Lisa Lillian founded the Hungry Girl Brand over 20 years ago as a personal note she shared among friends and family. Today this omnimedia brand reaches millions with regular helpings of recipes, food hacks, product recommendations, along with a run of bestselling books, a magazine, podcast, branded cruises, and live shows on Amazon.
Across those 20 years, Lisa has been the Hungry Girl -- the face, voice and spirit of the brand.
As we gear up for our own annual Email Insider Summit (Nov. 3-6), we wanted to focus especially on the longevity and learnings from one of the oldest email newsletter brands ever. You can list to the entire podcast at this link.
MediaPost: Start with the Hungry Girl measurements. What is the footprint across all of those touchpoints I mentioned.
Lisa Lillien: We reach about a million via email, and on social media probably a little over 2 million with all the platforms. The magazine probably reaches a couple of hundred thousand people. There are either 2 or 3 issues per year. Each podcast episode probably gets between 15 and 20 something thousand listens. There’s Amazon Live, Facebook Live and videos on Instagram. And those get in the tens of thousands, sometimes over 100,000 each depending on the video. So it's pretty wide.
MP: What are the main revenue sources?
Lillien: So the main revenue sources have been the email newsletter, which is sponsored. And a lot of those sponsorships are 360 deals with partners who then become part of everything, from the podcast to social media videos, recipe development, sometimes even print into the magazine. Another revenue stream is obviously publishing. I'm on my seventeenth book, so that's huge for us as well. And Amazon itself has become a tremendous revenue stream, especially over the past, I would say 5 years or so.
MP: And affiliate deals?
Lillien: How it all began was, we were throwing in links just to be helpful into the email newsletter, and one day we turned around and we were saying, like without even trying we're making $50,000 a year without even thinking about it. So I was like, well, if we really strategize, we can find a way to double, triple, quadruple those numbers. And that's what happened. And now Amazon has a live platform, so we work those deals into the live and email platforms together, and it works beautifully.
MP: You have a sort of outstanding promotional relationships with retailers and CPGs. I see certain ones pop up a lot like Trader Joe's and some others. Is that part of the business, too?
Lillien: It's funny you bring up Trader Joe's. We just love Trader Joe's. The audience responds to Trader Joe's. We do have, and have had a long standing partnership with Stop & Shop. We do that maybe once or twice a year with the third party, where we have like a promotion with that store. But that's basically the only retail store we're working with currently.
MP: So let's talk about the email newsletter, it's a daily. What would have been the most important changes, if any, to the format, to the tone, the content of the newsletter over these past 20 years?
Lillien: I would say, the thing that has remained constant is that it's just authenticity, and it hasn't really changed very much, honestly. Monday, there's some kind of news and new product spotting. And Tuesday there's always a recipe. And Wednesday I'm answering questions like, Ask Hungry Girl type of stuff. Thursday, there's another recipe. There's a lot of like survival guides and hacks and round ups, and that's really remained consistent over the years. But as far as the content itself, I think Hungry Girl is always not like cutting edge content. My audience is middle America. So it's about, I don't want to make the trends, I sort of follow the trends. And those have changed drastically over the years when I started, everybody was avoiding fat like the plague, and carbs were the enemy and calorie counting was everything under the sun to these people, and dieting was at the forefront of everyone's mind. Then it changed to people becoming more ingredient focused.
And now, of course, everyone has their own sort of demons and enemies when it comes to food, whether it's gluten or GMOs or carbs, or whatever. So it's been an interesting ride. It used to be sort of easier to navigate those waters, and now it's become a little bit more difficult. But I think the humor and the authenticity of Hungry Girl’s what keeps it in the forefront of people's minds, and keeps the brand popular and current.
MP: And yet with all of those twists and turns, it's still a single publication. You're not necessarily doing anything fancy in terms of personalization or dynamic content insertion, or any of those tricks that a lot of email marketers do. It's one size fits all, but just you need to pay attention to what that broad constituency is.
Lillien: Exactly, and also what is a little bit unique about hungry Girl is the content itself is really in the newsletter. I'm not using the newsletter to really push people out to read the rest of the content. Sure, we do have a lot of links within the Newsletter, but it's not really to finish what the newsletter starts. It's more self contained than that. And I and I think that's a little bit different as well.
