435: Prioritizing Recipe Testing and Purpose in Food Blogging with Michelle Cehn from World of Vegan

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A blue photograph of an open egg carton and empty bowls with the title of Michelle Cehn's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast, 'Prioritizing Recipe Testing and Purpose in Food Blogging' across the image.

This episode is sponsored by Clariti and CultivateWP.

Welcome to episode 435 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Michelle Cehn from World of Vegan.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Taryn Scarfone. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

Prioritizing Recipe Testing and Purpose in Food Blogging

Michelle has been blogging for a long time (she even has the @vegan handle on Instagram!) and has been passionate about animal rights and vegan cooking from the get-go. But her approach to sharing that mission with her readers has evolved over the years, and she explains more about why in this interview.

Michelle also shares more about how she balances the aspects of her job that bring her joy and a sense of purpose with the business and financial side of running a food blog.

Last but certainly not least, Michelle and Bjork chat about the recipe testing process that Michelle has used for her cookbook and for her blog, and how she recruits volunteers to help test each of her recipes.

A photograph of an apple pie with a quote from Michelle Cehn's episode of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast, "What would you like to create if business wasn't a part of it?"

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How and why Michelle started a vegan blog and how her approach to sharing vegan recipes has changed over the years.
  • How Michelle and Toni Okamoto monetized their sites with meal plans.
  • How she balances a mission-driven and profit-driven approach to her business.
  • What the recipe testing process at World of Vegan looks like.
  • About the recipe testing process (with over 75 volunteers!) for Michelle’s cookbook.
  • The exact questions Michelle asks her recipe testers for each recipe.


Thank you to our sponsors!

This episode is sponsored by Clariti and CultivateWP.

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Thanks to Clariti for sponsoring this episode!

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If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].

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Transcript (click to expand):

Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by Clariti. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could figure out how you can optimize the existing posts on your blog without needing to comb through each and every post one by one? With Clariti, you can discover optimization opportunities with just a few clicks. Thanks to Clariti’s robust filtering options you can figure out which posts have broken links, missing alt text, broken images, no internal links and other insights so you can confidently take action to make your blog posts even better.

We know that food blogging is a competitive industry, so anything you can do to level up your content can really give you an edge. By fixing content issues and filling content gaps, you’re making your good content even better. And that’s why we created Clariti. It’s a way for bloggers and website owners to feel confident in the quality of their content. Listeners to the Food Blogger Pro podcast, get 50% off of their first month of Clariti after signing up to sign up, simply go to clariti.com/food. That’s Clariti, C-L-A-R-I-T-I.com/food. Thanks again to Clariti for sponsoring this episode.

Emily Walker: Hey there. This is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team, and you are listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. This week on the podcast, Bjork is interviewing Michelle Cehn from the food blog World of Vegan. Michelle has been blogging for a long time. She even has the at @vegan handle on Instagram, which should tell you a lot. And she’s always been really passionate about animal rights and spreading the message of eating vegan and plant-based. But her approach to sharing that message has changed pretty significantly over the years, and it’s really interesting to hear Michelle reflect on that change and how she approaches activism and sharing her vegan recipes these days. Michelle and Bjork chat a lot about how to include purpose and passion in your work and how important that is to balance with the business or financial side of running a business like this.

Michelle also shares more about her recipe testing process, both for her cookbook and for the recipes on her blog. She has a really detailed recipe testing process and uses a whole team of volunteer recipe testers to test every recipe that she puts on her site. She explains more how she recruits volunteers, and the exact questions that she asks these volunteers to fill out when they’re testing her recipes. It’s a really wonderful interview. We just know you’re going to love it, so I’m going to let Bjork take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Michelle, welcome to the podcast.

Michelle Cehn: Thank you so much. It’s such an honor to be here after all these years of listening.

Bjork Ostrom: Well, the funny thing is you have a podcast as well. It’s always great when you pull up the interview, the video loads up and it’s like, oh, you’ve got podcasts, headphones, you’ve got a podcast mic. We’re just ready to go here. So maybe as part of this, when you’re telling your story, you can talk about your podcast a little bit. I know your co-host is somebody that we’ve interviewed as well on the podcast, but every time we do an interview, we love to set it up by hearing a little bit about somebody’s story, what got them started, and kind of what day-to-day looks like for you. And then we’re going to get into the subject specifically around recipe testing. But before we do that, tell us a little bit about who you are, what you’re about, and what your days look like as a creator.

Michelle Cehn: I love it. Yeah. I got into this field in a pretty non-traditional way. I’m a huge animal lover, so I always wanted to have a career helping animals. And so I used to want to be a veterinarian, and then I thought, well, maybe if I go in the nonprofit space, I can help more animals that way. And ultimately, I landed as a food blogger realizing that I can make the biggest impact for animals by helping people who love animals not eat animals.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally.

Michelle Cehn: And yeah, I started a food blog. It was kind of more of a advocacy blog at first, but over the years evolved and I realized that a big way to help not only animals but the planet and people is really not focus on the animals, it’s not about them. It’s just help people eat more plants in general. And everyone’s on board with that. Almost no one’s on board with eating vegetarian and especially not eating vegan, but people are happy to eat a delicious plant-based meal. So yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Interesting.

