It has become routine here on Live Less Ordinary to review progress, learning and frustrations of my past six months of travel blogging, so to continue with tradition this will be our two year moanings and musings. This review focuses more on the opportunities I’ve been offered and the potential routes to make a living from travel blogs. After 2 years as a small fish I feel I am finally getting somewhere… My approach however is different from most as through the past two years I’ve held back from networking, link building, and the boring aspects of blogging, as many are as appealing as sticking pins in my eyes. When starting out I was always told these strategies were necessary to be successful… so I was determined to prove them wrong. But are they necessary to be successful? This depends on what you deem as successful. If it is to monetize and make a living from travel blogs then they obviously do help, but I’ve managed to do okay without. My aim when I set out was to make a living from travel blogging with the least involvement possible. No networking, no schmoozing with PRs DMOs, no leg humping mentors, no conferences, travel shows… or just any of them snore-fests which are usually prioritized in travel blogging. So to date I’ve managed to do none of these, staying 100% independent and for those looking for some inspiration check the 98% rule which states “98% of things and people aren’t worth bothering about. Instead, you should celebrate and cherish the 2% you find worthwhile.” Anyway, how have I fared over the past two years? Slowly, but things are taking shape. I’ve found that it is possible to make a living from travel blogs but of course the opportunities will depend on influence. For comparison my website currently creates around 40,000+ monthly page views, my PR is 3, my Alexia ranking is God knows, my DP, PD, XYZ are… gibberish.
Affiliates are my preferred method to make a living from travel blogs. Involvement is minimal and you can travel completely independent, no networking, no checking emails, no pretending to like stuff on Facebook. You make incomes while doing pretty much nothing. This is in fact how I started out in blogging using smaller niche websites, and to date it is the only source of income I’ve felt comfortable in taking. I can promote the products I support and it feels great to create sales. The only necessary communication is receiving notifications of purchases and of course the monthly invoice in your mailbox. So I’ve not really pushed far into affiliates but it is something I will focus on in the coming months, and while the money may not be great, it shows for potential to make a living from travel blogs. It is also challenging and to be successful you will need to drive traffic to your affiliate partner. E.g. write a book review, forward people to the amazon purchase page. Note, this doesn’t mean putting a banner on your sidebar and hoping for luck. This means creating posts with attractive titles, content, visuals and building its rank with high SEO. Viewers click through, make a purchase you get your cut. It no doubt feels good to drive successful sales and while this is probably the hardest route to make a living from travel blogs, I see it more as a challenge to motivate me. Below a simple example of a partial income (hotel bookings):
2. Sponsored Posts
I’m covering sponsored posts quick… to get them out of the way. This is the easy route to make a living from travel blogs and can bring seriously impressive incomes. At some stage most travel bloggers will have sold links, whether they admit to it or not. In short, companies offer a decent sum of money for you to add content to your site. The content links back to their own website and this helps the company rank higher on search engines. While not overly ethical it does make a good option for keeping float while travelling. I’ve not a whole lot against the strategy but I have little interest in it myself. In the past I’ve sold links (5 in total) and each felt as degrading as the next. I stopped. Selling links feels like selling a cheap suit. Each netted me between $80 and $150 which is in the low end of offers. Note, I only offered these posts to brands I support, yet each time it still felt like I’d been fiddled by a stranger, grubby hands all over my personal stuff. Now I’m desperate to remove them but this would of course be more unethical than taking them (be sure to set length of time for posts to be on your site e.g. annually). While I don’t make an income from sponsored posts I do keep a list of advertisers (close to 1,000) which I deem as ‘travel insurance’. If an emergency or desperation ever crops up I just sell a few links. Sponsored posts will always the easy option for monetizing travel blogs and it can quickly rake in a small fortune. While I shouldn’t really encourage the practice, it is also slowly dying, so get in while you can. If your only interest is in money it maybe easier to buy flipped sites (with PR), invest in influence, pay peanuts for others to write content, then sell links without really getting involved (note, I in no way do this).
3. The Freebie Train
The more influence you have, the more free stuff you will be offered? This is wrong because free stuff is not free stuff, it always comes with obligations. As an example, a new restaurant opened nearby and they offer us a free feed for a blog write-up. We accept thinking it sounds a fair deal. So we arrive to the restaurant, meet the PR rep (who organised it) and take all the info, papers, cds etc. For the next hour we photograph foods arriving to the table, not yet allowed to eat them. After one hour of photography we are then given the chance to eat, the PR rep joining us. After possibly the most uncomfortable eating experience, irritating small talk included, we couldn’t have been happier to leave. I would have loved the restaurant if were allowed to enjoy the food… but the experience was a complete disaster. We edit professional(ish) photos, write an article and get our review first page on Google. Overall, including travel to the restaurant, we spend roughly 5 hours on this project. We get a meal which sells for $60. No payment or reimbursement of return taxi fare. Embarrassing. Of course this is the worst we’ve come across and the main reason is the PR agency in the middle (and in hindsight our failure to negotiate). The restaurant pay the PR agency a hefty chunk of cash, then they look unsuspecting bloggers / suckers to take advantage of. It is therefore important to put a value on your work and to ask for payment. Photographers charge for photography, publications charge for advertising, so why would a blogger give it all away for free? Doing so is demeaning and ultimately it damages the industry. We were unfortunate to find out the hard way. So on this occasion we cc’d the manager with the reviews and he replied enthusiastically, thanking us and offering us future offers. We’ve not worked with PR firms or middlemen since.
4. Press Trips
On rare occasions we are offered press trips and they have all been quickly turned down. As a blogging couple and independent travellers press trips don’t fit us well. To date what we have been offered just sounds like travel hell (although they may get better down the line). They have felt like backpacker fun buses with like minded bloggers, blogging to the same audience, about the exact same thing. Not overly exciting. But what puts me off most is the uncertainty and dissonance of not knowing full itineraries, the privacy you’ll be allowed, comfort levels etc. puts me off completely. Even to date I see the most prominent of travel bloggers sharing hotel rooms etc on press trips. Then there are the grey areas where ‘freebies’ come with strings attached, and the implied pressure to write nice things about everything. But most of all I’ve always loved independent travel the freedom, the control, even the decision making and planning and press trips kind of tear this stuff apart. So that being said, for solo travellers they do create opportunities for social travel, and they will always create opportunities to build content for blogs. In short they just don’t suit all. The best way to find these opportunities is through PR and DMO schmoozing, travel conferences etc. There are also established organisations focused on freebies and press trips such as the Professional Travel Blogger Association (PTBA) but they are more geared towards better established bloggers (I joined for a year, $70, and received not even a ‘Hi!’ from industry members). However, there are free alternatives which may better suit those new bloggers looking to make a living from travel blogs such as The Mid Game.
5. Hosted Travel
My much preferred alternative to press trips. Choose your destination, create an itinerary, find companies and brands which compliment your niche and contact them in advance pitching for hosted opportunities. They get promotion, you get to travel for ‘free’. It works. Your travel remains independent and the freedom is still there to do pretty much whatever you like. While It doesn’t quite make a living from travel blogs, it does keep you on the road and gives the opportunity to create valuable and unbiased content. So to be successful with this strategy your pitch is important. Travel brands are no doubt be inundated with crap on a daily basis. Therefore, don’t pitch as if chasing freebies, and do pitch like your in a position to sell their brand. An example would be hosted hotel stays where I’ve found better results come from following specific niches, showing past examples and citing brands worked with in the past. I include traffic reports, successful affiliate campaigns, highlight my ability to create traffic and bookings, offer a strategy with keyword research etc. The more you offer, the better opportunities you’ll be offered in return. Treat every hosted stay with professionalism and see them as examples to pitch to others in the future. Better yourself. Again hosted stays are not freebies they are obligations with strings attached. I’ve been hosted on stays with itineraries so tight photographing, eating, touring etc. that we had no time to see or enjoy the destination. Obviously one night stays are not ideal and three days often make a happy number. While hosted travel does offer great opportunities it is no doubt better to pay your own way. The more hosted stays I accept, the less I enjoy travel so it’s best to get a balance throughout a journey. Travel writing after all is work and should be treated with at least semi-professional. Also consider charging for reviews and put a value on your own work so you can compare with the value of the hosted opportunity.
6. Contacting Brands for Sponsorship
Sponsored posts and opportunities (2. above) are almost always arranged by reps and middlemen approaching the blogger. Very rarely is it the opposite. To date I’ve had next to no luck contacting brands directly for partnerships and advertising and it is understandable. For this area of marketing companies often set a budget for PR which they then outsource it to PR companies. This means emailing directly to the company has little chance of going anywhere. There will also be a hierarchy in decision making, and there will likely be a lot of red-tape between initial email contact and the decision maker in marketing. If you manage to reach this far you will need a strong pitch to ever be considered. Frustrating but again understandable with the likely inundation of freebie pitches. So again the success of this strategy is in the pitch with better results found in matching brands and niches. Don’t approach a brand unless you actually have something to offer. Showing past campaigns, citing brands worked with, traffic reports, demographics, strategies etc. etc. Also give details of what your blog offers and prices e.g. sponsored posts, CPM banner advertisements… Vagueness doesn’t rub well and just looks like freebie fishing. But at the same time companies may just have no interest in working with bloggers. One of my own examples is a real estate company I’ve promoted for near two years now. To date I’ve forwarded 1,298 clicks of traffic from people looking to buy and rent property in Bangkok, where my influence is known (I rank No.1 in Google for both terms “Living in Bangkok” and “Buying Condos in Bangkok”). So I message the company to introduce myself, they ignore me. I phone the company, they tell me to email them. I email the company they ignore me. So these links are very high value and statistically speaking I’ve made them thousands of dollars in the past, yet they have no time to talk to me (red tape I guess). In theory I could sell these links to completing companies but this wouldn’t be ethical as I’ve never used the other companies (I’ve only ever bought one condo in Bangkok). Instead I messaged the person I worked with previously at the company (now left) and asked her to refer me to the hard working underdog of the firm. She sends me their email, I include it to the article. Now a hard working employee gets paid lots of commission instead of the company directly. I still get no reward but that’s blogging… it’s very rarely fair.
7. Alternative Incomes?
So this depend on the person. Why did you get into travel blogging? What do you love about travel? What are your passions and interest? I am guessing few started out to hump legs at conferences and travel shows. To make a living from travel blogs I feel the best way is to use your travel blog to channel and promote your own interests. Can you create an income from the things you love? In the past I’ve had all sorts of opportunities turned down. A writing gig with an American retirement magazine (oddly when I was 30) with a Bangkok column, nope. I have no interest in writing as a career, I don’t even like writing, I don’t consider myself to be close to a professional writer. But I do love sharing posts on my blog. I’ve been offered TV appearances, conference whatnots, even a travel show invite for an award I won. Why I turn them down? Because these are not the reasons I started blogging. It is sometimes best to look back, before you look forward. Otherwise you’ll get lost doing things you don’t really want to do. I started blogging to share my love for living in Thailand and food tourism. I am now writing tourist friendly food guides and have established small group tours in the Isaan region of Thailand (Isaan Tours). Not many people’s cup of tea but it suits me. Of course every blog and blogger is different, so monetizing strategies will obviously vary. But at the moment my only main focus is to continue what I enjoy doing and to create something of value and purpose, not profit. Establishing my travel blog is only the beginning.