NB: This is a viewpoint by Peter Parkorr of TravelUnmasked.
As the idea of travel blogging continues to gain popularity, is heading down this route the best way to earn some kind of a living from the travel industry?
This article considers whether fans of travel should really be considering blogging as a career, or if it's all smoke and mirrors.
What is travel blogging?
I spend a lot of time trying to explain it these days. To family and friends, to business owners, even to members of the media. Starting a blog is simple and, for various reasons, it gets people excited.
A travel writer and journalist who teaches a university course told me last month, quite worryingly, that of his 50-odd students, only five wanted to go into journalism, and the rest wanted to be bloggers.
It seems everybody has heard of blogging, but not many people know what a blogger does to earn a living. Even bloggers can't agree.
Instead of trying to shoe-horn the story tellers, the vloggers, the opinionista's or the social media influencers into a definition, it might be more useful to list the ways some of us try to turn a profit.
Here's what a blogger in the travel industry might physically be doing to make income, or for benefits-in-kind:
- Writing, including copywriting and researching
- Independent publishing (novels, guides, how to's)
- Editing and sub-editing
- Sponsored content (in exchange for trips, food, accommodation, products, services or payment)
- Sponsored guest posts (published for payment)
- Long-term partnerships
- Direct advertising
- Affiliate sales
- Sponsored social media (inc. campaigns)
- Social media management and training
- Web marketing and social media consulting
- Web design and development
- Expert opinion (TV, Radio, Conferences)
- Professional representation (acting as blogger agents)
- Holiday planning services
[caption id="attachment_115554" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="A breakdown of blogger activities"]
As you can see, some of them aren't really a form of blogging, getting fairly removed at the bottom of the list. They don't involve making content, or publishing to a blog, or micro-blogging on social media.
I think of these activities as "services allied to the travel industry". They are useful skills for a blogger to possess, and are certainly ways that bloggers are making money, but claiming to make an income "as a blogger" through these activities is a little misleading.
The blog is effectively a platform they are using to connect with new customers.
What if we split the remainder of the list in two, and think about those activities as pure "content creation", or alternatively as "marketing and promotion"?
These are two extremes of blogging – being a content creator or being someone who promotes on the web. Every blogger lies somewhere along the line drawn between the two, doing varying amounts of each. Individual strategies depend on a blogger's strengths and preferences.
[caption id="attachment_115555" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Classifying bloggers"]
The bloggers who act more like marketers use their site traffic and social media influence to promote what they choose.
And the bloggers purely interested in producing content want to be paid for their creative skill. You can usually tell what types of income a blogger focusses on by looking at their site.
Typically their site will have little or no advertising and sponsored content, the majority if not all of their income coming from freelance work intended for client or partner channels.
The content they publish on their own site is often very recognisable, with signatures of their usual style. For example, look at Ken Kaminesky, Jodi Ettenberg or Mike Sowden.
Marketers and promoters
The majority if not all of their content is sponsored and published to their own site. They publish content more frequently, the volume and range of their posts pulling in web traffic, along with very active social media channels.
Their content is often less individual and appeals to a relatively wider readership. Kate McCulley, Sebastian Canaves-Boerner and Jennifer Dombrowski are good examples here.
You can say that any prominent blogger (including the above examples) inhabits a fairly central position, as they've mastered both Content Creation and Marketing & Promotion during the course of establishing themselves.
They still differ from each other considerably, but established bloggers have the best of both worlds; they can choose to use their audience or their creative skills and reputation.
Their blogging just arrives at profitability by completely different means.
High-quality content creation will attract an audience over time, whereas the more frequent multi-channel content style of marketer/promoters stimulates an audience faster, accumulating to become a useful body of reference.
- Kash Bhattacharya - Growing from a stereotypical marketer/promoter's site, posting frequent reviews in a popular niche, Kash's recent projects have been more region specific, with the intention of creating detailed high-quality content and independently published guides.
- JD Andrews - JD was an established independent video producer prior to taking up "travel blogging". His site, started in 1999, has used his photography and videography skills to work with travel businesses all over the world, attracting a large audience for his social media and travel chronicles.
It's complicated. All of the guys above break my rules. Twitter played a huge role for Jodi Ettenberg and she is an expert on the topic of social media, as well as other areas outside of pure travel content.
Kate McCulley has a majority of work sponsored, but her content is also some of the best in the market.
But every blogger does it differently and mixes it up, so you need to have thought about what your goal is. Sebastian Canaves-Boerner recently published a guide into how he earns as a blogger (but wait 'til I've finished before you read it).
A look back at the big list
There is an interesting link between all of the ways I listed how bloggers can make money. Whether their modus operandi sits under Content, Marketing or Services, none of the methods are new, and none of them are unique to blogging.
Take a good look at each item on the list. Every one existed before travel blogging came to the fore. In fact, if you just remove the words 'social' and 'web', all of them existed before the internet turned up too.
[caption id="attachment_115556" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Blogging equivalents before the internet"]
There are already lots of (non-blogger) professionals making a living in these fields. What happens if they all decide they want to work in the online travel industry too?
They'll probably be better at their trade than someone who is self-taught. But we're already in the same market as them. Aren't we all freelancers for the travel industry, rather than simply bloggers? We are doing a mixture of freelance jobs that have been around for a long time.
The novelty is that we are coming into these fields through a new medium (new media), because the old industry barriers to entry have disappeared.
Starting a new blog takes a matter of minutes, social media channels are free for everyone, you don't need an employer to give you a voice, and the internet abounds with opportunities to learn almost anything.
Here is a snippet of a Twitter conversation that says it all:
Unsurprisingly, many successful bloggers (measured as you see fit) do have professional experience of the skills needed to operate in the industry.
It's no coincidence that the top photo-blogs are run by ex-photographers, the best storytellers are trained writers, the best at maximising their traffic have worked in SEO, and the best at collaborating with corporates have a marketing or PR background.
But it's a two-way street. You don't have to study in advance or be a professional. In fact, blogging is a great way to make the transition. The more energy you spend on writing per se, the better your writing gets.
You become good enough to warrant payment, you pitch people for payment, and eventually, if you work hard to build your skill into a business, hey presto – you're a paid writer in one form or another.
Not a paid blogger, but a paid writer who may or may not still be a blogger. Mike Sowden just published a great post with his thoughts on this. Anybody who didn't already have skills from academic study or industry, has had to spend time and effort teaching themselves to be as good as the professionals.
So why do we call it "travel blogging"? Is anyone making money from their blog?
Option A: Marketing & Promoting.
- Money can be made from the various types of advertising and sponsorship. It involves learning to be good at SEO, marketing and PR. Businesses will want to pay for access to your audience(s), so your earning potential is in line with audience size and relevancy. Content creation is almost incidental - the author could be anonymous or several people, but it is still an important part of the SEO, marketing and PR of this business model.
Option B: Content Creation.
Answer: Yes, but not on the blog.
- On the blog, not including sponsored content, not really. If you are not selling an audience, organisations still need quality content to market and promote on their own channels. You need a reputation for producing good quality content or have authority in a niche area to warrant payment. But this is freelancing. Your own traffic is almost incidental, except that your site can exhibit skills as a content creator, and an audience validates your authority or content quality.
So if a pure marketing/promoting strategy is to build and monetise an audience, and a pure content creation strategy is to create freelance content for clients, why then do we focus so much on 'blogging' – which seems to make both of these goals opaque. Maybe we should use more specific terminology, or maybe it will just take time for understanding of blogging to evolve.
But here's another idea to add to the confusion.
You don't need a blog to become a blogger
Really. When I put a very brief and slapdash version of this theory to Steve Keenan at the Traverse event, he disagreed.
