Web viewers warm up to frozen food show

April 18, 2010 

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When Gregory Ng started freezerburns.com a year and a half ago, he didn't know whether anyone would want to watch his online video reviews of frozen food.

It turns out that many do.

About 55,000 people visit his site monthly, and roughly 5,000 viewers watch each show that Ng shoots in his home kitchen in Cary. Major food companies like Kraft and ConAgra now ship him complimentary boxes of frozen food on dry ice to review.

Still, Ng says he's not sure whether his little experiment will ever be a full-time business.

Ng, a 34-year-old father of three, has a day job as a vice president for Brooks Bell Interactive, a Raleigh online marketing agency.

"Any money I've made I used to upgrade my camera equipment," he said.

The-little-blog-that-could is one of those Internet dreams: Take a hobby, write about it online, get admiring followers, attract advertisers, and dump the 9-to-5 routine.

The success of even a few can keep the dream alive.

Sites such as Stuff WhitePeopleLike.com (which pokes fun at people, places and things) and milkeggsvodka.com (which posts people's discarded grocery lists) about seemingly mundane topics have hit it big in recent years. Both were turned into books.

And then, of course, there's Julie Powell, the New York foodie and miserable office worker who parlayed her evenings cooking through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" into a successful blog, book deal and major motion picture.

But it's tough to make your Web site stand out among millions of pages, and it's even harder to gain the kind of buzz that earns a mass audience, said Jeffrey Cohen, social media marketing manager at marketing agency Howard Merrell and contributing editor to Web site SocialMediaB2B.com.

"The easy answer is hard work, dedication and consistency," he said. "It really is the story of the two-year overnight success."

Keeping the day job

Ng is realistic about his chances.

The startup costs for the business were relatively low, about $1,000. But Ng spends about 25 hours a week filming, editing, responding to e-mail and updating his site, at night and on weekends.

"I don't see quitting my day job anytime soon," Ng said. "But if someone said to me, 'We love the pilot you shot and we want to pick you up for a full season, I would have to do it, because I'd live with regret."

Not that he hasn't done his best to ensure success - starting with how he picked his topic.

He doesn't particularly like frozen food.

"It's not that I hated frozen food, and it's not that I love it," he said. "I went to seek out a niche, and I did approach it from a marketing angle. Frozen food is a growing section of the supermarket, and it's something everyone can relate to."

In addition to picking a subject that he thought had mass appeal, Ng also very smartly tried to establish himself as the dominant player in the frozen-food-review market.

He started calling himself "the frozen food master," a nickname that he uses in each and every show. And when he started, he was shooting five shows a week instead of three.

"I wanted to own the niche as quickly as possible," he said.

He also notifies companies when he reviews their products, either positively or negatively.

"Sometimes I get a standard reply. Sometimes they put it on their Web site," he said. "What companies really like [is that] my fans are obsessive. I say you're not going to get the same return as you would with other types of publicity. I might have a smaller number of people, but I have a lot of influence with that small number of people."

His marketing expertise and online savvy have helped. In addition to his own site, Ng's shows appear through 20 websites and aggregators, including YouTube and iTunes. He has 600 followers on YouTube, 6,000 followers of his RSS feed and more than 1,500 followers on Twitter.

"Greg gets it," Cohen said. "There's so many great little things that he does, like if you look at his site where he has his subscribe button, there's a big arrow pointing to it. Like, 'Don't miss any episodes.' He's talking to people. He's not caught up in the tech side of it. He has a very authentic voice."

Big dreams

Though he didn't make a formal business plan, Ng started with the idea that freezerburns could be something bigger. But many bloggers who hit it big don't start with such grandiose dreams.

Many start like Zach Becker, 32, of Knightdale who writes the blog GlutenFreeRaleigh for people who want to learn about eating gluten-free in the Triangle. He started the site in August 2008 and in the first quarter of this year, he had 25,000 page views.

"It was kind of like a therapy kind of thing to me. I just wanted to vent," he said. "But then it got really popular. I think what happened for me is I started to realize that there were a lot of people interested in this."

Becker has considered the profit-making opportunities that his blog may have but said he has settled on a nonprofit approach because he wants to stay true to the reason he started the site.

"I think I could make a lot of money off this from being a consultant to restaurants in the area or working with people who are new to [gluten-free eating] and taking them grocery shopping," he said. "But I take the reverse approach, because most of the companies that I would charge for advertising are startup companies. I don't want to charge them, because I want them to be successful so I have more places to eat."

Dean McCord, the author of the popular Triangle foodie blog VarmintBites, said managing commercial activity on a blog can be a balancing act, and sometimes the best thing to do is turn down offers.

"For this to be commercial, it would have to be so much more than what it is," he said. "It would require me to post at least two or three or four things a day. My goodness, how much can you write that's all that interesting?"

Right now, VarmintBites gets 400 to 500 page views a day, said McCord, who lives in Raleigh.

"At the end of the day, I might get it up to where a few thousand people look at it a day, and how much money is that going to be? I'm still not going to be making anywhere close to the money I am as a lawyer."

For Ng, the ultimate goal is to get a show on television.

"I'd love a show where I am a host and I talk about food," he said. "I'd love to shoot a pilot for a show that might get picked up by the Travel Channel or something like that. ... I'm certainly not holding my breath for that to happen."

Freezerburns is always a work in progress. Ng makes some ad revenue from short video ads that play before each episode. But he has made it a policy not to accept advertising from food companies to avoid conflicts of interest.

Over his 300 episodes, Ng has added a theme song, graphics, head-to-head "fro-downs" between two items and live shows. He asks his viewers a "question of the day" at the end of each show that helps him get comment from them.

Recently, he has been getting more recognition, including being quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal story about the expansion of offerings in the frozen food aisle. Ng said he feels he truly lives up to his self-imposed nickname now.

"It gives me validation that I've established some authority in the field," he said. "I frankly would challenge anyone who thinks they know more about frozen foods than I do."

And, if freezerburns doesn't work, Ng says you can always try again.

"I definitely have a goal for how many episodes I might do," he said. "I'm not ready to reveal that yet. It's not based on time. It's number of episodes. I'd like to have a nice round number. But I'm always going to have a side project. I'd want to have something ready if I end freezerburns. It would still be me on video. It would just be a different concept."

sue.stock@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4649

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