Michelle Cehn: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s almost like the heart behind what you do, I’m sure is still the same, but I’m sure through time you learn that the positioning of that has to be different if your goal is for people to eat less animals. To come out and say, don’t eat animals, and here’s why is different than saying, here’s why it’s so great to eat. It’s the same thing, but the position that you’re coming from or the angle that you’re coming from is different, is that a little bit of what you’re saying is it’s repositioning the messaging around eating vegan?

Michelle Cehn: Yes, and I no longer feel I need to pressure people or encourage people or say, “Hey, have you considered eating vegan?” That’s no longer a part of my life and I’m so grateful for it. And instead I just try and lead by positive example. And the beautiful thing about food blogs is we can create a recipe for cookies and someone can find it who’s not plant based, not vegan, not even thinking about that, but it’s an amazing recipe. And so they make it, they try it, maybe they realize it’s vegan, maybe they don’t, but it just opens this door to a different way of eating that is never possible before the internet and sort of the food blog space sprouted up. I mean, I used to be a more typical animal advocate as I’d go to protests and whatever.

And none of that did anything. It just made people hate vegans. And I feel like now I’ve seen so much transformation in the communities around me and my family around me, and people around me. If you take away any of the judgment or pressure or having to even think about what’s involved in our food because that’s a hard thing for us to see. Even eating plants, it can be complicated what goes into our food system. And so just making it easy for people to eat healthy, amazing food has been such a gas.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. I’m curious to hear, what helps facilitate that kind of transformation for you because it sounds like you can look at it and say, it’s almost like a before and after. At one stage you were very outspoken and kind of an advocate, and that’s good. It’s still a good thing, but maybe didn’t have the impact, or maybe you’d say it wasn’t a good thing. I don’t know. But it seems like outwardly it’s a good thing to advocate for the things that you want and belief should exist within the world, but maybe didn’t have the impact that you wanted it to. And so there was some point it sounds like, where you’re like, wait, I need to do this a little bit differently. Is that true or was it just slowly over time?

Michelle Cehn: Yeah, it was slowly over time, but also very strong points where I’m like, this isn’t working. And actually, I mean, I know a lot of people who are also into animal advocacy and trying to help protect our world in various ways. And the same thing tends to happen when you learn about … I don’t think anyone on our planet is on board with the way that factory farms are run and the way that animals are raised in this world. It’s really hard to see. Most people don’t but when you see that, it’s so upsetting that you have this fire in you. If people only knew this was going on, no one would participate in it, no one would be putting their dollars there. It’s way beyond anyone’s comfort level.

And so that sudden and very intense sadness and also kind of a feeling that you can make a change comes out often loudly and eagerly. And then you kind of realize, well, we’re in a world where most people are not in a place where they’re ready to make any changes. And it’s just that doesn’t really work to tell someone information when they’re not ready to hear it. So yeah, over time, I think many people who first become passionate about something kind of soften and change their approach to something that’s both more sustainable for them and also a warmer, more welcoming place to be for people who want to step in that direction.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, because it’s a hard place to live, I would imagine as well, to be as activated, potentially frustrated, also like, wait, why aren’t people seeing this? Why don’t people care to come alongside me in this? It was like, that would be difficult.

Michelle Cehn: And lives are on the line. Suffering is happening. And so when you’re not being effective, you feel the impact of that. But I think getting some distance from that just for my own mental health, anyone’s mental health is important. And then it’s been interesting seeing as I’ve tried every different kind of avenue of trying to help reach people. And the most effective is when you kind of stop trying to reach people and you don’t have any expectations and you don’t try and have direct conversations with anyone. It’s just you put the information out there and we all want to be eating healthier. We all want to be kinder to the planet and kinder to animals. We all want these things. And if you can just make it easy for people to choose it themselves, that feels so much better, I think on both sides. Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: The thought I was going to share is it’s almost like marketing. Part of what you’re doing is thinking as a marketer, and it’s not an AB test, but it’s a little bit of a before and after test of what’s the most impactful way for me to market this message? And it sounds like what you’re saying is you’ve found a more effective way to market it, to get the same outcome, or maybe not even the same outcome but to get a beneficial outcome.

Michelle Cehn: When you feel upset about something that’s wrong and you want to make a change. Our minds feel good if we’re doing something, anything. And that’s great for our minds, but if you really want to make a change in the world, you only have one life and one kind of opportunity to do that, to use our lives to do that. And so it’s really important if you want to make the biggest impact possible for whatever it is that you care about and are passionate about, it’s important to see, “Okay, well what is this time and energy and input that I’m putting out there? What impact is that making and how can I refine things to make sure that the impact is as great as possible?”

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. And one of the things that I love about your reflections on that is this idea that we need to be looking holistically at what we do, and it’s easy to talk about followers or traffic or numbers or revenue, and part of that is it sustains us. Whether it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit, we need to figure out ways to functionally make that work. But at some point, if your only motivation is metrics and numbers, this isn’t true for everybody, but for a lot of people, you might burn out or you might kind of question what is the purpose behind it? And one of the things that’s so great about your story is those two things could operate side by side. You get to think about your business and growing it and its impact for you as a business, but also the purpose behind it is also really meaningful.

