It’s crucial to know how to pivot in business during challenging times. Unexpected situations can really throw any of us for a loop, especially when they affect the very heart of your business and require major changes for survival.
When the pandemic hit in 2020 that’s exactly what many people faced and we saw some really creative ways people adjusted to their audience’s needs.
Join me in today’s podcast for the opportunity to learn from a long-time client of Simple Pin who felt the brunt of the pandemic as a travel blogger. It’s the story of how Jane Ko of A Taste of Koko, an OG blogger of 10 years, pivoted with her brands and navigated the trials in her home city of Austin through a pandemic and a snowstorm of historic proportions.
Understanding the needs of her audience is part of Jane’s story and that’s what we’re all about here at Simple Pin Media.
Helping you understand how to know the needs of your audience is our focus and getting to know the needs of our audience (you) is equally important. So we are hosting a podcast survey giveaway to celebrate five years of the Simple Pin Podcast!
Three lucky winners who complete our short five-minute survey will receive a $50 gift card to Amazon or your local equivalent. So hop up to the top of the page, open the survey link and let us know what information is most relevant to you as you continue building your Pinterest marketing strategy over the next five years.
Complete the survey before our May 31, 2021 deadline and you may be one of our lucky winners!
I hope today’s podcast encourages you as you hear from an online business entrepreneur who has navigated this past year with tremendous grit and strength.
A Taste of Koko – How It All Started
Jane Ko started her travel blog in 2010 before the term influencer had even been coined. When everyone she knew in college had plans to become a doctor or lawyer, Jane knew she just didn’t fit into that life.
So what did she do with a college degree she didn’t plan on using? Jane took her passion for reading magazines and looking at all the beautiful photos, especially of food, and started a blog.
From the beginning, she knew one thing — she really wanted her photography to shine because she didn’t think that she was “good with words”.
She jumped on Pinterest and started using it as a resource to help her figure out how to shoot food photography. She combed through Pinterest looking at professional photographs and figured out how to deconstruct them to shoot and create an aesthetic/style of her own.
Jane was living in Texas when she started this blogging adventure and felt it was a bit of luck for her when she decided to focus on her home city of Austin.
I got super lucky! I feel like there were a variety of factors that really fed into the success of my brand. One of those was Austin becoming a popular city as major companies started opening offices here.
She didn’t truly see herself as a travel blogger since travel represented only 25% of her content. The travel blogging component took off for her in 2014 when the Carnival Cruise Line brand noticed and loved her storytelling style and reached out to her to offer a one-year contract.
I was over the moon because Carnival was a brand that I grew up with. My parents saved for our family to go on a cruise. For this brand to come to me and say, ‘We want to do a project with you.’ It was such a big deal!
That contract became a two-year partnership with Carnival that really opened doors for her, propelling a flood of other travel projects.
She has been doing this type of blogging full-time now for the last five years, working with many destinations both within and outside of the U.S. (including Germany and Mexico). Her experiences include being the face of Miami tourism for a project in the New York Times in 2016 and the face of tourism for New Mexico in 2019.
But it all came to a screeching halt in February 2020.
How to Pivot In Your Business and Stay Relevant
Surviving the Pandemic
Jane was gearing up for 2020 and ready to hit the 10 year-mark with her blog. It was supposed to be such a big iconic year for everyone.
She was ready for her biggest event as a travel blogger; the same event that kicks off the city of Austin each year – The South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festivals. This was a big Q1 kickoff for Jane because so many brands come into town and bring so much money into the city. Jane had seven or eight contracts lined up.
Then came the announcement that the SXSW was completely canceled. All of those contracts were gone by the afternoon of the announcement, and with them, all of her anticipated revenue for 2020.
It was a scary time. I think the domino effect that happened wasn’t something that I could have anticipated or prepared for.
Jane describes that at her core she is a food blogger focusing on restaurant content in Austin. She felt the domino effect as Austin and the rest of the country went into lockdown.
Taste of Koko in Austin was (and is) a respected source that people use to figure out the best places to eat. Hundreds of restaurant owners and the service industry reached out to her for help and looked to her as a source of strength during the initial months of the pandemic.
At that time I didn’t know what to do as the owners all reached out to me. I had to sit with myself for a day and figure out, this is a time for my platform to step up. But how do I do it? What’s the best way?
Jane saw the service industry as the backbone of their community and economy. It was heartbreaking for her to see the devastation they were experiencing.
She reached out to a good friend and together they launched a fund called Hundred for Hospitality. The purpose was to help provide free meals to laid-off service industry workers. Hundred for Hospitality raised $15,000 and provided 4000 meals over the course of 40 days while also supporting the local economy by purchasing those meals from about 15 restaurants in Austin.
Jane also launched Hire A Creative during this time. It’s a platform she created for creatives in Austin to get discovered and hired.
From her audience’s perspective, Jane was doing great and she imagines they were wondering how she was surviving when so many were being laid off or furloughed. In reality, at the time, Jane’s revenue was $0.
What people don’t realize is, as influencers, we’re 100% dependent on advertising. We work in advertising. What’s the first thing to go when there’s a budget cut? Advertising!
How She Pivoted in Her Business
Jane survived because she found ways to rally different pockets of her community. She was able to do something that I would never have anticipated happening in a time of huge economic struggle.
Often people under stress have a response to tighten up even more and hold tight on the reins.
Jane’s response was to say, OK, here we are. We’re in this crazy time and nobody knows what’s going on. Let’s collaborate instead of you telling me what to do or I tell you what to do. Let’s really get creative and come up with a cool solution.
First, she tackled the restaurant industry and the creative community in Austin.
Then she started reaching out to her agency partners trying to figure out ways to generate relief. Having worked for a lot of major ad agencies in the U.S., she realized if they weren’t getting contracts then she wasn’t going to get work either.
Jane recognized she needed to figure out how to bond and build relationships with people at the top of her industry.
As an influencer, Jane gets frustrated when a brand hires an agency and then that agency comes to her with a predetermined scope of work. Even if she feels like the content isn’t going to resonate with the audience, there is no room for discussion. They give directives on how to handle the photoshoot and expect it to be done within the week.
As Jane began to break that barrier and build relationships within the industry, she saw a community being built through this communication that had never really happened before.
For the first time, brands were willing to have an open conversation with her about how content should be created.
Related: Reporting Statistics to Brands
The open discussion with brands that happened as a result of the pandemic was a silver lining for Jane. It happened because no one could waste a single advertising dollar on a piece of content that wasn’t going to do well. Companies simply couldn’t afford for the project NOT to be successful.
One of Jane’s most memorable moments of 2020 was when GoDaddy reached out to work with her. This is the company that she bought her website domain from way back in 2010. They didn’t even know she was one of their customers!
She had always bought her domains from them over the years and just loved the company. Jane said she was always talking about them and was truly an authentic ambassador for them.
She never even dreamed of having an opportunity to work with GoDaddy and here they were asking if she would be interested in being their spokesperson for a campaign highlighting small businesses. It was an authentic fit for her.
The lockdown happened while they were running with that project. Jane went out on a limb and basically wrote GoDaddy a heartbroken love letter that basically said:
“I know we’re all hurting right now but here’s what’s happening in Austin. Here’s what’s happening with the restaurant industry. Here’s what’s happening with the creative industry. And also by the way, I’m hitting 10 years with you this year.”
She was amazed to have this big brand respond positively and offer to support her and her community.
This led GoDaddy to launch a series of tools for web development products. They asked Jane to create a personal documentary-style video project about her 10 years as a blogger, focusing on what it’s like to be a creator during the lockdown.
It was a 5-week project involving just Jane and her camera equipment. There was no video crew with her. She did morning and evening check-ins just sitting in her room talking to the camera about her plans and her accomplishments for the day.
For 40 days, she was asked to get very vulnerable and real when communicating her reality. Jane says many clips aren’t shared in the final video because she was often just sitting by the camera crying.
It was just so emotionally taxing to have your city look at you and ask for help and trying to figure out, how do I carry the entire weight on my shoulders?
Jane wasn’t only documenting what it was like for her as a small business owner during a pandemic, but the feeling of waking up every day with nothing to look forward to and no place to go (an experience common to everyone during this time.) Our sense of normal life was gone. It was a time when every day felt like Groundhog’s Day.
Jane believes that a sense of camaraderie is part of what made Hundred for Hospitality such a huge success.
For the first time ever, all of us were going through a pandemic together. There was no playbook on what you do when there’s a pandemic. There was no recovery playbook. It was the first fun thing to launch when city officials didn’t know what to do.
Jane had a well-established platform that had already helped with hurricane relief efforts in the local area, so everyone was looking to her for help. People saw her as their ray of sunshine and she felt a heavy weight of responsibility not only to her business but to her city.
She felt responsible to advocate for the restaurant industry so she was writing three to four take-out reviews each day trying to show people what they could order for take-out.
Jane was doing everything she could to try and bring some type of revenue to these businesses. She was feeling so overworked and exhausted and couldn’t see the end of the rainbow. It was an extremely emotional time for her.
More Challenges: The Epic Winter Snow Storm of 2021
Then there was the epic and unprecedented winter storm that arrived just before Valentine’s Day 2021. There was a huge power grid failure and millions of Texans went days without power.
Jane found herself confronted again with decisions about what she could do to step up and help her city. Drawing on her previous experience, her answer was to launch another fund. She rallied her audience and encouraged them to donate to another GoFundMe effort to benefit the people who were really struggling to navigate those days following the snowstorm (those without food, heat, or water).
That effort, the Austin Winter Storm Relief Fund, raised $160,000, provided over 40,000 meals in a period of two weeks, and helped pay out 50+ Austin restaurants and food trucks who otherwise would have had to throw away lots of product they had purchased in anticipation of a huge Valentine’s Day weekend. A weekend that had just been snowed out.
Jane’s Website Struggles and More Silver Linings
Not only was Jane working non-stop to help rescue her city, but on the home front, as a food-focused travel blogger, she had lost all of her website traffic. Jane said it was pretty discouraging.
But she rallied again and formed a support group with a couple of other OG bloggers in other markets. They had discussions every week, working together to figure out ways to navigate this time when no one was looking at their travel content.
Jane realized this was a great opportunity for her to go back through volumes of outdated content to refresh and repurpose it. Something she would never have had time to do in the normal busyness of her professional life.
So, in addition to all her efforts to help her city, she found her own silver lining by spending her lockdown time updating old blog posts, re-editing photos, and creating new pins for that “fresh content” that Pinterest was requesting.
Then came another “pivot your business” idea — pivoting her blog content.
Texas became one of the earlier states to begin to gently reopen and Jane saw another opportunity for A Taste of Koko to shift from focusing on travel-related “places to go for the best brunch” or “the best cocktails” to “places and ways to travel within Texas”.
She noted that people wanted content about road trips. People didn’t want to fly or were not able to fly, but they wanted things like information on a quick one-hour camping getaway or a glamping getaway.
This led her to creating relevant story pins (now called Idea pins).
We all know that story pins are really big on Pinterest right now and Jane saw them as the perfect way for her to revive some of her older content and capture interest for her new approach to the food and travel industry. She jumped on the story pin bandwagon early.
So the thing about platforms that I think creators don’t realize is whenever a platform launches a new feature it is in your best interest to immediately jump on that feature, create content on it, and learn how to create it well. We saw that with Pinterest story pins. We’ve seen it with Instagram reels, and also with the rise of Tik Tok.
Since story pins were a brand new feature for Pinterest it meant that Jane could repurpose previously posted content that had been buried and Pinterest organically promoted it because it was an example of what they wanted other users to start creating.
We’ve seen this proven true over and over again for our clients here at Simple Pin. Those who jump in early when a platform releases something new, find that they get great engagement.
Jane’s Advice for How to Pivot in Business During Challenging Times
Jane said having the purpose of service to her community was what really got her through the difficult days of 2020.
Despite the heartbreak and difficulty she was going through personally, she knew everyone was in the same boat and most were probably having a harder time than she was. Showing up for her community both on all of her platforms and physically in the community gave this self-proclaimed “busybody” a real purpose.
I think I would encourage people to look towards the community. I know that’s such an obvious thing. But that’s how I found my strength during this time. If it was just me alone in my room during lockdown, as many people were, I don’t know how I would have done it. I don’t do well just sitting there.
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What an amazing and inspiring story Jane has shared with us. I so appreciate that she shared her wisdom and heart behind all of it.
I’m reminded that sometimes, as influencers, we have moments that we get so excited about the success we are having that we just go head down into it, trying to give our all to these brands. We end up on this hamster wheel where we’re just running. We don’t stop to look backward or look up.
Success for Jane was defined as the impact she could have in her community of Austin rather than having a big following or a great income. It gave her the freedom to look up, step up and find new ways to reach her audience in a time of great hardship. She’s a stellar example of how to pivot in business when times get tough.
If you would like to connect with Jane, she can be found on any social media platform as A Taste of Koko (she’s most active on Instagram). If you plan to travel to the Austin area anytime soon be sure to look her up and snag a copy of her Guide to Austin!
For Further Listening/Reading: