15 Lessons From Turning My Travel Blog Into A Career
There are a handful of questions that I get asked several times a week when on the road (or even at home).
The first, far and away the most popular, is, “What’s your favorite place?” So hard to answer! (Though stay tuned, because an upcoming feature in October will answer that once and for all.)
The second is, “How did you get so many followers?” Or some variation on, “How did you start making enough money to do it full-time?”
Honestly, I never know how to answer that. It’s been a long, slow process of five and a half years of meticulously growing an audience. Five and a half years worth of micro-decisions that ended up paying off big in the future.
So I decided to put together a collection of the lessons that I’ve learned during that time.
Before you read this, here’s the most important part: YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY.
There are plenty of bloggers who have done different things from me and have gone on to become hugely successful in their own right.
In fact, I’m sure that every point on this list will be disagreed with by another successful blogger. And that’s fine. There isn’t a linear map to blogging success; if that were the case, everyone would be doing the same thing.
This is simply what worked for me personally and enabled me to never go back to work after I quit my job in 2010.
I also want to add that there are a few other things that worked for me that can’t be duplicated: I started Adventurous Kate early-ish (early 2010) and I had been blogging for seven years prior to that, so I had an established voice. You can’t fake either of those.
Here we go:
1) Embrace writing about the negative and ugly parts of travel along with the good stuff.
The most common thing I hear from readers is, “You’re so honest.” I love that.
I’ve always written about the negative things along with the positive, both within and outside the world of travel. I think it’s important to present the whole experience, not just the prettiest parts.
And that extends to sponsored content and blog trips as well. Most infamously is my shipwreck in Indonesia, but also on my comped tour in Kakadu National Park in Australia, I wrote about how it was way, way too rushed. And my discomfort on the Blue Train in South Africa, culminating with us being attacked with rocks by striking farmers.
These days, I even go through everything that went wrong each month, and my readers love my “worst travel moments of the year” post every December.
It worked because: My readers feel like they can trust me to tell the truth. Trust is the most important currency you have.
2) Write prolifically in the early days.
When I first started Adventurous Kate, I would publish new posts at least five days each week. The posts back then weren’t as long as the ones I write now, but at that point in time it was more important to publish more often.
As a new blogger, you’re starting with an audience of zero and you’ll be trying to grab people’s attention over and over. Writing new posts constantly is your best chance of getting people to come back for more and eventually subscribe.
These days, I see lots of new bloggers writing only occasional posts — think every two weeks — and they are wondering why it’s taking so long to grow. Well, that’s a big part of it.
Write prolifically in your first year. You can slow down in the future if you wish, but keep the posts coming like crazy for now.
It worked because: I kept reminding people I existed through new posts, and they were encouraged to subscribe for more.
3) Don’t waste time gaming social media.
Check out any online discussion group devoted to blogging and you’ll find several topics learning how to best use different social networks, and the discussion inevitably turns toward “gaming” the system to earn yourself more followers and/or traffic.
On StumbleUpon, it’s a calculated cocktail of stumbling lots of interesting travel stories and occasionally slipping one of your own in, hoping it goes viral.
On Facebook, it’s buying thousands of cheap fans in the form of teenage boys from Mongolia, Egypt, and India.
On Twitter, it’s following and unfollowing random people constantly so you can gain more quality followers.
On Instagram, it’s finding a popular photo, stalking the users who like it, following them, and unfollowing them if they don’t follow you back quickly.
My point of view on that has always been the same: Ain’t nobody got time for that.
I’ve built a pretty strong social media following without having to result to gimmicks. How did I do it? I post good things and act like a human. And people follow me because they like what I share.
It worked because: I spent that extra time creating quality content instead of chasing gimmicks.
4) Know that direct traffic isn’t the only end goal.
It’s easy to think that your one and only goal is to drive traffic to your blog. Getting people to read your blog is the primary goal, of course, but it’s not the only goal.
Having a blog is more than just driving traffic to your site, over and over. It’s also about creating a visible presence in your readers’ lives. You’re a personality. You’re constantly reminding them that you exist.
And that brings up Instagram and Snapchat. Neither of these platforms give you the option of linking to your blog (Instagram lets you change your site URL in your profile, but nothing on the actual images). And for that reason, some bloggers have eschewed those platforms, particularly the latter, altogether.
I disagree with that mindset.
Since I became active on Snapchat in particular, it’s now one of my top networks. It may not directly drive traffic to my blog, but almost every single day, someone references my snaps on an Instagram photo or Facebook post or tweet or blog comment. Everything feeds into each other.
It worked because: A blogging career goes well and beyond the blog itself. You need to be a personality, and that means being everywhere.
5) Have a full RSS feed.
If you want to subscribe to a blog, you do so by its RSS feed, and it alerts you when there is a new post. Many people get their RSS feeds by email; many others choose to use an RSS reader. I recommend using a reader, especially if your email is chock full of everything and you never want to miss a post on your favorite blogs.
(My recommendation? Use Feedly, then type in the blogs you want to follow. If you have an iPhone, get the Reeder app as well. It syncs perfectly with Feedly and will download all your feeds, including photos, when connected to wifi.)
Does RSS send traffic to your site? Sometimes. Sometimes someone will click through if they want to leave a comment or share it. Others just read it and move on.
Some bloggers have a partial or incomplete feed, which means that their posts show up blank. Most have no idea (this often happens after a redesign); some deliberately choose to do that so people will click through and get more pageviews.
Does that work? It doesn’t matter. You may get more pageviews with a partial feed, but you’ll be annoying your readers. And annoying your readers is the last thing you want to do.
It worked because: I made my content as easy as possible for people to find, discover, and read, attracting new readers and keeping old ones.
6) Stop freelance writing.
For a long time — until early 2014, actually! — freelance writing was one of my primary forms of income. Many travel bloggers take the same route, starting by writing for $25 per post and living somewhere cheap like Chiang Mai to keep expenses down until the $75 gigs come in, then the even bigger gigs.
It’s a popular monetization route, but few travel bloggers are making a good living from it. I have some friends who have transitioned into full-time, well-paid freelance travel writers — but they are the anomaly.
Freelance travel writing is hard — not in the way that coal mining or heart surgery is hard, obviously, but it’s a challenging way to make a living. The pay is terrible, particularly when you’re getting started. The hours are long. The industry is shrinking all the time. Buzzfeed-style content dominates the internet. And you’re held to the whims of an editor, which can be difficult when you’ve been writing for yourself for so long.
As much as I enjoy writing about travel, I detest freelance travel writing. After losing a big writing gig that provided my only regular income in early 2014, I was reminded of how tenuous of a career it can be, and I decided to make a big change.
It worked because: For most (not all!) people, freelance writing is too much work for too little pay with no reliability.
7) Shift your income to affiliate marketing.
By far, this is the smartest thing that I did in my travel blogging career. Affiliate marketing is linking to products and getting a commission if someone buys it, at no extra cost to them. And I think that it’s majorly underutilized in travel blogging.
So many bloggers think that you need to have insane traffic levels in order to make good money from affiliates. That’s true for display advertising (think ad networks like Google Adwords), but it’s not true at all for affiliate marketing. You just need to have a few posts that do reasonably well traffic-wise and convert decently.
I started with a big post promoting a few high ticket affiliates, and it took off. It’s been more than a year and that post still provides a huge portion of my income.
Affiliate marketing is brilliant in that it’s largely “set it and forget it.” There’s a lot of work in the beginning to write and promote the post, but once it starts earning, it runs on itself. For this reason, this year I’ve been able to take breaks from work without worrying about hustling for money, and you may have noticed that I haven’t run a single branded content post since 2014 (!). I don’t need to anymore.
Another perk? With affiliates, I get paid regularly and on time, which is a huge change from many of my former freelancing clients.
Today, a whopping 79% of my income comes from affiliate marketing. That scares me, as you should never have all of your eggs in one basket. But as long as affiliate marketing comes from a diverse array of resources (lots of different products and programs, traffic from search and from the site itself), you should be in good condition.
It worked because: After getting it set up, affiliate marketing would continue earning on a regular basis without requiring any extra work.
8) Invest in top-notch tech gear.
When you live on your computer and phone like I do, it makes such a difference to have quality devices.
I started my long-term travels while working on tiny netbook PCs, thinking that the cheap and light machines would be best for me. They’re great for travelers, but not travelers who work on the road. They just didn’t have the power to take me into the future (or even edit photos decently without crashing).
Three years ago I upgraded to a MacBook Air and it made all the difference in the world. I vastly prefer Macs to PCs and I’m glad to have a quality machine. (Though when it’s time for my next computer, I think I’ll go with a MacBook Pro for better battery life and power.)
As for phones, I’m an iPhone girl through and through. Yes, other smartphones are cheaper, and I’ve done campaigns for some of them, but they’re just not as good and intuitive as an iPhone. Today my phone has 128 GB, which is so much better than constantly having to delete stuff on a 16 GB phone.
It worked because: When you have quality tech gear, you work better and much more efficiently.
9) Get out of Southeast Asia.
When I kicked off my full-time travels with a six-month trip to just Southeast Asia in 2010, I was the only travel blogger doing anything like that. At that time, most travel bloggers were taking RTW trips or teaching English abroad. I felt so original.
Fast forward to 2015 and everyone is traveling long-term in Southeast Asia. Which isn’t good.
Let me be clear: Southeast Asia is a fantastic destination for a traveler. It’s exotic, it’s cheap, it’s easy, and the food is divine. I highly recommend going at least once in your life.
For a travel blogger, however, Southeast Asia could not be more cliché. If you’re trying to make it as a travel blogger, I recommend you go anywhere else. Everyone has written to death about Koh Phi Phi, Luang Prabang, and Hoi An. It will be hard for you to stand out and be original.
And so this past winter I went to Central America, which seems to get only a fraction of the coverage that Southeast Asia gets today. It was a great decision, as I received constant messages from readers telling me they had never thought about traveling to Central America until they saw what I wrote about it.
It worked because: Veering away from what everyone else was doing allowed me to stand out more.
10) Stop leaping from press trip to press trip.
I think every blogger goes through stages, and it’s wise to be cognizant about the stage you’re currently in. (I think I might be in the affiliate the f*ck out of everything! stage.)
We all go through stages, and we all change our minds at some point. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re human. We’re in a new and rapidly evolving industry. If something’s not working, we can change our minds and do something else.
One of my stages was the take-every-press-trip-you-can stage, which began in late 2011. At that point in time, I thought press trips were the badge of a successful travel blogger, and I took a lot of press trips for a long time. That press trip spree went on until early 2013.
Then I realized, as I wrote here, that my press trip-based coverage was starting to feel flat and lifeless. Even worse, a few of my readers had complained about it, saying they missed the old me. So I reduced my press trips enormously and traveled more on my own.
That worked for more than a year, but it spun out of control again when I joined the Must Love Festivals campaign last summer. I think Must Love Festivals is a brilliant project (it was built by my friends) and I was thrilled to be part of it, but I made a mistake of committing to too many festivals, extending the trips so I could explore the destinations more, and running myself ragged, to the detriment of myself and my blog.
I had made myself look like the girl who would take any trip for money.
After years of experimentation with balance, I think the best practice for me today is to take occasional press trips (maybe two or three per year) but have the majority of my travels be independent, going wherever I want and paying for it myself.
It worked because: I followed my instincts — I was starting to feel icky about taking too many press trips, and my readers agreed. Your instincts are probably correct.
This goes along with my next point:
11) Reduce comps and freebies drastically.
In my four-month trip to Central America this winter and spring, I accepted exactly three comps: a stay at Yemaya Retreat on Little Corn Island, my three-day Belize sailing cruise, and a shark snorkeling trip, which I was actually going to pay for until I showed up and they wouldn’t take my money.
In my two-month trip to Europe this summer, I had…zero comps!
And boy, does that feel good. It’s such a relief to know that 1) I don’t have the pressure to write about comps all the time and 2) my readers won’t feel like they’re bombarded with sponsored stuff.
And it’s paying off. I’ve spoken to readers privately, and the response is almost universal that they prefer reading about activities that I pay for myself. It makes them feel like I’m more like a normal traveler.
And that goes beyond travel activities. I’d much rather buy a product I like and write a post about it, making affiliate commissions off the resulting sales, than get a product for free and be obligated to write about it.
It worked because: I had more freedom to write as I pleased.
12) Stop trying to make as much money as humanly possible.
For most of us travel bloggers, it’s a long, hard slog before you’re making any kind of decent money. For me, it was very difficult for years — more so than I let on here. I never went into negative numbers, but there were some very lean times.
The worst time was in September 2013 when I was down to $200 in my checking account and was owed more than $9,000 from clients who were late paying me!
So once things start going right after years of just scraping by, it gets tempting to start making as much cash as possible.
If I wanted to, I could fill my blog with branded content posts, constant advertising, brand partnerships, advertising for other bloggers. I could turn my Instagram feed into nonstop ads. I could stay nowhere but sponsored luxury hotels everywhere I go. I could hashtag the f*ck out of everything.
But I don’t. I stick primarily to affiliates, leading tours, and the occasional well-tailored campaign that is a good fit for me and my site. While I haven’t really done a brand ambassadorship, I’d be open to doing one with a company I love. (Urban Decay? MAC? Miu Miu? Alexander McQueen? I’m available!)
I don’t want to come across as the girl who once had a great blog and turned it into a wasteland of sponsored crap, just trying to make as much money as possible. Some blogs I’ve read for a long time have gone that route, and it makes me sad.
It worked because: I keep up good, genuine, unsponsored content that pulls in new readers and keeps the long-timers.
13) Hire quality staff instead of outsourcing for cheap.
If you want a cheap virtual assistant, you can hire someone in Romania or the Philippines or Bangladesh for just a few dollars per hour.
And while sometimes people like this could be useful, especially if you have easy but time-consuming work to be done, I chose not to go that route. For the roles that I have, I want people who are highly educated and intimately familiar with this industry.
At the moment, I have a few people working for me on various aspects of running this site. They’re all college graduates (some with graduate degrees), talented, and well-versed in the industry. They’re compensated what they’re worth, and it’s worth every penny.
It worked because: I get a bigger return on my investment.
14) Read everything.
I read more than 100 travel blogs regularly. I don’t love every blog I read, but I treat them like trade publications.
I think it’s important to stay up to date on what everyone in your industry is doing. This way, I find out which bloggers are working with the same companies, who is embracing a new kind of technology, who is doing a new or unusual kind of campaign, and what is currently trending in the travel world.
Equally important — or even more important — is reading blogs outside the travel niche. Because it’s so easy to get tunnel vision, and this is a very small community. There’s so much more than what we see in front of us.
Travel blogs don’t make anywhere near the level of money that fashion, food, mommy, business, and beauty blogs make. If there are new innovations in blogging, you’ll likely see them in other niches long before you see it in travel blogging.
Finally, it’s smart to read about business and technology in general. Some of the best pieces pop up out of nowhere. Read everything you can get your eyes on and you will learn, learn, learn.
It worked because: The more you know, the better the decisions you can make.
15) Find the best community.
You’ve heard me extol the virtues of Travel Blog Success repeatedly on this site, but it’s the truth — TBS is an incredible group and the best resource on the web for learning how to make money as a travel blogger.
While the other Facebook blogging groups are a bit crazy, the Travel Blog Success group is the one forum I go when I need help. And it’s the one forum where I give help to bloggers. You’ll see a lot of top travel bloggers there, helping newbie bloggers with their questions.
Also, there are lots of perks for members. The latest? Go on one of Leif’s Runaway Tours and get 10% off!
I also recently joined (and paid for) the Videography Course via the Paradise Pack, but I haven’t had time to delve into the lessons yet this summer. Soon!
TRAVEL BLOG SUCCESS IS ON SALE
Travel Blog Success is having its summer sale — and after the sale, the price of the course is going up.
Travel Blog Success course is now 35% off (savings of $121.45) until Friday, July 31, 2015 at 11:00 PM ET.
I always tell people to buy the course when it’s on sale — and considering that the regular price is about to go up, this is the best time possible to make a purchase.
Yes, I get an affiliate commission for everyone I refer to TBS. (And I should! I’ve sent them more than 80 new members!) But you know how much I believe in this product. I’ll see you in the forums.
It worked because: Having that sounding board has saved me from making more bad decisions.
And Things I Could Do Better
That’s not to say that I haven’t made any missteps along the way. I’ve made PLENTY!
My site design is dated and atrocious; luckily, a redesign (an outstanding redesign) is currently underway. I’ve been horrible with Pinterest, but I recently hired a new employee to take over that aspect of my site. I should have released my first product years ago, but I’m making up for lost time now.
As I wrote earlier, you’re always able to change your mind if something’s not working. So take advantage of that.