And I want to shine a light on that because as we think about what we’re doing as creators, business owners, people in the world, I think that’s a really important component is what is the impact that you’re making on the lives that are interacting with the thing that you’re creating? Because it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of time, and you want to make sure that you are holding that into the process as you contemplate what that looks like. When you think of your own work showing up every day to do what you’re doing, do you feel the balance of those two things? Hey, this is a business. I want to grow it as a business, be strategic with it. But I also know that one of the reasons I want to be strategic with it is because I want this message to get out.

Michelle Cehn: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: I feel really fortunate to be in the head space I’m in because the number one for me is always going to be kind of purpose-driven and mission-driven and trying to be helpful. And so it makes it so lots of shortcuts that people will take with profit in mind just don’t make sense if it’s not going to be helpful and if it can even be harmful. That is out of the question. But the other interesting thing is that when you’re creating things with an intention of being helpful, those were some of the things that I thought would have zero business impact, and yet I just wanted them to exist to be helpful and have completely changed my life on the business front.

So when I became an entrepreneur after I got laid off from a job as many people do, and I thought, oh my gosh, I will probably be back in an office in a matter of months, but I’ll just try this. And every month since then, I’ve made more than the month that I got laid off.

Wow. When was this that the month that you got laid off?

Michelle Cehn: 2015 maybe.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh my goodness. That’s incredible.

Michelle Cehn: And then some things that I would create, I remember I was creating these meal plans with my friend Toni Okamoto, who you had on the podcast as well from Plant-Based on a Budget. And she and I were driving down to go to my parents’ house to just put our heads there, recipe test, photograph everything, put together these eBooks. And my mom was like, “Well, what’s your goal? This is a big effort. You’re here for a whole week. How many people would need to either buy or see this for this to be worth it?” And I remember thinking, my God, I mean, if this helped five people, I would be so thrilled. That was my thought. And then those meal plans carried myself and Toni, who also got laid off and then also started focusing full-time on her blog. That carried us for two years as the bulk of our income from $5 meal plans. We wouldn’t have created those if we were thinking about business because what is a $5 meal plan going to do when you need to pay your bills?

Bjork Ostrom: Right. That’s awesome.

Michelle Cehn: And that’s happened time and again, we create things that we don’t … Our podcast, we’d never meant for that to be an income source. We never even thought about it. And then after, I think two seasons, we’re on season six of the Plant Powered People Podcast now, and now every episode is sponsored by two sponsors and it is a significant income source that more than pays for itself. And we never thought about it from that angle, and now we feel like it’s one of the most meaningful things that we do and also for our business and for the world.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s awesome. I love that. And it’s, I think a really important reminder. Where are you starting from? And if you’re starting from, Hey, I want to figure out a way to maximize profit? I think it that’ll work. In a lot of instances that works. But the question is how long can you sustain that? And also, if it’s just purely profit or purely revenue maximization, a lot of times that means that you’re probably, I think ad layouts is a good example. If you switch on the maximize earnings from ads, you will maximize your earnings. But in the long run, this isn’t statistical, but the user experience is going to be much worse than if you didn’t have any ads at all on the other example, other extreme.

And so what does it look like to find that balance of prioritizing long-term experience, long-term value, long-term giving or help or thinking of the other person on the other side and how you can create something that’s going to be as helpful as possible for them along with, it’s not like you did the meal plans for free? Some people do that and that’s a part of their strategy, but also layering in some business considerations. And it feels almost like it’s, I think of Tony Stark in Marvel. We just finished Loki. Do you know Loki?

Michelle Cehn: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: The series Loki, have you watched any of it??

Michelle Cehn: Uh-uh.

Bjork Ostrom: We will usually have one TV show that we’re watching, and then we’ll go through these show holes where we won’t have any, but we just finished Loki. It’s so good. But the Marvel series, and some of these characters like Tony Stark, they’ll put the Ironman suit on and that empowers them to do things beyond just what the normal version of themselves would do. But just the suit itself doesn’t do anything. I feel like that’s business best practices or tactics or strategy, that’s really great, but in and of itself, it’s not very valuable. What you have to have is the heart and the human behind that. And then if you can wrap that stuff around it, that’s where it becomes really powerful. And it sounds like that’s part of your story is thinking about, okay, how do I wrap some of the business considerations around the heart and the soul and the impact that you want to have, which it’s cool to hear even that story of continual gradual growth.

How about for somebody else who’s coming into it and they hear that, and that’s really inspiring to hear? You got laid off, you start your site focusing on it, and ever since then it’s been continual growth. What’s the mindset that you’ve had that’s allowed you to do that?

Michelle Cehn: Yeah. Well, your podcast has been a huge help and just doing little bits every day is so huge. But I mean, one of the things that I’ve found is there’s these kind of periods of focus shift and there’s some periods of time where you have to focus on business. And for me, this last year, we were so focused on SEO, so it’d be creating these articles that’s like, I don’t think that this article is going to really make an impact on the world, but if our team is going to continue thriving and be able to do this stuff that really is going to make a difference and I could continue to pay them, we need to write how to eat vegan at McDonald’s and all these different articles.

