How to become a travel blogger in 7 easy steps

Editor’s note: This is an online version of a seminar I’m giving at the The Travel Bloggers Show in Orlando tomorrow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb. Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

How do you become a travel blogger?

It’s a question I get almost every week. To which I usually respond, “How would I know? I’m a consumer advocate.”

But like some of the consumer advocates who came before me, including the ubiquitous Clark Howard, I think some readers will probably always think of me as a travel guy. And since I’ve been involved in new media since 1994, the blogger label isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, either.

So how do I do it? When I was asked to speak about this subject at a recent conference, the organizers wanted me to summarize it in seven easy steps.

I think I’ll start at the end.

What does a successful blog look like? I believe there are two key ingredients: profit and participation.

And here’s what I mean by that: First, you’re making money, and are able to earn a living by selling advertising or ebooks. And second, you have an engaged and active readership. And by engaged, I don’t just mean that they’re commenting, but they are also full participants in our democracy.

For those of you with short attention spans, here are the seven steps:

1. Find a topic.
2. Get the tools.
3. Become a reporter.
4. Connect with audience.
5. Make money.
6. Become an influencer.
7. Turn it into a franchise.

Got that? Let’s go through them one by one.

1. Find a topic. There are more than 133 million blogs out there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a good percentage of them were travel blogs, or had at least a travel component to it. Talk about having competition!

It’s not as bad as it sounds. But once you weed out the wannabes and the ghost blogs — the blogs that have been abandoned a long time ago — the number shrinks. In the travel space, there are at best 500 blogs that are updated regularly and are worth paying attention to.

So the first question you have to ask yourself is: How do you differentiate yourself? What is the one thing you do better than anyone else? What are you an expert at?

Everyone is an expert at something.

Drill down. For example, if you’re a business traveler, you may know a lot about every aspect of the travel experience. So do a lot of other really good bloggers. But what do you know the most about? Is it a particular loyalty program? A destination? Maybe you’re good at strategies, like getting an upgrade.

Write about that.

But be careful. Make sure it’s a topic you — and your readers — are not easily bored by. Because once your blog catches on, you’ll need to keep writing about it, day after day. (There’s a reason one of the most popular blogs is called “The Daily Beast.”)

How I did it: I had the luxury of starting in 1996. If you want to get an idea of what my site looked like back then, go to the Internet archive. Yeah, that was me. Can you believe I ever looked that young? Anyway, you’ll notice that I was all over the map, in terms of topics. I also called myself “The Last Honest Travel Site” which didn’t go over very well with the other trave bloggers.

Over time, I found that consumer advocacy was what I did best, so I focused on that. Interestingly, the consumer advocacy is taking me beyond travel. I’ve just launched a site called On Your Side that helps consumers.

2. Get the tools. The tools you need are remarkably simple. Everyone has access to a computer and an Internet connection, right? That’s 90 percent, right there. The other 10 percent is making a few decisions about the rest of the technology.

The decisions, as I see them are:

Content management systems. If you’re a serious blogger, it’s really a choice between WordPress and Movable Type. Both are free, and they can be customized. I have used both, and I like WordPress the best. There are other blogging platforms that can do the trick, including Blogger and Posterious. My advice: Stick to WordPress.

Journalism tools. That includes cameras, audio recording equipment, video cameras, etc. Not going to get into that too much here, because it’s such an individual choice. I’ve always erred on the side of spending more. So instead of, say, Garage Band for my audio, I’ll use Pro Tools.

Coding. If you publish online, and you don’ have a computer background, you’ll find yourself in the weeds before long, obviously. It helps to have a good programmer who can help you navigate through this jungle. I found my last programmer on Craigslist. My advice is to find someone who is not a friend, or a friend of a friend. That way, if he – or she – doesn’t work out, it won’t be anything personal.

How I did it: I started off coding myself in HTML 1, back in 1994. There was a book called HTML in a Day, and you could literally learn markup in a few hours. But about a decade ago, it became pretty clear that I couldn’t do it alone and needed some coding help. If you compare the relatively simple markup language of the mid-90s with some of the JavaScript, or even the advanced HTML, you’ll see why. I found it was easier to focus on the things I do best — writing and reporting — and leave the coding to the experts.

3. Become a reporter. Blogging is journalism. It’s journalism 2.0. It is the future of journalism. You will be writing or broadcasting your information to a potential audience of millions, even billions or users.

Here’s a neat thing, incidentally. Before blogging, you had to jump through hoops to be recognized as a journalist. You had to go to journalism school and get hired at a newspaper or TV station. But today, the barriers to entry have been lowered. Now, it’s the people — the folks reading your blogs — who determine if you’re a journalist.

Wow. That’s pretty profound if you think about it. The people say who is a journalist. And because they read blogs, they are in effect saying you, if you have a blog, you are a journalist.

Let’s go over some of the journalism tools you’ll need.

Sources. If you’re an expert, you’re the main source. But you have friends, don’t you? You hear things. Build a network, and reinforce it with a good RSS feed stocked with the top blogs in your industry.

An editor. Everyone needs an editor – a second set of eyes to read your posts or a producer who can listen to your podcast and make sure it’s engineered right.

Creativity. At some point in the process, you’ll be done writing about your business. You’ll say to yourself, “That’s it, there’s nothing left to cover.” Oh, but there is! Look inside, and you’ll find there are a thousand different ways of writing about the same topic over and over. Your audience is counting on you, as I’ve already mentioned. Don’t let them down.

How I did it: One thing I’ve discovered is that blogging isn’t the same thing as journalism. For example, in print journalism, we have a model for news stories called the inverted pyramid. Basically, you put the most important facts in the lead – the who, what, when, where, why and how – followed by the rest of the story. The least important material goes at the bottom, in case it needs to be cut.

In blogging, you need to be brief and to the point. It’s all important. Your post is the de facto lead. You get all the important stuff at the beginning and then you let your commenters come in and fill out the rest of the story with their own analysis, opinion and feedback. In other words, a post without comments is not a complete story. It’s a headless beast.

4. Connect with an audience. Thanks to something called social networking, we can easily find one. But first, a word about search. I get more than one-third of my visits through Google, Bing and Yahoo. Writing something interesting and unique and paying attention to search engine optimization (SEO) are key. For SEO, my biggest boost came from using a well-coded theme. I currently use a premium theme called Thesis, which is highly customizable, but there are many others out there that will do the trick.

Not so long ago – about 2005 – it was really hard to compete against a big media organization online unless you could buy a mailing list or had some viral content. Social media leveled the playing field. Today, it’s possible to leverage tools like Digg, Facebook and Twitter, to get your posts in front of a wide audience.

These are the most effective for my money, along with a brief explanation of how it works:

StumbleUpon – Your network of friends recommends sites that you “stumble” upon. It can send tens of thousands of clicks to your site.

Digg – Digg a story, get your friends to dig it. Before long, it’s on the front page of Digg, and you’re getting 30,000 visits. What a rush!

Facebook – Not so good for driving traffic, but excellent for source development and feedback on individual posts. As a blogger, this is your focus group.

Reddit– Another popularity contest online. It’s a lot easier to get Reddit “love” (meaning attention) than from Digg. The quality of the visitor is so-so, but I find it’s still worth the effort.

Twitter – This microblogging site can drive some traffic, but if you’re a blogger, this is where you’ll get instant feedback on posts and also news tips. Definitely worth belonging.

Incidentally, you’ll want to burn an RSS feed through Feedburner and enable email delivery. That will give you an instant newsletter without the hassle of having to set up an expensive email program.

How I do it: I participate in Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and LinkedIn. Please friend me and I will be sure to throw some additional tips about blogging your way.

By the way, spending a lot of time on social networks can suck up a lot of your time. I recommend a good browser plug-in to make things move a little faster. I use Shareaholic but there’s also Add This and Share This.

5. Make money. I’ve seen a lot of different revenue models in online publishing. No two are exactly the same.

Generally speaking, here’s how it breaks down:

Advertisers/sponsors – Since I’m a dot-org, I like to use the PBS “underwriter” model. It keeps things simple, and since I really am about public service, it is also accurately describes what I do. You can use banners, graphics, text ads – whatever you do, these are the anchors of your revenue model.

Adsense – Google’s context ads are a no-brainer. You put them up and, after a little tweaking, they just bring in the revenues consistently every month. I also use a service called Conductor.com.

Banner ads – You can use Google’s or a service like Travel Ad Network.

Ebooks – No one gives away their writing when they blog. They’re either posting their writing on spec and selling ads against it, or they’re selling their work outright. Do a quicky book, sell it online. Full disclosure: I plan to post this presentation online and develop it into an ebook.

Syndication – Sadly, this isn’t a growing market, but if you are a serious content developer, you’ll want to consider it. It involves selling your content to a third party which distributes it to various publications. I’m syndicated through Tribune Media Services.

Of course, no one is going to advertise without good traffic. Let’s jump back to the topic of SEO. Here are few tools that have been helpful to me. It helps to know what people are searching for and what they’re finding when they go to your site.

Google Webmaster Tools lets you find out what people are searching for when they visit your blog. You want to pair that with the Google Keyword Tool, which tells you what people are searching for online, to give you an idea of what people are looking for.

Don’t pander too much. You’ll just end up frustrated. Here’s what I mean: I used Google Hot Trends, which is another helpful tool, to find out what people were searching for this morning (Sept. 11, 2010) and used every keyword in this post. It didn’t do much for my traffic. It’s better to use the information to guide you, but don’t let it set your editorial agenda.

If you do write to increase search engine recognition, it’s best to avoid the really popular keywords. That’s too much work. Instead, focus on some of the medium-range terms have less competition.

6. Become an influencer. This is where picking the right topic is really useful. I chose travel in 1991, and it’s been very good to me. But I didn’t stay a generalist for very long. I covered several destinations – Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, Alaska. Then business travel. Then I honed in on consumer advocacy.

If you want to be an influencer, you need to choose your topic with care and don’t be afraid of where it might take you. If you had told me, when I was a cub reporter at Travel Weekly, that I’d end up running the complaints desk, I would have laughed at you. But it’s what I’ve become. Not overnight, though.

There are a few ways to become an influencer:

Have something interesting or novel to say. Zigging when everyone else zags is an excellent way to get noticed.

Being recognized by other influential bloggers or mainstream media. You may think that awards are stupid. I do. But people pay attention to them.

Having a viral video or blog post. A ton of traffic means a lot of people are looking at you, and that makes you an influencer.

Having a lot of friends. If you’ve got more than 50,000 Twitter followers, 5,000 Facebook friends, and are routinely making the front page of Digg, you da man. You don’t need me to tell you that you’re an influencer.

Traffic. Anything over 5,000 unique visits a day is respectable. 10,000 uniques a day puts you in the big leagues.

How do you know if you’ve arrived? Here are a few sites that will show you how you’re doing.

Klout.com shows you how you rank on Twitter.

Technorati.com is a measure of how influential your blog is.

Alexa.com offers a traffic ranking of your site.

Compete.com ranks traffic and lets you compare your site to another.

Yahoo Site Explorer – Shows links back to your site from other blogs.

Influence is a relative thing. I’m not overly impressed with my scores on these ranking sites, and yet for some reason, people think I have some influence. I guess being served with a Department of Homeland Security subpoena and a high-profile defamation suit in the last year doesn’t hurt. Neither have the handful of controversial stories that landed me in hot water (and have gotten me fired).

I should say that I have no regrets – none whatsoever – about what I’ve done. The things I did, I did for my readers. In my case, I think that whatever influence I have, I have because I’m willing to put my audience first. And that includes risking my career to bring you a story that I think is important.

7. Turn it into a franchise.

So what now? You’re rich, famous and successful. Remember at the beginning, how I said it was about profits and participation? Well, we’ve talked an awful lot about profits, because without them, we don’t eat.

But how about participation? And by participation, I don’t just mean allowing comments; I mean civic engagement. The other day I saw a friend’s Twitter profile, and under “location” he had “I’m traveling.” I found that disappointing. We all belong somewhere.

You may travel a lot, but as a blogger, you represent a defined constituency, with certain interests. As more people look to bloggers to fulfill the roles that used to be done by traditional journalists, it is incumbent that we rise to the occasion. Folks, we have a civic duty. We are part of a greater community.

We have to take care of our readers, encourage them to participate in our democracy. Some of you are not Americans, and your duties as bloggers are no different. You are an important part of your community.

I think when you connect with your community at that basic level, then you have really become all you can be as a blogger. You’re serving your readers. You are urging them to be good citizens.

The promises of blogging beyond your single-author blog are endless. You can become a part of a network or create your own network. You can spin off your blog into one or two or more sites. You can help other online journalists develop theirs.

I think then, and only then, you will have found your place in this world as a travel blogger. Many great journalists and publications have walked the path that you’re taking. We in new media not only have the potential to live up to their high standards – we can achieve beyond what they could have ever imagined.

So to summarize. Now you know …

• How to find a topic. You need to follow your passion.

• You also know how to get the tools to blog, remembering to keep things simple.

• Blogging is reporting, and we went over some of the reporting tools that are required.

• We also discussed how to connect with an audience, using things like social media.

• All of that leads to becoming an influencer. We talked about ways of doing that with new media.

• And then the future. Yes, it’s money and influence, but for a lot of bloggers its going to pay the rent and influence people to do good.

Note: I am developing this post into an ebook. Any suggestions in the comments will be included in the final draft. Thank you for the feedback.

(Photo: Kristina/Flickr Creative Commons)

%d bloggers like this: