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Welcome to episode 107 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork talks to Sarah Wu about her viral blog and why “going viral” quickly might not be the best thing for everyone.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork interviewed Carol Cox about discovering your unique brand. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
Going viral. It’s the dream for all bloggers, right?
Sarah Wu experienced what it’s like to have a viral blog early in her blogging career. She was featured on news outlets like Good Morning America, AOL, and Yahoo, saw her page views quickly grow, and started getting more comments. However, going viral wasn’t what was best for Sarah and her blog about school lunches.
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Bjork Ostrom: In this episode, we talk to Sarah Wu about how Michelle Obama helped her blog go viral, what it was like to keep a secret from her coworkers, and what it was like to be on Good Morning America. Hello, hello, hello. Bjork Ostrom here. You are listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast, and we’re coming to you today with an interview with Sarah Wu. Sarah, a few years back, started a blog where she talked about school lunches, and it was called Fed Up with Lunch. For one year, she documented what it was like to have school lunches. During that time, her blog actually went viral, started to get a lot of traffic, had somebody reach out about a book deal, became really popular, and she talks about why that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
On this podcast, one of the things I love to do is offer all different types of perspectives, and this was one that we haven’t talked about before. Sarah was willing to come on and share her story, and I think you’ll gain a lot of insight and wisdom, because it’s something that you probably don’t hear about much. So, let’s go ahead and jump into this interview with Sarah Wu. Sarah, welcome to the podcast.
Sarah Wu: Thank you so much for having me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. So, a while back … Actually, it wasn’t too far back. You had sent an email and we had connected and traded a couple emails back and forth. You’re talking about this idea of potentially doing a podcast interview, and you actually even included some potential names. I love this one here, and I want to call it out. This is maybe what we’re going to use for this podcast interview. But you said, “One of the potential names for this could be How to Go Viral, Kill Your Blog, and Start Over,” and we’re going to dig into that story specifically. But before we do, let’s add one more additional item in that podcast name. Let’s talk a little bit about how to start Go Viral, Kill Your Blog, and then Start Over.
So, take us back to 2010, and tell us your idea for this kind of campaign, or new site, that you were going to create, new blog that you were going to create.
Sarah Wu: Yeah. Back in 2009, I was in my fourth year as a speech pathologist in Chicago Public Schools. Up until that point, I really hadn’t been paying much attention to the school lunch that was being served in the cafeteria. But that fall, I started becoming more aware, because my son had turned one, and I started really looking at the food choices we were making as a family. I was thinking more about other people and how it impacts children, since I work with children every day.
And so, there was one day that I forgot my lunch. You know, in the craziness of getting ready to get out of the house, I forgot my lunch, and I decided, “What the heck, I’ll just buy lunch in the cafeteria.” I went down there, and I got the most depressing lunch, and it hit me right in the heart. It was a bagel dog with fruit cup and like six tater tots. Like, it was small and-
Bjork Ostrom: What’s that? Can you explain a bagel dog? I feel like that would be one of those viral Tasty videos that you’d see somebody make.
Sarah Wu: Right. I mean, that’s the thing.I think this kind of food appeals to a lot of kids because it’s kind of like going to the fair and getting something special. But really, for my students, it was potentially the most important meal of their day, and I was broken by that idea of them eating that. I don’t want to say that I was like a huge foodie, because at the time, I didn’t really know a lot about food. I had come from a family where my mom was actually kind of a hippie. I kind of think of her like that.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure.
Sarah Wu: But we just didn’t do a lot of fast food, but that didn’t mean that we always ate healthy. A lot of times, we didn’t have a lot of money. So when I was a kid, my favorite food was baked beans, and my sister’s was boxed mac and cheese.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. For sure, for sure.
Sarah Wu: It wasn’t like living high on the hog, or whatever. So, I don’t want to come off sounding hoity-toity about-
Bjork Ostrom: No, not at all.
Sarah Wu: … what I was thinking, but … Yeah. I just was thinking, “Man, this really stinks for these kids.” And so, I kind of filed it away. This was at the end of 2009. I really like to sit down and think about goals, and I know a lot of the people that listen to this also are big planners. I was like, “What do I want to do for 2010?” That meal had really hit me in the heart, like I said, and I was thinking, “What am I going to do?” And I thought about starting a blog, and I thought, “You know, wouldn’t it be great if I could have just almost like a visual blog, where it’s just every day, a school lunch and a school lunch photo? What if I ate the school lunch, too?” Because, like I said, I wasn’t picky at all. Now, I am, but at the time …
So, I actually ran it by my husband, and I said, “Hey, I got this great idea. I’m going to eat school lunch. I’m going to raise awareness. I’m going to do it anonymously, so nobody’s ever going to find me, and I’m going to just throw this out in the world. Because other eyes have to see these meals that the kids are getting, and how else can I do this without risking my livelihood?” My husband said, “You are crazy. Don’t do it.” And so, I did … This was in December, I kind of brushed the idea off because … And that’s something I think we have to tread lightly, when we tell our spouses different ideas that we have, because I don’t know how … Your wife is a risk-taker. My husband is more of a real … He was a math major, so that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him. He’s really logical.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Sure, yeah. Calculates. Yup.
Sarah Wu: Yeah. So, I mean, I think as creative people, when we go into the blogging space, we take risks in a way that my husband wouldn’t take a risk. And so, I decided before the year began, I was going to do it, because something didn’t let me let it go.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. So, obviously, it was this situation where you said, “Hey, I’m going to get school lunch today.” You said it was a bagel dog. is that right?
Sarah Wu: A bagel dog, yeah. It was so mushy.
Bjork Ostrom: So like a hot dog wrapped in like a bagel, kind of, or like a …
Sarah Wu: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I pulled it up, because I was trying to figure out, “What are these things?” And it’s like, “Okay, I can totally picture that.” You have this experience where you’re like, “Oh my gosh. This isn’t a good thing for kids to be eating, so I want to do something about it. What can I do?” You decide, “I’m going to move forward with potentially anonymously posting this online.” One of the things I think you said that was interesting is exposing your idea to other people, whether that be friends or family.
And it’s interesting, because I’ve heard people say different things about this, where some people say if you have an idea, you need to make it known to the world as quickly as possible, and to speak it out into the world. And then, I’ve heard other people say keep that to yourself, because sometimes what can happen if you speak an idea into the world is … The same part of your brain that triggers, like when you check something off your list, it triggers when you say that idea. So just by saying it, sometimes we can feel like we’re accomplishing things. I think even just that little snippet of what you’re talking about is interesting, whether that be for motivation’s sake, or maybe you want to keep an idea kind of private for a little bit as you mull over it, and maybe decide to move forward on it, before looping other people into it. And I think it depends, personally, as well.
So in January, you decided to jump in and to start to do this. Can you talk about what it was like when you snapped a couple of those first photos, and what you were expecting to happen?
Sarah Wu: Well, you know, I didn’t think it would go viral, and I also thought that if it did kind of go a little bit viral, I would be totally protected because of my anonymity. And so, I started just right away, taking pictures and just putting them on the blog. It really didn’t take me that long, because I just did a plain old Blogspot blog, and I just went down to the cafeteria. I got my lunch, and put it up, and that was that, and I just kind of went along. And, of course, I had to reveal myself to my husband.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Sure. Yeah. Somebody had to be in on it.
Sarah Wu: Yeah. I had to be like, “Hey, look. I did it. I know you didn’t want me to, but I did it, and …” I told him, “Look, don’t worry. It’s only taking me like five minutes a night. Big deal.”
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Sarah Wu: But, you know, January got going, and one thing I did do was, just with the blog, I had it auto-tweet. So it would be like, “Day one, this. Day two, this.” Things have changed so much since 2010, in the world of social media. But back then, there were a lot of little Twitter accounts that would do these kind of things, that would be kind of like robot Twitter accounts.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure.
Sarah Wu: I ended up getting some messages from somebody who is actually a close friend now. His name is Andy Bellatti, and he is a nutritionist, and he’s amazing. But he didn’t know who I was, obviously, but he started sharing this, because he also has a passion for food. And so, it might have gotten a little bit of notice on Twitter, but I didn’t really care. I think when I started really wondering was when the State of the Union was, in January, and Michelle Obama literally mentioned school lunches. My husband and I were watching, and I was like, “Oh my gosh. She just mentioned school lunches. This is getting interesting.” Since I was out there, I don’t know, I guess getting … What is it? … getting indexed by Google, so they probably started picking me up. Because by the beginning of February, I was getting about 1,000 hits a day.
Bjork Ostrom: And so, for anybody that’s started a site knows that, if you start in January, and then by February, just through search traffic, you’re getting 1,000 page hits a day … Or visits … that’s pretty quick. That’s a pretty quick growth curve for a site, especially if you’re doing something like you said, where, hey, maybe, taking five, 10 minutes, kind of posting a picture along with a little bit of text. At this point … Curious. So you said you started with Blogspot …
Sarah Wu: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: … which is really a common story for people, especially if you’re looking from the 2006 to 2010 stage. That’s kind of where you’d go, naturally. Now, it’s WordPress, and I saw you eventually switched over. But at that point, was it a Blogspot blog called Fed Up with Lunch? Is that how you started it?
Sarah Wu: Yeah. I think I had it set up with School Lunch … I ended up shortening it later, but … Yeah. You know, I think that’s one thing that … What happened with my blog in particular, and I think with a lot of people who start their own websites, you’re learning in public. So I just stumbled into this extremely highly political topic. I naively stumbled into it. That’s the thing. I didn’t get a chance to learn how to do things a certain way, or … And sometimes, I think that’s how things go. Sometimes, you just take a leap without planning, and that’s the only way you could have done it. Because if I had planned, and if I had actually known anything about school lunch, I think I would have never done it.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I think that’s one of our greatest strengths, when I think of the things that Lindsay and I have done, is maybe our ignorance when we get into it. Because, I think if we were fully informed on things like, “How much work does it take to do a podcast?” It’s like, “Well, maybe I wouldn’t do that.” But you get into it, you start, and you learn as you go. The great thing with that is that you’re able to build and adjust as you do it. So if you were to take a first look at it and say, like, “Hey, how much work does it take to run a membership site or to do a podcast?” Or in your case, to write a blog on something like school lunch, which is, like you said, a very political subject; which, that in and of itself, isn’t easy. Maybe you’d be a little bit intimidated and wouldn’t get started.
But we’re huge advocates of starting with what you have, which is maybe 15 minutes a day, or a half an hour a day, and learning as you go. Maybe what you’ll find is that you adjust, and you make changes as you go, and we’re going to talk about that with your story; or you might find that you actually are on the right path and you just need to double down on the progress you’re making for that. So you’re getting into it, you’re starting to get some traction. It’s becoming something that’s talked about a lot in the news. Michelle Obama’s bringing it up, talking about how we need to improve school lunches, and you’re, in a lot of ways, kind of providing this case study for why that needs to happen.
So can you talk about what that was like as the stakes started to get a little bit higher and you realized, maybe, “Hey, there’s a little bit of traction here. People are following along?”
Sarah Wu: Yeah. I kept thinking, “Wow, this is kind of mind-blowing.” I mean, there was just basically lots of moments of amazement, just as I started to … Well, I had a basic email. And so, I started getting some little inquiries, and I just blew them off, because I didn’t want to commit to …
Bjork Ostrom: What type of inquiries, when you say that you started to get inquiries?
Sarah Wu: Different journalists were reaching out to me, like, “Who are you?” I did say that I was … I think I said I was in the Midwest at first. And then, I ended up realizing, “I’m in Chicago. Hello.” I think I changed it to Chicago. I don’t remember everything now, but I did feel some insecurities, but also some kind of amazement and wonder at the whole experience. At that point, I still had no intention of revealing myself. That was not on the radar. So it was still kind of like I was still behind this iron curtain of, “This is fun. I get to experiment. This is cool, and I know that I’m making a difference.” And at that point, I didn’t realize how much of a difference it was going to be down the line, but I knew that it was starting conversation. It was really in a raising awareness campaign, for sure.
Bjork Ostrom: So, a couple questions that I have, not related to logistics or specifics, but more related to, “How did this work?” One of the questions I have … Let’s say you get into day 50. Would there be a point where somebody that you work with would be able to go back and kind of put things together? Like, “Hey, wait a minute, I recognize those plastic trays,” or like, “That looks like the lunch that we had yesterday,” and start to kind of realize that maybe it would be somebody at your school?
Sarah Wu: You know, yes, and I came to find out that they were actively looking for me.
Bjork Ostrom: Oh, wow.
Sarah Wu: Oh, yeah. They actually hunted down one of my friends at a different school. But, anyway …
Bjork Ostrom: And when you say “they,” who is that? Administration, or superintendent …
Sarah Wu: Good question.
Bjork Ostrom: … or like the school lunch Men in Black?
Sarah Wu: I know. Exactly. No. The administration, because they … This was later, that they ended up knowing that I was a speech pathologist, and they were trying to find the person. But they went to the wrong school, and they interrogated the wrong speech pathologist.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s like a weird thriller or something. And it’s like, what would they do if they … I suppose they would just ask you to stop. That would be the thing that … Or would they?
Sarah Wu: I know.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Sarah Wu: I mean, I got bigger and bigger. So at some point, I think they realized, “Wow. She’s like kryptonite and we can’t touch her.” because they knew that because … So I’d only just started blogging in January. March comes along and I get picked up … I did agree to some press. So, AOL Health, that was a thing back then, they wrote about me. Then, it was like within days, I was on the front page of Yahoo. It all started happening really quick, because a lot of those websites are scanning for interesting things. School lunch, for whatever reason, it seems to be one of those things that people talk about, and it bubbles up to the surface on social media platforms pretty frequently. And so, in March of that year, Good Morning America reached out to me, and they said they wanted to interview me. I said, “No.” And then, they said, “We would interview you in shadow.”
Bjork Ostrom: Oh, nice. One of those interviews, for sure. Did they alter your voice, too, so it was like, “One thing I don’t like about school … ”
Sarah Wu: I don’t remember. I think they might have. Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Sarah Wu: I was so paranoid, so I know that … I probably demanded that they alter my voice. It’s so foggy, it feels like a million years ago, but … Yeah. I went on Good Morning America, and I talked about school lunch, and how important it is for kids to get healthy food, and … The thing about Chicago Public Schools is that it’s so big. I mean, there’s so many elementary schools. Even the school that I worked at, at the time, was 1,300 kids in an elementary school. It was three stories, almost the length of a city block; it was huge.
So, I wasn’t followed that closely, and even the head school lunch lady, who was a friend, she wasn’t paying that much attention to me. I mean, because all of a sudden, here I show up, eating school lunch every day. Nobody ever questioned that it was me because I’m really nice. I mean, I’m super nice and everybody’s friend. Nobody would ever think that I was some kind of rabble-rouser speech pathologist, you know?
Bjork Ostrom: For sure. It’s interesting to look back at that time to see … If you go back in the archives, you can see the blog goes from getting a couple comments a day to like 68 comments on a post. And in 2010, it was different, in terms of how much interaction you would get on a post in general. In general, you’d get more.
Sarah Wu: Yes.
Bjork Ostrom: But also, for having three months of your site being up and running, 68 comments on a post is really abnormal, so you can really see that big shift happening really quickly. A couple other questions that I have specifically about as things started to become … Awareness was raised around it, and it became more popular. When you would take photos of the … Would you have to go into another room, or would you be eating in the room that you work with students in, and you’d be by yourself? I’m really curious to know what that looked like.
Sarah Wu: Oh, yeah. It was pretty dodgy sometimes, because there were times that I did have to share my room. It was small. But I just made it work. I made it work and that’s just what you do. That’s the other thing. When you start a blog, when you have to rely on somebody else for content … Essentially, that’s what I was doing. I’m relying on the school, I’m relying on my employer to provide content for my blog. That is not recommended at all. So, yeah. I mean, if I was sick, I wouldn’t be eating school lunch and …
Bjork Ostrom: You wouldn’t have content. Yeah.
Sarah Wu: … like I said, I had a really young son. Yeah. I missed a couple days here and there for illness, and still, nobody really tracked me down. Really funny.
Bjork Ostrom: Rhe last thing that I’m just kind of curious, specifically with kind of just how you managed this from a personal perspective, do you feel like … I imagine for myself, especially you being somebody who, I would assume, isn’t used to having a really big secret like this, that you keep from your colleagues and maybe family and friends. Did that feel like the tension grew with that, like at some point, you just wanted to be like, “I just really want to let people know about this so I don’t have to be keeping this secret?”
Sarah Wu: There was a toxic feeling to this, because, like I said, the lady that ran the lunch room was somebody that I liked a lot. Even to this day, I think to myself, “Oh, I feel like I betrayed her trust.” The thing you learn, when you do something like this, is that you have a relationship with the people who give you food. I had a relationship with her and those kids in the lunchroom had a relationship with her and the staff. This was the kind of a relationship, a unique one in that, in the school, this is a non-evaluative relationship. They just love the kids. They just give them hugs, they give them a high five. They know the trouble-makers, they help them out …
Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain what you mean by non-evaluative? I think that would be good to explain for people that aren’t familiar with that concept.
Sarah Wu: You know, like your teachers are evaluating you, the administrators are evaluating you as a kid. Just test scores, and you have to be a certain way …
Bjork Ostrom: Coaches, you have scores and …
Sarah Wu: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: Yup, and this is somebody who is neutral.
Sarah Wu: Yeah, neutral and just a loving presence that gives you food. I mean, I have the utmost respect for school lunch ladies. Yeah. There was, inside of me, this sadness that I was betraying people, but also the hope that it was for a greater good. And so, that kept me motivated to keep forward, because whenever I felt bad for different adults, I also reminded myself I was doing this for the kids.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Sarah Wu: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: What an interesting thing to struggle through. And I’m sure it was one of those things, when you first started out, it was like, “I’m going to do this anonymously because I don’t want people to know,” and there might be some awareness around it. But then, as you get into it, it’s like, “Oh, this is a totally different thing than I thought that it would be,” and the impact that it has is probably a little bit different than you thought it would be as well. It’s something where you don’t ever … You can’t compare it against anything, so you can’t say, like, “Oh, I know that once this becomes popular, then it will be difficult because of my relationship with the people that work supplying the lunches in the cafeteria and for the kids.” So I can see how that would be a difficult thing as it started to grow.
So what was that like? You had these moments where it was picked up by AOL, it was picked up by Yahoo. Specifically around those times, do you remember what the impact was, in terms of like traffic on the blog and engagement? How did the moments, where you had features on websites like AOL Health or Yahoo, differ than when you had a feature on … Did you say it was Good Morning America that they did the …
Sarah Wu: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. So how did those differ?
Sarah Wu: Well, you know, you get more hits when you’re featured on an online, because it’s just easy to click over. That’s the thing. Let’s pretend that you’re just … Well, I mean, anybody that just starts off doing this … I knew this was kind of unsustainable, you know? I knew that this kind of press is not something that happens all the time. I was terrified, but I was also super excited. When I went on Good Morning America … I think it’s good for people to go on TV, and I think that actually, a lot of local news stations do need content. So I know that if you’re a website or you’re a blogger that you want to share something in your specialty, I think pitching a local station’s a really, really great way to get some … But what really you should focus on is building those small, viral moments in your community, so then, you become an expert where you are, and then you can grow from there instead of trying to shoot for the moon and get on Good Morning America. Because the honest truth … Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Real quick. Jason from 100 Days of Real Food, we did a podcast interview with him. I think that he mentioned this. We’ll link to it in the show notes, but he talks about this idea of … I forget what he calls it, but essentially, you use local small stories to then build on top of to prove credibility to bigger publications. So an example for us would be we could reach out to our hometown newspaper, which we did, and then, they do a feature on Pinch of Yum. Then, you use that to maybe reach out to local news stations and say, “Hey, here’s an example of what we’re doing, a feature we had.” Then, you reach out to … For us, it would be the Star Tribune, the Minneapolis newspaper. But using this kind of reverse pyramid to start small and then get a little bit bigger, I think that’s really wise advice.
Rhe other thing that I want to reiterate, that you said, is this idea of reaching out to local news stations, because they need content., right?
Sarah Wu: Yes.
Bjork Ostrom: It doesn’t do much for traffic. I think that’s really important for people to know. It’s not like you’re going to get this huge spike in traffic. But what it does do is provides really strong credibility for your brand, and also — I think you mentioned this — for your audience as well. It lets them know you’re legitimate, you’re working hard behind the scenes. You’re getting exposure. There’s momentum behind what you’re doing. It’s fun content to talk about, so I think what you said there is worth pursuing, for people that are kind of interested in playing around in this space of PR.
Sarah Wu: Absolutely, because if you’re going on Good Morning America, everybody sees you. And sometimes, the people that go to your website are trolls. I was getting some pretty sad little comments from the haters. Sometimes, I was really sad to the point of, like, “Oh my gosh, I cannot believe somebody said that to me.” And so, I think that I empowered that because of being anonymous, so that’s another thing. If you have your name out there, and you’re going to local media, there’s a risk fact there that, I think, doesn’t happen, that you would get from a big thing like Good Morning America or some kind of big hit from a large website. You’re going to get the hater traffic and it’s heart wrenching.
Bjork Ostrom: Yes. Yeah, and especially when you’re in that first phase, your first year, you haven’t been in it long enough to develop some of that thick skin. Not that you ever completely get there, but Lindsay and I have been publishing content online for seven years now, and it’s still … You’ll get kind of troll, mean comments. You still feel it, but it doesn’t cut quite as deep as it would in those first couple years, when it’s like, “Ah!” Like, the worst comment ever. Now I think we’ve developed these mindsets in understanding, “We don’t know these people. We don’t know their story … ” I think in a weird, twisted way, you’re kind of able to have compassion on these people, because it’s like, you truly don’t know, and their situation might be one that is really, really difficult. I think it’s by … Then, by lashing out at those people, it doesn’t really do anything.
But all that to say, it’s really, really difficult to do, and to manage that, and to know that somebody else is actually thinking that and taking the time to actually publish that as a comment.
Sarah Wu: That’s right. Oh my gosh. I mean, it’s kind of remarkable how these people are out there. But … Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: As a quick aside, I thought it was interesting, Ed Sheeran — you know the singer, Ed Sheeran? — he just recently announced that he’s just done with Twitter. He’s like, “I’m done because people are so mean on it.” I always think it’s interesting when even huge celebrities, that have this massive following behind them of support and love and appreciation … It’s like, “Oh, man. You have to deal with that,” and it’s a real reality if you’re putting yourself out there and publishing content. So interesting that you had to deal with that so early on as well.
Sarah Wu: Yeah. Absolutely. You know what? I was going to say that what’s interesting about the conferences that I went to, and the people that I met, was that most people went one of two ways. They went up where they got big, their platforms increased little by little, and now they’re huge among us; or, they went a different direction, which was they went … They didn’t continue with their blog. There’s so many grave sites along the internet, of food bloggers and any bloggers that have kind of given it up. When I really look back … And I also think about myself, because I did really kind of kill my website, and I can talk more about why I did that.
