State of the Blog Address: After 5 Years
This isn’t a blog about blogging, and thus we refrain from talking about it as much as possible, save for this annual post where we give a behind-the-scenes look. (Previous posts are here: at the beginning, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.)If this back room talk sounds like a snoozefest to you, check out some of our fave travel posts from the last year including that time someone told me I was bad at walking and that other time when a blue ball monkey (real thing) almost attacked me. Otherwise, read on.
In this last month our blog slipped past its fifth blog anniversary, and it did so almost without notice. I woke on the morning of January 7th and racked my brain trying to remember why the date seemed significant. And then, oh yeah. Five years just happened.
What a whirlwind. To say that these lives of ours have become something unexpected is a gross understatement. They have breached the unimaginable; especially in this last year when we felt like we’ve really hit our stride. 2015 will go down as our best for travel, a fantastic one for business, and we both really enjoyed the work we put into this blog. Maybe more than ever.
Why? Because, after many years of working at it, we finally feel confident and like we’ve really come into our own. We ditched our rigid publishing schedule and decided to write with less obligation. We wrote what we felt passionate about. We stopped pushing the blog to make money.
And so this last year was the very most fun. The best of our lives, really. And all the while, our blog continued to grow.
For the first time ever, after five years of blogging, I feel like I am finally in a place to dispel some solid advice given all the ups and downs we’ve encountered to get to this point. Below you’ll find a handful of hard-earned lessons that have nothing to do with optimizing SEO, or who should host your blog, or any such thing. There are plenty of posts already out there like that, and besides, we are pretty technically inept, so it’s best if you ask someone else anyway. (BONUS lesson: save yourself the grief and outsource those things you’re bad at.)
Instead, as is the case with almost all of our blog posts, these lessons specifically draw on our own experience and what we care about most. And because I read an SEO article once, somewhere, sometime, that said it’s best to write articles that have nice round numbers in them, I give this to you:
Five valuable lessons we’ve learned in our last five years as bloggers (and those who hire bloggers)
(Does that look right? I really don’t know. Whatever.)
Number One: Get Real, People.
Several months ago, Snapchat was suddenly all anyone could talk about in our travel blogging circles. Pete and I considered joining it, especially at the insistence of our friend who is a rockstar on it and who constantly harassed us about it, but in the end we did not jump on the bandwagon for several reasons: (1) We are distracted enough in our travels by all of the other things we have to worry about, (i.e. getting a good shot for Instagram, another for Facebook, a good story for the blog, etc.) that we really don’t want to add another concern to the pile. (2) Snapchat is predominantly for super youngins. We ain’t super youngins, and neither is our target audience. While we could probably find some new fans in there somewhere, I wouldn’t expect it to be significant. (3) While we can appreciate the premise of bloggers using Snapchat to give followers a behind-the-scenes look at their lives and travels, why force readers onto another platform to do so?So, no thank you, Snapchat.
But wait, THANK YOU, Snapchat! Your concept spawned a whole other idea.
In August we birthed our In Real Time series on the blog in which we give our readers a look behind-the-scenes, and in a much more current fashion than our travel stories which are typically a month or two behind. It’s not always about the places we visit, but it is always personal and about our lives on the road.
So far we’ve written about things like how we make money, what shangriness is, about the one photo we will never sell, and about the ultimate smackdown between freedom and ambition (our most popular post, and one for which we will provide an update on soon), and more. It feels good to share these stories and to also answer many of the questions we get from readers. We typically post once per month, sometimes more, and we have a long list of topics we want to tackle this coming year.
The results have been tremendous. We thoroughly enjoy it and our readers are responding very favourably – so much so that we’re soon going to give it a more prominent spot on our website. And because it is doing so well, we recently launched a behind-the-scenes Instagram account that tells micro-stories of our everyday life. Similar to the blog stream, it features quirky things about our life on the road, but separate from our main Instagram account so as not to dilute that curation of Pete’s awesomest photos.
So instead of providing just little snippets on a brand new platform, we’re collectively providing a more in-depth look, and publishing where our readers already are. Mileage may vary for others, but for us it just feels more real, it feels more authentic, and it’s one of the very best things we’ve ever done for our blog.
Number Two: how about you just go ahead and make your own rules!
But do you want to join SnapChat? Then go right ahead. If you will enjoy it, if you can grow your audience there, then by all means, ignore the above point and totally start snapping.(And that goes for all of these “lessons learned” posts. Take away the parts which resonate with you, but leave the rest. There is no one path to success in blogging – and never mind that success is relative anyways.)
Same goes for writing – write what you like.
If your strength is in writing short and impactful stories, don’t be swayed by the masses who claim that #longreads are the only way to go. Don’t stuff words to get your count up (please remember that the first rule of writing is to edit ruthlessly, so strive to make every single word matter before even counting them). Or, if you prefer to put all of your energy into writing a ten thousand word essay only once a month, then promote the shit out of that and ignore the other masses who say that you must post several times a week in order to make your mark. Write what you know, write what you are comfortable with, write in a way that will keep you engaged and happy, and you will find an audience.
This whole endeavour is a marathon, not a sprint. If you are not happy with what (or how, or why, or when) you are publishing, then I expect that you will be one of the many who give up blogging within a year.
