Travel Bloggers & Travel Businesses – A topic that won’t go away

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.

2010_TBCamp10_by_Happy_Hotelier__MG_7606In 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 ColcloughBen 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.

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19 Responses to “Travel Bloggers & Travel Businesses – A topic that won’t go away”

  1. Some great thoughts here – great content ultimately is a differentiator for travel companies. I feel the issue for many to overcome (on both sides) is one of control and payment. I expect more companies though will experiment in how to engage bloggers to write content for them, both paid directly and/or a relationship where in return for access to travel experiences (maybe free, maybe discounted) the blogger provides local expert knowledge as an endorser/curator of those services.

    February 25, 2011 at 10:47 am
  2. Bingo. This is somewhat along the lines of what Andy and I were alluding to at Travel Blog Camp. For good writers, it’s not about making money from your own blog, but showcasing your skills and ability to attract and audience to travel companies and publications that want content to make their site distinctive.

    My blog makes me at most £1,000 a year. But the money it has indirectly with work elsewhere (Vtravelled, Roundtheworldflights.com, Viator, the odd contribution elsewhere) has been seriously useful.

    For a travel business, it makes screamingly logical sense to track down a social media-savvy writer who broadly fits with what you sell, and then employ them to add that 20% of special sauce to your site.

    February 25, 2011 at 10:53 am
  3. Ben,

    I was one of those initial suckers who thought making a blog would at least be somewhat profitable. I didn’t expect it to cover my travel costs, but it would be nice to see a little income here and there from it. While I’d still like to make that happen on some level, the blog has become somewhat of a project in-and-of itself. I use it like you discuss above, to practice my SEO, WordPress and HTML skills while teaching myself how to write better and share my photography with others.

    I do hope to develop a skill set that will lead to something down the road, but for now I’m content to continue my travels without the pressure of running a full time blog. I try and post when I can, but the travel is the priority for me, with photography 2nd and the writing third. I know something will come of it all, but I feel I have to keep trying different things here and there that work for me and my current lifestyle and motivational level.

    I must admit, however, I’d love to be at the level others are at but also know how much hard work has gone into getting them to that point.

    Thanks for the post!

    -Travis

    February 25, 2011 at 10:53 am
  4. Excellent post Ben. Those are 3 solid roles that bloggers can play. I hope to see more fruitful relationships developing between travel bloggers and travel companies/tourism boards whereby travel bloggers endorse a product/destination. In this sense, there’s a lot that travel bloggers can do to build their personal brand and their following to make it attractive for companies to recruit them for a product endorsement.

    February 25, 2011 at 11:01 am
  5. Nice article Ben!

    Some good ideas you have there. I really like that Google is taking social media more serious in their search results… Don’t ask me why! ;-)

    I agree that most bloggers won’t make a high enough income to be able to live from it. But I think that many are just blogging for fun. So if you can make some extra money on the side… Great!

    For the ones who want to earn more, I think a blog is your marketing/selling platform. Only if you have hundred thousands & more visitors per month, you could make a good income via banners. But it’s a lot of extra work to get the prizes which bigger sites charge. They get up to €65 cpm & a relatively good blogger would get maybe… $20 cpm? A huge different & a bit unfair, as we always speak about 1000 site impressions. A blog usually got a target group, so they should be easily able to charge more.

    If people would know how much their blog would be really worth for advertisers, they would charge more. But as many just do it as hobby, they charge way too less and are happy with what they get.

    So with the usual marketing prices, more bloggers would be able to blog full time.

    February 25, 2011 at 11:43 am
  6. Melvin – alas, that ‘target group’ is often other travel bloggers…

    February 25, 2011 at 12:15 pm
  7. I should disclose my own interest here as I write for Ben’s Tourdust blog, but I agree that his post offers some valuable pointers for bloggers to make a business from their writing beyond an advertising based model. Whatever the merits of Melvin’s point about bloggers having a niche market that advertisers could benefit from, the sheer number of bloggers trying to take scraps from the same bowl will mean that revenue opportunities from selling space/links on blogs are not looking good for the future.