It might sound stupid, but let me rephrase it. You don't need a blog to work in the online travel industry.Indeed, just having a blog will not get you work in the online travel industry. What you need is either of the things that Content Creators and Marketer/Promoters capitalise on.
You need to produce quality content, or you need to have an audience, or both. There's a few reasons why running your own website is completely unnecessary for both of those goals.
If your goal is to make money from traffic through advertising and affiliate links, then you will need your own site. That's a long road you have ahead of you. Passive income is anything but passive to get off the mark.
Each blogger needs to decide early on if they want to focus on their content or audience building. But there is a way to have both. Why not start putting the content you want to be known for directly in front of the audiences you want? Build your audience by producing quality content on established platforms.
Any body of work available online can satisfy your needs, without even a simple landing page site to call your own. Social networks are ready audiences, and there are social networks for every kind of medium.
No matter what type of content you have, there are pre-existing websites and platforms purpose built for your output. These platforms and social networks allow your content to be found every bit as easily as your website, often more easily.
They also offer their own user-base as a group of people already interested in the same online medium as you, to network with and learn from. Don't forget the hundreds of websites already with audiences for every niche you care to imagine. Yep, probably even that one, smart-arse.
The BudgetTraveller had this to say about my blog recently:
"Your stuff is good but your site needs work."
Admittedly, my site needing work was not news to me. Did it stop him publishing a review of a hostel in Syracusa, Sicily? No, he loved it, and his audience are the people who want to read that piece.
To make the idea more tangible, I've put together a few hypotheticial examples of how it might look for some common styles of blogging.
- Cannon has accounts at Flickr and 500px that he adds to regularly. He schedules tweets of his favourite shots, runs a Facebook page, and also uses Instagram on the road. His best shots are available to buy through Smugmug, and the profiles on his social networks also point to his LinkedIn profile. He is paid to contribute photos to photography publications, travel sites and company blogs, occasionally guest-posting elsewhere to improve his profile. Increasingly he is being offered traditional photography assignments, and selling more prints. He recently joined Google+ so that he could geo-tag his photos and allow people to find his profile from photos that they discover on Google Maps.
- Veezey has a Vimeo account and a Youtube channel that she makes short city-guide videos for. She's on all the usual social networks to share her content, and contributes videos to TravelDudes and TripFilms, sometimes in exchange for blog trips. She earns money making videos for hostels and hotel chains to use on their own sites, and works with adventure companies who want video to promote their tours. She occasionally applies for work with organisations as an expedition videographer in the countries she will be visiting and was one of the first bloggers to start using Vine. She has great boards on Pinterest full of travel photos and videos, mixing Pins to her own work with Pins to other good quality content. Her profile at About.me has all the information people need for contacting and hiring her, and she has pages on Google+ and Facebook for her business too.
The expert traveller
- He started blogging about his travels on Tumblr for his friends and family. After a couple of his posts got a lot of likes and re-blogs on the network, he started another blog at TravelPod to put up examples of his writing that he could pitch for work with. He took part in some travel chats on twitter, and got messages from TravelCultureMag and Matador Network inviting him to contribute articles, which he did. He joined WritersCafe and LinkedIn to build a profile based on his published articles, and gets small paid jobs on freelance writing sites that he learned about from Frankie Bird. He was recently offered to cover a blog trip for TravMonkey by recommendation, and landed himself a regular gig writing the blog for a travel company, in addition to his freelance work and trips. He has started putting more effort into updates on his social media, and occasionally shares his RebelMouse page to introduce followers to his other networks.
- She started out by writing quirky travel posts for sites that would accept them, which it turns out are a lot of places. She regularly contributes her knowledge of the businesses and sights in the cities she has lived in to Gogobot and is very active on the Lonely Planet ThornTree. She reviews every place she visits on TripAdvisor, and spends a couple of hours a week answering travel questions on Quora. She uses FourSquare to leave frequent tips which are shared to Facebook and Twitter, boosting her followers there. Her Amazon account has a Top 1,000 reviewer status from her reviews of travel and photography gear, and she earns a little in affiliate links from articles she wrote on LifeHacker and Squidoo. She has a strong following on Google+ and MySpace (too far? Ok, maybe not on MySpace!). Her expertise and profile gets her freelance work from sites like Viator and Hipmunk, as well as occasionally writing for NatGeo and in-flight magazines.
Considering just some of the options out there, do you really need your own website from day one; weeks, months or years before we can turn it into a profitable venture?
There isn't an an entry for people making money from maintaining a website under Content or Marketing in my list. Taking the time to learn that will not earn you any money as "a blogger", unless you intend to offer services.
The best thing about these options is that you can be making good quality content and building your audience at the same time, without needing to run or pay for a website. If you decide to start a website later, you will already have an audience to promote it to, and content to fill it with.
Businesses out there should still be eager to work with you whether your strength is number of unique visitors a month, or an engaged following on social networks. For them, it amounts to the same thing. Either audience or content.
The process of blogging can be enjoyable, and the ability to talk about any topic you choose is liberating. I'm not suggesting you delete your entire blog if you already have one.
I'm suggesting that it needn't be the first thing you put energy into if you want to get paid for making travel content or working with travel partners. You can keep a personal blog if you feel the need to express yourself (hey, even Nomadic Matt has one) But you know what they say about mixing business with pleasure...
What's that? What about the budget travellers? The legal nomads? They started as bloggers.
Yes, they did - but their sites have become travel resources. If you want your site to become a travel resource, start a travel resource site. You can still build authority from great quality content, or build an audience by marketing and promoting.
It's almost the same as starting a blog - except that you understand you have a different set of end goals, so you can approach them more directly. The bloggers who started out as bona fide bloggers and have reached the top took the long route.
They are leaders in the field because they pushed boundaries and explored untrodden paths to the endpoints. They're still doing it today, but that doesn't mean we have to take the same route they took. We can see where those paths led, and head there directly.
Sir Isaac Newton put it nicely when he said:
"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
If you have the right content you can find others who want to publish it, as any journalist, photographer, and freelancer knows. Given the developments with Panda 2.0 over at Google, it might even be prudent to bet more on creating quality content in future, rather than leaning on sponsored content for income.
Now, there is an important word that I purposefully haven't mentioned throughout my argument. Brand. Brand, and branding, and the word community was also pointed out to me.
A brand is something a lot of people would like to become. Everybody has a brand by the simple act of existing online, and whether it is good, bad, inconsistent or something they focus on, is another matter.
Talk of creating "a brand", as opposed to having clear branding, is a long long long term goal. But you don't need to try and create a brand from day one. If you can grow a social media audience with your content, then when (or if) your brand needs a website, you will have eager listeners to tell about it.
My point is, if you are thinking about starting a blog for profit, you don't need to think about brand immediately. You need to think about the core skills you want to build your business on, and find a way to make some income. You can create or change a brand later, but a great brand that doesn't survive your starving artist phase isn't worth anything.
[caption id="attachment_115555" align="aligncenter" width="550" caption="Classifying bloggers"]
Once a blogger reaches Brand status, they've forgotten things a beginner hasn't even learnt. So, back to that list for one last glance.
How many of those things do you think brands like Nomadic Matt and Wandering Earl have gone through? Half of them? More than half? All of them?
I'd bet my bottom dollar it's every single item on that list, give or take one.
I'll close with a last working example of my point. If this article really is good content, should I put it on my own site? You have no idea how much I'd love the traffic. But I don't have any ambitions to start by making money from Marketing & Promoting.
I'm a Content Creator, and if my content is good enough, I can get it in front of an audience without waiting to build one first. That's why you're reading it here on Tnooz, and not on my site.
Hello, audience. It's nice to meet you.
NB: This is a viewpoint by Peter Parkorr of TravelUnmasked.
NB2: Money beach image via Shutterstock.