So it’s kind of focusing where your capacity is, but at several different checkpoints, I would recommend to people taking a mental moment, 15 minutes to try and separate your mind, your business goals from what would you like to create if business wasn’t a part of it? Because a lot of successful bloggers now you see that they started before there was money in the game. And I think there’s something huge to that. If you can bring the heart of what you can offer, and even if you only started for business, we all have things that we can bring to the table that’s special and helpful for people.

So to at least check in on what those things are and maybe add them to your goals list, so you have your business goals and then you’re like maybe things you want to do that doesn’t make business sense. That’s one thing. And then the other thing to just keep in mind is that when you’re doing something with a purely business mindset, so for example, for SEO for World of Vegan, when we were focused on that for a year, we’re spending all this money, we have all this team, we’re just time … we’re rephotograph- All these things are happening, and if that doesn’t create a change in our website traffic, what do we get at the other side of that?

It just sunk all of this money. That feels awful and it impacts your mental health and it impacts your eagerness to be doing your work. But what if you’re creating something that the goal is not purely financial? There’s no way to fail at that. If you’re creating something that you think would be awesome to exist, and it’s like an evergreen resource kind of, so it will continue to be there. Like that, there’s no way for it to kind of fail or suck the resources out of you. So I think having a balance of both kind of like we want to diversify income, we also want to diversify, or at least I do, I want to diversify intention behind different initiatives at World of Vegan.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. And I think that the best outcome for somebody who’s either starting or in the middle of what you’re doing and creating, trying to build a thing, figuring something out, is even in an outcome where let’s say in the example you’re starting a blog or starting to build a following and you try for a year and whatever success looks like, it’s different for everybody. Let’s say you don’t hit that level of what you’d consider to be success in the metrics outcome. The best scenario is if in doing it you still are like, wow, that was awesome because now I’m a better photographer or I am a better writer. Or now I’ve realized I’m interested in web development.

And for anybody listening, I think to really reflect on the multiple different types of income that you can create from doing work. And one of them is revenue income, it’s financial income, but there’s also, like you’ve talked about, impact income. That’s a very real thing that serves not all of us, but a lot of us in a really significant way. There’s educational income, you’re learning a new thing. There’s relational income, you connect with people. And to think about how rich your pursuits can be beyond just the dollar considerations and great if that also follows, but it doesn’t have to.

The other thing I was going to share that I think is always interesting in conversations like this is the Charles Ives, who was a composer, Charles Edward Ives, but he was this really experimental composer, and he would do stuff like a pianist would come out to do a song and instead of playing it, he would smash the guitar or smash the piano with a sledgehammer or would just sit and wouldn’t play for 42 seconds or whatever. Just super experimental stuff that wouldn’t have really worked if he was an actual composer. It was so experimental and fringe, but he was a full-time insurance salesman.

And it’s the extreme example of a nuanced version of what you were saying, which is like, hey, sometimes you’ll do posts that you think are SEO and you’ll get some traffic from that and then revenue from it, or sponsor content with a brand that’s maybe difficult to work with, but it allows you then to have some of these other pursuits or focuses that are more oriented towards other types of income, emotional, relational impact, any of those. And so I think it’s really wise to not think of it like it’s either black or white. It’s just like, hey, there can be different kind of mindsets that you have with work that’s all under the same umbrella. You’re still posting to your site, but it might be kind of in a different category. So I think that’s super insightful.

Michelle Cehn: I love that. I love the different kinds of income that you’re mentioning. It reminds me of one time I was reading someone’s thoughts about this and they mentioned the idea of being an animal millionaire. And in my line of work, so the idea is that you save the lives of a million animals, which sounds insane, but you realize, oh my gosh, through the course of my life, not only is that practical, but I might’ve already done that. And you can apply that to anything. If you care about humans and you’re posting healthy food content that’s preventing heart attacks, there’s all these different benchmarks that feel so much … Well, I guess for everyone’s different, but they feel so much more meaningful to step into your day.

And I mean, I can say now since 2015 and first starting this, I literally jump out of bed every day and I’m so excited to come to work and this work that I do, 90% of it is stuff that I would be doing on my free time even if I wasn’t getting paid. So one of the beautiful gifts of being an entrepreneur is you can find a way to be doing work that is both exciting on the business front, but also fuels your soul. It makes you feel really impactful like you’re doing meaningful work. And so to integrate that in is I think, huge for the longevity of your career.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s awesome. Before we continue, let’s take a moment to hear from our sponsors. This episode is sponsored by CultivateWP, specifically a new offering they have called Cultivate Go. So CultivateWP, the agency or the company focuses on designing and developing food blogs, and it was founded by Bill Erickson who’s this incredible WordPress developer. We know because as I’ll share, we’ve worked with him. And Dwayne Smith who’s this incredible designer. And Bill developed a version of Pinch of Yum before we had our own internal team, and it was one of the fastest growing versions of the site that we’ve had. So as you know in this industry, word spreads quickly about people who do good work, and Bill and Dwayne have really filled their calendar over the past few years with doing these custom websites for some of the biggest food sites on the web.

You can see the list on their website, and they would create these fully custom designs, but they would cost literally multiple tens of thousands of dollars. And that makes a lot of sense if you’re a site that gets multiple millions of page views. But what they realized is there’s a lot of really successful sites who need the best technology in the world to power them, but can’t justify spending multiple tens of thousands of dollars. So that’s why they launched Cultivate Go. It’s a semi-custom themed design and white glove site setup. So you choose one of the core themes, they have multiple options, and then their team customizes the logo, the brand colors, the topography, so it matches your brand exactly. And then they set it up on a staging environment where you can test it out, get a feel for it, and can launch your site within just one week. And the cost is only $5,000.

And here’s the thing, you have the exact same features, functionality, and support as the themes that cost up to 10 times as much as a Cultivate Go theme. So that means your Cultivate Go site can compete on an even technological playing field with the biggest food sites in the world. If you’re interested in checking it out, go to foodbloggerpro.com/go, or you could just search Cultivate Go in Google. Thanks so much to CultivateWP for sponsoring this episode.

So I feel like we could wrap the podcast up there because I think that’s really meaningful and there’s a lot of takeaways for people. But we also wanted to talk about, and this is one of the great things about doing these interviews, we could hear people’s stories, kind of the arc, the passion behind it. Then we also get to talk like tactics. What are some of the things that are working for you? What are some of the things that you’d like to teach other people? And coming into this, one of the conversations we wanted to have is around the process that you use for recipe testing. And I think as we talk about tactics and metrics and impact, we can see that on the backside, but I think an early indicator of that in this world is the success that people are having with the content that you’re producing.

One of the questions that always comes up is people always talk about what does good content look like? Content is keying. Okay, great, great, great. But what does that mean? One of the nice things about the world that we live in is we kind of know what it means and what it means is people having success with the process of creating a recipe. And one of the best ways to do that is to make sure that everything that you’re doing is easy to understand, that people can follow the instructions well. And one of the best ways to do that is to get outside people looking in on it and saying, “Hey, this didn’t make sense. This should be changed. This should be tweaked.” So you’ve done that and you have a process around it. Can you tell us when you first started to do that and started to build a process around it and why you saw the need for it?

Michelle Cehn: Yes. I think we’re in this interesting space where we put content out and oftentimes we’ll never know the impact that had in people’s kitchens when they’re making it. Every once in a million, someone will come and actually leave a comment, either really happy or really angry, but usually if a recipe flops or a recipe is amazing, we’re not hearing that. And I think that detached element plus maybe thinking more on the business mindset and less on the how can we make sure we’re being as helpful as possible, is kind of a missing link for a lot of people. I know that it was for me. I just did not realize that there was a disconnect between when I would create a recipe, it would turn out great for me. I’d write it up, I’d put it on the blog. I just assume it’s going to be great.

And the moment when I realized that was maybe not the case was when I wrote my cookbook, The Friendly Vegan Cookbook, also with Toni Okamoto, my co-author, and it was her second book and her first book, she had a bunch of recipe testers, I think 100 volunteer recipe testers to test all her recipes. And so she and I were just like, “Okay, we’re going to do that for ours as well.” We want this to be the ultimate vegan cookbook for someone getting started with plant-based cooking. We need these to turn out well. And as much as I thought, “Okay, this is going to be quality control to make sure we’re not missing anything or we’re wording things correctly,” or whatever. By the time our recipes got to recipe testers, they had already been through both Toni’s kitchen and my kitchen, and we both loved the recipes and thought they worked.

Bjork Ostrom: So it passed two tests.

Michelle Cehn: Passed two, and for sometimes it would pass three times, me making it trying to perfect it for seven times a week.

Bjork Ostrom: Multiple times. Yeah.

Michelle Cehn: Yes. And we had 75 recipe testers, over 75, and each of our recipes were tested at least three times. And it was such a shock to see it come back and realize, whoa, everyone has different cooking supplies, different cooking levels. We intentionally found recipe testers that were a wide range of cooking experiences, hardcore meat lovers and plant-based, just spanning the gamut. And we probably-

Bjork Ostrom: How did you find those people? I think that’ll be a big question.

Michelle Cehn: We reached out to our audiences. So yeah, just being like-

Bjork Ostrom: Just like, “Hey, email us back if you’re interested?”

Michelle Cehn: Yeah. Or just post to Instagram, post it as a story, have people drop their email. And it’s pretty amazing how eager people are to be involved in that process that they’re not usually involved in. And then everyone was credited in the book, and we now do recipe testing on World of Vegan, and our recipe testers are credited in blog posts. And so it feels exciting for people.

And if you have a blog, you get to link that. It’s nice, but okay, there was that. And then also on World of Vegan, not only do we post our own recipes, but we also post sample recipes from cookbooks. Whenever there’s a new vegan cookbook that comes out, the publisher send me a copy of the book, we check it out, I pick a recipe, I make it, I kid you not probably 40 to 50% of those recipes flop. They’re either don’t work-

Bjork Ostrom: From a cookbook, yeah.

Michelle Cehn: From a published cookbook and sometimes published by legit publishers. And when you think about it, we’re in a time now where there’s just such a push to create content and fast. People get a cookbook deal and be like, this needs to be out in a year or a year and a half, and it’s got 100 recipes. And you think of what’s possible there. There’s not the capacity to do rigorous testing. And then Toni and I probably scrapped maybe eight recipes, I’m not sure, that we loved, but we’re just like, it’s hard to get this working where it works for everybody all the time. People measure flour differently. People’s ovens are a little bit different. And we wanted just to make sure that our recipes were working. And if you think about it as a food blogger, if you put yourself in the head space of someone finding your recipe, printing it out, going in their kitchen, buying the ingredients, spending the money, following it line by line, and then they come out with the dish and they serve it to their friends and family and everyone’s like …

Bjork Ostrom: Not great? Yeah.

Michelle Cehn: Yeah. It is so deflating, especially if people are new to cooking, they might just forever be turned off on it. So I think it’s a huge privilege that we all have to be able to reach people that we don’t know and provide them with resources that are hopefully helpful. And not only does it just when you’re practically thinking from a business standpoint, this reflects on your name. Are people going to come back to your website and try your recipe again? I guarantee you not if they had a horrible experience and you’re never going to know the people that are lost from that. But also just it’s heartbreaking to think about creating suffering in the world. And I would say failed recipes are one of the worst forms of torment.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, unfortunately. Gentle suffering.

Michelle Cehn: Yeah, gentle.

Bjork Ostrom: So what does that look like from a logistics standpoint? My guess is there’s a lot of communication around really specific things that need to be precise. And I think the initial outreach makes sense. You have Instagram followers, you have an email list, you have a blog, and so you put that out there to the world and see who responds, maybe a-

Michelle Cehn: And if you don’t, friends, family, like my mom, my dad’s girlfriend, tons of people will be happy to recipe test.

Bjork Ostrom: And so you kind of gather this list. This is a really specific question. Do you have an Excel spreadsheet?

Michelle Cehn: Of course.

Bjork Ostrom: And you have all those people listed.

Michelle Cehn: Of course.

Bjork Ostrom: All things documented in spreadsheets. So you have their name, you have their email list, and then you have a recipe and you need it to be tested. What does that look like logistically at that point? Are you emailing it to a few people? Are you asking who wants to do this? How do you do that?

Michelle Cehn: Okay, so at the base when you are asking people if they’re interested in recipe testing, then I found out a crucial next step is saying, awesome. And you have this pre-written letter that you can have that you send back that says, “Do you have an instant pot? Do you have an ice cream maker? What supplies are you working with here?” You want to find out information about them. Are they beginner or intermediate or advanced cooking skills? You’re going to have different recipes that are going to be a fit for different people, and it’s a huge waste of your own time if you are trying to find recipe testers and a bunch of them aren’t even relevant to the recipes that you have available. And also are you gluten-free? Do you have restrictions like that? Do you prefer savory or sweet recipes?

So you take the time to build a list of volunteer recipe testers or paid, you can pay them, you could give them gift certificates or whatever. And then information about that, track that all in a spreadsheet. And then when it comes to the recipe ends of things, I imagine a lot of people are writing on a notebook in their kitchen, and then it goes straight into WordPress, straight into your recipe card, which is efficient. But I would recommend having a folder, having a recipe document in that folder, and then being able to work from there. So you can then just duplicate your recipe document into, let’s say you’re going to have three recipe testers per recipe, that is ambitious.

You duplicate it, and then you have just a set of questions. So I have just a set of questions that we ask for a recipe. I’m happy to share them, and I put that right below the recipe. And then you just send that out. You could either, if you know your recipe testers well and you know it’ll be a fit, you can just send that to them. Or if you have 10 recipes that need to be tested and you want to email your whole group of recipe testers and say, “Hey, we have these, which ones do you want?” And have people volunteer. There’s all different ways to manage that. Then they sign up. It’s important to have clear but generous deadlines, especially if these are volunteers, you want to give them plenty of time. But if you give them too much time, then no one in the human brain will do it.

So giving a deadline, if you have someone managing this for you, if you have a team already or someone on your team that this is a perfect project to delegate, you could easily create a simple SOP and have them manage the whole thing. That’s what we did for our cookbook. And then wait to hear the feedback back. And I mean in that recipe tester form, you’re going to want to ask, “Okay, here are-

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask is what are those specific questions? If you could talk through them.

Michelle Cehn: Okay. So ours is actually pretty informal, but number one photo. I want to see what this recipe looks like in their kitchen. This is the most helpful and also sometimes the most shocking thing that will help you figure out like, “Oh, I need to explain how to slice an onion,” or something like that. People just won’t realize. So please snap a casual cell phone picture of the dish and include it in this document. And I make sure to say casual cell phone photo because I don’t want people feeling like they need to get out for their fancy camera. This should not take any effort. It’s just snap a picture, drop it in. Also letting people know to please track how long the active prep and cook time was. And so you’ve probably tracked that already. If you’re have an ADD brain like me, you probably forgot to do that when you’re developing the recipe and then have to make something up on the recipe card, which I wish I could say I’ve never done.

Bjork Ostrom: I it’s think probably this amount. Yeah.

Michelle Cehn: So you’d have multiple people sharing how long it took them, which is enormously helpful. And then how would you rate this recipe? And we do just a one through 10, one being total garbage and 10 being the best ever. And in detail, what do you think about this recipe? And it’s very interesting. Sometimes for our cookbook, you have to be cognizant that everyone shares feedback differently. Some people are very generous and some people have a lot of critique. We had a recipe that two people, it was more than 10 out of 10. And then one person was like, it was so inedible, I couldn’t even get my dog to eat it. Same recipe, and so it’s like-

Bjork Ostrom: Same recipe. Yeah.

Michelle Cehn: And sometimes there’s just things that some people love and hate. We’re talking cilantro or whatever. So you then just have to have a critical eye when you’re reading feedback for sure.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s like another point of view beyond just your own that allows you to consider if you maybe have some blind spots. But there also is the reality of maybe you could have too much feedback. You have 100 people giving you feedback on a thing, on a recipe, then it gets to be too much. And so it’s almost like what is the sweet spot with getting enough where you can kind of make sure, especially for a cookbook that’s printed, that you’ve gone through the process of being diligent and getting feedback and having other people tested, especially that there’s no glaring issues. “Hey, there’s salt in the ingredients, and you never talked about salt in the instructions.” Stuff like that. But also maybe the way that it turns out, it looks really different. You’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting. The picture that you took is very different than the picture we’re using in the cookbook. Why is that?” Are you doing this for actual recipes on your site as well? Or did you just follow this process for the blog?

Michelle Cehn: Yes. So after writing my book, I decided that it was really important to do this for a blog. And so now that we have a person on our team, Erin, she’s amazing, and she coordinates recipe testing. Occasionally I will skip it, like I’ll be cooking it. If it’s a cookbook recipe and I make it and it works, and then I know our photographer’s making it and our videographers, there’s a lot of … It’s going to have to go through a lot of hands before it lands on the blog. But if it’s just you, and especially if you’re starting out and your recipe reputation is important to you, I would highly, highly, highly, highly, highly recommend getting your recipes tested by at least one tester. I mean, hopefully two, because people …

Yeah. And then it’s very confusing because you’ll get a rate, you’ll be like, “I love this recipe.” And then you’ll get a rating of seven, but with nothing that actually needs to be changed. And you’re like, “What do I do with it? This makes me just feel blah. I don’t know if I want to invest in putting it on the blog or not.” So it makes it harder. There’s a lot of hard things and then you’re going to hear feedback that you don’t want to hear or whatever. But it is also enormously helpful. And then on our blog, so some recipe testers will also have an opportunity to share anything that they might do differently or any suggestions they have.

So for some of our recipes, if testers provided really helpful tips or suggestions, we’ll have a little section in our blog that says Testers Tips, and we’ll be like, “Yeah, they really liked serving this with whatever or adding this ingredient into it, and they tried it and it worked.” So I think that’s a valuable thing to be able to provide to readers as well. Do you mind if I just share the rest of these really quickly?

Bjork Ostrom: That’d be great.

Michelle Cehn: Okay. So were the directions easy to follow? If not, how can they be improved? Did you struggle at all or have any questions while you were making this? Please describe. And that’s pretty much it. I mean, how long was active prep time and cook time? And do you have any additional comments, suggestions and/or tips? So this is nothing fancy. We really want to create a situation that doesn’t feel like a huge project for people. It’s really simple to provide, but in just those seven questions or eight questions, you get a solid sense of the recipe. And I think the reason why multiple recipe testers is important, it will save you time. It’s easier to find more recipe testers just to sign up and to send out more emails and to sign up to more people than to have to follow up and handle when you don’t get it back because 25% of your recipe testers are not going to follow through with recipe testing.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That makes sense.

Michelle Cehn: Or even if they commit it, life gets crazy, understandably. This is, you know, yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: One of the things that I think people will think about is like, “Well, nobody will want to test my recipes or I probably need to pay people.” What do you find as the motivation for the people who are doing this? I know you mentioned some of them might be creators and they’re getting a link, which is valuable to have quality links to your site. And so that’s part of the consideration, I’m sure for some people. But what do you find the motivation to be? And you can speak to that within the context of people who are listening as creators and thinking, “I don’t know if I could convince somebody to help me without paying them.”

Michelle Cehn: Right. Well, you have so many different options, and you can, of course, get creative. If you have the budget, you could hire a recipe tester or you could get volunteer recipe testers and pay them, so they don’t have to be volunteer. I think the most important thing is making sure that both, it’s very clear what’s involved and expected and what the tester will be getting in return. And whether that’s simply your gratitude and they’re your friend or your parent or your whatever, and you just make sure that you’re so grateful and that you show that that’s enough for some people. And it’s like community building in a sense.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s a connection, and for some people to get closer to people that they like and follow and appreciate and want to learn from. That could be enough for some people to say, “Hey, I have the time. I am going to be buying groceries anyways, and I would like the process of doing this and the benefit that then I get to connect with somebody on a more one-to-one level that maybe I know or have been following.”

Michelle Cehn: Yeah. And I mean, a lot of people who read blogs and read your blog, they love making new recipes, they love trying new things. And I can tell you the majority of the things out there are not tested. So what they’re doing is they’re basically making recipes that they get to provide feedback for and be connected and be part of the process versus doing that also, but just not having any connection connected involved in it. So I think I felt similarly like, why would someone do this? This seems like a lot to ask, but you have to remember that you’re not directly asking anyone. There’s no pressure. And it’s just like an invitation if anyone’s interested. And it’s always a free to come, free to go. They absolutely don’t need to. And then one other thing that we started doing was at the end of the year around the holidays, we do a couple … I can’t remember, I think we have three different gift cards or just Amazon cards or cash. I can’t remember where I landed. We started this last year.

Bjork Ostrom: Something that says thank you.

Michelle Cehn: And there was a mix of both at random picking recipe tester, and then it was maybe the ones that tested the most recipes. So finding a way for them to feel connected on that way and to be able to give an actual financial thank-you. And then, I mean, crediting, thanking publicly I think is important. And then even things like you’re sending out holiday cards, get your tester’s addresses and send them a holiday card. Let them know how much this has personally touched you, that they’re volunteering, their time and effort and feedback to be a part of your food journey and blog.

Bjork Ostrom: And the other piece that maybe ties the conversation full circle is I think there are a lot of people who are probably mission aligned and to know that they’re contributing to something that is missionally aligned, is meaningful for them. Maybe these are people who wouldn’t be creating a site or building a following online, but would be passionate about helping people experience. In this case, literally and figuratively, the World of Vegan eating in a way that is really successful, I think motivates people. So I think there’s that component as well. And it’s one of the additional great benefits of having something that is missional in terms of the why behind it.

So Michelle, it’s been a great conversation. So fun to talk to you and also to have the context within the conversation with Toni, your partner in crime in a lot of this stuff. People can check out that episode. We’ll link to it in the show notes as well. If people want to connect with you, maybe they want to be a recipe tester, maybe they want to follow along with what you’re up to, what’s the best way to do that?

Michelle Cehn: You can find the links to everything on my site, worldofvegan.com and we’re on all the socials, @worldofvegan, except on Instagram. We’re just the word, vegan. So you can find us there.

Bjork Ostrom: Literally instagram.com/vegan?

Michelle Cehn: Yeah?

Bjork Ostrom: What?

Michelle Cehn: I’ve been creating content for a long I’m time.

Bjork Ostrom: I did not know this. I’m sure it was … That is incredible. Can you tell the quick story of how that happened?

Michelle Cehn: Yeah. Well, I’ve been a content creator since early YouTube, trying to just help people with my life and help people eat vegan. And be a resource for people. And then Instagram came up and there was this dad that had the @vegan account. And he had just a few family photos. And I was like, “Hey, are you using this? Can I be helpful? Like what’s …” And he was like, “You know what? Make a donation to an animal sanctuary, a farm sanctuary, and I’m not using this account please.”

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome.

Michelle Cehn: So he just changed his username and then vegan became available and I changed mine to vegan, and it was like, wow. So yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: That is so cool. Usually what I’ll do is I’ll go through and I’ll just check out the social accounts, but I just missed it in my show research. That’s really fun. Cool. So easy for people to follow along with you on Instagram and then World of Vegan everywhere else.

Michelle Cehn: And if anyone has questions about recipe testing or if you want me to send the example of what we’ve done, feel free to reach out. I think my email’s on the World of Vegan website, so happy to help.

Bjork Ostrom: Cool. Thanks so much for coming on, really appreciate it.

Michelle Cehn: Thanks Bjork. Love the show, and thank you so much.

Bjork Ostrom: Oh, thanks. Appreciate it. Great to chat.

Alexa Peduzzi: Hey there. Alexa here from the Food Blogger Pro team. We hope you enjoyed this episode and we so appreciate you being here and tuning in today. I wanted to let you know that we are actually running a Cyber Monday sale. It’s our best sale of the year, and it’ll start on Monday, November 27th. And it will get you, get this $100 off of an annual membership to Food Blogger Pro.

So Food Blogger Pro includes monthly Q&As, exclusive access to coaching calls with Bjork, access to industry experts in our community forum, courses about strategy tools and so much more. And anyone that signs up during this membership sale will get a bonus group call with Bjork about goal setting so that you can start your Food Blogger Pro membership off on the right foot.

So if you’re interested in just getting information about this sale, be sure to go to foodbloggerpro.com/cyber. There, you can just sign up for the waiting list. There’s no commitment if you get on this list. It’s just a, “Hey, I want to be notified and I can make my decision later,” sort of list. So be sure to do that and we hope to see you on Food Blogger Pro soon. Again, that URL is foodbloggerpro.com/cyber. All right, that does it for us this week. We’ll see you next time and until then, make it a great week.

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    1. Hi, Chuckie! She covers the questions in the interview, but here are the questions pulled from the transcript:

      “So were the directions easy to follow? If not, how can they be improved? Did you struggle at all or have any questions while you were making this? Please describe. And that’s pretty much it. I mean, how long was active prep time and cook time? And do you have any additional comments, suggestions and/or tips?”

      She also mentioned that she’d be happy to share more of the process if you reach out! https://www.worldofvegan.com/contact/