Today is the first anniversary of Hack My Trip. I’ve seen several other travel blogs start since launching mine, with varying levels of success. I’ve spoken with more established leaders in this field. I’ve also had a few readers approach me with questions about starting their own blogs.
I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. For those of you who dream of a life of luxurious travel and working at home… let’s just say I almost make as much as I used to as a poor graduate student. Even so, I’ve learned a lot about myself, how to work with other people, and other invaluable lessons.
But seriously, things are always looking up. Much as this blog is meant to share tricks I learned about travel, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of the things I wish I’d known about blogging. Maybe a few I already guessed, but I’ve learned how important they are.
Stand Out from the Crowd
There are too many travel blogs out there already. That doesn’t mean yours doesn’t have a place, but it will be hard to get noticed. You need to have some idea of how your blog will be unique so it attracts readers who would otherwise be satisfied with established blogs or those who haven’t yet found a blog interesting to them.
There are lots of “deal” blogs. There are lots of “free points from credit cards” blogs. There are lots of “reimbursed business traveler” blogs. I felt there were fewer people writing about how they paid for most of it themselves. I don’t know how well I’ve continued to fulfill that message, but it’s the goal.
At the same time, not all travel blogs are really about travel as you might imagine it. PointsEnvy doesn’t really share any useful information about finding cheap fares or accumulating points and miles, but the satire is hilarious and speaks to the same target audience.
- What do you want to write about?
- What makes you unique?
- Is there enough to write about on a regular basis?
Network and Build Trust
A lot of how you manage to stand out from the crowd depends on the people you know. I was very active on MilePoint for nine months before starting my blog, which I think helped me get some early exposure. It didn’t hurt that MilePoint and BoardingArea are owned by the same people. A few BoardingArea bloggers encouraged Randy Petersen to bring me on, and that led to even more traffic.
But this blog remains a hobby, and no amount of money makes it worthwhile if it stops being fun. Randy is a great guy to work with and makes things as painless as possible. I tried to keep the same spirit when Amol started writing for Hack My Trip. I told him to write whenever, whatever he wanted, and I’d try to make it worth his while. My third major financial relationship is with my credit card affiliate manager, and it’s like night and day comparing her to my previous manager at another firm.
- Contracts have their merits, but work with people where you wouldn’t mind relying on a handshake.
- Go to meetings and events. I’m an introvert, but I still make an effort.
- Share freely, and others will return the favor.
Understand How the Internet Works
WordPress is a great way to manage a blog because it makes it simple to create a professional-looking website in a minimal amount of time while still tracking static pages and regular posts. It’s about as easy as writing an email. But since plain black type on a page is boring, there are a lot of things you can customize or add on to make it more appealing and attract readers.
Pay $30 to $80 for a premium theme, which often has better support and documentation. I use a theme from StudioPress, which lets me write in whenever I have questions on how to do something. I have minimal computer programming skills, but through trial and error (and Google) I’ve also learned a lot about how my theme works so I know what is and isn’t possible. If you look back at the default and what I have now, there is a significant difference.
Just because it’s up doesn’t mean it’s optimized. Learn to use Google’s Webmaster and Analytics tools to make your pages more likely to turn up in search results, which produce 20% or more of my daily traffic. Plug-ins make some things easier but also weigh it down. The design of WordPress basically recreates your entire blog from scratch each time a page is loaded.
- Get your own domain name to improve search traffic. That plus a year of GoDaddy’s unlimited hosting and a premium theme costs only $150.
- Learn to read and write code, even if just a little.
- Customize your site so it doesn’t look like everyone else’s.
- Social media is a great way to expand your reach, but you actually need to use it. Don’t set it and forget it
Finally, Stop Worrying
There are a lot of things to worry about: How will I make money at this? How many people will actually read the blog? What the hell am I doing?
But I’ve found that I became more successful once I stopped caring. I used to try mimicking a few things I saw other successful bloggers do. Then I saw them mimicking me. Both were annoying, but around November I decided I’d just write whatever I want. Apparently that was smart because traffic continues to increase at the same rate with less work. The most regular compliment I get from readers is that my blog is “different.”
There are lots of people who want to sell me stuff, whether it’s a marketing platform to gain new readers or “free” content so they can link back to their own site. I refuse all of these offers. Assuming they work, if I gain 1,000 readers overnight, I won’t know how to handle them. I try to focus on writing a good blog and responding to readers quickly, hoping the rest will take care of itself.
Money. There is a lot of grief on this topic. My primary means of making money is display advertising, courtesy of BoardingArea. You don’t have to click on the ads, but I get a penny every time the page loads. I figure this is harmless. Credit cards are more complicated. My philosophy is if I’m going to talk about them in an appropriate and useful context, I might as well get a commission should you apply.
But regardless of your strategy, issuers want you to have a minimum number of sales to keep you on. It’s taken me a year of building traffic and while I can finally see the relaxing beer garden on the horizon, I am still not quite there. Don’t start a blog thinking you’ll get rich off credit cards; you have to get big first before they let you in the game.
- Traffic follows good content. There are lots of ways to be “good,” but realize people have to want to read what you write.
- Ignore those who try to ride your coattails. Say “yes” to new opportunities, but learn to smell a rotten deal.
- Money is a bad motivation to start a blog. If you do a good job, you’ll probably be able to find a way to get paid for it. Be patient.
So that’s it, I’m off my soapbox now. I thought I should find some way to mark the occasion. Feel free to send me any more questions about starting a blog. And to the rest of you, thanks for making this a great year!
P.S. Did you notice you can click on my logo now and it takes you back to the homepage? I still haven’t really fixed the problem, but I did find a sneaky workaround. One more benefit of learning just a little bit of web design.