Nobody will like your blog if it sucks.
Luckily, today’s goal is to make sure it doesn’t.
Welcome back to Blogtoberfest, everyone! Genuinely, I am overwhelmed by the positive response from last week’s launch of The No BS Guide to Travel Blogging. While I did have a feeling that this was a resource people wanted, I wasn’t expecting the outpour of support and “yas queen!”s that soon flooded my inbox. THANK YOU for allowing me to feel the closest I’ve ever felt to Beyonce. That’s the real gift.
Okay now back to the issue at hand.
*Puts on honesty hat*
So, let’s get one thing straight. If your content is garbage, nobody will want to read it.
As a blogger, you probably know that 99% of your time is spent doubting yourself. You hit Publish and then the sweating game begins. “It’s been 30 seconds. Why has no one praised my genius?” followed by a sad wait period in which a stranger’s thumbs up can validate your entire existence. I get it. I’ve been there. I’m constantly there. Besides this subtext that you should go like my stuff, I’m also saying that self-doubt is a normal part of being a blogger. So how do you battle this doubt and work towards creating really good content that you’re confident and excited about?
Well I believe that at the heart of epic blog content is one simple idea: providing a unique value proposition to your readers. In this post we’ll discuss the specifics of how we can do that.
A little warning in advance…
Content is a deeply personal thing and I’m about to unleash a no-mercy shitstorm of do’s and don’ts/things to avoid. Unless you’re some kind of Great Blog Deity, I am certain that you will identify things that you’ve done/do. BUT please take all this as fodder for growth rather than ammo for angsty self-destruction. Everything I’m writing is 1000% based on my own mistakes… many of which I still make and are clearly present in my old posts. I am happy to admit that my blogging used to suck, that sometimes it still sucks, but I’m constantly working to make it suck less. That’s the attitude you should adopt. We can’t retroactively fix our mistakes (well, apart from a mass deleting spree like I did), so let’s focus on moving forwards, shall we?
(By the way, I’m sorry – you’re gonna find that I use a lot of buzzwords like ‘awesome’ and ‘epic’. It’s just part of who I am. I’m as excitable as a baby corgi, and am just as easily distracted by shiny objects. So sue me… except don’t, because I don’t have a lawyer.)
Most importantly, work only with genuinely good ideas
We’re going to start with your content ideas. As a blogger, your time is precious, so don’t waste hours of work on lame ideas that don’t carry much appeal. Many top bloggers advise that you should write a lot in your first few months, pushing out posts as much as you possibly can. This advice fails to work however if your content is crap. Don’t ever produce content just for the sake of producing content.
Be choosey about your ideas, and focus on delivering an excellent quality post rather than 5 mediocre ones. I started embracing this quality > quantity idea about a month ago. 1-2 blog posts a week, that’s it… and my traffic has never been better.
The other important piece is that your blog posts should offer something new to the Internet, a hefty task considering how much information is already out there. If what you’re writing is just a regurgitation of an article that already exists, then that’s boring and lame. Breathe new life into topics by either offering your unique voice or creating something bigger and better than anyone else has. That was the logic behind my post 99 Ways to Save Money for Travel. In the mega-saturated field of ‘budget travel’, I decided to up the ante and create a crazy thorough resource that bordered on psychotic. The result? It’s one of my best performing posts to date.
So remember, quality matters, and offering unique content is a big part of this.
- Keep an ‘idea book’ (or even just a special note on your phone) where you jot down potential post ideas as they come.
- As you pluck an idea from this list, Google it first. If it exists, scrap it OR think of a unique spin that you can offer [e.g. your own experience, incorporating interesting bits of history, etc.]
- Think: will someone find this valuable? Better yet, ask a brutally honest friend. If the answer is no, burn that idea and run.
Write with your audience in mind
Before you start writing, you need to make sure you have a firm understanding of who it is you’re writing for (see my chat about avatars from last week). This is because good writing is subjective. If I wrote on this blog like I do in my academic papers, there’d be a you-shaped hole in the wall right now. Instead, I write like a slightly crazed cat lady, and it seems to be working okay. After all, you’re still here right?
