This is a frequent question to my email inbox and one I continually feel under-qualified to answer. The truth is, I have no single answer or tactic to guarantee success, and half of the time I am not even sure how the ALA community grew into what it is today. The tangible tools I used are listed here (theme, hosting, designers, etc), but these were the building blocks, not the hard work of building toward success. (And if you are very fresh, I have a whole primer guide to setting up your travel blog). There are many other travel bloggers with more types of success: more readers, more social media subscribers, making more money from their blogs.
Success though, to me, doesn’t look like any of that. My goal when building ALA was to build a brand that I could leverage into speaking opportunities while also sharing the stories of cultures and people and a reflection of the way I have come to see the world.
But that’s not a very good answer to your question, is it.
So here are some ideas on how I built up this online community.
Solve a Problem
I am far from the best networker, writer, or photographer, but I had a unique early mover advantage—in 2008 only a handful of travel blogs existed. Now the landscape is in the thousands.
When I planned my round the world trip, I could not find a single solo female travel blog, and the existing RTW blogs weren’t very detailed with the how-tos and specifics about planning a long-term trip. I spent hours pouring over the old Blogspot version of The Lost Girls’ site, using their photos to figure out what they packed. I looked through Dave’s site from GoBackpacking to glean tips. Basically, the amount of information was nearly nil and I saw an opportunity to solve that problem for anyone coming after me.
A core motivating reason for starting ALA was not to simply share travel, but from day one I was motivated to make the process of planning a RTW trip easier for anyone coming after me.
That problem no longer exists. And I was lucky it was a broad problem and when the community grew, when more people began planning trips online, ALA was right there with the answers to their search queries.
So, what question does your website answer? What problem or pain point does it address?
If you want to simply share your photos and the journey with family and friends—brilliant. Go forth and travel blog. But for wider traction, to build a community and a business, you need to go niche and figure out what unique slant you can solve in travel.
Finding a niche and answering those questions, really owning that niche is a fantastic starting point for a blog. But you want to build a community, and for that you need the intangible “more” that some blogs have and others don’t. I reckon that’s compelling narratives. Answering questions and helping your audience is one slice of the equation, and that will get you search engine traffic, but to make people stick you need to hook them. You need to give them a reason to let your posts enter their inbox every week. And I guarantee that’s not because you write compelling “How to Pack Carry-On” posts each week.
Storytelling is what readers want but they didn’t know how to ask for it. Readers don’t find your site by searching “compelling and inspiring narrative about the Bedouin in Jordan’s desert” — but they just might stick around if that’s on your site and it’s the next post they read after your packing list. You want to build a community, and for that you have to stand for something, you have to bring people together over a point of view and over stories that only you can tell. Within your niche topic, or within those things that light you up in the world, find the stories on the road that you can tell and that will inspire others to see the world in a new way. Advice posts and top 10s are effective at SEO, but remarkable blogs have found a way to tell stories that matter.
How should you tell stories, what should you look for out on the road? Jodi shares some ideas here, and Mike teaches storytelling on his site. My advice: Find the person, topic, issue that you find interesting and dig into it. Could be craftmanship, could be food, heck, it could be dinosaurs. For me, it’s social enterprise. I wanted to show people the impact of grassroots tourism on the people and communities we travel through. It’s not the sexiest of topics, but hey, it did win me National Geographic Traveler of the Year, so that’s one anecdotal evidence that there is a need and thirst for people telling the stories that matter. You have a new travel blog, make yours one of those positively impacting the way people see the world. Do that, and your community won’t know why they love reading your site each week, but they’ll come back hungrily.
Always strive to make your writing, photos, information, etc your best. Find tutorials to take better photos, sign up for online writing classes, learn how you can better sell your e-books—whatever you’re doing on your blog or website, find ways to always get better.
And, blog prolifically, at least at first. I found this was the fastest way to home in on my message, become a better writer, and really figure out how to communicate with my community. My early writings on the blog (circa 2008) make me #facepalm. They’re not great. But they were the first steps toward getting better. Start writing now so in five years time you have a really good reason to say “wow, look how far I’ve grown.”
Write for Your Audience and Issue
It’s so easy to get caught up in the community you are a part of, but generally your audience is not other bloggers. This is important to remember. Define your audience and produce content for them. Produce content that always strives to solve their central problem, and stories that will resonate with their worldview. If you’re blogging for other bloggers, you may be overlooking the potential for your information and stories to spread widely. (Of note, there is a reason this is a page and not a post on this website. I would never publish blogging advice to my RSS feeds, it’s not relevant to the larger community who come to ALA for stories and photography. I recommend you afford your audience the same respect.)
Traveling the world is not in and of itself the most interesting thing about you or your website. How do you see the world, what is the lens through which you view travel? Be willing to be an authentic, interesting version of yourself online. Jodi from Legal Nomads is a great example of providing a range of interesting content that shows her personality and her community formed around it. She fills her social media feeds with links to interesting stories on the periphery of food and travel. She finds them interesting and uses her own interests to grow her community beyond just the laser focus of food and travel. Food is the lens through which she views travel, but she expands that into an interest in a broad range of fields.
As with the storytelling advice, almost any interest lends itself to travel. If you write about the history of dinosaurs in every part of the world then archaeology and history are fair-game for your feeds. If you follow dancing cultures and practices, you have nearly all of the humanities at your feet. Have fun, stay true to your own interests, and make an online presence you would want to see in your Facebook feed every morning.
Choose Your Social Media Platforms Carefully
Social media is both the greatest leverage for sharing content and the greatest time suck that saps real progress toward your goals. I could not have grown my site without social media like Twitter and Facebook, but over time I grew attached to follower numbers and stats versus other more tangible metrics of success like growth of my newsletter, increased requests for speaking, etc.
You may not need to be on every platform; pick the ones you want to invest in, then build your followers there. Just because other bloggers are doing something one way may not make it good for your niche. Be open to focusing your efforts in a couple of key areas versus every possible area.
Jodi shares a fantastic overview of the major social networks you should consider, as well as best practices and heaps of other reading for how to best create online communities using social media. SEOMoz’s comprehensive guide also outlines all you need to know about social media right now.
A Blog is Not a Business
Building a community on ALA has been incredibly rewarding, but from the start I was building a blog and not a business. Over the years, this distinction became increasingly apparent. This website doesn’t make much money. Very little. I started it as a resource point and that spirit has continued. I also never wanted this to be a place where someone could buy my opinion, nor was I interested in placing ads. I wanted a portfolio and a community, a brand. And that is exactly what this website is. But if you’re reading this and thinking “gee, this is so successful, I want to follow Shannon’s footsteps and make money,” I am not the blog you should be reading. Success, again, depends on your criteria. I have been lauded by the likes of National Geographic and NPR, but that distinction does not make money.
The travel blogging landscape is varied, but generally falls into:
- Sites like mine that are not sponsored and bring in very little revenue from the blog itself. I make money by speaking at Universities and from the sale of my book. But the money that feeds me and pays my rent is actually from freelance marketing consulting.
- Sites that sell text links and sponsored posts. These sites make money by selling content and endorsing other travel brands, often with little disclosure to the reader.
- Sites that accept big brand sponsors. They have major companies sponsoring the bloggers activity and the blogger makes money by endorsing a few brands for longer periods of time. G Adventures has a Wanderers in Residence Program, AMEX Canada and Expedia have endorsed bloggers and have been their sponsors.
- Sites that rely on destinations to pay them for coverage. This is a nascent niche business model that is particularly effective in the European market. Many seasoned travel bloggers have built relationships and expectations that are now allowing bloggers to be paid day-rates to visit a destination and share content on their blog and/or Instagram.
- Sites with affiliate programs and personal products. Chris Guillebeau is a great example of the product route—he offers a range of guides and had great success by allowing other bloggers to sell those guides through an affiliate program. Blogs can make money by offering these affiliate links. I make some money from Amazon’s program and World Nomads.
And you can have a range of these present. But, the first two are not business models… nor is the third really: Aiming solely for number three is tough in this landscape. Blogging and seeing where it takes you is not the best way to build a business. Consider where you are taking this audience and what is the business model you will use to make money from your efforts.
This link covers how bloggers are going down some of these paths. This page covers how to think about the business side of blogging, as well as how to build freelance work.