But I think that it was the people that took daily constant action, and also had really good goals in place that they were going to hit and work at … They weren’t looking for that viral moment. They didn’t want to go big right away. They were just going to … Excuse me … take it one step at a time. The people that I know, and I have a lot of good friends that have actually stepped out of the space since then, I don’t want to say that they were in it for the wrong reasons. I wasn’t in it for the wrong reasons either. It’s just people change and so, I think it’s important for people who are listening to think about that. Just because you see somebody now, you don’t know where they’re going to be in a couple years and just always treat everybody with respect, but don’t compare. Don’t compare yourself, because you have no idea what their journey will be like. I could have spent a lot of time thinking about other people’s sites and then now, they’re not even really in play at all anymore.
Bjork Ostrom: Right. Yeah. I think that’s a …
Sarah Wu: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s a huge piece with the work that we do is this reality that a lot of it is mental and a huge part of that mental game is tracking along with the progress that other people experience. I know for certain that, whether it’s a tiny little bit or in huge ways, people that are listening to this can relate to it. I know that I can relate to it. When you say that, I’m like, “Yes, absolutely. I totally get it.” I think it’s really important to call that out because … Two things, like you said. Number one: how important it is to know that we can look back at somebody’s story. Right? So, we can look and say, “Oh, they grew really quick, and that’s really hard for me, because I’ve been working hard and I didn’t grow quick.”
But what we can’t do is we can’t look forward and see somebody else’s story, if we look forward, and say … You know, who knows what? They might decide to go into a different niche and then suddenly, you’re not in the same niche and so you don’t compare, or they might decide to wind things down because they’re burnt out. In general, I think you’re going to be better off if you can take this approach of being aware of what other people are doing and learn from people and implement best practice, but to focus inwardly when you are thinking about your own story. The comparison I like to do is cross-country versus tennis. In this game, we’re not playing tennis, where you need to beat somebody out. We’re in cross-country, where we’re trying to beat our own best record. Obviously, there’s other people running, but the mindset is a little bit different. So, I think that’s awesome that you called that out. Such an important concept.
Sarah Wu: Yeah, absolutely. If you go viral too early, which is how I view my experience, you’re not ready for it. You don’t have a backlog of content for somebody who’s discovering you, and you maybe aren’t attracting the traffic that you really want, like the people and the eyeballs that you really, really want. That was kind of my experience, you know?
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Whenever we go into one of these podcasts, I think about, “What are the things that would be important to take out and to pull out?” That was one of those ideas for this podcast that I wanted people to understand was that even if you go viral or are able to get this huge spike in traffic, that that doesn’t necessarily translate into future success. Or that, in and of itself, isn’t the win. Oftentimes, the hard-fought additional two, three, four, five raving fans that stumble across your site from search, or maybe from you connecting with them on a personal level, those, long-term, can be potentially just as beneficial as this huge feature on AOL or Yahoo or any of these brands that are going to give you a big spike in traffic.
One of the things I wanted to ask was, specifically around that time, were there things that you thought, “I need to be doing this. I need to put ads on my blog or get email addresses,” or anything like that that, during that time, you thought about doing? Or was it just so early on in your blogging career, that you said, “You know what? I just need to continue doing this content and try and get as much exposure as possible?”
Sarah Wu: Well, the summer between the school years, I was approached about writing a book. That terrified me, because the agent I ended up going with told me, “You are going to have to reveal yourself.” I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is so scary to me.” So, I spent a lot of time really thinking about revealing myself. I did end up putting ads on the blog and I don’t know if that was not the right direction to go, because it’s just … And I actually still do have display ads on there, which I don’t have on another site of mine.
I think that’s a really personal decision, whether or not you’re going to put ads on it. I did it at the time because, by that point, it was taking up so much of my time and I felt like, “Oh, I feel like I want to take … ” You know, certain people would say, “Take advantage of … ” Really, when I mean certain people, because I am like a locked box. I didn’t tell anybody, and that’s what I was not found. I was not found until I revealed myself. Nobody literally had no idea who I was, because I literally told nobody.
Bjork Ostrom: Hmm. So, walk us through that process. How far along was it, when the book was finished, and then you made the reveal … Again, on Good Morning America, right?
Sarah Wu: Yup. Yup. That’s right. I ate school lunch for the entire 2010, January through December, and then I was writing the book that fall through the beginning of January of 2011. The book came out October 7th, 2011, and that’s when I was on Good Morning America, talking about my book and school lunch and all that stuff.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about what the process was like with the book? Were there things that surprised you, in terms of maybe how popular the site was? Did that translate over into popularity with the book? I love to hear about people that do different types of publication. We haven’t ever published like a actual physical book or product before, so I would be interested to hear what that was like.
Sarah Wu: Well, you know, it was an interesting process. I mean, who doesn’t want to write a book? Of course, I’d always wanted to write a book. The idea of being able to get that out in the world was really exciting. Then, in the dark of the night, I think about my school and the lunch ladies and how they have no clue any of this is happening and how horrible, to find out that way. My enthusiasm was tempered by that whole process. But I worked with an editor. It was a long slog, especially because I was also blogging too. I just worked really hard. I took a lot of time away from my son. I’m extremely proud of the book that I wrote.
