The 10 Most Important Lessons I’ve Learned from 6 Years, 7 Months and 11 Days of Travel Blogging
I’ve been pulling the levers and switches behind the scenes at Vagabondish.com for more than six and a half years. Today – May 21, 2013 – marks my 2,418th day of travel blogging.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in that time. Like, a lot. (Bah … this Twitter thing’ll never catch on!) But thankfully it’s taught me a lot too. While I can’t tell you everything I’ve learned (because I’ve forgotten much of it), here are the ten most important things I think every travel blogger should know …
#1: This Ain’t No ‘4-Hour Work Week’: Blogging Is F**king Hard Work
When people ask me, “So whaddaya do for work?” That’s a tough one because travel blogging is like any other you’re-your-own-boss-now gig. You are your website’s sales team, accounting department, writer, editor, photographer (usually), secretary, social media strategist, customer service department, “corporate” planner, web designer and developer (almost always). You wear every hat in the company.
To fully run a travel blog is insanely hard work. It will often occupy every waking second of your days in some fashion. Even when you’re not writing or photographing, you’ll be thinking about writing and photographing. I work much harder now than I ever did at my former corporate gig. Some days are a long, hard slog – almost mind-numbingly so. I’ve wanted to quit many times. But remember: most people do quit, which just leaves room for the remaining 1% of us to thrive!
(All that being said, I wouldn’t return to my old desk job for five times the money!)
#2: You Can’t Go It Alone: It’s All About Connections
One of the most important steps to being successful online … is getting offline. Step out from behind the keyboard and connect at real world events, conferences, meetups, and trade shows as often as possible.
TBEX and the just recently ended TBU are obvious examples, but there are fast becoming others. For local meetups in your area, check out the aptly named Meetup.com as well as Eventbrite. Or research professional travel industry groups on Facebook and Linkedin to coordinate corresponding offline events.
Five minutes spent connecting offline with others in the industry is more valuable and productive than countless e-mails, Twitter replies, and Skype calls.
#3: Take Your Site Seriously (Stop Treating It Like a Hobby)
You’re probably gunning to travel the world indefinitely and/or become location independent, right? If you’d like for your blog to serve as the ladder to get you there, start treating it like a real business. Outline a business plan (here’s a good place to start) with definable goals and step-by-step strategies to achieve them.
Take account of your accounting. Even if it’s just a simple balance sheet to understand where you’re spending money and where you’re earning it. It’s the only way to visualize what’s working and what isn’t.
Create an editorial and/or social media calendar that clearly outlines what tasks you’ll do on which days and how much time you’ll spend doing them. Stick to it as best you can.
#4: Do Unto Others: You Get What You Give
Remember “A rising tide lifts all boats”? Be cooperative, not competitive, by helping promote other websites and blogs. Remember: they are not your competition, but your colleagues.
Porn and LOL cat videos notwithstanding, travel is still the single largest online niche and (god willing) will continue to be for the foreseeable future. There’s plenty of space here for all of us. Share advertisers, press trip leads, web development and SEO tips, etc. with other bloggers and kindly ask that they do the same.
#5: Have Something Unique to Say: You Are Your Brand
Have a voice – a unique voice. With regard to the actual *blogging* aspect of running a travel blog, this is the single most important and deciding factor of your success.
Be funny, quirky, angry(kidding, Dave), self-effacing, witty, gregarious, or just ridiculous … anything that conveys your personality authentically. Don’t be another “me-too” voice among the thousands of blogs just launched this hour. Be unique and people will take notice.
(Tip: maintain your voice consistently across every one of your social media channels)
#6: Get Real! You’re Not Going to Get Rich (Sorry)
(My mommy says that I should toot my own horn more often, so what the hell …) Vagabondish is, in many ways, a successful travel blog. We average a few hundred thousand visitors each month and have been fortunate enough to connect with a sizable social media following. But it’s not likely to ever make me financially “rich”. And your travel blog probably won’t do the same for you either, no matter how successful you are.