    What bloggers can really use to their advantage, as Ben pinpoints, is their ability to create and promote content to a wide audience using their skills on Twitter/Facebook/Stumble etc. Most travel companies are still in the dark here and most have no plans to develop these skills in-house. If someone is able to provide those companies with good content and can show a proven record of being able to spread that content effectively, they can add real value to those companies – and charge accordingly.
    The advertising model is not dead – but I suspect anyone looking to make a full-time living on those revenues alone is in for a hard time.

    February 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm
  8. Thanks for all the comments. Regarding David and Melvin’s comments, I am afraid I have to side with David. Rightly or wrongly my intuition tells me that a large proportion of travel blog traffic is coming from other bloggers.

    As far as I can tell advertisers pay high CPM for one of three things. (1) Access to a huge scale audience e.g. on yahoo. (2) Some kind of brand building association e.g. on GQ or (3) highly relevant traffic preferably with a transactional mindset. Additionally most of the advertisers willing to pay the high CPMs will only look at huge volume sites as they are looking for big results and it is costly to deal with lots of small sites.

    But,… if a blogger is willing to invest in building highly relevant transactional traffic (for example by focusing on specific destination or theme content) and is willing to put some legwork into selling for example listings and special advertising rates to companies in that sector then sure that could work.

    February 25, 2011 at 1:42 pm
  9. Excellent article, Ben, with several good take-aways that I’ll be considering. And I agree with your last comment. Developing a niche, hopefully one that isn’t over-populated such as backpacking, helps grow your brand and authority, which then attracts paying business propositions.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:10 pm
  10. @David & @Ben If you look at regular blogs, yes you are right. The other bloggers leave their comments. They know how the game runs… But if you have a blog with let’s say 100.000 & more unique visitors… these can’t be all travel bloggers. ;-)

    I would even say that with having 30.000 unique visitors, that there won’t be even half of them travel bloggers!

    And even if… who cares? Companies who advertise on travel blogs are interested to reach travelers. So travel bloggers are definitely also their target!

    Sure, a tour company won’t target for a proffesional blogger to sell his trips, but hobby bloggers should be of interest. They should be of high interest, as they would blog about their trip.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:22 pm
  11. Very interesting reads, comments too. The way most travel bloggers make a living from their site (and this is but a handful) is by having a network of sites. They maintain a flagship blog and then have several other static sites that rank highly for specific keywords, which leads to ad revenue.

    This article will also add to the conversation: http://www.traveling-savage.com/2011/02/17/model-travel-writing-lara-dunston-spills-grantourismo/

    February 25, 2011 at 5:51 pm
  12. Ben, These are very well-directed and focused observations. I’ll be keeping this close at hand as we proceed with our nascent venture in blogging and services. This fits well (and fills it out nicely) with advice that Keith of Velvet Escape offers new bloggers. Thank you for presenting it in such an accessible way.

    February 25, 2011 at 6:31 pm
  13. I get lots of emails from travel companies’ agencies offering me “free” content which contains a couple of links back to their clients sites. I’m not interested in this for 2 reasons.

    I prefer to produce unique, original content in-house.
    Getting a free post is not a good trade off for a couple of free permanent links

    February 27, 2011 at 1:04 pm
  14. Ben raises some very valid points, but at the end of the day, if you’re (a) a talented writer and (b) have got enough knowledge/expertise to write about a specific destination in enough detail that you’re an attractive to a company in the first place, then (c) you CAN make money and you should be building your own online presence, not the presence of someone else.

    Just as there are many ways to shave a cat, there are many ways to monetise a blog. Sure there is CPM advertisers and Adsense etc, but there’s also a variety of affiliate deals (tours/hotels/travel insurance etc) that any targetted travel site should be able to avail themselves of. And just to digress for a sec is there a typo involved in that €65 cpm figure in the comments up above?!