I would say, though … Hmm. Let’s see here. I think about the book in the way of … The book is the biggest school lunch book ever written, in terms of sales, but in terms of sales as a book, extremely low, because who wants to read about school lunch? Sometimes, I would get a review like, “Just read the blog,” which is … I remember somebody wrote that and there’s actually a whole lot in the book that is not in the blog. But, you know, I would say it’s really a mixed bag. If you’re kind of gunning for that book deal and thinking that’s going to make it for you, I mean, that is not true. It certainly did not make it for me. I feel like I was able to get it in the hands of people who could make a difference. And so, from that point of view, I feel like it made a difference in the world and that makes me happy. But in terms of catapulting me in a different direction, career-wise, it actually didn’t happen for me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Obviously, every story’s a little bit different, but one of the things we often hear is the majority of books, whether it be a cookbook or like a written book, don’t necessarily have the highest potential to be extreme moneymakers or to be selling thousands of copies. But moreso, have the potential to be a credibility piece. And so, books allow you then to maybe speak at conferences or to make more appearances on podcasts or to be something that introduces you to an audience that you normally wouldn’t connect with. Again, by no means is that always the case, but from the conversations we’ve had, we hear that as a pretty common thing. I’m always interested to hear from people that do that publishing.
Sarah Wu: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: The last piece I wanted to touch on specifically with kind of the viral component of things was how intentional were you in creating that publicity, versus being in a place where you were creating content around something that was a really trendy topic — Michelle Obama was talking about it a lot, it was in the news and the media a lot. And so, naturally, you stepped into this space and kind of rode the wave, because you were in the right place for that wave. I’m curious to know, was there intentional outreach that you did do? For those that are interested in maybe having some of that virality, could you have any advice on potentially reproducing that? Not that it’s the end goal, to just have virality or to make things go viral, but if people want to be intentional with that, how can they do that?
Sarah Wu: Well, I wasn’t intentional. That’s a really great point. I just had it out there and it got a lot of attention. In fact, I actively did not promote, because I was terrified for my job. But I think that, when it comes to content for a blog like mine, and I know that a lot of people who listen really specify … If you’re a school lunch blogger, that is the hill. You’ve got to be ready to die on that hill. I think that’s the expression. You know, that’s what I was blogging about. Once the year was over, a lot of people commented like, “Thank you. This was so interesting. I learned a lot and now I want to advocate on the PTO.” Then, I naturally lost readers, right after the end of the year. When you go through a project like this, where there’s a set timeframe, then you will lose readers after that time.
I think that sometimes challenges can be really valuable when you’re learning something. But in general, I think that doesn’t always work out, because then, I also tried to figure out what do I do now?
Bjork Ostrom: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What’s next? Yeah.
Sarah Wu: Yeah. What’s next? And so, I would say for me — and me in particular — I found that I floundered quite a bit, because I did not know what to do and I started doing some posts with my son’s lunches at that time, and those started getting traction. But I realized that is not the point of my blog. I don’t want to post what I give my own son to eat, because my whole idea of this blog was to help other kids eat better, not necessarily show what my son does. So, I would say that as a blogger, if you do decide to choose a niche, you’ve have to be ready to just go all in. If you stray, your readers … They’re just not going to wait … For example, if you’re a candy blogger, if you do a piece on tacos, your people are going to be like, “What in the world?” You know?
Yeah. That was my experience. And so, then I slowly started losing traffic. It came back when I launched the book. Then after that point, it kind of slowly lost its momentum, after I did a pretty small book tour and went around the country and had some really cool conversations. But in terms of my career, by that point, you know, now my name was known and I felt extremely vulnerable at my job. And so, I ended up having to resign in 2012.
Bjork Ostrom: Did you have any conversations with co-workers at that point? I would be so curious to know what those were like.
Sarah Wu: Oh my gosh. Yeah. People were totally shocked that it was me, because like I said, I’m super nice girl. But then, every so often, whenever there was a school lunch topic in the media — because it pops up, every so often — I would get calls. I went on WGN, I went on ABC. Every so often, I’d go on the show. One time, I went on the show and the principal of the school, that I was at at that time — because I moved around a little bit — he pulled me aside and said, “You should not be doing that. Do not. Do not.”
Yeah, and so, then I was like, “Wow.”
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, which makes it … Yeah. I think it makes sense from his perspective, for protecting. But also, it’s like you don’t want people to kind of control the conversation of what, in general, is a positive conversation where you’re campaigning for schools to have better food provided in the lunches. So at that point, you decided, “This is something where I’m going to step back. I’m going to resign.”
One last thing that I would want to know — or curious to know — is did you have a conversation with the lunch lady? Did you connect with her, ever talk to her, or …
Sarah Wu: No. I never did, because by that point, I was at a different school. I’ve always wanted to go back. I have to be honest. Every year, I think, “I should just make a trip down there,” because I live in the suburbs now, “and just give her a hug and say, ”I’m sorry.“ ”
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and it’s one of those things, like you said, where your intent and your heart in doing it is not at all to hurt somebody. It’s purely to see if you can campaign to get better food for kids in schools. But hard with a relationship like that, where it’s so personal and it’s connected to what somebody does. Anyways, I was just curious to know if you connected with them.
At some point, you decide, “This is something where I’m going to wind down, because I’m just not interested in continuing within this niche. I’ve kind of played around with some other stuff, but it doesn’t quite seem to fit.” So, you wind things down. At that point, did you know that you’d have a launching pad into another site or another blog, or did you say, “You know what? I’m done with this blog website stuff?” "
Sarah Wu: Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t find a job, moved to the suburbs and I was starting to get desperate. I was really worried that I had committed career suicide.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure.
Sarah Wu: And so, I tried to find jobs in food justice and farm-to-school. I tried to interview for a job. But as a bilingual speech pathologist, I feel like what kind of skill set … On paper, it doesn’t look exactly like the right fit, to work at some different non-profits. Then, I was also worried because … Like I said, I’m a bilingual speech pathologist. I speak fluent Spanish. I should be snapped up immediately and I went through several different job interviews, where nobody was taking me. I was basically terrified that my original thesis of, “This is going to cost me my job,” was right.
