Archive for March 2013

The Real Business of Travel Blogging

March 3, 2013

Towards the end of last year, I attended a number of travel blogging conferences and noticed a growing conversation about the professionalization of our little industry.

As I listened to people talk, I kept silent. I didn’t want to get caught up in the debate. I hate inside baseball. However, on my recent trip to Africa, while dealing with long 10 hour bus rides, I had a lot of time to think — and think about travel blogging and the state of the industry I did.

With all that time, I’ve decided to write.

And then I wrote some more.

And I hate wasting words so I decided to no longer stay silent but to talk about travel blogging and my opinion on what needs to be done.

Nothing I write here is meant to be taken personally; these are simply my thoughts on the business of blogging. I see too many people who should be successes but aren’t, and too many beginner bloggers being led astray, cutting off any chance of success they might have.

We all start from zero and the questions we should always ask ourselves are why did that person succeed? and how can I copy what works so I can too?

Well, here are my answers to those questions. (Note: Just blog for fun? Don’t care about making a business out of it? Awesome. Keep doing that. This post isn’t for you though!)

The Problem(s)

There are many reasons why so few of us make it beyond our own walls. Compared to other niches, our world is very small with few top bloggers, few rising stars, and few people making lots of money. Travel is a multi-billion dollar industry, and we should have a bigger piece of that pie than we currently do. I think a lot more people should be bubbling to the top and as I look at what impedes our industry and what happens in other fields, I notice a couple of things:

First, travel blogging is inward focused. Too many bloggers write to other travel bloggers, talk to other travel bloggers, and network with other travel bloggers. On a personal level, that’s awesome. On a professional level, it’s limiting. Too few of us branch outside our industry. It is a giant circle jerk. There’s too much inside baseball on people’s blogs that only ever appeals to other bloggers. In short, we don’t think big enough.

Secondly, we don’t create businesses. Most of us, myself included, are former travelers who started blogging as a way to extend our travels. Most of us think “Hey, I travel and blog. I can definitely give other people advice on travel. I’m an expert.” And then with visions of being a travel writer in our minds, we join our fellow travel bloggers in….taking press trips, selling links, and running sponsored posts — and then complaining about how hard it is to make money with a travel blog. But how many of us create business plans? Have a marketing strategy? Develop an expertise? Hire people? Contact traditional media? How many of you create products that compliment your expertise? All businesses have staff, products, and plans. Too many think “If I blog, they will come.” They won’t. Content may be king, but marketing is the queen — and, as any good chess player knows, queens are the real power.

Third, there is a huge sense of self-entitlement. I see so many people who say they are “travel writers” and “travel experts” and demand this or that but only have two readers, have never been linked or quoted in a major magazine, and are simply experts at taking press trips. Anyone who has spent five minutes in the Facebook groups can see this. It leads to a huge amount of infighting, name calling, gossiping, and a “what can you do for me?” attitude. It’s worse than high school and it’s a big roadblock to success.

Those three things create a negative feedback loop that keeps too many bloggers down. As I’ve thought about the conversations I’ve heard over the last few months, I’ve come to realize that unless there is a paradigm shift in the way most bloggers think, few will last the industry contraction that is bound to occur when the novelty of travel blogging wears off and companies start to look closer at ROI and get more selective. It’s happened in other blogging niches and ours will be no exception. What goes up always goes down.

And that’s a shame, because there are so many good travel blogs out there that — with just a little push — could become huge and profitable successes.

The Fix

Why is it that, out of the thousands of bloggers, so few succeed? It is true in any industry that a few will rise to the top, but the Internet is a large place and you could have a million followers and still be unknown. To millions, you could be the only travel blog out there. There’s no reason why we all can’t be big fishes in small ponds. You would think for all his fame Tim Ferriss would be a household name, but ask most people who aren’t Internet junkies and they will have no clue as to who he is, nor will they be able to name his famous books. Yet he has tens of millions of readers and has sold millions of books.

And the reason why our industry isn’t a smooth pyramid comes down to this one fact: only a tiny amount are actually running a business and developing a strategy. Think of a restaurant. You walk in, you sit down, and you’re handed a menu from which to order. That restaurant has something to offer you. You get food, it gets money for doing something that it loves — in this case, cooking food.

Now, let’s pretend every travel blogger is their own restaurant. Ask yourself, what’s on your menu?

For too many of us, the answer is nothing.

All businesses sell something. Every top blog in every niche sells a “product”. They have a number of selections from which customers can choose – whether it’s an e-book, a course, speaking engagements, print books, their freelance writing skills, consulting, or affiliate ad sales. Your blog is a store and you need to think of it as such. What can people buy when they come to yours?

Some tips:
I. Be an expert
Go deep. Go niche. You cannot be a travel expert, just simply an expert in a style of travel. Travel is far too big of a field to be an expert in it all. That would be like someone saying they are a science expert.

I believe a lot of it goes back to the problem that so many of us come out of the traveler tradition that we look for ways to extend our travel and think “travel blogger” sounds cool. I went around the world, I know travel, I can help others.

A trip around the world does not make you an expert on anything related to travel. Yes, you know more than the average person but you are leagues away from being an expert. In the beginning, I thought I was and it took many humbling moments to realize I knew nothing and then it took me years of work and practice to actually become an expert on a type of travel.

What makes you passionate about travel? I love budget travel. I’m cheap, I hate spending money, and sitting around for 10 hours to learn how to find a cheaper flight sounds like a perfect Friday night to me. I focused on that and absorbed everything I could about budget travel. I read books by other writers. I sought the advice of others. I made the focus of my travels revolve around the question “Where can I find the best deal?”

There is still a lot I don’t know and only a fool thinks he knows it all. I was a fool in the beginning. It wasn’t until I started to think about how to really grow my blog outside travel and was being constantly rejected that first year or so that I realized the problem was that I couldn’t provide the depth of knowledge required of an “expert.”

But expert doesn’t mean guru. It simply means a focus. Your blog should have a focus – a reoccurring theme that binds everything together. That can be anything from budget travel to adventure sports to cruises to simply stories about mishaps on the road. But you need a theme. If your blog is all over the place, you’ll lose readers.

II. Learn from traditional writers
While Pam Mandel and I don’t oven see eye to eye, I completely agree with her when she says that writing is important and bloggers should focus more on writing. It doesn’t get enough publicity in our industry but being able to tell good stories is simply the price of admission. It is the least you can do. After all, no one wants to come back to a blog with awful writing. We should all work to hone our skills; all good writers do.

And this is where blogging self-entitlement hurts us. Bloggers love to think they are the wave of the future and that print writers are passé. They think it’s all about social media, forgetting the fact that anyone can go out and buy 100,000 Twitter followers. What matters is quality content (there is so much garbage all over the Internet) and by dismissing traditional writers we ignore the valuable lesson they can teach us: that to be a success you must have quality writing and a journalistic quality of depth to your stories. How often do you see 2,500 word, detailed how-to posts? Or in-depth reporting on issues that quote sources? Or stories that really put you there?

The best bloggers in any niche do that. They take the best lessons of the old media and combine it with the new — and are powerhouses because of it. Traditional writers are great at details and form and we can learn a lot from them.

I, for one, am taking two writing courses this year to improve my narrative writings. It’s not something I do a lot on my blog but when I do I want to be able to better express my experiences better. 99.999% of us are not natural writers, yet there is never a real discussion on writing or how to improve it. I’ve heard hardly anyone ever say “I’m signing up for this writing class to improve myself.”

Improve the quality of your writing and your readership will grow.

The Fix: The Business Continues

Think of yourself as a restaurant again. When people come to your place, what are you serving them?

Text links, sponsored trips, and copious press trips are not menu items. Doing those things are like saying “Ok, I need money and no one has come into the store yet so I’m going to rent out my store to the mob for a little bit.” But what happens is the mob never leaves and the customers never come.

I can trace the rise and plateau of most bloggers (because, yes, I actually keep track) to the time they started selling text links. Now, I did them when I was starting out, and I still think that they are good money. Putting ads up on the sidebar labeled as such is not a problem. Putting something at the bottom of your post once in awhile isn’t going to kill you – trust me, your audience does want you to be profitable and succeed.

But what I see is people becoming addicted to that money and simply doing that more and more because you need money to live and travel. And then I hear “Well, text links are the only way I make money, so I can’t stop.” If that is the case, maybe you shouldn’t be a blogger. Find a new industry. Get a desk job. If you really think there’s no way to make money outside links, you never will. If you just want to pay for your next flight, go nuts with links, but if your goal is to become a professional and earn a living, you are simply shooting yourself in the foot by doing this stuff.

Your audience reads you for you, not because you got some comped nights at a hotel or because they can take “cheap flights to Tenerife.” Your audience knows those are unnatural and paid-for links and they do not appreciate them. You only have to look at the traffic and subscription rate of blogs that do this heavily and observe their lack of growth to see it doesn’t lead anywhere. I get e-mails all the time telling me they used to read a lot of blogs but stopped because they became sponsored post, link, and press trip factories.

