Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How I turned my blog into a career

Prague Castle from Riegrovy Sady, near my old apartment. Two years before I started blogging... seems a lifetime ago.

Before we get going today, I would love it if y'all would take a quick trip over to this post.  I am raising money for the Special Olympics of Massachusetts, and really need help (of course, I will need more than help when I am rappelling down the Hyatt... like a helmet and a barf bag).  I know you all care as much as I do about giving back to our world, so please consider giving whatever you are able to!

Hi everyone!  A friend of mine recently interviewed me for a Malaysian women’s association, and I am honored to contribute!  I will happily post the interview up here when she finalizes it, but one thing she said to me was that I should really write a blog post on becoming a travel writer.

It’s so funny that that NEVER occurred to me before!  But I have been one of the lucky folks who was able to parlay what I do for fun (this blog, traveling, having lots of opinions) into tangible, full-time work.*  

The first thing I have to say is that blogging really does pay off, even if you never earn a cent off of your site.  It is a crapton of work (which I will get into), but if you are serious about anything, do consider blogging about it.  Making a positive web presence for yourself is basically a professional requirement these days, and I can only assume my blog was a huge factor that got me hired at my present job.

That said, you do have to take it seriously.  I am perfectly aware of the tone I use when I write on this blog, and I am also aware that grammar and spelling and foul language matter.  Obviously, if you’ve been a reader here for any length of time, you know I use plenty of slang and swear regularly, but the point is not that you can’t do these things, just that you absolutely must be aware and do them for a reason.  If you are hoping to turn blogging into paid work, you have to treat it like work.  Your readers deserve respect, honesty, and room for differing opinions, and they’ll tell you if you need to provide more – either by not coming back to your site, or getting in touch with you.  The internet is for communication, after all! 

Blog as much as you can.  Unemployment as well as my time as a student were actually really great for me in this regard, since I had the time as well as the desire to drive a successful project.  And the use of images is an absolute requirement.  I made a public pledge to stop using privately-owned photos, and to use more of my own photographs on The Epic Adventurer, and though I am bummed when images aren’t SUPERGLORIOUSAMAZINGLAND, it actually does make the blog much more unique and personal, and it mattered.  It also led to a really great conversation in the comments thread, and it was awesome to get my readers involved like that!

Blogging regularly has been extra-hard because I am not one of those (romantically-named) digital nomads, or anything.  I like having a home base and I am pretty certain no one is reading this blog to see my personal photography (because I suck at taking pictures, and happily admit this).  I’ve also been doing the broke student/young professional bit, and haven’t been able to just take time and money to go travel when the whim hits (someday, my friends, someday…).  So this blog evolved a lot as I found my voice and found the issues that I wanted to highlight in travel, which are often related to the news and to cultural interactions that I find interesting – and there really don’t seem to be other sites doing this in the same way.  As I said in my interview, there are a bajillion “Top Ten Things to Do in [wherever]” blogs out there, and while that’s definitely useful, I could never sustain a blog on that basis – I wouldn’t travel enough, nor be interested enough in that kind of writing to keep on blogging about it for this long.  

So I have a wacky blog.  So what.

As for the particulars, the real work that you have to do to create that online presence for yourself – first, blogs absolutely need a clean design.  When this blog started, it was white text on a black background, there was a bright orange header photo, it had no features, no search function, no extra pages for an “About Me” or anything, no contact form, no way to re-tweet content… you get the idea.  Good design inherently means good functionality, and I personally don’t bother returning to websites that have limited functionality. 
So what are the non-negotiables of a well-designed blog?  In my opinion, you must have a header that links back to your homepage, a keyword-search bar, easy navigation through pages, easy share functions, some way of organizing your archives (I have that thingy on the left, where you can see the most-to-least used labels and click on them), and additional content on the home page (I have my most popular posts as well as a randomly-changing selection of posts).  Certainly, a functioning blog brings in more readers, and keeps them there, but that’s not my main purpose – I am just interested in making a website that is easy to use!  Some nice add-ons are SEO worked into your HTML (fancy-speak for embedding keywords into your site’s code so that search engines find you more easily), related links at the bottom of your posts, and comprehensive pages that contain some of your most useful information.**
As for keeping the aesthetic clean, that is something that travel blogs in particular have trouble with, and something I consciously strove to avoid.  I think it’s the fact that travel bloggers are often cash-strapped and working off of borrowed or less-than-ideal computers, and so can’t be bothered.  But the reality is that I have updated this site piecemeal, and by myself (yup, you’ll learn some HTML on the path to blogging glory, even if you don’t intend to!), and it has been perfectly simple (most of the time…).  Just sticking a pile of brightly colored doodads on the site won’t get people’s attention, it will give them a headache!

So much has been said about driving traffic to your blog that I won’t bother.  Google that phrase, “driving traffic to your blog,” and you will find no fewer than 77,200,000 results (DAY-um…).  The things that have worked best for me have been Twitter, Triberr, and Buffer.  One reason I have fallen so behind on blog promotion since starting full-time work is that I am one of those oddballs who doesn’t yet own a smartphone, so Bufferapp (which allows you to automatically tweet things throughout the day, whenever your followers are most around) has been a life saver.  Triberr is a nifty little site that allows you to form small “tribes” with other bloggers, with the agreement that you will share each other’s posts – that exponentially increases the number of people your content regularly reaches.

It’s funny, that I was actually looking for work in the arts for a long time, and struggling a lot with that (bad economy… arts… yeah, not many places are hiring!).  I love art and certainly have a background in it, but it never occurred to me to look for work in travel until quite far into my job search.  So when people ask me how I landed a job through my blog, my answer is annoyingly trite: “Do what you love.  I had been writing about travel for years, looking specifically for life choices that would allow me to travel, and yet had blinders on when it came to actually working in the industry.  I think I was still feeling like I had to work for a nonprofit in order to do work that helped people, so looking into a profit-driven industry never crossed my radar (I have a personal history of crunching granola, wearing faux-leather Birkenshmocks, and not cutting my hair).  And yet, once I opened my mind up to this really cool possibility, I was shocked at how easy the job search became.***

Okay, I know I’ve got to be missing something.  What else do you want to know about blogging, the blogging process, or turning your blog into a career?  Let me know!

*For the record, I am actually under agreement with my employer not to discuss them on this site, so that’s why I sound all sneaky and secretive about them -- I don't work for the mob!
** Like my page on Funding Your Adventures – when I saw that my posts about money are always the most popular, I would have been silly not to build that page!  And fun fact: I refer to it myself when I am planning a trip.  Otherwise I could not keep all of the information I read straight!
***It’s all relative, of course – the economy is still majorly lame and I still have buckets upon buckets of sympathy for people out of work.  It is incredibly difficult.

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