Hungry Girl Magazine Is A Successful Digital Franchise

Hungry Girl Magazine

Hungry Girl Magazine

The nutrition franchise was started by Lisa Lillien in 2004 with an email newsletter for sharing recipes and dieting tips. Since then, the empire has grown exponentially. The daily newsletter claims about 1.1 million subscribers. She hosted a show on the Cooking Channel, appears regularly on  “Dr. Oz Show” and “The View,” and has penned 12 cookbooks, many best-sellers espousing flavorful but low cal recipes for food conscious women. And this week, a Hungry Girl print magazine hit newsstands nationwide.

Meredith Corp., the Midwestern media giant that is Hungry Girl’s partner, will print  225,000 copies of the magazine, which retails for $9.99. But at a time when traditional publishers like Time Inc., which Meredith recently acquired, are trying to replicate the lean, digital-first model that Hungry Girl exemplifies, why is a franchise that started with an email newsletter turning to print?

“For years, our audience has been asking for a magazine,” Lillien, who is in her early 50s, tells Moneyish. “People still like to hold magazines in their hands. Why not bring the audience something beautiful, with gorgeous food photos they can enjoy?” Hungry Girl’s audience primarily consists of women from their 30s through their 50s, who live in major urban areas.

The magazine also allows her to dwell on subjects not suited for a snappy newsletter, and at a timelier pace than one of her books. These include weight loss success stories, life hacks and even some content about pets. “I have a dog that I love and things that I haven’t really touched on via email,” says Lillien, who lives just outside Los Angeles. “The magazine has license to do that more.”

Hungry Girl is following in the footsteps of Pioneer Woman and Magnolia Journal, successful new magazines started by food writer Ree Drummond and fixer-up couple Chip and Joanna Gaines respectively. Magnolia Journal, also published by Meredith, recently boosted its circulation to 1.2 million from an initial 400,000. Hearst’s Pioneer Woman had a second print run after the first 150,000 copies sold out.

The relatively small initial print runs reflect a conservative model of finding a publishing partner to divvy up costs with, while also cashing in on a loyal following.

“There’s a base audience of fans that are already out there,” says Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. “It makes the launch less risky. It’s a great business model.”

At the time time,  print “magazines are a way for them to remind people of their existence,” says Husni who calls Hungry Girl magazine “attractive.” “In the 20th century, we had more sex magazines than those of any other category. Food is becoming the sex of the 21st century.”

In a variety of ways, Hungry Girl is a digital pioneer. The newsletter claims an open rate of 33% to 42%, significantly higher than the average email. The casual, shouty style— “Who doesn’t enjoy sinking her teeth into a chocolate truffle every now and then? A weirdo, that’s who!”— that she honed from a past career as a teen magazine editor remains perfect for the internet. Hungry Girl primarily makes money from selling ads, but also has licensing deals like a branded Caribbean cruise and stamps of endorsement.

Part of her success comes from avoiding trends. “Everyone wants to reach millennials but they’re not the most loyal. They try trendier diets like paleo and gluten-free, so they might not necessarily gravitate to us,” says Lillien. While Hungry Girl has a sizable social media following, it’s always prioritized its newsletter, meaning it’s less dependent on the vagaries of algorithms.

Hungry Girl has been criticized for promoting artificial sweeteners like Splenda in the past, but as #wellness trends, that too has changed. “People care more about what they’re putting in their bodies,” says Lillien, adding her last two cookbooks relied primarily on natural ingredients. “For a lot of the general public, diets are not realistic as a lifestyle forever. We’re about how to make smarter choices in the real world.”