When I was invited to speak at the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul last year, I was asked to talk about this: How does one start a successful travel blog?
At first, it seemed like a simple, easy question. But the more I thought about it, the harder it was to find the right words. Any other day, I would have simply answered, “Get a domain name, find a good host, set up the blog, and write away.” But there was a qualifier there, an awfully subjective one: successful.
How do you measure success? We all have different metrics: visitor traffic, social media following, awards and recognition. Success can also mean simply being able to express yourself. If you have a goal — no matter how little — and it is achieved, then it is successful. But if we’re talking about blogging as a career, then perhaps a good measure is how the blog is able to sustain itself and generate enough income to support the blogger’s lifestyle. Yep, it is possible to travel the world for free and even get paid for it. You’ll be surprised how many people have built a career out of travel blogging, and I had the pleasure of meeting (and being friends) with many of them.
I’m not gonna pretend like I’m an expert in this field. Every day, I find myself learning more as I wade through the intricacies of the blogging community and the travel industry. But I am an expert in my personal history (LOL), and that’s what I’m sharing with you in this post.
Nope, I’m not going to tell you to quit your job and travel the world.
As someone who came from a less fortunate family with children to feed and send to school, I know it’s NOT that easy. At least for me, it wasn’t easy at all. It was made even more complicated by the fact that I’m holding a Philippine passport, which entails proving my rootedness and financial capacity before I’m allowed to set foot in many of my dream destinations. I could not just leave everything behind and ride off into the sunset. I had to plan everything, and plan everything I did.
We started this blog from nothing. At the time, I was at the very bottom of the corporate ladder, working as a social media marketing manager for a startup company from 8-5. At first, I was just blogging about our company outings because I couldn’t afford to travel on my own. I had no savings. My salary was just enough for rent, bills, and the tuition of the kids in the family. But we’ve come a long way.
Today, both Vins and I have quit our day jobs and are now full-time travel bloggers. We’ve also launched another blog called PhilippineBeaches.org. This blog alone registers almost a million page views a month and our two blogs have over 2 million social media followers in total. And because of these blogs, we are able to travel any time we want.
So how did we do it? What I’m sharing below are things I have learned over a decade of working both as a blogger and as a social media marketing professional. Some of these I already knew even before we created this blog, while others were lessons we picked up along the way. We had a few regrets — things that we would’ve done differently — and we hope sharing them would help you avoid making the same mistakes.
If I would start a travel blog right now, here’s how I would do it.
But before that, let me say this: Travel blogging as a full-time career is not as glamorous as people think. There are days when we feel like if we don’t write anything, we won’t earn anything. Most days, we just break even. We have to constantly be on our toes so we have backup plans. But between this and having a day job, we would pick this all day. Yes, we work all the time, but we work at our own pace at any place we choose
STEP 1: POSITIONING
Determine what will set your blog apart from the rest.
This is what most bloggers don’t even consider. They simply think of a name and sign up for a blog. But if you want to make a career out of blogging, this is the first thing you should think about.
There are tens of thousands of blogs out there, and you need to find what would make yours stand out. So you want to blog about travel? Cool. The next question you should ask yourself is: What about it?
What would make your new blog different? What can it offer that isn’t on the table yet? Why should readers care about your blog? Also, who is your target audience? Are you writing for a specific age bracket or gender or socio-economic class?
What sets you apart may be related to any of the following:
- Target market. In our case, we built The Poor Traveler for budget travelers in developing countries in Asia. From the get-go, we knew we wanted to write for people with full-time jobs who can only travel during the weekends and holidays. For instance, when we write travel guides, we present cheap flight options from airports in Manila, Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur. When we provide a sample itinerary, it’s often just for 2-5 days. We always take into consideration that most of our readers are not backpacking for one month but probably just taking a weekend or an extended weekend off from work. When we write about expensive first-world countries like Iceland or Switzerland, we wear the lens of someone who will be spending a year’s worth of hard work for just a week of exploring. These are travelers who can’t afford costly blunders on the road. Another blog that I look up to is Adventurous Kate, which “shows women that independent and solo travel can be safe, easy, and a lot of fun.” View from the Wi caters to frequent flyers. Their respective target markets can’t be any clearer.
- Subject. There are several great examples out there. Y Travel Blog is about being able to “travel with the people you love and have a thriving relationship.” A Luxury Travel Blog focuses on “the finer aspects of travel.” Migrationologyis all about traveling for food! It can also be destination-specific! Our other blog PhilippineBeaches.org focuses on a very specific (and obvious) niche: beaches in the Philippines! You’ll find blogs out there that are about places: Bangkok, Bali, Boracay, Sagada, Goa, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei.
- Specific Goal. Our friend Johnny Ward of One Step 4Ward documents his adventure visiting all the countries in the world. If that’s not compelling, I don’t know what is.
STEP 2: BRANDING
Build your blog identity.
Now that you know what would make your blog stand out, it’s time to build your blog’s identity. How would you like to be known? What do you want your blog to be called? How would it look and feel?
The most important thing you need to decide on at this stage is your blog’s name. Sounds easy, yeah? Probably not. Haha. I find this to be the most difficult part of the process. The name should be able to adequately and properly encapsulate what your blog stands for. It’s tough because sometimes you might think you have it, but when you try to buy the domain name, you’ll find that it’s no longer available or someone else is using it already.
Here are my tips when picking a name:
- Don’t be too specific. Specific is good sometimes, but not TOO specific. Consider the future! You’ll most probably evolve as a traveler. If your boyfriend’s name is Juan, don’t call your blog TravelingwithJuan.com. It’s sweet and all, but if you break up, you’re gonna have to start over!
- Make it short, clear, and easy to remember. Don’t add numbers or special characters.
- Choose a .com instead of a .net or .biz. Don’t make the same mistake that we did. A .com domain name is just much easier to remember and people always assume it’s .com.
- If you can, make your blog name the same as its usernames on social media sites. This allows your readers to find you much more easily on Facebook or Instagram, and makes it intuitive. Our usernames on Twitter, YouTube, IG, and FB are all @thepoortraveler. And when there’s a new social media site, we sign up immediately to reserve the name just in case it takes off.
Be careful when picking a name. It will be tough to change it in the future. Building your blog’s authority on search engines is highly dependent on your URL (i.e. your blog name). If you change it, you will have to start from scratch, SEO-wise. I’ll discuss SEO later.
But the name is just the start. Decide on the look and feel: colors, texture, imagery, overall experience. And if you’re really serious about it, have an original logo! These things will increase recall of your brand! (Yes, you’re a brand!)
Once you’re all set with your branding ideas, the real work begins. As you move forward, you have to be guided by and stick to it. If your blog is StandUpPaddlingForever, make sure that most of your posts are about standup paddling! It’s a struggle for us, too. Even when ours is called The Poor Traveler, we often get invited by luxury hotels and resorts to stay with them for free, but we couldn’t take the offer most of the time because they just don’t fit with our blog.
STEP 3: TECHNICALS
Set up the blog.
a. Purchase a domain name and hosting plan.
There are a lot of options out there, offering various plans at different rates. We don’t have recommendations because we haven’t tried any of the big ones and thus cannot make comparisons. But the process is almost always the same.
b. Install WordPress.
There are many other blogging platforms out there, but I strongly recommend WordPress. I’ve been blogging since 2005 and I’ve tried a lot of other platforms, but WordPress is by far the best.
c. Pick a theme.
The “theme” is how your blog would appear to the readers. Some themes come with extra features. Some may require additional plugins. You can buy a “premium” theme or you can have a custom design created.
But since you’re just getting started and you don’t have much content yet, pick one of the thousands of FREE themes that are available! On your WordPress Dashboard, hover on the Appearance link on the side menu, click on Themes, and begin exploring.
These are pre-set themes, so pick one that is closest to your branding vision. When your blog has enough content, you can level up to a more premium theme.
STEP 4: CONTENT
Write, write, write!
At every marketing summit I have attended, there’s always someone that would say this: Content is King.
Although I’m sick of hearing it, there’s a reason why industry leaders keep on harping on it — because it is true. And sadly, it’s often forgotten. Sure, every once in a while, someone takes over the internet because of a stunt, sheer personality, or genetics, but they rise and fall quicker than your first one-night stand. If you’re after longevity, focus on content. A stable online career has its foundation strongly rooted on how much value you add to your readers’ experiences.
