Psst! Here’s the secret to a successful travel blog

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of my series on becoming a successful travel blogger. Here’s part one, part two, part three, part four and part five. Thanks for reading!

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It’s not a lecture. It’s a debate.

That, in a nutshell, is the secret to a successful travel blog.

It’s not about you. It’s about your audience.

This represents a profound shift in the way media is consumed, so I’ll say it again: It’s not about you.

Wait a sec. In the previous sections, didn’t I emphasize being yourself, putting 110 percent of you into the travel blog and writing about your passion? Sure. You’re still the author, and your individuality and enthusiasm will attract readers.

But at the end of the day, you have to understand that true ownership of the blog is with the people who visit it every day.

What does that mean?

• Unlike traditional media, which is driven by an editor or writer who dictates the content, your audience tells you what to cover.

• Your photos, videos and posts are just the beginning of a conversation. Your commenters complete the post with their feedback and analysis.

• You’re accountable to your audience. That means when you screw up, you don’t answer to some “standards” editor who should have retired in the last century; you’re explaining yourself to your audience.

This is a difficult concept for older journalists (um, like me) to wrap their traditional heads around. They are used to lecturing. They tell me, with a completely straight face, that as long as the content is good, it will work online as well as it did offline.

I wish it were so. But as we’re all discovering, a travel blog isn’t an online newspaper or magazine. It’s not even in the same universe. You can be an award-winning journalist in traditional media — and fail miserably in new media.

Century posts

I always get excited when the number of comments on a post hits 100. I call them “century” posts. For me, it means the story was successful, because it drew 100+ comments from my audience; they had more to say about the post than I did. I think that’s the way it should be.

I believe that when you think about your audience first, good things will happen to your travel blog. If you think you’re smarter than your readers (newsflash: you aren’t — the hive mind can always outthink you.) then you can’t succeed at travel blogging. (Remember, it’s not a lecture — it’s a debate!)

In a way, knowing that the blog isn’t really yours is a huge relief. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t need to be an authority on your subject — just be curious. And be yourself.

Take a hard look around and you’ll see that the most successful travel blogs put their readers first. The author gives them a lot of freedom and responds to questions, but most important, there are lots of good, insightful comments. You can also find a lot of travel blogs where there are few comments or where the author has just turned them off. There, you will find failure.

With that in mind, here are a few tips on how to cultivate a community online.

Don’t pretend to know it all. Too often, I see fellow bloggers who still think it’s a lecture pretending they know more than their readers. They don’t. I recommend a more collaborative approach. Add your opinion on a given topic but leave open the possibility that there’s someone out there who knows more and can add to the information you posted.

End each post with a question. But please don’t say, “What do you think?” because a savvy audience knows you’re just trying to draw out commenters. Instead, post the photos, videos and text in such a way that the narrative sparks an intelligent debate. Let me emphasize the “intelligent” part. I have too many posts on my site that devolved into mudslinging fests (“Kids shouldn’t be allowed to fly!” “Yes they should!” “No they shouldn’t!). Ah, well, you can’t get it right 100 percent of the time.

Admit to your shortcomings. Your audience doesn’t want perfection. They want you. So when your best picture is a little out of focus, tell your audience what happened. Did you forget to turn on your autofocus? People love to offer advice in those kinds of situations. You’d be surprised at how understanding they’ll be. You don’t need to be a photography god.

Above all, be curious. Ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid of having more questions than answers. Actually, that’s a good thing. That’s life. A community will form around your inquisitiveness, whether you’re writing about orchids in South Florida or Apres-Ski cocktails in the Austrian Alps. Trust me, it will.

What to do with your community

A vibrant online community can sustain your travel blog in hard times and make it stand out the rest of the time. In a previous section, I referred to them as your extended family. That’s not hyperbole. I truly love my commenters, each and every one, and the most painful emails I get aren’t from editors who have fired me — of which I’ve received my fair share — but from commenters who say they’re done reading my blog. That hurts.

When you’re running a successful travel blog, you’ll exert some influence over the fine folks who call themselves your audience. Use that power for good. For example, if you’re running a blog about orchids and travel, why not encourage your followers to join the Sierra Club and do something to save the vanishing habitats of the flowers you love? If you’re writing about family travel, why not encourage your readers to lobby their governments for education reform?

A successful travel blog can be so much more than the old media that preceded it. A travel blog can be a source of information, but it can also be a community that changes the way people think about a subject. It can be as much yours as it is theirs — a truly collaborative effort of like-minded people.

It’s filled with apparent contradictions, too. It’s about you, but it’s also about them. It’s often a lecture, at least when you push “publish” on the first post, but it’s always a debate. It’s journalism, but it’s not journalism.

Strangely, that’s what makes travel blogging so irresistible. It can’t always be explained. There is no rulebook for travel blogging, and there never will be.

Don’t you love it?

(Photo from Flickr/Creative Commons)

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