Some calls to the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line stand out.
Two examples: A plea for help from a nurse who arrived at a dinner party and found the assembly too intoxicated to remember how long the Thanksgiving turkey had been in the oven, and the plaintive appeal two weeks before Thanksgiving from a recently divorced man who was planning to cook his first holiday meal for his children and wanted it to be perfect.
In contrast with food websites such as FoodNetwork.com, which expects about 25 million visitors in November, AllRecipes.com (about 20 million) and Epicurious.com (about 7 million), the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line remains old-school.
Its experts field inquiries mostly over the phone. On Thanksgiving Day alone, 10,000 calls come in to the line in Naperville, Ill., roughly one-tenth the call volume Butterball has received each holiday season for the last nine years.
It responds to about 5,000 e-mailed questions, and about 1.2 million visitors are expected on the company's website during November.
Butterball executives believe the company has a strong niche and say they are undaunted by the competition. In addition to selling turkey, they say, Butterball's core strength is providing live advice from calm experts about cooking, thawing or what side dishes to make.
"Butterball is the turkey expert," said Kari Lindell, Butterball's marketing director. "We focus on one area." She added that the rise of cooking advice outlets provides an opportunity for Butterball when new cooks choose to take on turkey, whether it's a whole bird for Thanksgiving or ground meat for burgers.
Talk-Line supervisor Carol Miller said Butterball's experts deal with people calling in a panic when their turkey looks blue or purple (common with younger turkeys that haven't developed a thick layer of fat) or asking why they can't find thawing instructions (because it was bought fresh) as well as how to microwave a turkey (a question often posed by college students and those whose ovens have gone on the fritz on the big day — it can be done).
Butterball's personal touch isn't lost on those who follow the food industry.
"The fact that you can call a hotline and talk to an expert who knows how to make the perfect bird is so valuable to the consumer who's feeling so stressed,'' said Marie Chen, a senior consultant at EffectiveBrands, a global branding company.
"People really feel like they have a lot riding on this meal," Chen said. "They're preparing it for their families, their in-laws, the people who matter the most. And they want it to be perfect."
Although websites can provide excellent recipes and even advice, there's the assumption that you can follow the directions. "That's not always the case, especially when stress is high, time is short and there's so much emotion riding on it," Chen said.
Dominance during Thanksgiving is crucial for any company that wants to do business with cooks. As a secular holiday, it's the biggest cooking day of the year by a substantial margin. And many cooks spend weeks preparing, so they're likely to make numerous visits to the same website or sites for inspiration, answers or tips.
According to Google Insights for Search, a search-volume measurement tool, cooking searches begin to increase the first week of November, by about 7%, increase to 15% during the second week and hit a fever pitch Thanksgiving week, more than 90% higher than the first week of the month. The increased traffic trumps also-elevated interest the week before Christmas, by about 15%.
So it's crucial for cooking outlets to put their best foot forward at Thanksgiving.
"This is our Super Bowl," said Susie Fogelson, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy at the Food Network and Cooking Channel. She said the company, which also owns Food Network Magazine, is always looking for ways to grow its audience. This week, in time for Thanksgiving planning, Food Network is launching an In the Kitchen app for iPad and iPhone.
AllRecipes, in addition to posting 12 Thanksgiving menus — including gluten-free, Southern, grilling, potluck and a 60-minute meal — is hosting an 81/2-hour Thanksgiving preparation video stream starting Nov. 20. The program will later be edited into shorter instructional videos.
"We spend 11 months preparing for Thanksgiving," said Esme Williams, AllRecipes' vice president of brand marketing. "There's so much content to curate, but the sheer traffic levels are huge. We don't just want to serve the pages, but serve them really fast." Last year, she said, the site had nearly 3 million visitors the day before Thanksgiving alone.
Butterball is making efforts on Facebook and Twitter, but so far the programs are small, with about 20,000 fans and 1,400 followers, respectively. By comparison, Food Network has about 870,000 fans and 250,000 followers; AllRecipes has about 70,000 fans and 7,000 followers; and Epicurious has about 60,000 fans and 70,000 followers.
Butterball's other strength is its tie-in at the grocery store: People shop for turkeys and see Butterball's name. The company, based in Mount Olive, N.C., is also building marketing partnerships. This year its partners include Pillsbury, Kikkoman, Stove Top, Reynolds foil, Reynolds oven bags and Cavit wine, as well as Dell Inc. and Walt Disney Co.
Still, talking turkey is a big deal.
Butterball bestows a sterling silver wishbone pin on "freshman'' talk-line experts and ups the ante as time goes by: a sterling silver pin with a sapphire for five years, gold at 10 years and gold with a diamond at 15. Some of the veteran talk-line experts also buy wishbone necklaces and earrings.
"Some of these women have been doing this for 25 or 28 years," said Casey Mullins, a second-year expert. "Seeing them with their wishbone necklaces and earrings … to be even close to that is pretty special."