If you’re a young food fan then chances are you’ve heard of SortedFood, a popular food channel on YouTube, with 1.8m subscribers and more than 1 billion minutes of content watched.
The channel, run by four school friends with a passion for food and entertaining, offers a light-hearted but informative take on cooking – think Top Gear for food.
The foursome – Jamie Spafford, Barry James Taylor, Mike Huttlestone and Ben Ebbrell – came up with the concept while at university. They would meet in the pub and share stories about the microwave meals, disastrous take-aways and generally awful food they were consuming.
At that time Ebbrell was training as a chef so would give the others quick, simple recipes, tips and tricks on the back of a beer mat.
While sceptical initially, after trying the recipes the others realised it wasn’t as hard as it looked, so started sharing their newfound knowledge with their wider group of friends, and it wasn’t long before SortedFood was born.
If it’s bad for us we could potentially lose our audience, trust and integrity. We have a lot more to lose [than brands] in those scenarios.
Jamie Spafford, SortedFood
“People were interested in our story and the journey we were going on exploring food and learning about it. This was seven or eight years ago when social media was really kicking off and brands were starting to get interested. Influencers were attracting big audiences so brands wanted to be a part of it but it resulted in some really terrible things,” says Spafford.
“We thought, what if we could use what we’ve got, this friendship and authenticity around the subject of food with a passionate audience, and bridge what we’re doing with what brands want to do by bringing them into our story – that’s when things began to take off.”
Today, SortedFood has a highly engaged audience that spans not only the UK, but the US, Australia, Canada and Singapore, with more than 16,000 hours of content watched on a daily basis. It’s an audience that brands including Ford, The Co-operative and Android are clambering to be a part of.
Always be picky
But while brands are keen to get a slice of the action, key to SortedFood’s continued success is knowing what types of partnership will work, to ensure any brand fits seamlessly with the character and culture of the channel.
“It’s one of those things brands are starting to catch on to bit more now,” says Spafford. “But when you’re working with people whose businesses are based online and depend on audiences, actually we’ve got a lot more to lose than the brand when it comes to partnerships so we have to be incredibly careful.
“They’ll sign off another marketing budget next year and put it down to experience if it doesn’t work. But if it’s bad for us we could potentially lose our audience, trust and integrity. We have a lot more to lose in those scenarios.”
As a result the team is “incredibly picky”.
“We get approaches every day from brands who are essentially looking for a media client,” adds James Taylor. “As soon as we sniff that out we dispel it and move on. There’s still bit of an education process needed so people understand why we do these deals. We need to build up the community in the right way. We can’t do cheap deals just to build up views.”
The team therefore works in an incredibly collaborative way with brands to develop ideas that work for both parties and enhance rather than detract from the SortedFood brand.
And while it might seem counterintuitive it is actually brands that have no connection to food that the boys often find easier to work with.
“Sometimes working with brands that sit outside of food can actually help us make the content bigger and better,” says Spafford. “There are some occasions where food and drink brands say to us ‘so, you’re cooking a recipe – can you use our product?’ At that point it becomes a tricky conversation.”
With Ford though, for example, the brand gave the boys a Mustang, a test driver and access to a test track, which led them to come up with a challenge around unlearning food on-the-go.
At this point the team also got its audience involved, asking people to make suggestions for ‘seven things you should never eat in car’. More than 2,000 suggestions were submitted in less than 24 hours.
The end result is a highly collaborative episode, which sees chef Ebbrell come up with re-imagined versions or tricky-to-eat food, such as BBQ ribs and lobster rolls, that the boys tried to eat while being driven around a track at high speed.
Listen to the audience
“We learn from our audience,” says Ebbrell. “If you don’t let them shape the food, or if the food is shaped by the brand or the sponsor, you run the risk of it not being something people actually want to see.”
The video, which is nearly eight minutes long, has been viewed 378,000 times on YouTube and received 20,000 likes and more than 1,200 comments.
Huttlestone says: “We are always testing run times and analytics to justify our decisions and push things forward, so when the audience arrives on a video there’s an element of surprise within the context of the overall story, the brand and the evolution of the brand.”
Part of this has been the decision to start doing weekly themes. The channel now puts out five videos a week that all sit under the umbrella of that theme, which they reveal in advance.
“It gives us a platform to ask the community for tips and suggestions for recipes, so we can go away and develop them,” says Huttlestone.
“It gives us a hook. We want people to know they are going to learn something from these videos; they’re not just a mess about. Yes, they are entertainment based and the food looks fantastic but we’ll make sure you go away having accidentally learned something.”