Some people become influencers intentionally, while others find themselves in the lifestyle on accident, like Dennis Littley of Ask Chef Dennis. Dennis started a culinary program at a high school and thought, “Why not put these recipes on a blog?” He did just that and pretty soon he found himself in the influencer world.
Dennis may have wound up in the influencer world unexpectedly, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t put in hard work! In fact, the brands Dennis has collaborated with absolutely love him – because he goes above and beyond in everything he does.
Dennis has been featured in publications such as Huffpost Taste, Today and Buzzfeed and has collaborated with some awesome brands like Viking and Humana. He knows what it takes to make brands happy – and knows what brands should do to get the most out of their influencer marketing campaigns.
So whether you’re a brand or an influencer, Dennis has the advice you need to create a collaboration that both parties enjoy and benefit from.
Interview With Dennis Littley of Ask Chef Dennis
Perlu: Hello, and welcome to the Perlu Podcast, a podcast where we talk with social media influencers, bloggers, and YouTubers about how they got their start and what has led to their success so you can learn how to achieve more as an influencer. I’m your host, Alexis Trammell, and today I’m chatting with Dennis Littley, retired chef eating his way around the world, sharing his adventures and recipes. Dennis is also a culinary travel editor for Perlu. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dennis.
Dennis: It’s my pleasure, Alexis. Thank you so much for having me. I love what I do, and I love to share how I got to this point with people so they can plan their futures out.
P: Wonderful, wonderful. So do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself, your blog Ask Chef Dennis and this fun career that you and your wife have made for yourselves?
D: Yeah, pretty much I was an accidental food blogger and then an accidental travel blogger after that. I’ve actually given talks on those topics on how to become both. It started out I was working at a high school, an all-girls high school. It was the only school I ever worked at. I started a culinary program at the school. I decided it’d be a good idea to have a blog to put recipes on. Well, none of the girls thought it was a good idea. The students did and the teachers did, but my students wanted personal one-on-one time with me all the time.
I became a food blogger just by posting things and getting followers from around the world. It just amazed me. It kind of revitalized my career in the kitchen, because I saw these different, new foods that were being cooked and prepared from around the world. I had not had that much exposure other than Italy and France, so it was just wonderful to see these people cooking these things. Then when we moved to Florida, I found out that if I went on travel adventures and I wrote about them, that I got invited to more and more different travel adventures.
So I’m not saying that there’s not a lot of work involved in it, because there are no free rides for anything. If someone’s sending you away on a trip, you have to provide them with some good coverage and photographs and write-ups and social media, so there is quite a lot that goes into it. My wife and I have been enjoying the fruits of that labor. She takes pictures and videos.
And she’s a teacher, so she edits my blog, any posts that I have, and finds the mistakes, although I found a very good tool called Grammarly that has cut her work down considerably so. I’m happy for that, and I think she is a little, too. English teachers and punctuation and not using the language correctly – they kind of start to twitch a little when they read them. It’s been better all around.
So yeah, we’re having a really good time. Every year, we get more and more opportunities. We could probably travel a lot more than we do, but we love our home in Florida, too, and we love staying here in our second summer, which is from November, generally, until about this time of year when it starts getting hot again, and just traveling around Florida and learning more about the state we live in.
P: That sounds great. Wonderful. Well, what would you say has been your secret to success as an influencer?
D: Well, it’s not really a secret. The problem that a lot of people don’t take seriously because it’s really, really hard work, is social media. I was late coming to the game in social media when I started my food blog, and a lot of people had massive followings compared to the dribble I had on Twitter and on Facebook. I just always felt like I was behind the game. Then Google+ came out, and for me, that was opening the door to success. I know it just shut down completely. That was a sad day for me, because I made a lot of great friends there.
But that started me towards enjoying social media, learning that I can enjoy social media, and that social media is about being social, which a lot of people tend to forget. Talking to people, asking questions and engaging. It’s just not a place to stand up on the coffee table and say, “Hey everyone, I’m here. Praise me,” which a lot of bloggers think that’s how they do it. You just post things up and expect everyone to just worship you and say, “Ooh, that’s so nice.”
