Bray said.

“I always want there to be a takeaway, whether or not they can buy the product,” she said. Since Food52 doesn’t ship internationally, a slice of its audience can’t buy anything – yet another reason why posts shouldn’t be too commercially minded.

Commerce in Instagram Stories

Video-focused Instagram Stories offer multiple ways for Food52 to sell products, such as taking readers deep through a multislide product backstory or a quick one-slide reference that’s part of a larger story.

For example, it created a multislide Story about the Japanese factory that crafts Food52’s uber-sharp knives and a tutorial for how to use a clever colander. “The products we select and sell have an interesting story, whether it’s the maker, the material or something hand-thrown,” Bray said. “Instagram Stories has been great for us to tell the narrative of our products.”

Engagement tends to be lower for these clearly marked commerce posts –  “Some people automatically see you are trying to sell something and say, ‘Meh, not for me,’” Bray said – but Food52 sees higher sales when people complete a story.

On the flip side, reusable paper towels, for example, are interesting but self-explaining products that Food52 can quickly highlight in a single slide.

When closing a sale on Instagram, price matters. More people will buy a $29 colander on Instagram than a $150 knife. “There is a very distinct divide in terms of the price point where we see products move,” Bray said.

Commerce in the feed

While Instagram Stories’ ephemeral nature allows Food52 to post frequently and more prolifically, the main Instagram feed requires more precision because real estate is limited. Plus, a post with low engagement can lead to another with even lower engagement.

“You can go down a spiral,” Bray said.

The fear of low engagement has made Food52 cautious about tagging its posts with products. Bray doesn’t know if tagged posts feel more sales-y to readers or if Facebook’s algorithm suppresses them, but she does notice a slight dip in performance for commerce-tagged posts.

“Anecdotally, I don’t tag every product with Instagram shopping tools because I think they will suppress products with shopping tools,” Bray said, with the caveat that she doesn’t have hard evidence for this distinction.

Instead, Food52 relies on third parties like Soldsie, which make it easy to link to products on the main profile page of Instagram, which used to be the only place where a page could link out.

Food52 trained its audience to go to the link in the profile so it doesn’t need to tag every post with Instagram shopping tools, Bray said.

Pairing a recipe with a complementary product allows Food52 to make a softer sell. For example, the site sells a rolling pin that allows bakers to roll dough to a specific thickness “that trips up new bakers,” Bray said.

To feature the product, the team created a video post using the pin to make Lazy Mary’s lemon tart, one of the site’s most popular recipes. Subtle call-outs allowed readers to follow up and buy the pin – or just watch the lemon tart being made.

“Regardless of whether or not you were into the rolling pin, you would like this video,” Bray said.

The video performed so well that Food52 gave the content to its social media agency, which created a paid ad for the product. The rolling pin became the top seller across Instagram and Facebook.

Future-proofing commerce

Bray’s three years of experience running Food52’s social media has taught her to quickly adopt new features. Instagram just released a shopping sticker for Instagram Stories, and Bray created a post using that sticker within days.

“We know that because it was a brand new release, a lot of people would click on it because they’ve never seen it,” Bray said.

Instagram Stories is in its prime now, with plenty of attention to go around as readers eagerly consume the video stories. But Bray is cautiously awaiting the day when Stories becomes “increasingly saturated.”

“You can’t just rest on your laurels, because the content that’s performing now is not guaranteed to perform a year from now,” Bray said. “We always have to be trying the new thing.”

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