Lessons from 5 years of travel blogging
Last weekend, as I was flipping through some old photos, I came to realize that an important milestone had passed by without us noticing. Over 5 years ago we clicked ‘submit’ on our very first blog post.
Certainly a milestone like this is cause for reflection.
Like most travel bloggers, we started this blog as a way to document and share stories with our family and friends while we traveled around the world. We had no intentions for it to be anything more than a personal online journal.
But along the way, something incredible happened. People we’ve never met started to read our blog and appeared to actually care about what we had to say. It was a game changing revelation.
Since then, this travel blog has grown into something much more than we ever expected. It has challenged us to write better, to take better photos, to travel deeper, to evolve with the ever-changing digital landscape. We’ve learned to slow down and appreciate the simple things, to maximize the time we’ve been given on this planet.
Managing this blog has taught us a lot over the past 5 years, so we’d like to share some of our personal takeaways and lessons learned.
1. Numbers are only important if you give them importance
When we first started using social media to share our blog posts and content, we became fixated on numbers. Unique visitors, page views, comments, fans, followers, subscribers, dollars… we wanted more, more, more.
But when we achieved our number goals, nothing of real value changed.
It didn’t make our blog any better. It didn’t make us better photographers or storytellers. It didn’t make us better parents or citizens of the world. We realized we were focusing on the wrong goals.
Social media tribes are a lot like high school cliques. And, if treated as such, can feel a lot like popularity contests. But the real value of fans, followers and readers is interaction and collaboration. It’s far more rewarding to make 25 meaningful connections than to have thousands of followers that never engage in conversation.
2. We write because it’s fun
We never set out to become travel writers. We did not plan to make this travel blog our profession and we have no desire to make this travel blogging thing our full time gig.
We write because we want to, not because we have to.
When I look back at old blog posts, I’m embarrassed at how bad the writing was back then. We still feel there’s lots of room for improvement, but we’re happy to be on this creative journey.
Don’t get me wrong, we take our blog and freelance work very seriously, but it does not own us or define us. We don’t want to be in a position where we MUST write stories and blog posts to pay the bills and feed our kids. That would kill the pleasure we take from writing.
3. There’s a fine line between inspiring and bragging
“Why do you guys still write a travel blog?” a good friend recently asked me. “You’re not traveling around the world anymore, you’ve got jobs, kids, a mortgage. What’s the point?”
His question was not meant to be critical, he was simply curious.
It’s true, our lives have become quite full with the addition of our two little boys. Some days we want to just shut it down and release ourselves from the frustrations and time commitment required to run a blog.
But when a reader tells us that one of our stories has inspired them to visit a destination or push their comfort zone and take a big trip around the world, it inspires us to keep writing and sharing our stories.
By definition, to inspire is to fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something. But there’s a fine line between posts that inspire travel and posts that read more like “look how awesome my life is right now”. We’ve been guilty of the latter many times, particularly when we first started blogging (and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes in the future).
We’ve learned that it’s okay to be proud of our travel accomplishments, but it’s equally important to be humble and aware of our tone. People visit our site for a variety of reasons, so I suppose the key takeaway is to not generalize or make assumptions about our audience.
4. The grass is not always greener on the other side
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “it must be nice to get all that free stuff from your blog”. Free stuff? That’s like saying, “it must be nice to have a bank that gives you free money every two weeks”. Assuming, of course, that you receive a pay cheque every two weeks.
When you look at a travel blogger’s Instagram or Facebook feed it’s easy to feel envious of their lifestyle, but what you don’t see are the sacrifices that were taken to achieve that moment.
It’s true, a makeshift office on a remote beach in Thailand is awesome, but being a travel blogger is not as glamorous as it seems. Sure, blogging has helped us visit some incredible places, but there’s very little money in travel blogging, the hours are horrendous and the blogging landscape is constantly changing.
Unlike the majority of our peers, we have careers outside of blogging that require us to physically be in the office. We have cubicles, lunch breaks and predictable routines. When we get home after a long day at work, we begin our next job – being parents to a toddler and infant. After we do dinner, diapers, bath, books, bottle and bed, we open our laptops and start our third job – managing our travel blogs. I’m not complaining, this is our choice and we’ve deliberately built our lives this way.
What’s the lesson learned? It takes a lot of work and sacrifice to reach those “green meadows”.
5. Travel blogs are like Icebergs
Like the underwater part of an iceberg, there’s a lot more to travel blogging than simply writing blog posts. Truth be told, the finished product you see consumes about 20% of the time required to manage this travel blog.
Most of our time is spent doing other activities, like sharing blog posts on our social networks, responding to emails and comments, editing photos and video, doing SEO work, fixing bugs and updating the website design, completing interviews and writing guest posts, connecting with other travel bloggers and sharing their work, pitching DMO’s and PR companies… and that’s before we do the standard planning that goes into travel, like booking flights, hotels, transportation, etc.
It’s easy to get distracted by these activities, so it’s important to stay focused on the task at hand. Equally important is to ensure we do not neglect or ignore any of these tasks… they are all cogs in the travel blog wheel.
6. Travel blogging alone does not make a lot money
Let me start by saying the term “a lot of money” is extremely subjective. We have an infant and toddler, so our needs are quite different from someone who does not have household expenses or is living in an inexpensive country like Thailand, Nicaragua or India.
In our experience, travel blogging alone does not yield a sustainable income, especially with two young kids. Sure, it subsidizes our travel expenses and gives us the ‘extras’ in life, but in order to earn a decent income, one must go beyond the blog and do other projects like freelance writing, selling ebooks, consulting, SEO, web development, etc.
The blog, therefore, should be treated as a marketing vehicle used to promote other income generating initiatives.
Now, that’s not to say the travel blogging landscape won’t change in the future – it most certainly will. It has evolved significantly over the past 5 years and we believe that sustainable sponsorship and income opportunities will continue to materialize. The operative word being sustainable.
That said, most travel bloggers don’t blog for the money anyways…
7. Making travel videos is much harder than it looks
Producing travel videos has been a humbling experience. We’ve tried hard to improve our camera presence and editing skills, but we’re still a long way from where we’d like to be.
To be fair, we haven’t given video the attention it deserves. It’s difficult capturing footage with us talking on camera when we’re chasing after a toddler and carrying an infant in the other arm. We’re not giving up, but it’s become very clear that mastering video is much harder than it looks.
The good news is that if you continually work on your craft, good things will happen.
I remember when our friend and fellow travel blogger Mark Wiens shifted his focus to video a few years ago. His videos were good back then, but nothing like what he produces today (he’s crushing it now!). His commitment to making awesome videos has paid off for him – big time. He now has over 43,000 YouTube subscribers and his videos get 100,000’s of views. Check him out if you’re a fan of food travel.
8. You must travel to maintain a great travel blog
Our website traffic and social shares consistently rise and fall with our travels. When traveling, we see our website metrics almost double. Obviously a big part of this is because we produce more content and share more photos when we’ve been traveling.
But there’s more to this statement than numbers.
When we travel, we find ourselves more creative and motivated to write. We see things with greater vision, we listen with greater attention. We search for stories that we think our audience will find interesting.
Generally speaking, most people that read travel blogs are looking for a quick escape from their current environment. They want to be introduced to a new destination or reminded of an old favourite. They want to learn about a fun activity or discover an interesting attraction. They want photos, they want video, they want narrative.
There’s nothing wrong with sharing old stories from past trips, but you must continue to travel so you’re content is fresh and relevant.
Now, this does not mean that one must travel around the globe for a year to stay interesting. Weekend escapes and jaunts to popular vacation destinations are just as meaningful – there’s an audience for all travel styles – but travel you must!
9. The competition keeps getting better
The travel blogging scene was very different 5 years ago. Back then, travel companies and tourism boards were hesitant to work with travel bloggers. The general vibe was “we know we need to work with bloggers and embrace new media, but we want to see how things develop before we invest“.
Fortunately, innovative leaders like G Adventures and Expedia took a chance and embraced travel bloggers, which has helped other brands and organizations see value in partnering with new media. Annual events like Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) have also helped bridge the gap between publishers and brands, creating an environment for both sides to connect and collaborate .
Fast forward to 2014 and the landscape has dramatically changed. The number of active travel blogs has exploded in the past few years and this next generation is kicking ass.
Travel blogging is now viewed by many as a viable career path, which has forced everyone to step up their game.
10. If you want something, ask for it
This applies to most things in life. If you don’t ask, there’s a really good chance you won’t get what you want. You’ll be surprised at how willing people are to work with you and help you achieve your goals.
Before every trip we take, we do our homework and pitch companies we think are a good fit. We look for sponsorship opportunities and creative ways to subsidize our travel expenses. Then, we simply ask for what we want.
When we wanted to work with a Canadian travel rewards company, we contacted Aeroplan and pitched our vision for the partnership. We’ve been working with Aeroplan for over a year now and will continue to do so for the remainder of this year. This relationship would never have happened if we didn’t ask.
Of course, we get a lot of rejection too. It comes with the territory. But, when we don’t get the answer we want, we ask our peers and social network for new contacts. Persistence is essential.
11. We ARE lucky
When we first started blogging, one of the things we hated hearing was “you guys are so lucky to be able to travel as much as you do”. It was like finger nails on a chalkboard.
We have made significant sacrifices for our lifestyle. We have invested thousands of hours into this blog and traveled down the path of uncertainty many times, ‘how dare you say that our hard work and sacrifice was based on luck!’. We defiantly argued that our achievements were not based on luck – they were achieved because of our commitment, focus and hard work.
But we’ve learned that we were wrong – we ARE very lucky.
We are lucky to have been born and raised in the free world. We are lucky to have supportive parents, family and friends. We are lucky that we received a good education, that we can read and write. We are lucky to have a passport and are privileged to be able to travel.
Yes, we are lucky, and that’s something to be proud of.
Thanks again for your support over the past 5 years!
We are very thankful and happy that you’re on this journey with us.
Do you have a travel blog? What have you learned from the experience?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.