You have to talk to people. You have to start conversations. You have to engage with people ahead of time. When someone is kind enough to reshare something, you have to thank them. You have to really work at social media. Tweet this! I spend probably six hours a day just on social, four to six hours a day just working social.
D: Yeah, but that is what’s built my brand to the level it’s at. I’ll do some in the morning, then I do some in the afternoon, then I do some lazily in the evening while I watch TV. But you know, it’s a constant thing. If I’m off for a day, I can feel the need tugging me back to go do [social media], because I know I’m going to miss out on some opportunities, or it’s just not going to keep the level going.
You know, I don’t expect to do this forever. I expect to get to a point where things can coast a little. I have also hired VAs to help with the work, so that is starting to cut down on what I actually do.
That’s another thing, this other secret is reinvesting in yourself. It’s hard to reinvest or hard to spend money when you’re not making money, but as soon as you start to get some good contracts coming in, you start making some money, you need to turn around and use some of that money to pay for programs that will make your life easier, to pay for PAs and support to help with your social media. I hated Pinterest, so I hired a woman that I knew from Google+ and we were friends. She was doing Pinterest for other people. I said, “Why don’t you start doing mine?” So she did, and she took Pinterest from utter obscurity on Google Analytics to number three.
She has caused a lot of my food posts to drive up into the top ranks of my top ten simply by how she placed them on Pinterest and the pictures that she shared. She even builds Pins for me, too. I just say, “Go ahead. You’re making money.” Well, this takes out money, puts it back, and that has come back to me a whole lot more than I’ve paid because it’s driven my traffic up pretty seriously. Then I also have people that schedule tweets for me. I tweet and I put them into pods – groups to share out. It’s some work.
Then there’s a lot of talk about people saying, “Well, that’s false … You’re not really being authentic.” I say, “Well, yeah, I’m being a billboard.” Everybody advertises, so I’m advertising for companies that hire me. I’m getting their products seen across millions of eyes. My Twitter impressions that people can see come in the 20-millions a week to 30-millions. That’s a pretty good billboard for people that want to work with me and I can share their stuff out. It’s not trackable, and that’s the one thing about it. We don’t know who is actually going to or buying what I’m talking about, but it’s a good start. I always tell people, “It’s that billboard on the highway you pass every day. I see it. You don’t know who’s buying from it, but it’s going into your mind, in the back of your mind.”
P: Absolutely. That was some really tangible advice. Thank you so much for that. What is your advice for brands to get the most out of their collaborations with influencers?
D: I think the one thing that brands need to do is be timely about responding. I will meet people, especially into travel, and it’ll be, “Oh, we can’t wait to work with you. We’re so happy you stopped by. We want you to do this. We want you to do this. We want you to do this.” Then when you write them back, they may take two weeks to respond, or even a week, but in no world is anything less than 48 hours, especially with email [acceptable]. It’s really like a 24-36 hour turnaround that you at least need to respond to someone to show professionalism.
So you expect us to be professional, and a lot of us aren’t. I’m not saying that travel bloggers or food bloggers are anywhere near perfect, but you have to extend the professionality from your side, too. So when you’re looking to hire bloggers, the first impression that they make and you make is very important. Are we professional? Okay, then please be professional back. If we’re not, well, don’t even bother talking to us, because you’re going to get crap in return. You need to talk to people that really know what they’re doing, that aren’t just looking for a free ticket somewhere or a free product, because that’s not what it’s about. You’re going to get what you pay for, too, on that respect.
As a brand looking for influencers, you want to vet them. You want to talk to them. You want to have one of these kinds of conversations with them … to talk to them where you are and get to know them and see how they conduct themselves and what they can really bring to the table.
Ask for a media kit. Any blogger should have a good media kit. My media kit is, I think, 15 pages long. So it’s a little bit overkill, but you should be able to really pull them in in the first couple of pages of the kit, because they’re not going to read further if you don’t impress them right away.
But then you want to give them some tangible proof, like your demographics. Show some of the results you have gotten. I include screenshots from Facebook, from Twitter, from Instagram that show the kind of results you can get. I also use a really great kit called InfluenceKit – a really great tool that allows you to put in all of your links. It pulls up these really pretty pictures and shows what your engagement is on each one and takes a total. So when I worked for Collette Travel last year – which is a really fabulous group, I love those people – my InfluenceKit report for them was almost one million impressions, so it showed that yes, I deliver, I do what I talk about. I’m not just all show. “It’s not just about the pretty face,” I always tell them. I can provide results.
So these are the tools you want to look for as a professional blogger, whether you’re in travel, food, fashion, whatever you’re in, so you can show your brand actual results of what they’re spending their money on. As a brand, you should expect this.
You should start to be able to see well, where are your links? If someone doesn’t want to give you links, if someone doesn’t want to take the images, their advertisements, out of the blog posts for you, you don’t need to work with them. There’s people that do. There’s things that you should ask for as a brand.
Make sure you don’t run any other ads, at least for the first 30 days, 60 days. Then, if they want to put ads in it, it’s okay. But just to give them something of a professional response in a post that they’re paying you to do, or they’re sending you somewhere to do.
So don’t be afraid to ask and don’t be afraid to learn about who you want to work with, but be professional about it, and don’t just string someone along. If you’re not going to have anything for them maybe in three months, tell them. Or six months, tell them. “We’re booked for this year, but I’m definitely putting you on the list for next year.” Tell them, “Thank you.” Being honest about it goes two ways. You’ll expect some honesty back from the blogger as well.
P: Sure, yeah. Well, it sounds like you have some good advice for influencers on this end, too, so do you have more advice or tips for influencers who are working with brands for the first time?
D: Yeah, overperform. That shouldn’t be just for the first time, that should be for every time. If you’ve promised a blog post, a tweet, a pin, an Instagram post, and whatever else – a video – give them more than you promised. Make them happy that they worked with you. Tweet this! If they want pictures and they’re only going to use them on social media campaigns, share some photos with them. They will be thrilled. As a general rule pretty much when I travel, I send pictures to them to use.
Again, they don’t have rights until the end of time. If anyone ever mentions the word, “in perpetuity,” to you, run, or tell them, “No, that’s not happening.” I had to look that word up the first time, and I know never again. That means, “til the end of time.”
But be kind to the people you work with. One of the things I do is I use Twitter a lot, especially for travel. Twitter has been a fantastic tool for travel. Food is good and I see results, but the travel people seem happier about the resharing. So I have Twitter lists, and I speak on Twitter sometimes at conferences. I set up Twitter lists with brands that I’ve worked with, brands that I want to work with, places that I want to go. In different parts I have different lists. Cruise lines, air lines, people that I like.
When I don’t have things to share on Twitter, I go to my list, and they’re the first people that I reshare. So if it’s something you want to do, and I’ve gotten work from it, you want to romance the brand. It’s like dating. You want to share their work out. You want to engage with them. You don’t want to be the first thing you want to do is walk up to them and say, “Hey, I want you to send me somewhere, because I’m great.” Let them get to know you. Let’s start sharing stuff. They’ll go, “Who is this guy that keeps sharing my stuff?”
I was at a conference, and a guy from Puerto Vallarta came up to me. He goes, “I know you.” I say, “No, we’ve never met.” He goes, “But I recognize you,” and I go, “Yeah, because I share your stuff all the time. You see my picture.” He didn’t invite me to come, but still, he knew me. I planted the seed, so maybe next time. You never know.
I honestly like the stuff that I share, so that makes it work out. If he doesn’t send me stuff, I’m still going to share it, because I like Mexico, I like different places to travel to, and I think my audience would appreciate a beautiful picture. So you know, you’re being kind to someone after you’ve worked with them, when you want to work with them. You’re engaging, you’re showing some response.
As an influencer, these are things you need to do to make yourself more credible and make yourself seem like you really are professional and you know what you’re doing.
P: Sure, absolutely. So can you tell us about some of your most recent collaborations with brands?
D: Sure. Well, I’m getting ready to head to Greece next month for Collette Travel again. In the first job, they weren’t sure about me. They didn’t know me, I was an unknown. I had been recommended by someone. I tend to go overboard when I’m having fun and I want the world to know I’m having fun, and I had such a good time on the tour of Italy last year with them. They had a conference; they were celebrating their 100th year, and a friend of mine who was at the conference says, “They were talking about you live on the stage during the conference because you were sharing so much stuff and getting such good responses.”
So this year, it was like, “Where do you want to go?” I said, “I want to go to Greece.” So we’re going to Greece for 16 days and touring Greece and its islands and everything that goes between. Then I found out from a friend about a conference called Traverse in Italy, and we love Italy, so we’re going to Italy right after that.
What people don’t know is Collette’s working with me: they’re flying me out; they’re flying me back. A lot of companies don’t really care where you fly out of or where you fly into as long as you do what you’re supposed to do when they’ve got it scheduled for you. So they’re flying me out of Italy.
This is something you have to earn; you have to have that credibility, you have to be able to return something to them so they feel there’s a good enough return for them to put this investment in me for the next trip. I’m still a fledgling travel blogger. So as you grow, then people start actually paying you to do these things, so this is when it gets to be fun – really, really fun, because you’re getting money, too.
So we’re doing that, and then Viking is sending us to Portugal, and we’ll be doing that in July. Then we’re going to spend some time in Spain and then go on another cruise in France in the Loire Valley, for France Cruises. We found it on LinkedIn, social media. Those are our upcoming trips.
The brand collaborations I did last year were included Viking and European Waterways, which we’re doing again in Scotland in October. That was one that I got through Twitter, through sharing their work:
“Hey, we see you’ve been sharing our work. Would you like a cruise?”
“I think I would.”
You know? So things come to you because of how you work and how you present yourself. So those are the last collaborations.
One of my most fun collaborations, and I still haven’t found out how they found me, was with Humana Insurance. You know, sometimes there’s some perks of being old. Well, they had the Senior Games in Florida, so they wanted me to come and help with some stuff at the senior games. They liked it so much because I over-performed. They said, “No one has given us what you gave us in return for working for us, so we want you to come and see this event we’re having,” and I did a TV spot for them. Then they came back and they gave me this huge contract this year for blog posts. Things start to build. When you make good relations with people, more things come to you. So we’re done for the year, but I know I’m still on the radar for later.
P: That is awesome, so great. Would you say that was one of your favorite collaborations? Or what has been your favorite collaboration in your career?
D: Well, I think the first time I worked with Viking, because it was like legitimizing me as a travel blogger, and it was the greatest adventure we’d had since I met my wife. The first year when we met, we had planned on going to Florida, and it was just going to be too costly, because it was over Christmas. I asked the travel agent “Where can I fly for $400?” And he says, “You want to go to Paris?” So that was our first trip together after like six months of knowing each other, so that was probably one of the most exciting things we’ve done.
And then traveling with Viking for the very first time. They had a suite open. They put me in the suite. Oh my god, I was king of that trip. That would probably be my all time favorite collaboration. They have been very kind to me since then. We’re doing our third trip now with them. But then the Humana one really came out of nowhere, and the people were so nice. They said, “Can you do this?”
I said, “Sure I can, I can do this.”
Then one day, she wrote back, she goes, “Dennis, we have loved working with you. The crew in our office wants to get Team Dennis t-shirts.”
I said, “I would love to see that pictures if you ever want to get them.”
So you know, when you make people happy – and it’s just why I cook. I cook to make people happy – when you make people happy, it’s really a big win. It’s nice to see these checks come in. That’s when you can have a happy dance in your office. But when people are thrilled to work with you, and they pay you what you deserve, the life doesn’t get much better than that. You’re really doing something right.
P: Absolutely. So you’ve probably used lots of influencer platforms in the past, and now you’re one of the editors and an active collaborator here on Perlu. Would you like to tell us about your experience on Perlu?
D: Sure. I’ve seen a lot of things come and go. I’ve seen a lot of influencer platforms that just did not look like they were worth the time. It doesn’t mean I didn’t try and didn’t set up, but they just don’t have the core values, or they didn’t seem to understand what they were doing, or they were just trying to develop something. Good intentions, but not great ideas.
When I saw Perlu, I went, “This is really interesting.” I like how you’re developing the [Packs] … I like the feel of it, because you can make people that you want to work with and include them in your [Pack]. This was always something that I enjoyed about Google+ if you used it right, because you were making communities. So we’re actually building these micro communities within Perlu, where we can put like-minded people together that we want to work with, that we trust, that we know would be a good asset.
Now all of a sudden, when I go to a brand to tell them I can provide this, I’ve also got a team of other bloggers that are available. Some of them will help me, where I can call on or I can make the package look more attractive, and maybe I can pass some work down to the other people that want to support me. The whole idea is that it’s got to be a win-win. You can’t ask people to do stuff for free all the time. You can ask for a favor occasionally, but there’s got to be something in it for them, whether it’s exposure, getting them product, or getting them a trip, or getting them money is really the first incentive.
We’re able to create now these little micro communities of people that like doing the things that we do. So I have some food blogger communities, I have some travel … for culinary travel now. Culinary travel is now a really big thing, and I think that’s why I’ve enjoyed so much success. That is an area where Perlu seems to be very heavy in, and I think that’s a good opportunity.
I’ve actually talked to some brands about it. I said, “You know, if you’re looking for bloggers and to vet them, guess who’d be a good resource for you?” So I see that happening with Perlu as time goes on. That’s what I’m counting on. I think it looks like it’s got a very good start to it, so I think it’d be a good place for brands to come, and once a few start coming, more will come. It’s like that, “I told two people, and they told two people, and they told two people,” so pretty soon, the word will be out. I think it could be a very viable option for influencers and for brands and would be a good place for them to find the people, the actual people, that they can work with, if they want to work with, or are able to provide them with results and tangible information prior to working with them. That this is what I can do, these are my demographics, these are the people I reach, these are the countries I reach, these are what I can give back to you in terms of investment that you’re going to put into me.
I see it as a really good place to be, and I’m excited. I need to spend more time there, but you know, again, when you bring something to the game that’s as good as this is, you have to really carve some time out for it, because my day is already really full, so that means sometimes cutting something else out to put something else in, or finding a new PA to do some of the work for me so I can do that. So it is something that you have to work on sometimes, but I have enjoyed being at Perlu, and I want to do more there.
P: That’s so great to hear. I love your raving review. I’m a big fan, and I know a lot of other bloggers who are. Yes, let’s get more brands on Perlu. That’s great. So is there anything else that you’d like to share today, Dennis?
D: No, just enjoy your life, enjoy what you do. I get up every morning – not that I ever minded cooking. There are days that I’d have to drag myself in, and once I was there, I was fine – but I’d get up every morning, I’m anxious to see what the emails are, who’s reached out to me. You need to love what you do. You need to invest yourself in what you do, invest in yourself by spending money to get more progress in your craft. And just really be social, enjoy meeting people, talking to people. Go to conferences, just have a good time, and you’ll never work a day if you love what you do, and you’ll be surprised at the results you get. I’m retired, and now I’m working more than I was when I wasn’t retired, but I don’t mind. It’s not work, it’s fun. So that’s how you just have to address life, and good things will come to you.
P: Well, great. Thank you so much, Dennis, for speaking with us today.
D: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Alexis. Thanks so much for having me.
P: Yeah, and thank you to everyone tuning into the Perlu Podcast. If you like our show and are interested in what it takes to succeed as an influence, check out our blog at blog.perlu.com for more podcasts and blog posts. And sign up for Perlu at Perlu.com to meet, learn from, and collaborate with other influencers. Don’t forget to join us next month for our next installation of the Perlu Podcast!