As connected devices and voice-assistant tech proliferate, publishers have never had so many different avenues through which to communicate with consumers as part of their day-to-day routines. With its latest brand extension, Epicurious wants to go where — outside of mobile apps and ink and paper — few have ventured before: the kitchen.
Beginning today, with a simple download on the Alexa smartphone companion app, users of Amazon’s personal assistant can access cooking and preparation tips curated by the teams at Condé Nast’s Food Innovation Group and its Co/Lab digital partnerships group on nearly 50 commonly used food items.
Eric Gillin, digital GM of the Food Innovation Group, says the launch is all a part of Epicurious’ mission to be the home cook’s ultimate resource.
“We knew we had to do something different,” Gillin tells Folio:. “A lot of folks were doing recipe search and reciting recipe instructions. Knowing that most Alexa users were asking for things like sports scores and the weather, we really tried to figure out: What was our weather? What was that simple thing that we could do to help cooks do in the kitchen? We know that people are always interested in how long it takes to cook things. So we started there.”
Users can activate the tips by saying, for example, “Alexa, ask Epicurious how long it takes to cook a ribeye.” Then, says Jeff Israel, lead engineer of the Co/Lab Partnerships Team, Alexa runs through a few follow up questions to gather more information. How thick is the steak? How well done would you like it? Alexa then dictates the ideal cooking time and temperature to meet the conditions, and provides helpful tips like, “Season with lots of salt and pepper,” or “Let it rest for five minutes and slice across the grain for maximum tenderness.”
“Anyone that uses the skill can also start it first by saying, ‘Open Epicurious‘ and then asking about a specific food, ‘ribeye,’ or a group, like ‘steak,'” adds Israel. “The skill will respond with prompts and guide the user to their desired recipe—’What kind of steak would you like to cook?’ I expect this will be a frequently used path as users explore the skill. We will be gathering data on how different paths are used so that we can tweak and improve the skill based on interactions.”
No new digital product is suited for market without ongoing data analysis, and Israel says research on not only which foods home cooks most often prepare and what they need from a digital assistant, but how exactly they’d interact with such a tool was a major part of the project from the beginning. As far out as a year ago, Gillin and the Epicurious team were in talks with Amazon about launching a recipe skill on the Alexa platform. An alpha version impressed Condé Nast’s chief development officer, Fred Santarpia, in March, and beta testing with users occurred throughout the summer.
“Throughout the review cycles, the team we worked with at Amazon provided immense detail into the testing scenarios they subjected the skill to,” continues Israel. “We went into a fast-paced develop-test-review cycle. It culminated with final tweaks made while I was sitting in LAX last week on a layover.”
Even the nearly 50 food items included in the tool were subject to research; Gillin’s team created a demand map of ingredients people purchase, examined Google trends, and considered which ingredients are most commonly available to consumers.
“It’s no surprise to anyone who works in food, but people really love chicken!” Gillin adds.
In terms of getting home cooks to actually begin using the new skill, Gillin says Epicurious will be promoting it in its newsletters and social channels, as well as around existing editorial content that covers Alexa-enabled devices to use in the kitchen. But a major benefit, he says, is expanding the brand to appeal to new readers and audiences, and that expanding to new devices — Epicurious was, after all, among the first cooking sites to launch an iPhone app — has always been in the brand’s DNA.
“The interesting thing is that you really can’t add a ton of branding to the tool — it’s not like we’re going to have it say, ‘Epicurious says to cook that steak for ten minutes.’ That would be like those people who refer to themselves in the third-person. But, users will be saying our name every time they need help, and that’s pretty cool.”
The new skill, as of now, is a branding initiative that doesn’t launch with any current sponsorships, and Gillin says that while the proper way to monetize products like voice-assistant skills still needs to be determined, he isn’t ruling anything out.
“Even though millions of people have these devices, I think the monetization angle has to be figured out,” he says. “Jamming ads into the experience would be disruptive and less helpful to the user. And right now, a good user experience is critical. That said, we have some really fun ideas of how to extend the cook timer to our advertisers.”