Sometimes, when hitting publish on a post in which we’ve worked with a partner, I wince a little bit, as I am not writing the standard blogger fare and so worry about the reaction. I don’t write “5 reasons you MUST visit X” or “5 things to do in Y”. Instead, as they are usually very personal stories in relation to where we are and what we are doing, the destination itself may seem like only a supporting character.
However, the vast majority of responses we receive from our partners are so overwhelmingly positive, and that is because we endeavour, every time, to dig deep and attach an emotional element to it. That’s what we like to do. That’s how I like to write. That’s what people respond to. That’s how we’ve found an audience, and that’s how we also connect with the partners that matter to us. (Sure, some may pass us over as our posts are not the style that typically go viral, but that’s okay. They are the ones missing out on the fact that not only are stories important, but they sell.)
That’s what we do. And we aren’t changing for anybody.
Number Three: Blog Smarter.
There aren’t enough blogs.If you read a lot about blogging, you may be surprised by the above statement, as it is the exact opposite of what many say. Yes, there are thousands of travel blogs out there now, and yes the market could be considered saturated by some.
However, let me clarify my point: there aren’t enough quality blogs. And there also aren’t enough niche blogs.
By quality, I mean those who have worked hard to build an authentic audience (stop gaming the system, people!), and who regularly put in the time and effort to put out the very best they can. Those who regularly invest in their skills to become better writers, better photographers, and then put it all on a prettier and more user-friendly website while cultivating an enthusiastic following.
By niche, I mean those that cover very specific topics or demographics. And I speak to this point from experience as someone who also hires bloggers. Once, I needed someone who covered skiing in Canada, and found nothing. Another time, I wanted another Canadian blog that covered boomer travel to Mexico, and came up short. These are two very hot topics in Canadian travel, yet websites devoted to them are practically non-existent.
The market is saturated when it comes to general travel blogs. And, I’ll say it, it is also saturated when it comes to crappy travel blogs. But there is still plenty of opportunity out there yet to find your place and knock everyone else’s socks off.
And then let me know when you do, so I can hire you. There is always more room for good.
Number Four: Don’t be vain.
As someone who hires bloggers regularly for projects, I don’t want you to tell me that you are perfect for a project because you have 20,000 fans on Facebook or 100,000 followers on Twitter. I don’t care about that. Those are vanity numbers and can be bought or manipulated far too easily.Where are your fans from and do they match our client’s target demographic? Are your followers even responding to your content, or are you screaming into a vacuum? Do you only get comments from other bloggers or are you reaching other audiences? Can you share any examples of previous projects that have resulted in direct benefit to your partners?
As much as it can be tempting to do so, please don’t take shortcuts to building your audience. That is a short-term strategy that will get you a few free things for awhile, but believe me when I say that brands are beginning to notice. More are asking the right questions, and if you are scared to share what is hidden behind your numbers, then you are doing it all wrong.
Number Five: At the end of the day, remember WHY.
The best thing we did this past year was to start an “Amazing Emails” folder, and I really wish we had done it sooner. Besides the notes we get about housesitting or those telling us they booked travel to a specific place because of our posts, we get this:
You both are truly an inspiration. I know you probably get thousands of e-mails and comments, and it does not surprise me, you have something special with Hecktic Travels. Not only do you have a beautiful website, but you also have a beautiful story and one I can relate to.
Pete and Dalene: I came across your website a couple of months ago and your story really resonated with me. You have inspired me to finally live the life I’ve always wanted to live, but just didn’t know it yet.
Again, thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement. If this was the last I heard from you it may have been enough to change and probably save my life and marriage.
It’s really good to see others making a real success of being possession-free and plan-free. Do you mind if I send your blog to all the doubters (i.e. parents, friends and family members) who think we’re mad?
My suggestion: I know you have operated a very perfect 2-Man team, but could I interest you in raising a disciple who would take the message to the ends of the world.
(Okay, so maybe that last one was a little weird, but it’s still a keeper!)
When I think about my old job in my old life, that which most people would traditionally declare “normal”, never in a million years (or even for a million dollars), could I have found greater reward.
And for me, this is all that matters. When I have a “down” blogging day, it is this folder that pulls me out of it. So even if you are just starting out, create that folder now, and capture every shred of goodness.
And finally, what’s next for Hecktic Travels?
I recently met a couple whose son had just entered college in some sort of innovative video program. His parents were clearly excited for him and one thing his mother said about his studies was that she thought it was so cool that his eventual career was probably to work on something that doesn’t even exist yet.
Five years ago, we started the blog with no idea that ALL THIS existed.
Where can we take it in another five years?
At the rate technology and the social world changes, I expect this space will look vastly different on January 7th, 2021. Or maybe by then we’ll have sold it to another couple of Hecks. Or maybe blogs soon won’t exist at all.
Or maybe our TV show will get picked up (no, we haven’t said much about this before and yes, it has real – albeit small – potential). Maybe we’ll finally get around to writing a book. Or perhaps an opportunity will present itself for something that doesn’t even exist yet.
Five years may as well be a hundred these days – who knows what will be possible. Which in some ways is terrifying, but mostly is just crazy exciting.
I don’t believe there is any point in guessing, and as you may have noticed by the type of lifestyle we lead, we like teetering on the edge of the unknown anyway. So in the meantime we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing, because in case you missed it above, we do adore this little blog and the tremendous community that we’ve built around it. We’ll continue to dig a little deeper, to bare a little more soul, and bring forth stories from around the globe.
But probably just not on Snapchat. 🙂