And so, that was why I ended up kind of slowly backing away from Fed Up with Lunch, because I didn’t want it to impact me negatively in a professional sense. That was really hard, because I had become this expert. So, I ended up just kind of swallowing it and just letting it slowly die, and also not telling anybody. For the past several years at different jobs that I’ve gotten … I don’t know. If people, who interview you … Sometimes, they do Google searches on your name. Other times, they don’t. And so, I have gone through some different jobs out here and I just literally avoid the lunchroom and I don’t say a word about what happened. It’s really sad that it has come to that. I really didn’t want to get into the online space. I wanted to let it die and I wanted to give it some thought.
Back then, in 2014, I finally decided that I wanted to blog more about speech therapy topics. I know that’s kind of something that, maybe, your listeners aren’t interested in. But just for me, I wanted to blog about something that I definitely knew I was an expert in. I’ve had a ton of training, and went to one of the best grad schools in the country, and I knew that when I stepped into that space, I could talk at length about everything related to speech therapy. And, in another sense, I needed to prove myself, that I was a decent speech pathologist, that I could get a job. By starting a site, I could say, “Hey, world. Yes, I was a rabble-rouser with my first attempt in this space. Not anymore. I have credibility. I have a website,” and that’s why I did it.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Curious with this podcast … So, you reached out and said, “Hey, would love to connect with you, talk a little bit about this.” I was excited about the idea of talking about viral content, why it can be beneficial but also why, in a lot of ways, it’s overrated and people think it’s going to be more impactful than it is. And so, it was exciting for me. But for you, in some ways, it’s saying, like, “I am going to step out. I am going to talk about this and I’m going to let people know about it.” What was the reasoning for that?
Sarah Wu: You know, I think that there is a part of that still wants to share the story and everything that happened to me, even though it was not entirely positive. I kind of wanted to share that with your listeners because, like I said, I am a huge fan of your podcast and I listen to it all the time. I thought that, especially after, I think, one of the previous people had said something about going viral after a month. One of the pins on Pinterest had gone viral. I thought to myself, “Going viral is a definite mixed bag.” I don’t think that … At least, the way it was in that podcast, it came off as, “This is a goal for people.” I think that what people need to know is that it’s not necessarily the best thing for you, your website or your life, if you go viral. Certainly, mine is an extreme case. I don’t think that everybody that’s listening to this certainly suffers like how I feel like I suffered, in the middle of my journey there. But that’s why I reached out, because I wanted to share my story. It is a food blog, it was a food blog. It meant a great deal to me and I felt like it was a story that also needed to be told.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. For sure. It’s interesting to think about the different types of viral, as well. I think of your story, and it’s somebody taking your story, creating a story around that — right? — so they’re telling your story by then putting their own editorial voice to it. So, there’s a slant, one way or the other. Then, those people are coming to your site, with this pre-exposed idea and, a lot of times, pre-exposed beliefs as to what is right and wrong with what you are doing. Think of how potentially political something as simple as school lunch could be, or not simple, as you get into it and as you know.
But then, I think of traffic like Pinterest is maybe a little bit more like neutral, anonymous traffic, where people are just coming for a purely informational piece of content, like a cookie recipe or something like that. It reminds me a lot of this book by an author named Ryan Holiday. He worked for American Apparel as the marketing executive and then worked with a lot of influencers to create these intentionally viral campaigns. But it’s a book called Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Have you heard of this book?
Sarah Wu: No. I haven’t heard of that.
Bjork Ostrom: I haven’t read it, but I’m going to add it to my to-read after this. I’ll read just a little snippet here of the book. This doesn’t apply to what you were doing, but I think it’s interesting in creating intentional viral content. He says, “I’m a media manipulator in a world where blogs control and distort the news. My job is to control blogs, as much as one person can.” Then, it says, “In today’s culture, number one blogs like Gawker, Buzzfeed or Huffington Post drive the media agenda. Two, bloggers are slaves to technology deadlines and money. Three, manipulators wield these levers to shape everything you read, see and watch online and off.” And so, he talks about these things that he implemented, working with different people, to manipulate the media into getting a ton of attention and PR and publicity with these really influential sites. I would imagine a huge piece of that is then having to deal with, like in your case, the ramifications of that additional attention and virality. So, I can see how it would be something that would not necessarily be desirable, especially when it has to do with such a difficult topic.
Sarah Wu: Absolutely. No, I mean, for sure. If you have certain recipes go viral, that’s great news. But other times, it might not be the best timing. What you always mention is … I think you were saying the 1% to infinity, where you’re doing something every day and it’s slow growth. Like I said, I started my Speech is Beautiful website in the spring of 2014, and I just took, basically, daily steps towards building a website about speech therapy. As boring as that might sound, after now more than three years, I’m really getting what I consider to be great traffic. It took a long time. It took a really long time. But now, if I look at the graph, it’s virtually the opposite of my Fed Up with Lunch experience, where I went from …
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Interesting. Yeah.
Sarah Wu: … huge heights and then a slow decline, to the speech therapy blog is this slow increase. Then, just over the past year, I’ve been having some really nice bumps in traffic and getting a lot of positive attention. So for me, it’s been extremely rewarding to do that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Yeah. I did a trip to Kansas City, a city that we love, this last weekend with some friends, and we watched the Minnesota Twins. I know that you are a Wisconsin, born and raised in Wisconsin, so … Maybe more of a Brewers fan, but we won’t hold it against you. But we went to watch the Twins, and on the way down, we were talking with some friends and they were like, “So, explain what it is that you do.” So, we were talking a little bit about Pinch of Yum and Food Blogger Pro. They’re like, “Oh my gosh. That’s so awesome. How’s that work? How did you get into it?”
As we were talking about it, I said, “I really, truly believe at my core that if you intentionally work on something, even specifically within this niche … ” So, speaking to websites or building a following online or YouTube channel or podcast or whatever it is. “I feel like if you really work on something hard for,” I said, “five to seven years and do that consistently and try to improve over that time period, I really think that you’ll end up finding success, whatever that looks like for you, in that pursuit.”
But like you said, it’s the time piece. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of work. What you’ll find though is if you do that intentionally, improve a little bit over time, is you have this really solid foundation. It sounds like that’s true for your Speech is Beautiful site. With that specifically, I’d be interested to hear: were there things, from your process of building Fed Up with Lunch, that you said, “I know I’m going to do this differently and be more intentional with this,” going into building Speech is Beautiful?
Sarah Wu: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I definitely had learned a few things. I knew about starting an email list right away, so I started an email list right away. I started immediately on WordPress. I wasn’t going to mess around with Blogspot. I knew about SCO, so I knew how to write headlines that were things people would be searching for. Yeah, and I mean, I’ve also continued going to different conferences and building a storefront on, actually, a website called Teachers Pay Teachers, which is an education website where teachers can share lessons that they developed and can sell to other educators. I have a storefront there that I’m building, hand-in-hand with my website.
It’s a great platform and it helps me kind of share my knowledge, because like I said, I’m a bilingual speech pathologist. There’s only maybe about 3,600 bilingual speech pathologist in the entire country. There’s already a shortage of speech therapists in general and there’s an extreme shortage of speech therapists that speak Spanish, so I have a little niche and I’m writing all about it. I really love it. I’ve always loved to write. I mean, I’ve just always loved to write, and so that’s something that has been a part of me.
But actually, one thing you said was that I was born and raised from Wisconsin, but actually that’s not the truth. That’s probably why I can teach such good secrets, because my dad’s Australian and my mom’s from Wisconsin.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s right. Right when you said that, I remember that not only are you bilingual, but you also have dual citizenship. Is that right?
Sarah Wu: That’s right. Yes. So, I always kept that to myself. When I was growing up in Wisconsin, I never wanted to attract attention to myself, so I never, ever said to anybody, “Yeah, my dad’s an Australian,” because I felt that was way too attention-grabbing. That’s the same thing. Even now, I don’t tell my new friends about Fed Up with Lunch. I don’t want to say, “Oh, yeah. I wrote a book and I ate a year of school lunch and I was on the front page of CNN and Yahoo and I was on NPR, you know?”
Bjork Ostrom: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sarah Wu: Can you imagine … That recap stays buried.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. For sure. For sure. Yeah. Yeah. Only for those friendships where you’re really close and deep into the night, around a fire, would that potentially come up. Yeah.
Sarah Wu: Right. Around a northern …
Bjork Ostrom: Camping in …
Sarah Wu: … Wisconsin fire.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Camping in Three Lakes or Rhinelander, which is … We both currently go there to camp, so that’s great. The great thing about your new site is you don’t have to do it anonymously, right? So, you can use your name.
Sarah Wu: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely.
Bjork Ostrom: We’re coming to the end here, Sarah. Curious … For those that are listening, what would be the one piece of advice that you’d give them? You’ve been at this content creation game for a long time. You have experience in different niches. You’ve learned a lot along the way. What would you tell the people that are either people that are just getting started, or people that have been doing it for a long time?
Sarah Wu: I would say it’s really important to be yourself. That’s why, like I said, some people left the food blogging space and move on, because they’ve changed. That’s me. I still am passionate about school lunch. If the right job hit me up, that I could advocate and also still pay the bills, I would be totally all over that. But the honest truth is that I am a speech pathologist. That’s my training and that’s what I do, and so I enjoy the work. I love working with kids. I work in Spanish. I work with needy people and it gives me a huge sense of fulfillment. Actually, that would be what I would say. I did actually leave a corporate job. I worked for Kraft Foods for four years before going back to school to become a speech pathologist. And so, making a difference is really core to my person. If your readers are that kind of person, definitely incorporating that in their life and talking about what matters to them will resonate with others as well.
Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. I have to say this. I, as an elementary school kid, went to a … This is ironic, that I mess up the word speech pathologist. But I went to a speech pathologist when I was a kid, and now I’m doing a podcast, so it comes full circle.
Sarah Wu: Look at that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Sarah Wu: Oh my gosh.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so I appreciate that.
Sarah Wu: That’s perfect speech. Take it from me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, maybe. Really appreciate you coming on, Sarah, sharing your story. I think people will really appreciate your willingness to talk about that and I know that it helps to have those perspectives from all different angles. Last question of the podcast. Sarah, for those that want to connect with you, where can they follow along with you online?
Sarah Wu: Well, I’m at speechisbeautiful.com and I’m also on Instagram, sarahwuslp.
Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Great. We’ll be sure to include those in the show notes as well. One more big thank you, Sarah, for coming on the podcast today.
Sarah Wu: Thanks again.
Bjork Ostrom: One more big thank you to Sarah for coming on the podcast today and for sharing her story with Fed Up with Lunch. It was a really interesting interview for me and confirmed a lot of the things that we talk about here on the podcast. This idea of slowly and intentionally building something over a long period of time and how that can be really beneficial. Not that a viral piece of content is bad, but you also need that foundational content that you build off of as well. It is both and, right? So, it can’t just be one viral thing and it can’t just be the same old, same old. You have to use both together to build a following. We think the best way to do that is to stay committed for a long period of time, finding ways to get better each and every day, and sticking with it. I truly, truly believe that, if you do that over a long period of time, that you will see positive results.
Thanks so much for tuning in to the podcast here today. If you haven’t yet, I would encourage you to go ahead and subscribe to this podcast. You can do that by just hitting the Subscribe button wherever you are listening to this. If you happen to be listening somewhere that doesn’t have a subscribe button, you can check out a podcast app on your phone. That’s probably the best way to follow along with what we’re doing here on Food Blogger Pro. Download that podcast app and just search Food Blogger Pro and you will see our podcast. If you don’t, shoot us a note and we’ll make sure that we add it to whatever podcast app that is.
Thank you so much for tuning in. Appreciate you guys. Make it a great week.
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