MP: Tell us a little bit about that evolution, and where you are now in relation to maybe where you were just 5-10 years ago.
Lillien: It has changed so dramatically. Like when I first started, there was no such thing as native advertising. There were no such thing as influencers. I was doing all those things before everyone else, and it didn't have a name. I had people clamoring to be in the newsletters with huge 6 figure deals just like left and right every day. It was really fun. The competition became fierce, and then all of a sudden, social media platforms started popping up. People became very niche, started to just do a very small slice of what I was doing, which in a way, became a little bit hotter and more interesting to a lot of advertisers. But I have found that they've come back around. They tried everything, from blogger networks to partnering with Instagrammers, to partnering with TikTokers, and at the end of the day I feel like my audience, is very loyal, and so that really resonates with the advertisers. But all that being said, I think budgets have been sliced in half, or that's a tiny fraction of what it was. So we have more partners spending less money than we used to.
MP: What is the size and the nature of the team, and how that's changed in order to accommodate all of this.
Lillien: When I first started Hungry Girl, it was me and one person who was a graphic designer. My background was that I worked for Warner Brothers as VP of New Media, and I watched them launch, Entertaindom, before that I was at Nickelodeon. I did notice people were spending a lot of money on creating these giant entertainment platforms without any sort of business model. And I was thinking, how are they going to make money doing those things? And a lot of them folded pretty quickly. So what I decided to do when I launched Hungry Girl was create a very small amount of content for a large number of people, which is quite the opposite of what those brands were doing. So when I started, it was me and one other person. So I grew very organically and the team has really remained about a dozen full-time employees for the past, I'd say 10-15 years or so.
MP: Who's your competition now? Arguably, you pioneered the influencer model. And now there are millions.
Lillien: Maybe there are some brands that are pretty strong that are doing a great job. But I don't think there's anyone really doing exactly what I do. I'm not the best at a lot of things. I'm being really honest with you, I'm not super strong on Instagram. There are plenty of people doing what I do on Instagram a lot better than I do, but I am fortunate enough to be able to sell that in with a whole partnership where it's just a small slice. And the reason why I say I don't really have a lot of competition is because I don't think a lot of people are doing just that. There are a lot of people selling just Instagram or just TikTok, or just YouTube. And I think I do it all.
MP: So you can be smaller on any one of those platforms than some of the hottest and the latest, but you're tying it into a system that's much more attractive to a partner.
Lillien: Yeah, that's the goal, and also that's a way to stay above the trends because things get hot and cold very quickly in the digital space.
MP: Is video the new email for another generation? Do you have a lot of your base that's really exclusively connected to you through video?
Lillien: The short answer is no, because I don't have nearly as much traction in video as I do in the email. The email is still the bread and butter of the brand, something I do best, and it's the easiest group to mobilize. I feel the strongest connection with the email audience. It's that scrolling through video mentality. I don't feel as much of a connection with the audience that way. But at the same time I feel like I have to be doing video.
MP: You actually have a larger footprint on the platforms in which you're least connected with the audience? Email is still that core.
Lillien: Hungry Girl on Facebook is 1.5 or 1.6 million. I don't have that many in my email list. But we control on some level how we reach those people. I know, when we send an email out to a million people, it's going to reach those people for the most part. In Facebook, I don't love the idea of having to depend on algorithms and whichever way the wind is blowing in social media, reaching the audience that wants to be reached.
MP: What's next?
Lillien: I never really think about it. I started Hungry Girl without a business plan. I didn't spend very much money, I didn't know what I was going to be doing. And I said, as I grow, I'm going to just take all the opportunities as they come my way. Shocking that I have a magazine now going on 6 years when print is apparently dying. I know I have a couple of more books on the way, I know I have another at least year or two of magazines on the way, the podcast is going strong.
Personally, I've become more involved in wrongful convictions. Strangely enough, talk about zigging and zagging, and I am starting a podcast called Recipe for Justice. We have a lot of crossover in my audience. The true crime fans are women, they tend to be 30s through 60s. And that's my audience. And I'm not doing that to make money, I'm doing that to do, to make the world a better place and to educate people. And at this point, after doing what I've been doing for so long, that'll fill my heart and make me happy.