Travel blogging is about more than numbers

Social Media

The following post was written in mid-2012. It was meant to be posted around October, but I held off because I felt it would push too many buttons, offend too many of my peers…many of whose blogs I no longer follow because of the issues laid out below. I shared it with a few friends, such as Ryan from Jets Like Taxis, and I broke it down into a much longer chapter for Beyond Borders – The Social Revolution discussing the importance of “being everywhere” and how numbers don’t mean squat, but it wasn’t until I came across a recent post by Nora from The Professional Hobo discussing the evolution of travel blogging that I felt inspired to go ahead and push this live to the blog.

So. You want to be a travel blogger. You have aspirations of traveling the world, taking pictures of your travels, writing stories about them, and making money from your time invested.

In the old days, you would have had to jump through hoops and find your way past the gatekeepers of the publishing industry to make it into the print market to find readers. But in the modern era the availability of global technology, crowdfunding, social media, passive income, video chat and live streaming, the old way of doing things have thankfully gone the way of the dodo. Now, anyone with access to the Internet and a story to tell can find an audience for their adventures, without needing to prostrate themselves before someone.

That’s an important element in the evolution of the species. Equality. Sharing. Freedom of information and access to an equal level of opportunities. Working together to achieve common goals without superiority  We are moving closer and closer to a global consciousness and as technology advances we are only becoming more and more powerful at making personal connections across great distances, without the need for someone standing in the way giving us permission or denying us.

In other words, it’s incredibly easy to make a living writing about traveling. It is not a difficult job, especially if you love traveling, exploring and having adventures. I was long an Indiana Jones fan as a child, and I always wanted to be an archaeologist, and I think everyone has their own version of inspiration. Now, with the ability to travel around the world and see the sights of old and document them for others’ enjoyment…well, it’s pretty darn close to what I always wanted to do growing up.

One of the first steps to blogging for a living and using social media as a platform for passive income generation is creating an engaging environment for your blog, with depth of information that goes above and beyond and an atmosphere of equality that benefits everyone equally, as opposed to The Greedy Bastard Syndrome.The karmic principles of sharing equally with everyone builds trust, which eventually leads to profit. It’s also important, as far as travel blogging is concerned, to talk about the culture, the people and the places, and portray them from a realistic viewpoint…not merely from the consumption-based adventure travel point of view.

Unfortunately, too often in the modern era of travel blogging there is a penchant by many “travel bloggers” to pride themselves on one thing more than anything else: numbers.

The Lie of Numbers

In browsing many travel blogger websites over the past few years as I’ve developed my own brand and following of fellow expats and digital nomads, one trend has begun to emerge which in my mind completely detracts from what travel blogging is about in the first place: an obsession with Google Analytics and “top blog” contests.

While it’s certainly important from a marketing standpoint when you are looking to organize a press trip to another country while traveling on someone else’s dime to promote a hotel, airline, country, or when lining up advertising and negotiating publicity deals, do your readers really need to know how many views per month your website gets, how many followers you have, what your page rank in Google is or how many times you’ve been featured in X, Y or Z publication?

Bragging rights are all well and good, and we all want to be proud of our achievements as travelers and writers, but I sometimes feel as though there is an obsession with chest-beating that completely detracts from what travel blogs are really about: showcasing the various elements of a country, its people, the culture and the adventure of travel itself. Unfortunately, these days it seems that the majority of travel bloggers are more interested in promoting their page rank, Analytics numbers and number of followers, ranking on Klout, current press trip and how successful their Kickstarter campaign is rather than actually providing any real, valuable information to their readers. The same readers who, by the way, got them to the point where they could land press trips in the first place.

Travel blogging is about more than chest-thumping. It’s our responsibility as writers, photographers and journalists to provide an insiders’ view on what it means to travel, live and explore another country, city or culture. The primary focus of our writing should be about the stories of the people and the culture of a region and how to integrate with and experience that culture…not an advertising billboard for a hotel chain or a restaurant catering to the tourist crowd.

Often when you go to a travel blogger’s website you are spammed with a pop-up from the moment you get to the website talking about “look at how many followers I have on Facebook” or “We get 50,000 visitors per month; why aren’t you one of them?” or “Check us out, because we are a PR5 website and that means we are important!” The actual information is left by the wayside in favor of promoting the numbers as a way to achieve funding, sponsors, selling advertising space and driving sales of products related to the press trips the bloggers in question are taking.

What average readers don’t know is that these numbers don’t actually mean anything. First of all, you can buy views on places like Fiverr, which means while a person might have 20,000 followers on Facebook or Twitter…you have no idea of knowing how many of those followers are actually active, real, live people, and how many are just purchased accounts to beef up a person’s profile to make it appear as though they are actually super important. They might actually only have 500 followers who are actively engaged in their content on a regular basis while the rest are just fluff for appearance’s sake. In short, numbers are never the best nor are they the only way to judge a blog.

With that being said, a certain amount of numbers for visibility can be helpful in establishing credibility and helping to build trust. It’s the domino effect: people are more likely to read along and listen to what you have to say if they know that others are doing the same. And there’s nothing wrong with a little subtle promotion of it, such as a counter on your website or even a separate page (not a popup) or section in your About page which details your personal statistics, away from the front page and the actual content and instead in the background, where it deserves to be.

Not to mention, bloggers with smaller, more loyal audiences can trump the bigger blogs every day of the week, at least in terms of interaction. Traffic is not the only determining factor in whether or not your blog is reaching your targeted demographic; it’s also important to look at the level of interaction, sales percentages, click-throughs and beyond. A perfect example of what I’m talking about can be found at the official TBEX Blog, with a guest post written by William Bakker of Think! Social Media, talking about the 9 Criteria for Getting Invited on a Travel Blog Trip.

Specifically, there are three things in this particular article which are of vital importance to you as a blogger, even if you have nothing to do with the travel industry: your actual “reach” compared to the size of your audience, your actual authority within your niche, and your connection to other movers and shakers of your industry/niche.

While reach is an important metric, it is not as important as you might think – at least, not in terms of your power to influence readers. A blogger who has a smaller audience might very well have a higher influence than someone who has ten times the followers. For example, a blogger with only 2,000 Twitter followers may be of more value than one with 50,000 if those 2,000 people are passionate, engaged and more likely to be influenced by the person they follow.

Tools like Compete.comQuantcast and Alexa allow a far more realistic view of a blogger’s reach (as well as for analyzing your own data) than merely using Analytics alone, because remember, since people can buy Facebook likes, Twitter followers and beyond, raw numbers on a page don’t necessarily mean squat.

The other thing to think about is the fact that the blog itself is only one small aspect of your overall social media outreach. Consider this: while Marginal Boundaries the website has X views per day, I’m replicating that over numerous different places (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Google+, etc.), which means overall traffic is far larger than what Google Analytics alone is providing me with data on…and overall interactivity must be taken into account.

The website is only 1/6th of my overall traffic…and many of my Facebook readers don’t visit the website, or my YouTube, or the G+ page, and so forth, but only ever interact with my videos or buy products on Amazon…which means Analytics is a finite tool that only tracks a very small portion of my overall reach with the brand. I have users on social media outlets who only ever interact with me there and only ever buy products through the social media platforms…they never reach the actual website itself.

The Bottom Line

I personally feel that as a writer and travel blogger I have a responsibility to provide information about culture and travel, not a life of consumption and certainly not about how many hits per month my website gets or how many followers I have or the breakfast I’m eating from the balcony of X hotel or the bedroom with the Egyptian cotton sheets and the Jacuzzi in the bathroom. It almost seems to me that the generation of income bloggers are more interested in getting the next free press trip to X destination rather than providing actual, useful and pertinent information regarding a culture.

Instead of seeing stories about the people or the regions of a place, many travel blogs are full of sponsored blog posts on restaurants and hotels. Instead of learning about a culture or its people or the destination itself, we are forced to read yet another review of a hotel balcony view, the poolside bar, the restaurant, or one of the tourist hotspots promoted by the government/agency who paid for the trip.

Or worst…a blog post that is nothing more than an Instagram collage of food pictures or shots of adventure activities, such as zip-lining, cave tours, snorkeling, scuba diving, skiing, kayaking and beyond. There’s nothing of actual value to the article/post other than visual appeal. Sure, it’s fun to look at, and the photos certainly convey a sense of adventure and excitement, but where is the cultural appreciation? Where is the actual story about the people, the culture, the country and its ins and outs? 

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m finding myself reading fewer and fewer blogs these days because it seems that as the industry of travel blogging matures the real stories of travel are being left behind in favor of “whatever someone is paying me to write about”. And while it’s true that we all need to earn a nut to keep food on our table and fund our travels, it seems to me that some bloggers are less about actually exploring, writing about and sharing a destination or helping others with actionable advise on how to travel full time, and more about simply scoring a free trip. And as a result the real stories of culture and people and adventure and excitement are left behind in favor of virtual bragging and leveraging big-name brands who are cutting bloggers a paycheck.

I don’t want to read about your page rank. I don’t care if you have 50 followers or 50,000 followers. I could give two shits about the view from your balcony or the pool or the free mojitos or the suite with its king-sized bed. What matters to me is if you are providing me with valuable, usable content.

I want to know about traveling, not about your press kits and your Analytics numbers. I want to hear your stories about what it’s like to eat fried caterpillars in some African backwater, I want to know about the kid from Indonesia who went from being a gutter rat to a full-time traveler by learning how to design websites and make a living online. I want to read about adventures in the hidden caverns and canyons and cities and villages of a country, not about a sponsored trip to Stonehenge or the pyramids in Egypt where all you talk about is how X company or government flew you in while you promote the hotels and restaurants where you’ve racked up free meals as a result of your trip.

Tell me a story about culture. Show me the living conditions of the local people. I want to learn about the off-the-beaten path places. I want to know what it means to go to a country and live there. I want to read about immersion in a culture, how to live there and be part of the people, make local connections and do more than simply talk about numbers.

While I understand that for some travel bloggers their gig is scoring as much free stuff as possible, it has soured my view of the travel blogging industry as a whole. Perhaps it’s a personal thing, but I am much more interested in people who are actually exploring cultures and people and helping make the world a better place through exploration and sharing the Human Experience rather than read about yet another travel blogger beating their chest regarding how many free trips they took this year or who is sponsoring their next hotel stay.

When advertising trumps your content, you are no longer a travel writer; you are a puppet on a string. 

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About T.W. Anderson

T.W. Anderson is the founder of the Marginal Boundaries brand. He is the writer, editor, videographer, photographer, and social media guru alongside Cristina Barrios, the other half of the brand. In his spare time, he is the creative director of the Saga of Lucimia, a forthcoming MMORPG from Stormhaven Studios, LLC.

22 Comments

  • Hell yes, Michael (Turtle)! That’s part of our job as bloggers it to share stories with people…not merely hotel balcony views and pictures of our food.

    Thanks for commenting! :)

  • Turtle says:

    Great article. If more people thought like this, there would be more respect for travel blogs and that only helps everyone!

    There is so much out there in the world that is fascinating and untold. The view from hotel balconies is not one of those things. If we can use our writing and our storytelling to bring the world to people who can’t see it for themselves, then we’re doing our job.

  • Glad to hear it, Ash!

  • Ash Clark says:

    I’ve been having a massive reality check these last few weeks about where it is I exactly stand in terms of the direction for content on my blog, thanks for sharing, this has come my way at the perfect time…

  • Hola, Marcia :)

    Great post, first of all, and secondly, yes…there are a lot of things that have changed the way the world works. It was actually the entire message of my new book, Beyond Borders – The Social Revolution. Freedom of information, social media, the Internet, globalization…we have come too far to go back now, and the world as we knew it even five years ago no longer exists.

    I certainly hope you write what it is that your heart desires :) That’s the most important part! As far as feedback has been on this particular piece, I think the most interesting thing is that most people’s comments have gone straight to the press trip aspect of the post, and glossed over what is, in my mind, the core message: numbers don’t matter, especially when people can buy likes/followers.

    So no, the reaction hasn’t been negative, because most people are mature enough as readers to understand the truth behind the message. And ultimately this is just one blogger’s take on things (mine), and everyone is going to have a different opinion.

    Thanks for commenting, and I hope to see more of your work soon!

  • Thanks for posting this.
    I was thinking as I read this that we could probably substitute your references to travel with books or art and with just a few other tweaks, your post would apply. We’re in the midst of a revolution that is brought about by the Internet democratization of the buyer/consumer relationship.

    It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, because of the way it’s affected publishing and art, two industries I’ve been involved in.

    I started to see the writing on the publishing wall several years ago but didn’t make the transition until two years ago, after I returned from an amazing trip I took with two of my girlfriends to Southern Africa. I had registered my travel blog a few years earlier and realized the best way to document our experiences, so I wouldn’t have to repeat the stories ad nauseum, was by blogging. In doing so, I rediscovered my love of writing. It also reignited my passion for travel and since I was at a transitional stage of my life/career, it seemed natural to continue.

    My mission is to be to write the best stories I can, create a loyal readership and provide my readers with information they can use. I write, on my own schedule, about the things that interest me – culture/ heritage, the arts, food, etc., and I pay my own way.

    Everyone comes to the well with different buckets, it’s great to see others whose buckets look a little like mine. Like you, I have a post that’s been bubbling in my head for about 2 years now. Maybe it’s time to revisit and post it.

    Thanks for your courage. I’m sure the reaction wasn’t as bad as you expected, right?
    Marcia

  • @Monica

    Sure, not reading a blog if you don’t like it is one option, but that still doesn’t get to the root of the issue: blogs that aren’t really travel blogs being called travel blogs when in fact they are simply marketing blogs/paid advertising space. Nothing worse than false advertisement and all that =P

    The biggest issue, I think, is that we are still in a transitional phase. It’s difficult for a blogger to stand up and demand that they be allowed to write the sponsored post in the way that is the best fit for their blog when they are being told to plaster photos/adverts for the sponsor or not get the free trip/goodies.

  • @Cat

    Loyalty is indeed far more important :)

  • Monica says:

    I agree with Nora, sponsored blog trips are not a problem, it’s how they’re written about that is a problem. But ultimately, I think bloggers need to stop comparing themselves with other bloggers. It means that everyone is copying each other and all blogs are so samey. I don’t read nearly as many travel blogs as I used to because I feel like I’ve read the same thing a million times. But if you don’t like what someone is writing, don’t read it.

  • I’ve had many friends ask me about how to write SEO content for the web. I simply answer that, if they had read my blog, they’d know I don’t pay much attention to SEO because I write for ME. My blog started during an eight-month stint abroad, and has grown since then. I have a loyal following and quality readers, which means far, far more to me.

    I started monetizing, reading up on analytics and SEO and backlinks…and realized it was making my blogging less personal and more of a pain in the ass. And Google knows it, too, and is beginning to penalize. I’m turning my focus back to writing about Seville and Spain.

  • Cheers, Linda. Thanks for the comment.

    I, also, pay my own way. I receive offers several times per month, but to-date I haven’t accepted any of them because they all want me to post what I consider invasive links + photos into my blog posts.

    That’s not to say I wouldn’t consider it: when Cris and I head to Europe in 2014 I’ll be actively seeking out sponsors, but only on my terms: we will be traveling on our own dime and then if we come across hotels/restaurants who want to trade accommodations/meals/etc. for a mention on the blog, great…but it won’t be the primary focus of the blog post, not by any means.

    As far as how I determine success…that’s a personal issue that each individual judges for themselves. As long as it’s paying the bills + providing us with a life of travel through the various products and services we offer to help people on their way…well, to us that’s just fine. We are doing exactly what it is that we want to be doing, so as far as I’m concerned, that’s success.

  • Linda says:

    Thank you for posting this very Tweetable content. It’s been a pet peeve of mine for quite a while.

    My husband and I travel for the love of seeing new places. We pay our own way and our blog isn’t monetized at all. We have few followers so no one has offered us free trips, except for the ones that were a part of the blogging conferences we attended. I did write about things we saw on those trips, but I was careful to write only what I’d have written if we’d paid for the trip ourselves.

    I’m curious: What goals do you have for your blog? How do you quantify or measure its success?

  • Thanks, Nora, for the comment (LOL was reading your G+ message just a minute ago!).

    Everyone has the right, for sure, but the point I wanted to focus on is that many a travel blogger started out writing great content, but the moment the free trips get dangled in front of them many of them have lost their way and their blogs, once havens where stories of people, places and their cultures shone brightly, have faded away into the dust of hotel reviews and sponsored stories.

    There is such thing as a good mixture…a well-written post that weaves the story of the adventure with the culture and the people as well as mention the sponsor in question…but a blog post that is purely photos without any content is, in my mind, not a travel piece, but merely a picture gallery.

    Then again, I am writing from a “purist” point of view; that is, travel writing is about the people, places, adventures and culture, and without that, I personally feel as though a blog is no longer writing about travel, but has instead crossed over into the hotel marketing industry.

    Thanks again for the comment!

  • I’m glad my post inspired you to publish this piece – it’s very strong! (I often find the posts I’m most worried about publishing are ultimately the most rewarding for me and appreciated by my readers).

    Although I agree with everything you’ve written and am impressed with your views on metrics, I don’t think it’s in the act of accepting sponsors that there’s a problem – it’s HOW to do it.

    Like you say, content is king. Regardless of who is paying, a blog’s voice and regularity is what keeps readers reading. But not all travel blogs are about the immersion and culture that you might wish to read about. That doesn’t define a “true” travel blog, and a blogger who chooses instead to describe a different aspect of their travels is in their right to do so.

    If a blog has a niche – for example adventure travel or luxury cruises – then many free trips being profiled are indeed what the reader is there to learn about. It’s when – as in my case – a free luxury cruise doesn’t befit financially sustainable full-time travel theme, that the conflict exists.

    The problem is not that sponsored trips are available or that travel bloggers are seeking them; the problem is that, in a largely unregulated – and still very new – industry, it’s being misused.
    A sponsored trip is not the end game; good content is the end game. But dangle a shiny trip in front of many a blogger, and it’s easy to lose sight of the ball.

    So it’s important to accept sponsors and sponsorships that really will benefit the reader. This is, however, possible.

    The next problem is HOW to write about a sponsored experience. Instead of writing a straight review for the sake of itself, why not incorporate some context about the place you’re staying (and whatever applicable links) into a more engaging piece about the culture or telling a larger story? The contextual link and a disclosure of getting the trip for free is all the sponsor (and FDC) needs….and the content is doubly valuable.

  • Cheers, Forrest :)

    I still haven’t been to any of the conventions, personally. Thought about doing TBEX in June, but then decided against it as I have too many other irons in the fire to take off. I might pick up the TBU in November in London, though; bit smaller, seems to be more of the “actual blogger” community as opposed to the income bloggers.

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Popups are the bane of most readers, Daniel =P

    As far as whether or not they are losing members, it’s on a personal basis; I know within my own circle of travel blogging friends (a dozen or so of us) who have been talking the past few months about it, most of us are down to a dozen or so blogs from the 30-50+ we all used to follow because no one wants to read yet ANOTHER “hotel balcony/bedroom/restaurant/poolside bar” review post.

    If they can keep it up AND keep their audience members captivated, more power to ’em. But I know from a reader’s standpoint…meh.

  • Thank you putting eloquently and intelligently what I have been saying for over three years in the travel blogging community. When I attend conferences it is obnoxious that most the attendees are much more concerned with monetizing their blogs. And getting press trips than they are with exploring new communities, and writing to an audience that ants to hear about them. There is also very little humor expressed. My blog has the tag line “an irreverent travel blog” and I have never shilled. I have never taken as much as a free meal. I also do, not seek sponsors. Those that do should be working as marketeers, not travel bloggers.

  • The popups annoy me more than anything. I still follow a few blogs that have popups because I really like them (the blogs, not the popups), but I’m right on the edge of dumping them. And if a blog is anything but excellent, I’m out of there the second anything pops onto my screen that I didn’t specifically ask for.

    As for hotel reviews, I can’t even be bothered with any blog that posts more than the very occasional review. That said, I understand why bloggers write reviews and as long as they’re not losing visitors, there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to get freebies and profit from it. The question is: are they losing visitors?

  • Indeed, Kenin.

    It’s unfortunately how many bloggers I’ve seen “lose it” in the past 2-3 years, going from producing high-quality content and devolving into nothing but hotel reviews and food posts. It’s certainly a prevalent issue, and I think sometimes it’s hard to stay on track when you start getting offered money to travel for free…because the lure is there, but at what cost?

    Content is always king, and especially from the perspective of providing information about the culture and peoples of a destination…not simply the hotel bedroom photos.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Solid and well written. It’s important to always keep your orignal mission in mind and make sure each article you post is for the benefit of the audience you set out to engage with.

  • Indeed it does, Anthony. Thanks for the comment!

  • Anthony says:

    Thanks for writing this. Culture trumps consumption.

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