    February 27, 2011 at 1:38 pm
  15. Karen, I agree that by accepting guest posts that are flimsy link vehicles do little to enhance a site. It might appear an easy way to make a bit of revenue and keep the site updated but at what cost to the regular readers?
    I accept occasional posts but only from people I know personally and only if I enjoy the material – and it is never for any reward other than promoting an interesting article.
    Stuart, I’ll leave it for others to come back on the €65 figure – seems high to me but maybe it’s true? Either way, as you and others have pointed out there are many models for making money through blogging, and I suspect the next few years will reveal a few more as the travel industry continues to evolve in its marketing and in its demand for content.

    February 27, 2011 at 2:57 pm
  16. Good points Ben and interesting comments!

    We’ve built a large and diverse audience which I think is the first key, plus having a unique voice and story. We don’t get many travel bloggers but we DO get many people with a passion for travel. Unlike most travel writers or travel bloggers we are also Youtube Partners ( we were asked by THEM years ago) and have had many viral Youtube videos which is a big advantage with Google and something sponsors appreciate ( as well as a strong social media presence).

    I think the smart blogger uses his blog and website as a platform for MANY things. That can work differently for different people. You point out some good possibilities Ben and there are many more like selling your own products or books, working directly with various sponsors, public speaking, consultation fees, etc.

    But as David points out some of the benefits of blogging are not only about the money made off the blog itself. Just as there are advantages for writing for the “illustrious Huffington Post” for “free” ( I’ve been writing there before they had a travel section) there are many “value” advantages of writing a travel blog that may not be obvious at first glance.

    I could do a lot more paid writing for others, but I don’t, partly because we are too busy actually traveling and demonstrating a new 21st century “home in motion” way of living and I prefer the benefits of being a publisher… that comes with blogging.

    February 27, 2011 at 6:40 pm
  17. Great comments by all.

    @Stuart @Keith (travelling savage) – I tend to agree with both of you. It is possible to make money as a publisher, but like you say, it helps if you look beyond simply carrying cpm ads. Affiliate deals or running a couple of exact match domains is a great way to generate real revenue from self publishing your content (and a great way to learn) . Stuart is a great example of making a business out of writing, but I don’t doubt for a second that Travelfish is a business and not a hobby blog (I mean that as a compliment)

    @Jeanne – Without doubt you run an incredibly successful blog and youtube presence. I just think there is literally a handful of blogs running at your level (e.g. yourselves, Matt Kepnes and Gary Arndt) amd I don’t think it is that realistic that others can expect to emulate that success. One or two might combine a lot of luck with a lot of perseverance to make it, but it is a bit like aspiring to be a film star or pop star.

    February 28, 2011 at 10:11 am
  18. I like the common sense tone here. And I’m one of those bloggers that got picked up by a travel company to write about their destination. (Can I link? Is that kosher? It’s Travel Wild. I write for their blog — yes, they pay me — and now that I’ve actually been to their destination, I’ll write some supporting materials too.

    I make very little money from Nerd’s Eye View, certainly not enough to live on. And I’m devoted to narrative, which is a poet’s niche, and offers even less chance to make money as an independent blogger. But my site does showcase my work and brings opportunities my way that either pay in opportunity or (my favorite) cold, hard, cash.

    March 13, 2011 at 3:18 pm
  19. Thanks Pam and congrats on the Travel Wild business. Looks like an exciting project. Like you say, actually visiting the destinations you write about makes a massive difference to the richness of the resulting content.
    Payment by opportunity is valuable only up to a certain point. Opportunity doesn’t pay the bills and like you I value the work that makes a difference to my bank account first and foremost. It will be interesting to see how the demand for writing takes shape in the next year or two. I’m sure more bloggers will be offered nice trips in exchange for writing, but I’m also confident that more paid opportunities will arise from all sides of the travel industry to provide good content and to promote it.

    March 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm