This Chef Went From Writing Cookbooks and Starring on Food Network to Being a YouTube Influencer
Irish chef Donal Skehan had already made a name for himself by the time he moved to L.A. to join the city's vibrant community of YouTube creators.
In this series, YouTube Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular YouTube channels to find out the secrets of their success.
Skehan started in the digital realm as a food blogger. Then came cookbook deals (six of them to date) and TV shows, including stints co-hosting Food Network Star Kids and Junior Masterchef (U.K.), two of his own travel series for Britain's Food Network and appearances on Today, Rachel Ray and other talk shows.
Then YouTube brought him back online in 2012, when he had the opportunity to work with British chef Jamie Oliver on Oliver's platform, FoodTube. While Skehan had created a channel for himself in 2006, he says he "was literally just putting up whatever, with no business plan behind it and no kind of strategy" for the first six years. "If we'd done a TV appearance or an interview on TV, I would put it up on YouTube and it would get maybe 1,000 views."
After working with Oliver, Skehan got serious about his own channel. He even moved to L.A. to immerse himself in the community of YouTubers that resides there. Around that time, he formed a media company to produce his content for TV, YouTube and social media. Today, his cooking videos have attracted upwards of 700,000 YouTube subscribers.
Skehan's first job wasn't a food blogger, however. He was a member of a chart-topping Irish pop group called Industry, which enjoyed a couple of years in the spotlight before the band, as Skehan puts it, "fizzled very quickly." Still, he says that he loves "project-based things," a skill that translated from his music career to his culinary career.
"The band for me was an opportunity for me to build a brand," Skehan says. "I was behind the whole concept of it, behind all of our music videos. We had a viral marketing campaign behind the success of our first two singles. That, in a sense, has translated to what I'm doing now in terms of branding and strategy."
Read on to learn more about Skehan's brand-building journey that has culminated with him becoming a YouTube influencer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with YouTube?
Years ago, I was spending my own dime to get myself over to London and go to some pitching meetings. Around 2012, we got approached at a meeting with Jamie Oliver's company, but at the time, they said they had nothing for me. Then, when they launched their digital platform they invited me to be among the key talent as part of that.
Up until that point, I was so absorbed with the TV shows we were making that YouTube wasn't even a blip on my radar. But as soon as we started making the videos alongside Jamie and the FoodTube team, I really saw the potential of it. And moreover, I could see the potential I saw when I started food blogging all of those years ago -- that instant gratification of getting to talk to your audience. When you put up a video, there was a conversation happening. Subsequently, we moved on to developing our own channel.
2. How much of your time do you spend on a video and what does that entail?
Two years ago, we set up a production company called Appetite Media. It's a team of seven people, based in Ireland, who create my TV series content and produce the YouTube content.
One day, I was on a TV show and I was watching the screens, and I asked who had produced this particular fashion segment. I knew the look and the feel of it would translate really well to food. I got in contact with the guys who created it and told them I loved what they were doing. They ended up taking over the production side of the TV series I had been making.
We film on a monthly basis, and if we do a day filming, we do about five recipe videos in a go. Appetite are the nuts and bolts of creating the videos, but my wife and I have been the driving force behind trying to create the content that we deem suitable and that we deem is going to be successful.
Obviously, a lot of my time is spent filming and being in front of the camera, but I'm really excited about the potential of finding new talent, curating opportunities and giving other people that platform as well. It's a big part of what we see as the future of Appetite.
3. What's your content strategy? How do you decide what and when to post?
In our brainstorming process, we used to look to highlight recipes that had clickability, that had a thumbnail image that worked and a recipe that delivered, and make a how-to videos. Interestingly enough though, the algorithm is slightly changing on YouTube. Now, YouTube is promoting videos that are less of the how-to and more of the longer-form video and the idea of the story arc behind the video. As a creator, you constantly have to be ducking and diving, and looking as to where you can pivot to be successful on the platform.
One of my most popular recipes is a one-pan pasta from Martha Stewart, and it has nearly 5 million views. But it also has a whole pile of angry Italians who are very upset about a one-pan pasta. So now, we're looking at the idea of doing a three- or four-part series, where we look at the origin story of the one-pan pasta. We might travel to New York and try and meet Martha Stewart or whatever team to talk about why it's so popular. And I'm going to Italy earlier this year, where it was invented. We might get some Italian grandmothers to taste it.
4. How do you leverage your YouTube channel and to what extent do you monetize it?
Across all of my social media, we have a food community of over 1 million people who are actively having conversations about the food that we're creating on a daily basis. Branded campaigns give us the opportunity to create interesting and creative content that we wouldn't normally have the budget for.
We did a campaign with Kerrygold, an Irish butter brand. One of two series we did was a baking series, where looked at the most successful baking recipes on YouTube at the time and how we could make them more exciting in our classic style. We didn't get horrible messages and comments saying that the videos were a sellout. It's about looking at how you can work together with a brand in a way that suits both of you.
The platform YouTube gives me elevates me beyond the traditional TV host. To have the security of a platform like YouTube to go back to or jump between, it allows you longevity. If a show gets canceled or whatever the case might be, you have this platform and a huge community of food lovers who are still passionate about your content.
5. What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on the platform?
I've just come out of finishing a cookbook, which is so absorbing. With YouTube as well, you end up getting so taken in by each project that you have to take a step back and really hone in on why you're doing things and make sure you're still aligned with your core principles and core values. For me, I'm always out to teach people how to cook and to inspire people to get into the kitchen.
Collaboration is absolutely key to growing your platform, and hooking up with some key YouTube talent. I thankfully was part of VidCon for three or four years. That opened me up to this community, this world of creators. One of the main reasons my family and I moved to Los Angeles two years ago was based on the success we had on YouTube, because Los Angeles is a huge hub for a lot of the creators and a jumping-off pad for collaborating and creating.
I look back at my career, which started from a food blog, and ever since that moment, that continued conversation between me and my audience has been key to growing this career. If you do something, then drop off the face of the planet for two months, you just don't see that growth and development of a community around you.
6. What's a misconception many people have about YouTube?
I think a lot of people think it's cats on skateboards, and we've moved so far from that. YouTube has now created a platform where you can literally do anything. As time moves on, what's really interesting to see as a creator is that, all of a sudden, the YouTube audience who started watching when they were 16 are now 25 and looking to see quality content. I think it's a exciting time for YouTube. They've worked out the kinks of what content should be, and right at this minute, we're seeing a genuine push toward more thought-through, high-quality content. It's an exciting space to be in.
See below for Donal Skehan's picks of his five favorite videos.
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