Whether you’re producing videos, photos, or articles, whether you aim to inform, entertain or inspire, it is important to bear these in mind:
- Be sincere. Don’t do it just because of the money. Do it because you love it. Do it because you have something to share.
- Don’t post anything you can’t be proud of. Quality first.
- Learn along the way. You’ll discover that some topics or styles work better than others. Feel free to experiment and do more of what you think is working.
- But don’t lose yourself. Finding the healthiest mixture of knowing your readers’ taste and staying true to yourself is no easy business. The last thing you want is to wake up one day and see that your blog is so oddly distant from the real you. Your blog is yours. Don’t lose yourself in the process.
- Keep on blogging. There will be moments when you feel like no one’s reading your blog and you begin to question why you’re doing it. Don’t stop. The start of every trek is always uphill. But the more posts you make, the better you increase your chances of getting found and noticed.
STEP 5: SEO AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Get found, get followed, engage.
Perhaps one of the reasons why my partnership with Vins works is because of our backgrounds. Before we became full-time travel bloggers, Vins was an SEO Specialist by profession, while I was the Social Media Head of a number of big companies in the ASEAN region. When we combine our skills in harnessing the power of both search and social media, we get to capture our target audience.
Social Media is a complicated monster. Even after years of experience, I still cannot claim expertise in it because it changes every damn time. But the basic principles are still the same.
- Every channel is different. Create content that is tailor-made for each. What works on Facebook doesn’t necessarily work for Instagram.
- You don’t need to be present in ALL of the social media sites, but you need to figure out the right mix for your brand.
- Be human. Let your followers feel you’re one of them, you’re one with them.
- Don’t buy fake followers. Your peers know. And while you may fool clients in the beginning, sooner or later your credibility will come crashing down.
Most importantly: When you give the right content to the right audience through the right social media channel, you could make them share your posts and follow you for more.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization), on the other hand, is the art and science of appearing in the first pages of results when users Google something. And Google is a — if not THE — primary source of visitor traffic. Here’s brief primer on SEO:
There are many factors that can affect your Google ranking including the quality of your content, the keywords you use, and incoming links.
Both SEO and Social Media Marketing are complex monsters that are hard to tame and win over. They’re too complicated to be discussed here, we’ll probably just make a dedicated blog post.
STEP 6: MONETIZATION
How do blogs earn?
Before that, let me make it clear that not all bloggers make money from their blogs. Turning blogs into a money-generating business is difficult to do. And some choose to not monetize their blog at all. For example, we earn from The Poor Traveler, but I choose to not monetize my personal blog Yoshke.com, where I put all my travel narratives. (Yes, I have a lot of blogs.)
Those who do earn through their blogs do it in a variety of ways. Below are some examples:
- Display advertising. These are the banner or link ads that appear on the website.
- Affiliate programs. When you purchase a product or book a service on the blog, the blogger gets a commission at no extra cost to the reader. For example, if you use the search engine below to book your hotel, you’re helping us earn a little.
- Sponsored Blog Posts. Brands would tap the blogger to feature their products or services on the blog for a fee.
- Sponsored Social Media Posts. Brands would pay the blogger for a feature on their Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter accounts.
- Ambassadorship. Brands would hire a blogger for a specified period of time — say, a year — to constantly promote their products or services on their blogs and social media channels. These arrangements often entail exclusivity, which means the blogger cannot write about competing brands through the duration of the contract. It’s like being an endorser. Bloggers are paid per contract.
- Paid Trips. Airlines, travel agencies, and tourism offices around the world often invite bloggers to feature destinations on their website. Most of these trips are all-expense-paid, and some of them provide additional payment to the blogger.
There are many other ways to earn. Some do travel coaching. Some become consultants to travel companies. You can be resourceful and creative. My only guidance is to just to be discerning when it comes to paid opportunities. You need to protect your brand, too! Just because it pays DOESN’T mean you have to take it.
If you accept partnerships with brands, be transparent with your readers. Disclose your sponsorships.
Still, even after following these steps, there is no guarantee that your blog will be successful. And often, it takes a looooong time. In our case, we waited years before it started earning well enough to support our lifestyle.
Aside from hard work, sometimes great timing and good luck have a lot to do with it. But you’ll never know if you don’t try.