Well the point is, always keep your audience in mind when you write. My online voice is very similar to how I speak in real life, but that kind of voice would not fly if I was, say, a luxury opera review blogger. Practice the art of putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and think “Would I like this?” Defining the wants and needs of your audience are crucial to ensuring that you speak to them effectively.
- Define your ideal audience and write it down on a post-it that you can keep close to your writing space at all times.
- Think about what this audience likes, how they like to be spoken to.
- Find popular bloggers that target this audience and take some time to read their blogs. Figure out what this audience likes by
stalkingreading their comments.
Now some of you did ask, how do you choose that ideal audience? What if there’s several different groups that enjoy your blog and you can’t just choose one? Now, I don’t think you necessarily need to cut off a specific segment of your audience just to make things more niche… rather, think about what you offer that makes all these people fans of you already. Is it because you’re a hilarious storyteller? Is it because you offer really honest and practical travel advice? Find the common denominators and continue to slay those aspects of your blog.
In moving forward with your content creation though, one important consideration is what you’re an expert in/what you’re good at. If you have a lot of expertise on couples’ travel, then write about that, even if it means alienating some of your solo travel audience. It’s impossible to please everybody, so instead, prioritize serving a smaller group well. You’ll certainly get readers from outside this target audience too (trickle-in reads through Pinterest or Google for instance), but the whole ‘defining your audience’ bit is crucial to creating a loyal readership of your biggest fans.
Avoid clichés at all costs
Alright, you’ve worked hard enough, so let’s play a drinking game.
I want you to hop onto some travel blogs and take a big gulp every time you read the words “20-something”, “winding cobblestoned streets” and “incurable wanderlust”.
Now let me call you an Uber because you’re hammered.
I have to confess, there was a period in my young blogging life where I suffered from special snowflake syndrome, thinking I was so unique and cool with my dope travel quotes and worldly perspective on life. That all fell apart when I started reading more travel blogs. I thought I was such a quirky baller with my “travel bug” bitten “restless feet”… Turns out my stupid feet were only 2 in a sea of 13439249024043 others.
… well crap.
Mom lied. I wasn’t special.
I think my lowest point was when I somehow referenced “winding cobblestoned streets” 3 separate times in a single paragraph. THREE! That’s when I realized it was time to develop a more unique way of writing. Why do we all fall into this cliché trap? It’s because we tend to internalize the writing styles we see often. The good news is, we are now aware of this tendency, so the question shifts towards what we can do to turn it all around.
- Think of more unique ways to describe things. “Beautiful” works, but that’s what everyone says. Try a different way to convey the same message.
- Expand your vocabulary. Sure the view was picturesque, but what else was it? What made it so gosh darn wonderful? Unpack that description a little more.
- Google your topic and read how others have written about it. … and then make it your mission to sound different and bring a different voice to it.
Polish your personality and let it shine
This is so freaking important. I would underline this a thousand times if I could. Robots, while pretty cool in sci-fi movies, have absolutely no place in the blogosphere. Sadly, that’s how many bloggers sound today – like soulless droves of robo-adventurers who take nice Instagrams. Bland Blogger Syndrome is all too real, and if you’ve read all the posts out there that sound the same, you’ll probably agree.
People read blogs because they reflect someone’s personal experience. Why should someone read your ‘top 4 things to do in Paris’ rather than Lonely Planet’s guidebook? The answer is because they trust you and want to hear about what you did, how many croissants you ate, and how many macarons you managed to sneak home in your suitcase.
I have personally noticed (and some of you may agree) that the most popular bloggers out there are by no means the best writers… and honestly, I find much of their content to be lacking substance. So you might be (bitterly) wondering how they got where they are. The answer lies in a million different factors, but at the heart of it is they’ve managed to capture an audience that appreciates them not just for their content, but who they are as people. The big bloggers don’t just have readers, they have fans and that’s an important distinction. Fact: without a prominent blog personality, it will be near impossible for you to have fans. If helps of course that many of these top bloggers have the aesthetic of top models, droves of designer clothes and an impossible lifestyle that makes you hate yourself, but that’s a different story. The takeaway here is that your posts need to have personality.
- Sit down and identify your brand voice. Pick a few adjectives that define what appeal you want to have for your audience. Me personally, it’s important that I’m relatable, funny, helpful and honest. For others, their selling point might be different. Know what your ‘thing’ is and channel that every time you write.
- Think about what makes you unique and incorporate those elements into your blog. I for instance am also very crafty and love DIY, hence my DIY section and posts like 19 Gorgeous Travel-Inspired DIYs. I also openly write about my lack of common sense (and low-key laziness), which have led to plenty of misadventures. Include these unique things about you because they make your blog different from any other.
Far too many travel bloggers fall into the trap of being ‘permapositive’. I certainly did. In fact, at one point in my failed “niche planning”, I wanted to become the most optimisitcally positive travel blog on the Internet.
WTF was I thinking?
That kind of psycho Disney outlook is not a niche, it’s blog suicide. Readers want to know that you’re human, and on a pretty twisted level, they thrive on stories where you’ve majorly screwed yourself. Why? Because these stories are relatable and entertaining.
Being an overly positive blogger is the equivalent of meeting someone who smiles a little too much. Kinda like “oh you see Jeremy over there? He’s definitely a serial killer”. Being too scary happy all the time feels fake, weird and offputting. This is why you should talk about all aspects of your travels, because the ‘real talk’ and the lows are likely what readers will connect with most.
This is especially the case when you’re creating content that’s sponsored in some way. When things are free, it’s mighty tempting to write that everything is flawless and life-changing. I get that. But, you have to remember that as a blogger, trust is your currency. If your readers don’t trust you, you’re screwed. That’s why I always try to mention some kind of negative/downside to any review I do. You need to provide a balanced and truthful opinion.
- During a trip, if something strikes you as particularly negative or noteworthy, quickly jot it down in your phone so you don’t forget. We all suffer from something called ‘rosy retrospection’, where you remember things more positively than when you initially felt it. That’s why nostalgia is such a real thing!
- If doing some kind of recap or review post, always start with a quick list of pros/cons. This way you have all your thoughts on paper already.
That said, if something is genuinely amazing, don’t feel the need to be a Debbie Downer just for the sake of it. The key here is honesty, not the simple act of being an asshole. That doesn’t quite sell the same way.
Remember that titles matter
Honestly speaking, you have maybe half a second to grab a reader’s attention, so please ensure that your title is one that hooks you in. Note: this is not the same thing as being click baity. If I wanted to be click baity, this series would be called “I started a travel blog and what happened next WILL SHOCK YOU”. … but that’s not what it’s called, because (surprise!), I still have a few shreds of dignity left.
I have a very alert ‘hater’ radar so I’m going to tell you right off the bat: this advice is highly subjective and dependent on your blog, niche, audience, etc. What I’m about to share is based on what has worked for me, and what I look for as a reader of blogs. There’s no magic sauce when it comes to writing good article titles, so please put those tomatoes away and do not hurl them at me if you disagree with my tips.
Anyways. *puts on tomato-proof poncho* People read blogs for a reason. They’re usually looking for something, whether it’s a specific piece of travel advice or just wanderlust inspiration in general. You need to think about this when you create your titles, because if you’re creating content that nobody’s really asking for, then you’re wasting time that could be spent eating tacos.
Based on my own preferences (and what I’ve noticed with my readers), here are some examples of titles making a big difference. Let’s say there’s an article out there about Alsace, France. What title appeals to you more?
Option A: 5 Reasons I Loved Alsace
Option B: Alsace: France’s Real Life Fairytale
Me personally, I’d go for Option B… which I did in the actual post of that same title. It’s one of my most shared posts (despite being so new) and I feel like the catchy title is part of the reason for that. In my opinion, posts like “5 things to do in ____” or “5 reasons ____ should be on your bucket list” aren’t really that attractive to an ordinary reader. Sure, if you’re searching for destination specific information, these titles are good for SEO and whatnot, but think about it this way. If “10 Cool Things to do in Las Vegas” popped up on your newsfeed, how likely would you read it (unless you were planning a trip to Vegas)?
These days, my titling strategy has two branches. 1) I title it so that it has very wide appeal, e.g. Titles that imply ‘Check this incredible place out!’ rather than ‘Here’s 4 places you can eat in x city’. OR 2) I title it with such a ‘wow’ factor that it makes people curious to read it e.g. ‘99 Awesome Things to Do in Munich‘.
But then the question becomes (as some of you have asked): how do you balance clever titles with SEO? Yes, it’s a bit of a trade-off, and there really is no right answer, but my personal opinion is that catchy titles are more important. There are many ways to increase your search engine ranking beyond a boring title. For me, my effort is better spent making my blog unique and building a loyal readership that always comes back for more. In my mind, a blog filled with “10 things to do in ____” and “5 places to see in ___” won’t build that loyalty.
Remember though: once again, the effectiveness of titles is so dependent on a variety of factors. What works for me might not work for you and vice versa, so this will involve a lot of trial and error, but keep at it and I’m confident you’ll find a formula that works for you!
- Head to some popular travel-related Facebook pages in your niche (bloggers or otherwise) and take note of what content is popular/getting a lot of engagement. Look at how their titles are crafted and try to identify common themes.
- Try renaming some of your older posts to give them a shiny new title, then reshare on social media to see if it’s getting more clicks. ** Not an exact science, but this should give you a brief idea of what’s working and what’s not. IMPORTANT: Be careful not to change the permalinks of your post because this might cause broken links!
- Bounce your ideas off someone who IS your target audience, give them a few options and see what they’d be more likely to click on.
- Leave a comment on this post with the type of titles that make you go *click!* This way, we can all share what we like and hopefully help each other write more effective titles.
Doll up your visuals
A lot of people assume that good writing = a good blog. Sadly, we live in a very visual world where this isn’t the case. The truth is people have an affinity for pretty things. That’s why you’ll find Instagrammers standing on chairs to get aerial views of their brunch. So how can you take advantage of this human hardwiring? Simple: make your blog beautiful!
- Audit your photography and make it better. Good photography is a whole other series in itself, but at the very least, your photos should be sharp, not blurry, [usually] bright and of course, vibrant/colourful. These are the kinds of images that readers like. You don’t need a fancy DSLR to take great photos these days. What it all comes down to is editing. For mobile photos, Snapseed is my go-to for amping up the brightness, sharpness and saturation.
- Get yourself a nice WordPress theme. I love the selection at ThemeForest. The one I’m using right now is called 15zine and it’s glorious.
- Find a good gallery plugin to more effectively display your photos. I’ve listed all my favourite free plugins in my Ultimate Resource List for Travel Bloggers.
Don’t neglect grammar and flow
It’s okay to not have the best spelling or punctuation, but in a really good blog post, any errors should be so minor or insignificant that they don’t disrupt the flow of content. So do use spell check, and even have someone proofread for you (because hell hath no fury like a Grammar Nazi).
Now flow on the other hand is tricky business, as it’s an incredibly difficult thing to gauge. If you were to ask me how I go over my blog posts, the truth is I just read things over and question whether or not things sound “right”. It’s most definitely not an exact science and is something that all writers struggle with. Just like how not everyone is born with perfect pitch, not all people have this ‘inner flow radar’.
So how do you go about developing one?
The answer is to read good writing. Constantly. Obsessively. The more you immerse yourself in effective writing, the more you absorb it and get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. This goes beyond blogs. Read books, read magazines. You’ll find that “travel journalism” is substantially different from anything you’d find in a blog. I remember the first time I actually read one of those in-flight magazines on-board (thanks EasyJet) and I remember falling in love with the punchy, vibrant and informative writing style of the different journalists. That said, it’s not just about travel writing. You should be reading novels, news articles, everything… Trust me, it makes a huge difference.
- Proofread with the fervour of a grammar freak, enlist the help of a friend or if you’re really keen on help, grab a pro for only $5 on Fiverr.
- Read your content out loud. Things should roll off the tongue. If you sound awkward while reading it, it’s probably because the flow is off and you’re not writing the way you speak. Change that.
