NB: This is a guest article by Matthew Kepnes, a travel blogger and founder of the Nomadic Matt website.
Something of a controversial debate took place on Tnooz recently, with two posts looking from different angles at the age-old issue of travel blogging, writing and making money.
Gary Arndt wrote an article about why companies shunning bloggers were foolish, while Lara Dunston wrote a rebuttal of sorts saying writers now need to become entrepreneurs, and not just a writers.
In a way, they were both right. Companies are foolish for shunning bloggers and focusing on CPM page views, and bloggers do need to show more business acumen.
But both articles miss another important point, one that allows writers to succeed in getting advertisers (and money).
In short: none of what they said really matters if you don’t have a brand.
Brand is everything. It is your message, your symbol, your image, it is what you are and (sorry, travel bloggers of the world) most bloggers simply either lack a brand image or have a bad brand.
It’s not because they intend too. Most just never think about it. They blog, hang with other bloggers, travel, and do what they want. Most bloggers rarely think about the business of blogging beyond "how can I make some money?".
Meanwhile, many traditional writers have also never had to build a brand. They simply had to write for major publications and go on assignments. There was no need to do the rest - the publication took care of it.
I love the travel bloggers and writers I know, but the audience I want to reach are the millions of other people on the web. I get my kicks from traveling. I want to inspire other people to get on the road and show them how awesome travel can be.
But without a coherent message and brand, I’d never reach them. In fact, it's the same for any website - people want to know what sites are about. When I visit a new website, I want to know right away what the heck I am reading.
The need for a brand
The idea of "brand" is a powerful tool that can help you engage your readers, foster trust, and create credibility. If you want to be successful, you need to understand your brand.
The problem is that many travel bloggers and writers do not develop a brand. But brands aren’t just for companies - they are for people, too. A personal brand is something you represent. It is who you are and what you do.
Another issue is that too often bloggers just sit down and write without thinking about it. They focus on a niche, say budget travel, and think "OK that’s it. I’m done."
But a brand isn’t what you write about. It’s what you represent. It’s the image and style. Let’s look at Anthony Bourdain. He writes and talks about food. But his brand isn’t food. Anthony Bourdain is a bad-ass guy who loves food and is edgy. That’s his brand - the edgy food critic.
Dunston is right in that we need to be entrepreneurs and think beyond advertising dollars, but an entrepreneur without a brand is like apple pie without apples.
Your brand is your mission statement - it is who and what you are, and if you don’t develop a brand, you won’t make it.
Think of your brand as a mission statement. What is it that you really want to do? What do you want to embody?
This isn’t about creating a bad term or a way to fool your idea. No, it’s about coming to terms with what kind of business (and, yes, this is a business now) that you want to be.
I, for example, decided long ago that my site would embody cheap but fun travel. I’m the guy that doesn’t sacrifice, has fun, and still finds a deal.
The bad brand
If a travel writer really wants to make it then they should follow Dunston's advice and become a mini-company. You need to be writer, webmaster, marketer, CFO, and everything else.
You are your company yet every company has a brand. And, similar to what Arndt says, you need to find companies to work with that will go beyond CPM rates and into sponsorship. This also means you need a brand.
Nevertheless, just because you have a brand also doesn’t mean you are doing it right.
I see a few bloggers unconsciously create a brand simply by always writing about the same thing and personifying the same image.
Unfortunately, sometimes the brand mission statement is unprofessional. As a brand, you also represent the companies you review, stay at, and promote.
Many travel bloggers want to become "travel writers" (although the line between the two is extremely blurred these days.). But if you want to be the serious travel writer, you need to write seriously.
This doesn’t mean you cannot (at least try to) be funny, but you shouldn't come across as immature or unprofessional.
If you want to be taken seriously, if you want the perks of free trips, if you want the glitz and glamour you think comes with the job, then writing about how you got drunk in Thailand isn’t going to get you anywhere.
If your brand is unprofessional, you have a bad brand. I don’t believe anyone who consciously wants to do that, but if you want to be a professional you have to think of your brand because brand represents the companies who sponsor you, or pay to be associated with you through advertising.
I go out and have fun, but I never write about it. I don’t write about my nights out, my relationships, or anything of that nature because it has no place on my site.
Do you think a company is going to sponsor you if you have pictures of you partying everywhere? Will you get a press trip if you never take the time to proof read articles?
If your design looks like it’s from 1999, will people view you as current? As Arndt says, you need to create value for the company since bloggers are so often viewed as amateurish. If you want to succeed, you need to prove you are a professional.
I notice, as more and more people enter the world of travel blogging, existing traditional writers seem to harp on about bloggers for ruining the business.
But the problem is not us versus them but, in some respects, writers never really had to build a brand. You wrote an article and got paid.
In this modern Web 2.0-driven world, everyone is a freelancer, everyone is their own brand and you need to build yours if you want success.
People follow personalities and personalities have their own brand. If you want to find the advertising, if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, if you want to move out of CPM ads and into sponsorships and speaking gigs, you need to think about what you really are about.
You need to think what your website is saying. You need an angle or an edge. There needs to be a theme running through your posts.
All the great bloggers and web personalities have one - so travel should be no different. We can no longer just write and get paid by National Geographic. We need to be entrepreneurs. We need to be our own business and with that, our own brand.
NB: This is a guest article by Matthew Kepnes, a travel blogger and founder of the Nomadic Matt blog.