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How Buzzfeed Turned Its Viral Cooking Site Into A Viral Cookbook

The cookbook can be customized 77,000 ways–fitting for an algorithm-powered sensation like Tasty.

If you’ve ever used Facebook, you’ve probably seen Tasty. The reach of Buzzfeed’s food vertical is almost impossible to fathom: The company claims 50% of all Americans see a Tasty video every month–which back of napkin math equates to almost every Facebook user in the country seeing the content over that span.

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Tasty heard one question from fans over and over again: When would it release a cookbook? But there’s an old saying in publishing: If you try to make your audience everyone, your audience will be no one.

So Tasty didn’t release a single book for everyone. Instead, it released a book that could be customized more than 100,000 different ways. Tasty the Cookbook, available now for $35, is printed on demand to your particular tastes.

Tasty is not the food authority,” explains Ashley McCollum, Tasty general manager. “What Tasty really is? What you share customizes your own feed, and what your friends share customizes your feed.” Because so much of Tasty is experienced on Facebook, for most of us Tasty is a publication shaped by algorithm. It is, in essence, already personalized to all of us as our own food bubble, and that’s why it can scale so large.

But books aren’t driven by algorithm. They’re printed once and distributed to everyone. And no publisher Buzzfeed approached wanted to touch custom cookbooks.

Enter Ben Kaufman, founder of the crowdsourced invention studio Quirky, who now runs the Product Lab at BuzzFeed. While he only started at the company in early October, in just over five weeks he and McCollum came up with a solution. They found a printing partner who could produce Tasty books on-demand. All Buzzfeed needed to do was send off a PDF and the book directly to a networked HP Indigo press, and it could be printed completely custom–allowing every shopper to print their own book with the equivalent of a really, really nice desktop inkjet printer.

But the larger question about the project remained. How would a reader decide what went inside?

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“Making it customizable was kind of scary because we thought it might be too much friction with the user,” says McCollum. At first, they thought the book could simply be printed out automatically from someone’s own likes and shares. It wasn’t a bad idea–and in fact, it’s the sort of idea that may still happen–but they settled on something else. The team built a Tasty book website that compiled over 1,000 top-rated recipes into categorical chapters that you can mix and match in your order.

“Instead of saying ‘appetizers’ or ‘vegetables,’ the way categories run, we thought of it through the lens of social,” says McCollum. “Why do people share a food recipe? What is it about that recipe that they identify with? We did many rounds of revisions, drilling into people who identify with food they share on social.” Ultimately, the team built a few social foodie archetypes like “Entertainer,” “Carb Lover,” and “Health Nut.” Then they packaged chapter modules under these personalities, with Buzzfeedy platitudes like “Best Desserts Ever,” “5 Items or Less,” and “Hangover.” All of this was built into Tasty’s custom ordering site, and so to customize a book for yourself or a friend, you just click through options that feel akin to the options you’d find on a Buzzfeed quiz. Then you can fill out a completely custom dedication page (filled with as many emojis as you’d like). On the back end, the site is savvy enough to produce your PDF, connect directly to its printing press via API, and print up your book–all without extra middlemen getting in the way.

It’s an incredible little assembly line, but when ordering my own test book, I couldn’t help but wish I could go even more customized. As long as I’m printing my very own cookbook, why not make something hyper personal like Vegan Gluten-Free Baking for Bacon Lovers?

“What you experienced is gen one. We put together what we thought would be the MVP of a custom book. And with a simplified [interface],” says Kaufman. “But yeah, how cool would it be if you could literally choose what recipes go into this?”

Indeed, Tasty has already been a hit. With more than 20,000 orders placed in the first week, it’s achieved the scale of a New York Times best seller. The only hiccup the team has had? While the books have been printing fine, they haven’t been able to resupply the bundled aprons fast enough. So now, they’re simply selling the book as a $35 hardcover–which can get to your door by Christmas if you order by December 9.

In the meantime, the Tasty team is considering where this success can take them next.

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“A hat tip to Ben and his team. This was a first test, and he did it quickly,” says McCollum. “But this has given us a really strong signal: This is just the beginning of building products off of Tasty. It’s pretty clear there’s a demand for it. And people identify with this brand more than we could have known.” Then again, powered by so much algorithmic and personal customization, a brand like Tasty can really be anything you want it to be, can’t it? And that may be the point.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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