- Again, not to sound like a broken record, but read good writing!!
Make it easy for readers to find what they’re looking for
Good content means nothing if your readers can’t find it. It is honestly mindboggling how many travel blogs aren’t optimized for reader browsing. One time, I came across a blog I liked and then realized she didn’t have a navigation menu at all… only a front page with posts in chronological order. My reaction was a simple head shake and a real sassy “guuuuuuuurl…”
So the takeaway is this: Don’t make your readers jump through hoops. Make their lives as easy as you possibly can.
- Make sure you have a navigation menu split into interesting categories. Put yourself in the shoes of a reader… If you were on a travel blog, how would you want the info to be organized? For me, I do by Destinations and by ‘type’ of travel, and also have a general section for “Wanderlust Inspo”. From a reader’s perspective, just a page called “Travel” isn’t so helpful, because it’s too general.
- Make sure this navigation menu is easy to see and find. Don’t be a weird hipster who buries it in a button or something. Humans on the Internet have the shortest attention spans of all time. If you don’t make it easy to find more content, they’ll be gone immediately.
- Think about your user experience. Your goal is to keep your reader engaged on your site right? So how can you keep them reading even after that post is done? A few tricks: Use a sidebar with links to your most popular posts/related posts or install a Related Posts plugin to lead readers through your site. This will all be discussed more in-depth in two weeks, when we discuss how to build traffic.
Bring everything you do back to value
Last but not least, throughout the entire content creation process, remember to think about the value your piece of content will offer. In my earlier work, one of my biggest mistakes was that I never thought about what my readers were really getting out of the deal. But that doesn’t really make sense, does it? As I said last week, readers come to you because they’re trying to get something out of it. Understand the value that you’re providing, and work hard to really knock it out of the park. As a travel blogger, here are a few different types of value that you might provide:
If your “value” is entertainment, you better make sure that story is written with amazing wit and lol-worthy punchlines, because otherwise, you’re a dull option compared to the myriad of entertainment channels out there.
For this to work, your life and story need to be not just unique, but incredible. These days, it’s not enough to just sell all your stuff and move to Southeast Asia. There’s too many others already doing that.If you’re going to rock this category, you need to offer a unique angle that no one else can…
Some of the most influential bloggers do this not just through their stories, but through their flawless wardrobes and modelesque looks. That’s how they provide unique inspiration, so for you to be of value, you need to find what makes you uniquely inspirational (which, I know, is a lot harder than it sounds).
This is the type of value I go for. The Internet is a massive reservoir of information, and bloggers have the unique power to offer practical tips and advice based on personal experiences. For this type of value to work, you need to make sure you content is really packed with solid facts and information. This way, you’re able to establish yourself as a trustworthy authority.
Side note: spending 2 days in one country will not make you an authority. If you write a complete guide on a country you’ve been in for 2 days, it will probably suck. Never masquerade as an expert of something you’re not, because it will be really obvious. In these cases, stick instead to telling a good story or posting gorgeous photos. Create a unique offering.
- Before starting any post, write down your post goal. What is it that you want your readers to get out of this? Is it inspiration to visit a certain place? A good, funny story? Informative tips that are destination-specific?
- When writing your post, continually make sure that everything you write contributes to that goal.
….. and exhale! Yeesh, what a read. If you haven’t passed out yet from all that information, here’s a virtual lollipop as a little congrats. Writing good content is no easy task, but it is so unbelievably important…. and no good blog can survive without it. I hope that you found value in the tips I provided today, and that you can immediately apply these to your own blog. In the comments, I would love if you could share a bit about what kind of content and post titles make you *click!* This way, we can all get a feel for what works and what doesn’t across different niches and audiences.
Alright, onwards! Next week, we’ll be continuing with a very very critical piece of your blogging presence: social media. Are you sick of terrible advice that literally just says “Use social media to promote your posts”? Yeah, same here… That’s why next week, we’ll go crazy in-depth into the different platforms you should be on and specific strategies to use for each.
So, that’s it for now. Take some time to digest all that info, and I’ll be back soon with loads more practical tips. Rock on, blogger cool cats!