This week’s guest post comes from Ben Colclough, a founder of Tourdust and in recent weeks a contributor to the illustrious Huffington Post. As the title suggests, the subject in question has been covered several times already on other blogs, usually from the perspective of the blogger. It is refreshing therefore to read Ben’s insights from an industry angle into the ways in which bloggers and travel companies can work together to help each other. Well worth a read.
In e-commerce, content is indisputably king, yet content creators and businesses seem to fail so miserably at getting along. There are exceptions and this certainly isn’t a new topic but largely, it remains a fascinating unsolved opportunity. I’ve read some posts on this from the blogger’s point of view (I’d like to point you to pieces by Gary Arndt, Lara from Grantourismo and Andy on this very blog if you are interested in some back reading), but would love to add my two cents worth from the other side of the fence.
In theory travel writing and content production should be booming. Original quality content is the only way an ecommerce site can compete in the Google rankings nowadays. For example, every single seller of travel has to publish their own original content online if they hope to stand half a chance of competing. Whereas in the past, hotel descriptions would be identical no matter which brochure you picked up, in the world of the web, you simply have to go unique to compete. Not only that, but good content can also increase a site’s authority with Google too. Pretty much the only reliable low budget way to increase your authority in the Google search engine results pages (SERPS) is by creating noteworthy content either as guest posts on other sites, or published on your own site to attract tweets, shares and links.
Undoubtedly, all consumer facing travel businesses are now compelled to become content publishers. This point was made best by Natalie Massenet from Net-a-Porter, the incredibly successful online fashion retailer, who put it so eloquently “My goal was always to be editor in chief of a magazine, and I feel I have achieved that, only it’s also a magazine you can shop”. E-commerce sites are fast becoming content publishers with a slick commerce back end.
The travel blog as a promotional outlet for travel companies
From my perspective people seem to approach the problem from the wrong angle. They ask how can a company promote itself on a blog and reach the bloggers audience. The big debate has always been about how a travel blog can make money from relationships with travel companies and my conclusion is that it can’t. First things first, eyeballs count not one jot online. If you have over 100,000 monthly uniques but they are coming only to look at photos and populist general travel content then those 100,000 eyeballs are going to be worth peanuts, literally. Anyone planning to build a revenue generating audience through travel blogging alone has chosen a difficult path. That isn’t to say that building an audience for a travel blog and using it to promote a travel business isn’t possible, but that is a whole other ball game requiring a business plan and a lot of determination.
So I return to the concept of a travel blog not making money. That was a deliberately exact statement, because although I don’t believe a travel blog can make money, I’m confident a good travel writer or blogger can. This is where I see the real opportunity. It isn’t about promoting brands on your blog, or selling links, it’s about using your skills as content producers and content marketers to best effect. You are not selling your audience, you are selling your skills.
How can travel bloggers and travel businesses work together then?
With my business hat on, I generally commission content to serve one or more of three core objectives. It should either (1) increase my sites authority (with Google), (2) directly rank well for money keywords or (3) convert customers that are already on my site. There seems to be loads of room for innovation in all three cases:
1. The travel writer / blogger as ‘link builder’ (or ‘authority booster’) for a travel company
Link building used to be a fairly formulaic game that could be outsourced to India. Nowadays if you listen to the experts it is all about creating content that people naturally want to link to, e.g. authoritative content on a particular subject area, or bite size linkbait that titillates visitors and is inherently shareable. The concept of a link has changed too. Google now looks at tweets and Facebook ‘likes’ as a ranking signal, so lots of RTs of a piece of content on your site will increase your authority with Google.
Bloggers’ skills in creating interesting buzzy content and importantly in knowing how to seed that content through communities on Twitter and Facebook is invaluable to this end. There is no reason why it couldn’t go further either, with more explicit link building activities such as hosting blogging carnivals.
2. The travel writer / blogger as SEO content creator for travel companies
Commissioning writers to produce content that will rank well in the SERPS is not exactly new ground, but still there is huge potential. Most travel businesses will be targetting attraction names and hotel names for organic traffic. So why not keep a list of all the places you’ve been to and all the hotels you’ve been to on your blog. There are literally thousands of online travel agents and tour operators and if they are not already, they will all have to start writing their own original content to keep up with Google’s attempts to weed out the thin affiliates.
If I am snooping around trying to find someone to write about Kenya, then when I see on your blog that you have visited all the places and hotels I want to target in the SERPS then I am definitely going to get in touch. This kind of work is never going to be glamorous or earn big money, but it is an easy way to monetise your past travel. All we are talking about are short 400 word reviews of hotels or destination guides.
3. The travel writer / blogger as expert endorsement for travel companies
In the travel industry, demonstrating destination expertise dramatically improves conversion rates. Customers want to know they are getting advice from someone who knows the place well. This is an area of massive opportunity for bloggers who concentrate on building knowledge on specific locations or activity niches. Clearly there would have to be a good fit between the expert and the travel company along with clear guidelines on independence, but generally speaking, I can foresee two models of working together:
Blogger as Curator / Endorsement: This is so rarely done (the only example I can think of is the recent Gap Adventures global nomads project), yet as a travel company launching product for a new destination, advice from a destination expert on which hotels / tours etc. to feature and an introduction / endorsement piece for the collection would go a long way towards building credibility, not to mention the potential PR benefit of the association to the company.
Blogger as Local Expert on Call: In my experience at least 80% of customer interactions in travel are factual and related to things like logistics, availability, prices etc. This is the dull stuff we can leave to one side (and which in all reality should be automated). The other 20% is where the secret sauce comes in – specific destination knowledge, giving advice to customers.
It is expensive for tour operators and travel agencies to have that knowledge in house. This is where an outsouced destination expert could come in.
It is kind of like the Tripbod model. What is interesting is that I see lots of very good writers doing this already for free on Tripadvisor and the LP thorntree (check out the Tripadvisor contributions of Richard Trillo, author of the Rough Guide to Kenya). There must be an opportunity for businesses to tap into this specific knowledge and of course renumerate the expert appropriately.
These are little more than sketches of ideas at the moment, but they seem to demand a little experimentation. What is interesting is that all these require more than just traditional writing skills. Lara wrote about the importance of mastering not just writing, but photography, video and audio – I’d add SEO to that list too. The best thing is that your own blog is the practise ground for all this, so even it isn’t making you money directly, it is your billboard and learning ground.
Ben Colclough is a founder of Tourdust Adventure Travel. Tourdust was set up to help travellers connect with great local operators without having to buy into expensive packaged tours. He writes on the Tourdust blog about adventure travel and the challenges of responsible and green travel. You can follow Ben on Twitter.