Your goal is to be the go-to travel expert, right? Someone whose writing people enjoy reading and whose content they trust. Every link on your site tells say to your reader “I trust this website and you should too.” It’s your recommendation. Readers WILL click on those links and when they see they lead to these junk sites, they are going to stop reading you. And that is why the websites that use contextual links the most are the ones that never seem to grow.

Moreover, for too many, it seems to be that press trips are the pinnacle of blogging, as if the more press trips you take, the better your blog. But when you become a large blog, you will get more trip offers than you’ll know what to do with.

But let me say something – your readers don’t care about what you do. Sure, they are invested in you because they can see themselves in you, but no one wants to read about your awesome trip that they can never take or see photos of the seven-course, 10-star meal some tourism board gave you while they are stuck in a cubicle. What they want to read is a story that allows them to envision themselves following in your footsteps. Even if they never plan on doing it, they want to at least pretend.

And so posting videos and photos of seven-course meals you received simply because you were being wined and dined isn’t going to fly with your readers – it won’t grow your audience. After all, most of us started as travelers and people read us because they wanted to follow in our footsteps and for at least a blog post, they pictured that they can.

Too often this criticism is taken as a personal insult. It’s not. I’m just saying that we should strive to be better as an industry, that we should try to play long ball, not short ball. I hear a lot of complaints about the lack of money in travel blogging, but when asked what people are doing to grow their income, they don’t have an answer. They don’t have a plan.

You need products. You need to have something on your menu. The sites that do create long term sustainable income.

Chris Guillebeau wrote this great article where he said:

“I used to run several little businesses that produced a good income, but they were completely dependent on external factors such as Google rankings or the lack of competition in my space. It was fun while it lasted, but when efficiency entered the marketplace, I had to move on.

Looking back, I can now see that I didn’t really have a business; I was merely taking advantage of an opportunity.”

He’s right. If you are not selling anything, you are simply taking advantage of a Google loophole and when that loophole closes, you are going to be left with nothing. This year I’ve completely left text links behind. I used to have some on sites I ran besides my main site but I’ve sold them to some friends. In doing so, I lost about $30,000 USD in potential revenue. That’s a lot of money — but it forced me to monetize my site in different ways and think of products and things I could offer that can be of value to my readers as well as make money. And now, I am poised to recoup that income — and more — while freeing up tons of time to focus on stuff that actually matters.

The Fix, part 3: Why are you so ugly?

I want to make two final points.

First, if you look at big blogs in any field, they all look outward. They are all multi-media publishing houses. They are more than their blog and they network with bloggers of all sorts in all fields. If you want to be a success, you need to think about what will grow your business by leaps and bounds.

Travel overlaps with so many other niches. Why don’t the solo female travelers of the world guest blog on women’s websites? You have an empowering story… pitch it! Why aren’t the older travelers writing for boomer websites and magazines? Those who volunteer around the world could work with student and other organizations! If video is your thing, link up with other video bloggers!

The best growth will come from outside travel blogging. And once you do that, everything snowballs. When people walk by a busy restaurant, they stop and peek in. They think to themselves, “This place must be good if it is full.” People will think about your blog the same way.

Secondly, back to our restaurant analogy, there is not enough focus on design. No one wants to eat in an ugly-looking restaurant. Design is costly, but you have seven seconds to appeal to someone before they move on to the next website. If people don’t like how you look, they aren’t even going to give your content a chance. Invest in your design, otherwise you are just another blog.

Travel bloggers have been great to me, and I count many of them as friends. I love watching people grow and become better and helping them when and where I can. They do the same for me. But over the last few months, I’ve watched people tread water and too many new bloggers become disenchanted about blogging when they shouldn’t be.

My blog is not perfect. I have a lot to learn, and I am constantly getting feedback from friends, readers, and experts. A few years ago, I had drinks with Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich. He’s one of the best bloggers I know with an audience of 160,000 subscribers. He’s a genius. We were having drinks and, since at the time his website was still focused on saving money, I asked if he wanted to help promote an e-book I was working on. He peppered me with questions to which I had no answers. Then he spent a good 45 minutes ripping me and everything I did apart. (And he’s not very tactful when he does this, either). But I took that advice and made my site better. I never took it personally. He was trying to help. I took his advice, the advice of others, and I copied their best practices — and I used it all to grow my site. Now when we talk, I take great joy when he says “I like that idea, Matt!”

We all start from zero. We all have to work for it. In the beginning, we all start from the same line. There is plenty of room for us all, but if you don’t think strategically, long-term, and about the bigger picture, you will always be treading water and complaining about how hard blogging is.

Make this year the year you stop treading water and become an Olympic swimmer. Let’s make this the year we all do.