Envision What Your Community Will Look Like
If you are starting a travel blog simply because it seems like what you need to do, consider that there is a very real lesson to be learned in the fact that I was a newbie/first blogger more than eight years ago. The blogging world has changed a lot and blogs gained prominence in a world without Twitter, Facebook Pages, Snapchat, and Instagram. Blogging is a fantastic platform for writers and readers, but it may not be the best place to share your stories and journey. Instagram is a photo platform that is still growing exponentially every month. It has no direct way to funnel traffic to a blog, but it has a massive user-base. There are Instagram accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers, and those followers are interacting, enjoying, and following a journey.
I am not saying trade a blog for instagram, but instead noting you should really examine where you feel comfortable. Look at your ultimate goals of having a community. Is it to share travel but not make a business? You might need little besides a social media account and a passion to share on that network. I have seen travelers create vibrant and active Facebook Pages documenting their journeys.
Think outside the box. Blogging is growing up. In internet years, it’s ancient. The life-span of many online markets and industries are short, so I really implore you to think creatively about what social media platforms are still growing, how new businesses are growing their communities, and how that aligns with your own goals. Be open to the fact that your community might not come from replicating that which those before you have done.
I highly recommend reading Tribes by Seth Godin. In it, he shares the characteristics that the world’s most thriving communities share. It’s like a roadmap to building a community around a central idea. Seth Godin is a brilliant marketer. While I recommend all of his books, Tribes is a good starting place.
Think Outside the “Travel Blogging” Model
There are bloggers out there who will teach you — for a fee — how to build a successful blog. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this if you are keen to make a business, it’s a bit of a bait and switch for many bloggers. A blog is not usually a business. Some bloggers have built brands, some have monetized their blogs, but the vast majority are making far less than a liveable wage. And I don’t say this to be discouraging, but instead to note that there is no set model. I was lucky in building my site, as there was no guidance online. For a new blogger, I encourage you to exercise your imagination in building this site, rather than follow the ideas you “think” are standard for a travel blog.
Ask yourself: “What would your site look like if you were the first one creating this type of blog?”
What if no one else had a website addressing what you are creating, how would you address the needs in the niche? Abandon the models, designs, and styles of the blogging or travel blogging genre. Imagine it from scratch, and then compare your big idea to the industry standards and see if your new site can fit somewhere in the middleground?
Then get to work. There is no single path to success. Anyone selling you that idea isn’t being truthful. You have options, and your site and business and blog may not yet look like anything out there right now.
Learn Marketing and Branding
In addition to starting earlier than other travel bloggers, I had one other major advantage — I am a professional SEO consultant. Since before I left to travel, I have helped small businesses craft content that is easy to find in the search engines. Additionally, my degree is in Advertising and Public Relations. I get paid to tell brands how to position themselves in the online marketplace and how to communicate their message to their communities. These professional skills helped me at every stage. I’ll never know what this site would have become if I hadn’t thoroughly understood SEO and branding when I started in 2008.
For new bloggers, you not only have to build a community, but you have to learn how to brand yourself and position your website in the crowded blogosphere. Like everything, you can learn it. There are countless advice sites, Copyblogger is a good one, that help you learn the art of marketing and branding. You must learn this. Even if you plan to tell beautiful stories, you need to learn the other aspects of blogging that amplify your message and content.
Your existing professional skills and knowledge might help you jump-start some areas of your blog, or it might put you at a disadvantage. Travel bloggers who can code have beautiful sites and they spend far less on tech support. But if they didn’t study and practice communications, then I have a leg up on them in one area, and a disadvantage in another. Identify your own skills, and then focus on learning the areas where you are weak. Necessity and a start-up budget are the two reasons I can now write HTML and tweak the code on my own website. I didn’t have these skills in the early days and learning them were necessary for the success of my website.
Build a Newsletter
From day one of your blog, build a newsletter subscriber base — this is the only platform where you own your subscribers. You don’t own your followers on social media and relying on organic search traffic from Google is a poor long-term strategy. Convert readers who jibe with your message into email subscribers and you will always have the ability to reach them.
Mailchimp is, by far, the best option for new bloggers because it is free up to 2,000 email subscribers. Aweber is another choice, but it’s a paid service that is hard to justify when you have low numbers. Please, please take just this one piece of advice right now and start a newsletter.
This is a living document and I continually to add to this list as I think more about my community and how I have managed to grow it on A Little Adrift!