In December 2013, I decided that I was going to give blogging a proper go with my travel site Pack Me To. Before that, while I had set up my site and social media, I blogged halfheartedly and sporadically. I wasn’t truly invested in it and the idea of a blog seemed better than the actual writing. But in December, I got together with a couple other bloggers and started hosting a travel link up. It required me to post consistently so that others could participate in the link up. It forced me to focus and to actually put effort into maintaining the site. Since then, it’s been a lot of hits and misses. A lot of experimentation, a lot of late nights and a whole lot of learning. Although I still see a lot more room for growth and development, I’m proud of what I have built in a year.
While I’m specifically writing about my experiences with the travel blogging industry, a lot of these lessons can be applied to other industries and blogging in general. It’s been a lot of trial and error and I still haven’t figured it all out yet, but here are 12 lessons I learned from a year of blogging:
1. Writing is only a part of it
If you want your blog to succeed, you need to treat it like a business or so the saying goes. What surprised me the most about this whole blogging adventure was that writing was only a small portion of it. For every hour spent writing a blog post, I would spend an equal amount of time editing photos, formatting posts, and promoting. It’s shocking how much time I spend scheduling tweets and Facebook updates.
Maintaining a blog is not just about the writing. You need to become a marketer for all the promotions and SEO side of things, an IT help desk for all the behind the scenes web stuff, and then there are the photos so add creative director to the mix as well. If you can’t handle it all, you become HR too when you take on someone to help you. And if you’re making money off your blog, you become the finance and accounts receivable department too. That’s a lot of hats to wear!
I like being hands on and doing things for myself. It helps that I work in marketing and I’m already quite familiar with social media, but there was still a lot to learn. If there is something I don’t know, I start Googling or I ask for help. The only thing I’ve had a bit of help with is on my website (still a WIP), from my totally awesome brother. If you need any web help, give him a shout.
Lesson Learned: Diversify! Learn how to do a variety of different things from social media to finances to IT. There is so much to know and it can be overwhelming, but you can always ask for help.
2. Get Organized STAT!
With everything else that goes with the actual writing part of maintaining a blog, in order to keep everything going, you need to get organized. And get organized well. It’s a question of finding what method works for you and sticking to it. Everyone is different in how they tick. I tried a number of different methods from handwritten to-do lists to phone reminders to printed editorial calendars. Right now I’m trying out Trello to help track all my blog post ideas and where they are in the writing cycle. So far it seems to be working well.
A snapshot of my current Trello dashboard.
An important part of getting organized is having an editorial calendar so you don’t wake up scrambling to put together a blog post. An editorial calendar keeps you on schedule so you always know what is coming up next. You can schedule posts based on the time of year or any special events that come up. A part of this, as mentioned earlier, is generating a list of blog post ideas and then scheduling them out. For bonus points, spend a day or two getting ahead by writing blog posts for when you don’t feel like writing.
I’m still in the process of setting up a weekly schedule of tasks so I know on Monday I need to do these certain tasks and on Tuesday another. This makes sure I don’t miss anything in maintaining the blog and spreading out the workload so I don’t constantly feel overwhelmed.
Lesson Learned: Running a blog is lesson in project management. There are so many things to juggle to keep it going and growing.
3. Network network network
What they say in business is also true in the blogging world. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. One introduction can turn into another and develop into a really cool opportunity. Only networking online is a little different. For example, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to read some of my travel writing this year if I hadn’t met Henry Lee of Fotoeins Fotopress. I met him because I had commented on one of his blog posts on Vancouver. He soon moved back to Vancouver and we connected. You never know what can happen.
With a couple of other local Vancouver bloggers at a production of Bard on the Beach.
I know I’m a relatively small fish in a gigantic ocean of travel bloggers. However, the travel blogging network is one amazing network full of people who are passionate about travel and about sharing their story. It’s pretty cool to get to know these people online and perhaps meet one day them offline at conferences or randomly as we explore the world. It’s nice to know that when I’m pulling my hair out over something to do with SEO, someone else is having the exact same issue and when we put our heads together, a solution is found. Or perhaps someone else can step in with a better answer.
While I specifically know the most about the travel blogging industry, the same can be applied to whatever industry you’re blogging about. All you need to do is do a little hunting and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, why don’t you start one? I’m sure there are plenty of people to bond with who are facing similar situations.
Lesson Learned: Networking is good, you never know who you will meet.
4. It can be easy to get caught up in the networking
With all the benefits of the online networking opportunities, it’s important to not get too caught up in it. There are so many travel blogging groups on Facebook which provide support for travel bloggers from those who are just starting out to the more experienced ones. Here people come to pose questions, give knowledge, and share potential partnership opportunities. It’s a pretty win-win situation and I’ve learned so much from these groups, but at the same time, it can be so easy to get sucked into the drama of it all when individuals misunderstand or misinterpret actions and words. It’s good to participate in these conversations as it shows you as a thought leader and subject matter expert, but don’t let it deter you from what’s most important. Your blog.
Lesson learned: Networking is good, but don’t get too caught up in it.
5. Numbers are just vanity
Who doesn’t like opening up their Facebook fan page and seeing a couple thousand fans? It definitely gives you an ego boost! I’m nowhere near that and I simply don’t care. Sure, I wanted those numbers, but I also want to focus more on the quality of my relationships not the quantity.
It was hard getting into this frame of mind however. At the beginning I was so caught up in all the numbers, constantly checking my Google Analytics, my referrals, and my social media numbers. It didn’t help that I was part of a beginner’s blogging group on Facebook where others boasted about their successes and all their vastly improving numbers whereas mine grew much more slowly. It got to a point where it really became an unhealthy obsession. The worst thing to do is to start comparing yourself to others.
Lesson learned: Numbers are important, but not too important to lose sleep over. Shameless promotion: give me a like on Facebook?
6. Economy of scales works in blogging too
Speaking of numbers, once I realized that I needed to stop chasing numbers and just concentrate on being me things started taking off. While they haven’t grown as much as I would like, I’ve come to realize that people are more likely to hit that “like” button when a bunch of other people have already. You read everywhere that the first 500 are the hardest to get and from there it’s relatively easy sailing. I’ve found this to be more or less true. I stopped promoting so heavily and yet every day my numbers grow.
This also works in terms of blog posts on your site. Your readership and site hits will naturally grow the more content you produce (given that you continue doing your promotion). I wish when I started that I just threw myself into my blog for a couple of months and produced a lot of content very quickly. I definitely had enough travel stories (that will probably continue to go untold until I run out of things to say – they’re from adventures 3+ years ago and I don’t know how relevant they would be now). I would have spent a couple weeks just writing articles before even launching.
Lesson Learned: Kick start your blog with a lot of good posts to establish a base and don’t worry about all the numbers. They will come as you grow.
7. Content is King
What they say is true. Your content, first of all, needs to be good or else no one would read it or share it. Post the best content and best photos. A lot of stuff that I write doesn’t make it onto the blog or if it does, it appears at a much later time and often rewritten. If it’s crappy, it’s okay to scrap it or revisit it in the future.
More importantly, what you write on other people’s blogs is even MORE crucial. This is still an area I’m working on, but writing guest posts is great for getting exposure to an established readership who might not know who you are. Because this is their first interaction with you, it’s even more important to write good, quality original content. Bloggers go on vacation and they look for guest posts. Some blogs have a regular series on a topic that you can pitch a post. A lot of travel blogs have interview series which I’ve participated in as well. Sometimes when I don’t have enough time for a full post, I contribute a tip or photo to a collaborative post.
A lot of people say that blogging, especially travel blogging, is becoming over saturated with blogs starting up every day. I would agree, but so what? Does it really matter? Every person’s individual experiences and stories are their own and that is what makes them unique. Learn to write and share in a way that is personal to you.
Lesson Learned: Be yourself. Produce unique and original content for your blog.
8. Get visual
People love photos. It’s what captures their attention on otherwise a big wall of text. Especially for a travel blog, photos really help to tell your story and transports your reader to where you were. However, not just any photo will do. Photos need to be in focused, large and ideally bright (unless you’re going after a darker mood). You don’t need a big fancy camera either – the best camera is the camera you have with you aka most likely your phone. There are lots of phone apps that can help make your photo look great. I like Snapseed and VSO Cam. Resize them to fit your blog correctly so that your site doesn’t need to spend more time resizing, thus slowing it down. If you can’t take your own photos, there are lots of photos online that can be used copyright free.
Beyond having good photos, make Pinterest your friend. I started making some pinnable images to go with my posts. I posted them to my boards and to a few community boards where they started going viral with some reaching 1000+ repins. This makes Pinterest my biggest referrer of traffic. It completely blows all my other referral traffic out of the water. Even if you’re not writing in a traditionally visual area keep in mind visuals. It’s what makes your content shareable on social networks. Take a look at the Social Media Examiner for example. They always have a pinnable image for their posts which makes it easy to share on Pinterest and all the other social networks as well.
Lesson Learned: People are visual creatures so use that to your advantage. Get started on Pinterest early and pin to community boards. Also, vertical images work so much better than horizontal images on Pinterest.
9. Sign Up for Triberr
Triberr is a Twitter sharing platform. You link your RSS feed to the site, join “tribes” (kind of like communities) and share other people’s writing on your Twitter account. In return, they tweet your content and it’s a win-win situation. Because of Triberr, my Twitter reach has grown exponentially over the past couple months. It does take a little bit to understand the language and how it works, but it is really useful.
A selection of my Triberr Tribes
There are so many categories of blogs on Triberr, you’re sure to find a tribe or two that your blog will fit into. In the coming weeks, I’ll be putting together a how to get started on Triberr post so stay tuned. I go into Triberr about once a week and set up a schedule. While a lot of people dislike automation for social media, in this case, I think it is okay. I can’t be on Twitter 24/7. I’m out going on adventures! This way I know I’m still keeping my Twitter account active even if I’m not fully present.
Lesson Learned: Triberr, while a bit confusing, really helps to increase your Twitter reach.
10. Writing is a work in progress and is constantly in development
I spent a lot of time struggling in terms of how to write for my blog. Previous blog endeavors were mostly read by my friends and family and they took a much more stream of conscious way of storytelling. However, in building Pack Me To, I knew I wanted my stories to be read by others as well, but what was the best way to do it? Take the classic question of a tree falling in the forest and spin it on its head. If you write something on the internet and it’s not crawled by Google, does it get read? How do I juggle writing for SEO and writing for the sake of telling a story?
People love lists. My post popular posts have all generally been lists. They’re easy to write, but I find them so soulless and devoid of personality. I don’t want to turn into Buzzfeed or those other clickbait websites, and yet, I still want people to be able to find my writing. My solution so far for this is to mostly write stories with the occasional list posts – below are two posts that have managed to become popular on Pinterest: one a dreaded list post and the other more story based.
Ultimately I want to write for myself so that 20 years down the road I can still remember the feeling I got when I first arrived in Hong Kong or the time I ended up in the hospital in Slovakia. Everyone else is just along for the ride and if they can benefit and learn from my experiences, then all the better. It’s selfish, but so what? I’m writing Pack Me To for me so Google can suck it.
Then there’s also the fact that I run a travel blog, but most of the year I’m working a full-time job and staying in one location. What’s the point? In the past couple months, I’ve started rebranding myself from an expat to a part-time traveler. I’m still in the transition process so many more lessons to come in this area.
Lesson Learned: There is no right way to write. It’s okay to figure it out along the way. It’s okay to not know everything. Write for Google, but more importantly write for yourself.
11. Hitting publish is one of the hardest things to do
Insecurity is the name of the game it seems – at least for me. I’m still trying to figure out my writing style. I take comfort in writing informational posts. They’re less scary to share as they’re all based on facts. By nature, I’m a pretty private person. Most of my closest friends don’t even know what goes on in my head half the time. I don’t like sharing my inner thoughts and feelings with the whole world. It seems pretty counter-intuitive to have a blog then right?
It’s easy to compile top ten lists and give travel recommendations, but I’ve been trying really hard to get more personal on my blog. After all, people follow along on a blog partially because they find the writer interesting and engaging. Pressing publish on these more personal posts are always so scary, but when I do and I hear from those who have read and understood as well, makes it so much more rewarding.
I remember the first really personal post I put out about my struggles with reverse culture shock, I was terrified of hitting publish. I made all my friends read it first and asked if I was being too harsh. In the end, I received such an outpouring of love and of understanding. I’m still learning how to be more open on my blog.
Lesson Learned: Sharing your inner thoughts with the world is scary and intimidating, but when you do, the response is so amazing and overwhelming.
12. Keep on going
No one wants to discover a blog that is never updated. To build a readership, it’s important to be constantly updating it. By having an editorial calendar and planning ahead, it’s easy to generate content. If you know you’re going on vacation and want to take some time off, let your readers know. It’s okay to take a break sometimes.
However, sometimes the last thing you want to do is be on the computer, write, or even something simple like update social media. I’m of two minds with this. Sometimes you need to just push through it and the act of doing it will get you over the hurdle of non-productivity. Other times you need to take a step back and just chill out.
It also depends on what you want from your blog. If you intend to turn it into a business, then the latter option is definitely not advised. Halfway through my year, I realized that while yes I like writing and yes it would be awesome to make money from my blog, that wasn’t my end goal so I stopped caring about keeping a schedule as much. I still try to post twice a week, but if I miss a day here or there, no biggie. All that matters is I keep going.
Lesson Learned: As Dory says, just keep swimming.
This whole experience the past year has been so humbling. I’m just a girl with a love for traveling, taking photos and writing about it. It is truly incredible that others are interested in what I have to say and in my adventures. It really keeps me inspired to keep on going, to keep exploring and to keep on writing. The journey never ends and there are so many ways to keep improving and learning. Join me as I figure it out?
What lessons have you learned through blogging? What do you wish you knew before you started to blog?