BY SHANNON SMITH
If you asked 8-year-old Jane what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would’ve said librarian. If you asked 20-year-old Jane what she wanted to be, she would’ve said dietician. Ask 27-year-old Jane what she sees herself doing in five years, and she’ll tell you she has no idea.
And that’s the beauty of Jane Ko, social media influencer and the voice behind A Taste of Koko, one of Austin’s top lifestyle and food blogs. In the ever-evolving media landscape, she’s simply enjoying the ride.
Ko is considered a leading social influencer in the local Austin scene and was recently named the official restaurant expert for the City of Austin. Despite her success, Ko didn’t start with a plan to make a career out of blogging.
It was during her senior year at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010 that Ko first launched her website. Sick of science classes and unenthused about a career as a dietician, she used her site as a creative outlet for sharing recipes.
A Taste of Koko soon became more than a creative blog, as Ko transformed it into her own brand. By publishing guides to eating on a college budget — from baking flourless dorm cake to cooking rock star ramen — she quickly gained a large following of college students.
It did not take long for local restaurateurs to notice Ko’s platform and her loyal audience, and to recognize a new opportunity to reach a younger generation of foodies. Soon enough, Ko was being invited to multiple restaurant tastings every night of the week.
She saw these tastings as opportunities to grow her brand. She abandoned writing recipes and embraced a new role as an arbiter of taste among Austin foodies.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is so awesome!’” she said. “I don’t have to make the food at home, cook it or style it. I just started writing more and more restaurant coverage, and it resonated with the audience in Austin, especially since, at the time, nobody was covering it.”
With no real competition at the time, Ko was able to position herself at the forefront of the Austin food scene. She became a household name in restaurants citywide.
She developed a voice for food coverage that Austinites loved: authentic, honest and funny.
But growing her business wasn’t easy. As a college student, she couldn’t afford to hire web developers, photographers or writers. Yet she knew her followers would look for the polished touches that such professionals could provide. So, she picked up those skills on her own.
Acknowledging that writing was not her strength, Ko chose to focus mostly on photography. She purchased a professional camera and got to work. One look at her blog, and Ko’s hard work and determination are apparent — and her pictures boast professionalism.
Astonished with the opportunities she was being given, particularly the chances to eat for free at some of the most expensive restaurants in Austin, Ko made herself a promise: to remain authentic. Of course, as her blog grew and evolved, so did her opportunities.
She not only received regular invitations to new restaurant openings, restaurant revamps and food competitions, but also found herself expanding into lifestyle coverage and answering calls from major brands like Ikea, Target and Chase seeking marketing partnerships with her.
Years and many partnerships later, her original pledge to remain authentic shines through in all of her work.
“She doesn’t take on clients or work that she personally doesn’t believe in just for the money,” said Chelsea Bucklew, Ko’s friend and fellow blogger. “She stands fully behind everything that she does.”
This authenticity is what separates Ko from other bloggers, and she is confident that it is the only way to run her business. Her brand is not built on tearing down the reputations of businesses and products she dislikes, but rather on highlighting those she admires.
“I’m not a food critic,” Ko said. “If it’s bad, I just won’t share anything about it. I won’t write about it. That’s it. Writing negative things is just not part of my brand.”
She uses #KokoApproves on posts for restaurants and brands that she especially loves. Posts without the hashtag will still highlight the positive aspects of her experience, but she leaves it up to consumers to make their own final judgment.
Though Ko’s work might seem glamorous, it’s not all wining and dining. Sure, her Instagram is teeming with well-crafted photos of food and drinks, but her job goes well beyond the posts the public sees.
She said she typically works 80 hours a week, with every weekday beginning at 8 a.m. and ending around 2 to 3 a.m. Her days involve meetings and phone calls to secure monthly campaigns, working on sponsored content, creating original content, editing photos and attending at least one tasting a night. She doesn’t separate free time from work time — every social outing is some kind of content opportunity.
However, the industry of blogging and social influencing is relatively new; there is no playbook on how to earn a living. Each month, brands reach out to Ko to propose a campaign and budget. They may give her guidelines for Instagram posts, products to highlight, props and a fee they are willing to pay for her sponsorship. She then reviews the campaign and either accepts or rejects the opportunity. It’s not so different from her typical restaurant coverage, except for the fact that she receives free products and financial compensation in return for her review and sponsorship.
A Taste of Koko is financed through this type of sponsored content. Ko is paid for her blog entries and Instagram posts, revealing a new effort in brand advertising. According to Ko and others, big brands with substantial budgets are having less success with TV and print advertisements, and so they have started to expand into partnerships with digital influencers like Ko who have more loyal followings and the analytical ability to track engagement and monitor click rates.
When Ko isn’t managing her thriving brand, she likes to do what most other 20-somethings enjoy doing. She loves watching Netflix, hanging with her cat, Beethoven, and spending time with friends, many of whom used the same word to describe Jane: “humble.”
“If someone comes up to her and says, ‘I read your blog, I’m a huge fan,’ she blushes and says thank you,” said April Cummings, associate editor of Austin Women Magazine, who has collaborated with Ko in the past. “It still takes her by surprise to be recognized by people.”
In just one hour spent with Ko, her humility and kindness is apparent. She understands the trust her followers have granted her, and she works hard to connect personally with her dedicated readership. After all, they are her favorite part of her job — not the free food, wine, travel or even being featured in O Magazine this past year.
“I know [it] sounds so cheesy, but it makes me feel so good when I have people reach out to me thanking me for recommendations for a dinner, or a vacation,” she said. “There’s a lot of beauty in that interaction that I never expected. I never expected to have other females tell me that I inspired them to quit their job and start their own bakery or whatever it may be. It’s very rewarding.”
Ko is constantly sharing her warmth with those around her, whether it’s bringing friends and family on trips and tastings, helping Austin boyfriends pick the perfect place for a proposal — “with a 100 percent success rate,” she claimed — or even helping new bloggers start out on the right foot.
Ko realizes that many of the tastings she attends likely lead to a lot of wasted food. But she recently came up with remedy to that problem.
“As of a week ago, I’ve started taking home leftovers,” Ko said as she blushed, admitting it’s not something she’s told anyone else. “As I drive home, I’ve been giving them to homeless people I see on the side of the road.”
She said the faces and thanks of the recipients have encouraged her to continue the routine and have made her even more grateful for the power to do good that comes with her job.
Even as her business continues to flourish, Ko says the long-term future of her brand is unknown.
“I live every day day to day, and I’m just trying to survive,” she said. “I really don’t know about the future of the blog.”
With that, she ran off to a Monday night restaurant tasting, the content for a new blog post so close she could taste it.