Sorry, I’m not trying to piss in your Cheerios or dissuade you from starting your own travel blog. But if your primary measure of travel blogging success is your bank account, you’re destined to fail by your own standards anyway. However, if success for you is working a job that you love – a job that funds your long-term travel dreams and frees you from the “normal” 9-to-5 – then travel blogging might just be for you.
#7: Ditch Your Blog Template! (… and Invest in a Custom Website Design)
You know what they say about first impressions. It’s true: a good, unique, eye-popping design for your website is worth every penny. Well, if you’re not a designer, that’s OK. But, for the love of god, don’t attempt to design your own site. The “I bought a WordPress template and reswizzled it myself!” days of being good enough are over. Advertisers, PR firms, tourism boards, et. al. have caught on.
So pay a professional to design it for you. It will likely be the largest financial investment you make in your site. But it will also be the most important and continue paying for itself for years to come.
It surprises people to learn that Vagabondish is primarily a one-man show. I’m the only full-time employee, yet the design often leads advertisers and press to believe that it’s a full-blown team (“Dear sir, can you please connect me to the head of your marketing department?”). I credit this almost entirely to the professional design.
Another surprising fact: in more than six years of blogging, I’ve never once had to actively seek out, approach, or cold call new advertisers. Again, I attribute much of that to the design as well.
This is me, focusing hard on the long-term
#8: Focus on the Long Term: Building a Following
With an insanely detailed level of web and social media metrics available, it’s easy to disappear down the rabbit hole of daily (or hourly) analytics-checking. Don’t do that. Seriously … knock it off! It’ll drive you crazy, especially when you’re just getting started. And it’s completely unproductive.
Until you’re tracking more than, say, 5,000 monthly uniques, don’t bother pouring over the minutia of Google Analytics (install it, but don’t pay attention to it).
Instead, focus on long-term growth: building a loyal following on your blog, on social media, and at offline events. It’s important not to confuse “big traffic” with “having a big following”. Building a true loyal following/audience means convincing your readers that your site is worth coming back. Over time (remember: long term!), this converts to steady, sustainable traffic numbers, which in turn converts to advertising dollars.
And to do all that, simply focus on the other nine tips in this post!
Travel blogger and arrogant, douchebag extraordinaire, Mike Richard
#9: Be Confident (but Not Arrogant)
Be confident in your writing, your voice, your site, and ultimately yourself. Act big, act like an expert, like an influential player in the online travel “sphere” and people will take notice.
It goes without saying that there’s a distinct line between arrogance and confidence. Of course you need the knowledge to back it up.
But, when you’re confident, you’re more likely to …
#10: Just Ask
This is the single best piece of advice I can give you. Don’t worry whether you have the traffic, the Twitter followers, or the right Klout score. Almost anyone can land press trips, new advertisers, guest posts from other bloggers, etc. But you won’t know unless you ask.
The first month after I quit my day job (with only a fraction of Vagabondish’s current audience), I pitched three providers regarding potential press trips. And landed all three almost immediately. Mind you, I was convinced that I wouldn’t land any of them, but decided to ask anyway. And you should too.
Ask for more advertising dollars than you think you can get; ask for that all-expense paid media trip to the North Pole; ask a “six-figure” blogger friend if you can guest post for them (or they for you); ask to be a panelist at a travel blogging conference and share your personal area of expertise with the community; ask for help with designing your website (and offer to exchange content, links, advertising space, etc. in return).
The bottom line is: ask!
Bloggers are a tight-knit, friendly group of folks for the most part. Well, the good ones are anyway — the ones you actually want to associate with — because they recognize that we are all colleagues, not competition.
The worst thing you’ll get is … no response at all. But even then, you’re probably on that person’s radar.
The second worst thing? They reply with a polite, “No thanks.” And then you’re definitely on their radar. Plus they actually took the time to e-mail you back which means that, at the very least, they likely considered your offer before declining.
Whether you’re just a brand new travel blogger or a seasoned vet, what lessons have you learned the hard way? Let me know in the comments below!