How to make money as a Travel Blogger

  • This article is a digest of a presentation given recently at the Affiliate Window bloggers event in London, organised by Aga Marchewka.

    The first thing to realise is that compared to other blogs, it's relatively hard to make a living from a travel blog.

    I have had 12 years experience of making money – or not in many cases - from online travel writing: first at Travel Intelligence, lately at World Reviewer and the Hotel Guru, and also through our travel ad network, Adnet, and its offshoot Affiliate Widgets. We have used CPC, CPM, CPA, CPL; subscriptions, listing fees, sponsorship and pay per call; booking fees and direct booking services; in text links, email newsletters and competitions. We have left no stone unturned. The truth is, most of these stones rest on rocky soil.
  • The Problems with Travel Blogs

    The main driver behind creating value as a blogger, and hence revenue, is influence – in order for a blogger to earn revenue, they need to be able to influence buying decisions. But compared to say, a fashion blogger, or a consumer electronics blogger, a travel blogger has a hard time, because in travel, a consumer will visit up to 20 different travel sites before making a decision, and the eventual purchase will come an average of 10 days – in many cases much longer – from his or her initial travel planning. Buying a holiday is a much more complex and more drawn out process than buying a dress or a camera, and typically involves more than one decision maker.

    Why I am I saying this? Because the advertisers in travel – tour operators, hotels, flight companies – can only value bloggers in so far as they can increase their sales by acting as a gateway to those sales, and in travel, the further you are from the transaction, the harder it is to demonstrate influence, especially when most affiliate networks work on the 'last click cookie' model. Travel blogs are typically up at the top of the funnel – their visitors are planning travel, getting inspired, reading about destinations, seeking advice. Seldom are they in booking mode.

    The sites that benefit most in that scenario are the price comparison engines, the voucher code sites, the retargeting ad networks, and the paid-for search results from SE's like Google. In any discussion of monetising travel blogs, this is the big 'elephant in the room'. It does not just affect CPA, because if you are running CPC or CPM campaigns, you still have to demonstrate value to keep the advertiser coming back for more. If you can't make a direct, linear connection to a confirmed booking, it can be an uphill struggle to persuade the advertiser to keep spending their pounds or dollars.

    So we need to look at ways to maximise the influence you can have as a blogger, with these handicaps in mind.

    Find a Niche

    The first and most obvious way is to specialise. Many many bloggers start off by blogging about their gap year, or their trip round the world – all very nice for them but :

    a) is anyone interested? And
    b) any influence they might have is very diluted. Inevitably they will only have a limited number of posts to devote to any one destination or activity.

    If they are really good writers – witty, amusing, inciteful - they will get a following, whatever they write about. But they have to be good as well as lucky. A far better strategy is to specialise in a niche – write about how to get cheap airfares, or about cycling holidays, or diving, or train travel or any other niche of travel you may have a passion for. Be obsessive about your niche, and seek to be THE expert in that niche. Sure, blog your wider travels too, but make the focus of your blog much tighter. In this way, when people are researching train trips, or cycling holidays, your blog will be well optimised for train travel or cycling, and readers will value your opinions and guidance because you clearly know more than most people out there. Advertisers will value you too.

    Develop a Personality

    The second part of this strategy is to concentrate on developing a personality in your writing. At a recent blog camp, Andy Jarosz (501places) posed the question – do you need to write well to become a successful blogger? Perhaps he said it tongue in cheek – I suspect so – but to me, that's a crazy question. The implication was that you could churn out any old crap and follow an SEO strategy and optimise your blog around certain keywords and then earn ad revenues from the traffic you attract – after all, search engines don't know the difference between good and bad writing. This, however, is a really short term strategy and won't attract any advertiser except those who have no idea they are appearing on your blog. Nor will readers bother to come back. Check your stats – do you have a high bounce rate and a very high proportion of new visitors? If this persists and does not improve over time, get another job.

    Attract Direct Advertising

    To make money, you will eventually need to be able to attract decent advertisers or sponsors direct as well as via the networks. Our own ad serving service, Adnet, allows you to display and contextualise any advertiser you like, whether sold direct or sourced via the networks, and you can even earn money from serving your own ads across other blogs and websites on our network.

    So you need to be able to develop a niche advertisers are interested in, great writing that will attract a loyal following, and a personality that can translate into non-blog activities. For example have you noticed how in the last few years we have begun to see more and more bloggers presented as 'experts' on radio and TV shows? You are very unlikely to be invited on as an expert in 'Round the world Gap year travel', but as an obsessive blogger about budget airline fares, you could soon be in demand. The more 'mainstream' your niche, the better chance you have. If you can develop a public expertise, then the whole game shifts – people will start to look for you and your blog and you will no longer have to rely on attracting them solely through the search engines.

    Social Media

    As well as a public profile, you also need to develop all the other social media channels, as well as comment extensively on other people's blogs and on other media sites that relate to your niche. But then of course you know all that already, and I'm sure you are doing it.

    Successful and Unsuccessful Travel Blogs

    Here at Adnet we provide contextual advertising to a whole series of blogs as well as major travel sites – and some of this is sourced via the affiliate networks like Affiliate Window on a CPA basis, and some is on a CPC or CPM basis. We are able to analyse which ones are successful and which not, and why. In many cases we see very low click through rates, (and by low I mean CTRs of 0.1%) and when we analyse them to see why, it's always those blogs that are general interest travel blogs. This means their readers are not at all targeted, nor are they anywhere near the travel planning process, and even further from the travel booking process. Our matching algorithms also have difficulty matching a relevant and targeted ad where the content is talking about a whole range of destinations or travel experiences.

    But in some cases we see much higher CTRs – sometimes above 1% - and when we analyse these blogs they are often all about, say, one destination. For example we have one who blogs just about travel in Croatia, and if you're thinking of a holiday in Croatia, it's a great resource, and why wouldn't you be interested in what deals or advertisers there were for holidays to Croatia? A very good example of a travel writer/blogger who has made a very successful business in this way is Tom Brosnahan of Turkey Travel Planner – no prizes for guessing what that does, it's right there on the tin. It might not be the slickest site in the world, but he earns a very good living. And we all know a certain blogger who knows everything there is to know about Leeds...

    Positioning and Context

    The other element that obviously makes a huge difference is where the units are placed. Bloggers all too often place their ad units at the bottom of the page, and then wonder why the results are so poor. The best place to put them is embedded in text – banners at the top tend to be zoned out by viewers, jaded by too many banner ads, but where ads are relevant to the text they are reading, these work well. By the same token, in text links work well, so long as they are genuinely useful, relevant, and you are transparent about what they are (ie affiliate links that earn you revenue to keep your incredibly useful show on the road), and don't sell direct hypertext links to 'cheap holidays in Spain'.

    Last, you can offer them mini directories of products or deals relevant to your niche – for example if you have a blog on cycling, offer them a mini directory of cycle tours they can browse. These pages typically have very high click through rates, even up to 50%, and can be created using Adnet.

    Summary

    So, to recap: specialise, develop a personality in your writing and your blog, get active in other social media, and offer yourself up at speaking events. Contribute commentary in your chosen niche to other media outlets. And on your blog, think carefully about your advertising, and make sure it's useful to the readers you are trying to attract.



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    Comments by other travellers

    Thanks for the mention James, and good to catch up last week too.

    My question was perhaps flippant, but I do stand behind the point I was trying to open to discussion. If I list the blog sites with what I consider the best writing and match them to the ones with the highest traffic I suspect that there won't be too many overlaps.

    This is hardly surprising - look at the most popular TV shows, the most popular newspapers, the top selling songs, books, whatever - quality of product is only a small component of the secret of commercial success.

    I agree with you fully that the most attractive sites to advertisers are those that get the most traffic and engagement from readers. I just question whether these are necessarily the sites with the highest quality of writing.

    So when creating a 'successful' site in monetary terms, does the site owner need to be a top quality writer? I'm still not convinced that they do.

    Always good to share these thoughts though.

    1 Reply

    Hi Andy - I guess there is a big gap between good writing and bad writing, and in that gap maybe most of us exist! We are not great writers, but by the same token we are not rubbish. I would say that you are right, you don't need to be a great writer, and indeed you can be a poor writer and achieve quite a lot of revenue based on traffic. But in the end it's about whether what you say has value - or whether it's just search engine fodder. If it has value, but is not the best writing - then I would agree with you. If it has little value but is well optimised for the search engines then I guess it will make some money, but it will be at the mercy of shifting algorithms and will in the end fail.

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    About this author

    • James Dunford Wood

      Founder and former MD of Travelintelligence.com, James teamed up with online publisher James Blackwell to launch Worldreviewer …

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