3 lessons from a winning media company that takes no advertising

America’s Test Kitchen, with its two print magazines Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, flies under the radar of people who don’t cook — but it’s an excellent (and rare) example of how a media company can survive and thrive in 2014.

One way America’s Test Kitchen, which launched with Cook’s Illustrated magazine in 1993*, has flourished by giving away very little content for free. In fact, it only bundled together access to its three subscription websites — AmericasTestKitchen.com, CooksIllustrated.com and CooksCountry.com — last year for $69.95 annually, and you still have to pay for the print magazines separately. Those print magazines have over 1.3 million subscribers; the websites had over 500,000 paying subscribers as of last year.

The Federalist has a lengthy interview with America’s Test Kitchen CEO Christopher Kimball. Foodies should read it in full, but there are great lessons about online media strategy too. Here are a few:

Don’t rely on advertising

America’s Test Kitchen’s properties don’t take advertising (and its cooking show runs on public TV). “[In] general the American publishing model, the Time Inc. model, is under assault and probably is dead,” Kimball said.

Our print business is growing. So I don’t think it’s a question of print being dead. I think it’s a question of a publishing model that’s dead. I’ve always felt you should make the reader pay for content because the advertising driven formula was based upon a rare moment in time when you had lots of advertisers with lots of money and not a lot of places to go. It was short term.

Christopher Kimball America's Test Kitchen

Build a relationship with your reader offline

 I think old media is a vastly better place to build a relationship with a consumer — television, radio, print, books and magazines — than the web. The web is a horrendous place to build a business model based upon a connection to a group of loyal customers because they can leave your store and go to the next store in about a nanosecond. It’s not a very intimate relationship unless you’re talking about something like Facebook.

In addition, consumers themselves shape ATK’s content: “Ninety-nine percent of what goes in our magazines, TV shows is based upon surveys that we sent out to readers and viewers, yes. We don’t take advertising, so we don’t have the luxury of telling you what we want to do.”

Create truly unique content and sell it accordingly

“We recently did an analysis here: We spend $12,000 to develop a Cook’s Illustrated recipe. That’s a lot of money. That’s weeks of work. The reason we do it is because that’s the point of differentiation. If you have something people can get in ten other places, I just don’t know how you make a go of it in the web world, unless you’ve got a lock on some sort of traditional media.”

Oh, and you should definitely make Cook’s Illustrated’s foolproof pie crust this Thanksgiving. It relies on vodka as its secret ingredient and is the best and easiest pie crust you can make. Cook’s Illustrated isn’t giving away the recipe free on its website, natch, but it ran on Serious Eats in 2007.

*Cook’s Illustrated’s origin story, per Wikipedia, is also fascinating. It was originally owned by Condé Nast, which folded it; Kimball then bought it back and relaunched it in 1993.

Image courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen