Nine Lessons from a Year of Travel Blogging

It’s a year since my son and I stepped off the plane in Bangkok. A year and two days since I took time out from sorting through a morass of possessions to set up this blog on a whim.

It’s been an amazing year. We’ve seen things I’d never have dreamt of. Been places I’d never heard of. Met people from hunter-gathering nomads to ladyboys to survivors of the Cambodian genocide; dived an undersea volcano; climbed the highest mountain in South-East Asia; stayed on desert islands, in remote forest, on the roof of a junk…

And this site’s grown from a little hobby project to a creature with a mind of its own, pushing 15,000 readers per month and an increasing number of sponsors. As we enter our second year of travelling and my second year of blogging about it, I’d like to share some lessons I’ve learnt the hard way.

1: Choose Your Blog Name Carefully — You’re Stuck With It
My original plan was to travel for one year with Z, the year he was nine. Hence Travels with a Nine Year Old. Well, he’s ten, and we’re still going. And, nope, with a hundred or so incoming links, I am not going to be changing the name.

Picking a blog name is like picking a brand. Try to avoid one that’s time sensitive and steer away from cheese. If you’re serious about blogging, research your keywords and track down a name that has your keywords in: ytravelblog have done this brilliantly.

2: Get on Social Media from the Beginning
Scared of Twitter? Shy of Facebook? Bemused by Stumbleupon? Don’t be. At the same time you set up your site, you should set up a matching identity on Twitter, a page on Facebook and an account on Stumbleupon: if you use video, you’ll need a YouTube account, too.

Twitter and Facebook make a great way to connect with other folk who share your interests: and for them to share your content. Using Stumbleupon right (an essay in itself) can bring you thousands of new readers in a single day.

3: Choose a Good Twitter Username
I rather sulkily got on Twitter a little late in the day. And, without particular thought, opted for one of the worst usernames I’ve seen outside the realm of Twitter spammers: I’m @Mummy_T.

Optimally, your Twitter handle should match the name of your site and your brand identity. Failing that, use something that sums up what you blog about. Y’know. Push comes to shove, hang out on Twitter for a while — perhaps at a Tweetup like TNI — admire the names out there, and pick a handle that has an edge like they do.

4: Start Off in WordPress.org
WordPress.org is slightly more difficult to use than platforms such as Blogger and WordPress.com, though server providers such as BlueHost offer a great deal of support.

But it allows you to add plugins for Facebook, Twitter, Stumbleupon, Google Analytics and most anything else you’d care to mention, and choose from a million and one layouts. WordPress.org is powerful, flexible, easy, what the pros use. And, believe you me, it’s a hell of a lot easier to set up a site in WordPress.org from scratch than migrate an existing site over.

5: Pictures Aren’t Optional
The web isn’t a pure text medium. At least one picture, whether it’s from an online library, such as istockphoto, or sourced via Wikimedia Commons, really helps people engage with what you write.

I’ve found that cameras have a habit of dying the second one gets to places exotic enough for it to be impossible to buy another one. Push comes to shove? Use your mobile (if it has a camera). Or illustrate pieces with library images.

6: Guest Posts are Invaluable
Put aside any concerns about driving traffic elsewhere than to your site. Guest posts help get your blog (or your brand) out there, draw in new readers and build an authoritative voice.

Tens upon hundreds of sites are looking for guest posts, from Spunky Girl Monologues through to Travel with a Mate, Got Saga and the Travel Blog Challenge. Submit away.

7: Use Google Reader
Follow your favourite sites in Google Reader, and comment regularly and authoritatively. That way people get to know you, and your site. You become part of an online community and enable people to discover you.

8: Sites Take Time To Settle In
People can know you for months through comments, Twitter and the like before they get around to checking out your site. Which is probably wise, given it takes most people some time to discover their own voice.

If you’re planning to write about a journey, it’s worth setting up a blog many months before you even begin: Where Is Jenny? has done this really well. That way, you’re not trying to combine travelling with the work that goes into setting up a blog.

9: Encourage People to Connect with You
There’s a marketing term called “a call to action”. And some great bloggers manage to incorporate that call to action into every single post. They offer people the opportunity to sign up for their feed, connect on Facebook, follow them on Twitter; they ask them to share this post on Facebook, Twitter or Stumbleupon. And it works.

Me? If you liked this post, do like us on Facebook or share it with your friends.

And, if you’re a blogger, please share your top tips for getting started in the comments.

65 Responses

  1. you’ve got it right here. it’s so important to build community – in so many ways. and community isn’t niche-specific, either. travel, family, worldschooling – it’s all good.

    • admin says:

      Jessie, I think you’re right about community not being niche-specific. There’s multiple, sometimes overlapping communities out there, and it’s fascinating to be part of them…

  2. Some really great tips! Thanks for the inclusion. It’s really hard to choose a name at the beginning as you do have to think of keywords and branding. If you can mesh it together then you are on a good track.
    I think guest posts and social media are so important in building your online presence. This has been our key strategy and is what has bought us success.

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Caz! I have to say I didn’t think in terms of keywords or branding at all: I was pretty naive when I came to the internet. I think you guys have been very switched on and focused throughout…

  3. Happy anniversary!
    I like your Mummy_T on Twitter. It makes me think of you as a white female version of The A Team’s Mr T.
    I think you could use the not-nine anymore concept to market your blog, too. Isn’t part of your story that you set out for a year but just kept on going? Work with it, baby!
    Personally, I’ve been very inspired by your blog, by the stories it tells, by the fact that you travel with your son and by the way your posts are so wide-ranging.
    However, your blog tips are great. I chose my blog name late at night, almost accidentally, as I was fiddling around with the WordPress website. I’ve chosen a new name and are hoping to re-launch the “new me” soon, after migrating everything to WordPress.org.
    Enough about me — back to you! Where are you now?

    • admin says:

      We’re in Bali! A little house in the rice fields. I should probably post about where we are, but I have a couple of things about Australia I really want to write (though there’s nothing says I * have* to do things in the right order… There’s a pic on Facebook, here: http://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?fbid=192000174145633&set=a.186745451337772.47742.186540714691579

      • Oh, looks fabulous!
        At some point I’m going to send you an email and pick your brains for some advice for our upcoming travel adventure. We’re going to try to do this next year with a 2.5 year old. She’s 14 months now and I just cannot imagine a time when she’s not trying to stick her finger in power sockets, put insects in her mouth and lurch off towards busy highways.

        • admin says:

          2.5 should be perfectly doable. It’s a big transition from 14 months…

        • Nicole says:

          You can totally travel with a 2.5 yr old! We moved overseas and lived right on the beach and off the grid while running a business when our son had just turned two. We had to shadow him and never let him out of our sight, but that age is perfect to connect with locals. Women wanted to ooh and ahh over him and men wanted to be his buddy.

  4. Some great advice there. I think a lot of people think “blogging” means just writing blogs. In actual fact that’s just a small part of what blogging is all about. There’s a lot more to it. Lots of design and development of your site, networking with others in your chosen subject. The politics of getting noticed even.

    It does take time but you have proved that commitment and enjoying the experience will help your blog succeed. Well done!

    And of course if you’d like to guest post with us again we’d be more than happy to feature your great writing skills!

    • admin says:

      Thanks! Now, if I could only get the new site to stop referring to me as Admin, I’d be laughing… πŸ˜‰

      You’re right about the design and development side of things, as well. And the architecture. Something many people struggle with…

  5. Sally says:

    Excellent tips! I really wish I had had these about a year ago when I was setting up my current blog — most especially the tip about WordPress.com. After originally hosting my blog with Blogger and then moving over to iWeb (a Mac software), I finally made the leap to WordPress a couple months ago and really wish I had done so sooner.
    I also wish I had created a Facebook fanpage a lot sooner so I could reach to reach out to people who don’t do Twitter. I didn’t start the fanpage until last month — and only begrudgingly so (because I thought the idea of having my own fanpage was a bit… um… weird. I mean, fans? Me? What?)
    I especially like your tips about blog names & Twitter names. I have a really bad memory (and an even worse spelling ability), so I have a big problem with names that are too obscure or don’t stand out or are hard to spell. In fact, there are a few blogs that I remember reading and loving but haven’t been able to go back to because I forgot the name & failed to subscribe to their blog when I first saw them. I would also urge new bloggers to have the same name for their blog title as for the URL. I can’t imagine I’m the only person with severe blog-name-Alzheimer’s… please make it easy on us! The less names I have to remember, the better!

    • admin says:

      Sally, Thanks for the blog name and url tip. It is amazing how hard it can be to find people, and, yes, I’m guilty of cruising past people and losing them too.

      My reasons for not having a fan page were pretty much the same as yours. Become a fan of me and Z? Err….

      Anywise, I’ll go and become a fan of yours on Facebook now…

    • Sally, you should have moved to WP earlier??!! Does this mean you will stop abusing me for harrassing you for months to get you to do so? πŸ˜‰

      Great tips, by the way. Really good stuff I wish I would have done back in 2008.

      • admin says:

        I think we all wish we could have done that stuff earlier. I’m still manually removing tweetmeme code from old posts. And trying to find featured images. I guess another thing is sorting out the feeds. I seem to have three separate feeds, one of them originating from a test site which I now cannot get into to change the feed…

  6. Anna says:

    This is great advice, thanks for sharing.

  7. Great tips. Social media was something I was quite leery about but was amazed, amazed! at what a difference it has made.

    • admin says:

      Yeah, I’m leery about social media too, but it does seem to work and I so wish I’d done it sooner.

  8. Amy says:

    This was such a timely post for me! I’ve actually been considering changing my blog name to something that actually represents what we are doing….A novel idea I know! The same thing happened to me when I chose my name, it was late at night and it was one of the first things that popped into my head, then I didn’t use the same thing for my twitter name. Luckily the only people reading right now are friends and a few people who happened to stumble upon it and we haven’t started our trip yet so now is a good time to change it up!
    Thanks so much for the tips, I really had no idea what it takes to make a name for myself but I think I’ll get the ball rolling now!

  9. caroline says:

    Hey!

    I now get your entire blog in my email, did you realise it’s no longer just the first para? I still clicked on to the site for this one as there were no pics, but the previous two came through with pics too. Anyhoo, on to other matters, I see you and Elton have something in common!!!

    Caro
    xx

    • admin says:

      Ah! Yes, I did see his imaginative choice of name. It’s like the Royal Wedding, or summat. Makes the heart tingle with warmth. I hear the star of Tantrum and Tiaras intends to be a strict father. The whole email delivery blog thing is bugging me, big time. I think I’m going to go back to sending it out as Feed. Because it doesn’t include the comments, either.

      • caroline says:

        I also had to come back to this page to see if you’d replied, just so you know, not that that was a problem… What arts is Z going to be doing? Can’t wait to see what he creates. Big hugs to both of you.

        • admin says:

          And back to you. Tomorrow he is doing fruit carving and gamelan (wanted to do the bamboo gamelan, not the gong one, for some reason). Then more silversmithing. Some painting (probably at the museum next to us). We’re also rather immersed in Indonesian (classes Tues and Fri): we have a lot of catching up to do on grammar and general vocab. We’re in an intermediate class with two adults who’ve been studying for months, so it’s fairly challenging for me: i find the grammar easier than Z does, but he absorbs vocab like a sponge…

  10. These are really helpful tips. We’ve been blogging for a few months now, but mostly it has been for family and friends – we didn’t start thinking about how to “market” ourselves until just recently.

    I’ve just finally gotten to the point where I realize we need a FB page and Twitter account! I agree with Sally that it just feels so weird to have a “fan page”, lol… but I guess that’s something you get over in time. πŸ™‚

    • admin says:

      I’ll have to post something about getting started on Twitter at some point, because that’s a minefield, too… It’s very interesting to watch people who have thought about marketing themselves, and the distinction between them and those who just start writing and figure something will come…

  11. nikki says:

    Hi,
    Welcome back:) It would be great to get together. How long will you be around?
    This is a great post so much useful info. my blog really gets little to no traffic and I really have no computer smarts. I would like to see it grow some so maybe I will try some of your suggestions and pick your brain more when we meet!
    send me an email
    [email protected]

  12. Natalia says:

    Fantastic post – goes well with the interview currently on my blog πŸ™‚ The name thing is tricky – when I went from wordpress.com to wordpress.org the name of my domain was already taken, so I had to completely change the name of our blog. Add to that the fact it covers a broad range of topics (travel, home educating, general ‘stuff’) it took a bit of thinking to find something. I think we got it right …
    I am on Twitter, but don’t have a fanpage on Facebook as I left (we had a personal account and one for our business) and said I wouldn’t go back. But since the blog for us is not a commercial endeavour and I don’t plan to ever make money from it, I am not concerned at this stage.

    Great to see you are in Bali BTW and loving it!

    • admin says:

      Yes, I think you really started me thinking there: thanks for a great interview… I like No Beaten Path so much I’m amazed it wasn’t taken: all the good names have a “why didn’t I think of that” obviousness to it.

      Facebook’s a strange one, isn’t it? Many more people on there than on Twitter, where I think a very high percentage of users are bloggers/social media/tech: yet a surprising number of people beginning to leave….

  13. Andrew says:

    Great list. I got lucky with my domain I think. I had it for years before I started to seriously blog, yet it still works with my content well. The social media connection is one of the important things for me, not just due to the traffic but due to the social interaction. I really love some of the people that I have met on Twitter. It makes the whole blogging thing feel like less of a void.

    I sort of started a new project. I picked what seemed like a perfect blog title, picked up the gmail and twitter IDs, and went to start writing….. and nothing. I had the whole idea formed before hand, but now nothing. I’ll figure it out eventually, but it is all just sitting there until then, waiting to be born.

    • admin says:

      Yes! I’ve met some great people on Twitter, and embarking on tweetups is pretty amazing: actually meeting people you know online in real life. Very interesting, because you know a lot about them already. Col and Tracy from http://www.ourtravellifestyle.com are amazing, for example. And I’ve had a good chat with Lainie from http://www.raisingmiro.com. Meeting up with a couple of Bali-based tweeps tomorrow, so that will be fascinating.

  14. Angela says:

    Great tips, I have my blog on blogger and am thinking about switching to wordpress, I’m just scared I’ll be losing much of the work I’ve put on it.. I’ll do it eventually, I’ve been thinking about it for too long now πŸ˜‰

    • admin says:

      One thing I would say is to change theme etc. once you’ve migrated all the content over. Trying to set up the new theme then move content over is a whole bag of worms. But it’s totally worth doing. Also, if you’ve got any code on there, strip it out before you move to wordpress.org

  15. Nicole says:

    Great tips! I laughed when I read your first one since I’ve been migrating my site to wp.org this week, and changing my name and domain. Yes, would have been better to start at wp.org with the right name! Anyway, I too think you can make your name work for you–like when he’s thirteen, how cool that you started traveling years ago and it’s worked to keep going?! Going to put new site on stumbleupon, maybe look to do guest posts this year, and is there a plug-in to add all the “sign up for my social media” stuff on each post? Going to FB now to like your page. πŸ™‚

    • admin says:

      Yes! There’s a bunch of plugins. I have yet to figure out what the best one is. At the moment I’m using Facebook Share, Facebook Like, Stumble, Twitthis and Tweetmeme, because all the ones that claim to do everything at once look weird at the bottom of the page. The problem with adding social media buttons late in the day is that a lot of your posts end up with big fat zeros. I’ll pop over to your new site now…

  16. Jenny says:

    Great tips!!! Thanks for the mention.

    The biggest regret I have is not spending a few months before I launched my site to: 1. Narrow my focus and be really clear about who I’m writing to and 2. to have a stash vault of articles pre-written in case life happens (which it always does!). Having a blog schedule has really helped me, but it can also be stressful if you get behind.

    • admin says:

      I still haven’t figured out who I’m writing to…. And I sometimes wonder whether being yourself is just the best strategy. Amen to the stash of prewritten articles. It’s something I must get around to having. Because, as you say, life really does intervene. Whereabouts are you now?

  17. Nine says:

    You know you can change your Twitter username? It seems pretty straightforward, certainly more so than on a lot of other sites.

    Thanks for the tips! Thus far, I’ve only been incorporating some of them, but I still have mixed feelings about things like marketing and sometimes even about whether I want to be widely known anyway. So I guess I’m going to proceed at a different pace and in a different order to you, but I still find much of this valuable. Happy anniversary!

  18. Cam says:

    Some great proven tips here. Our biggest lesson learned is to give more than you receive. If you want to encourage traffic to come to your site you have to get out and be active, which means supporting others. And be patient… the work will pay off if you put in the effort! πŸ˜‰

    • admin says:

      That’s a good point to make. Though I think it can be hard for many people to find the time to interact regularly with others, building community is key…

  19. karen says:

    really helpful and inspiring post. thank you for all these great tips… !!!

  20. I’ve been avoiding guest posts for that same reason… I may have to grow up and start writing a few!

  21. Phil says:

    All of these are great tips. I think it’s really important not to give up even if you are not seeing a lot of visitors or receiving comments. If you produce good content and reach out to people, those things will come eventually.

    • admin says:

      I would really second your advice on not getting dispirited. I think most sites take about a year to build up any form of momentum and there’s a huge belief that folk are going to be instantly successful — which is just not the case for most of us.

  22. Akila says:

    Congratulations on 1 year!

  23. Thank you so much for this great post. I found you through your comments on a travel blog from Alist. I would encourage all those readers who are challenged to join Alist blogging club. It still takes time but you have a support group while you learn the basics of blogging. I am learning a lot and have oh so far to go but am confident I can do it. I am still a fairly new blogger having just started a few months ago. This list is invaluable and I am going to take notes from a lot of these comments on how to grow my blog.
    This was a great post. Are you always this helpful? I will be coming back. πŸ™‚

    • Theodora says:

      I don’t know Alist! Will have to check it out… And, yes, when I can take my head out of my navel, I do try to help…

  24. Had I known I was going to “become a blogger,” I too would have put more thought into a name…at the same time, there are so many people with “backpacking” in the name and the like, that at least we stand out with our monikers, right?

    Has your son ever written a post for you? If not, that would be fun to read!

  25. Very good tips and even though not new for me, I still dont really do all the things I know I should. I can write a blog post about how NOT to keep a blog, a very professional competent one at that.

    I can add another tip, which again I dont seem to be able to follow, to write posts like this one and the “10 things about….” “Top 20 mistakes…”. Apparently they are very good for traffic from google and for social media sharing.

    You have done great. Keep it up.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes, I think list posts do get a lot of traffic and shares. Which is slightly irritating, as I rather like to read wibbles. Another good tip is to break content up a bit with header fonts, so rants feel a bit more organised for the social media fan… And, yeah, write about blogging. Which I swore I’d never do.

  26. Roy says:

    Wish this post was around 15 months ago when I started! I probably made every rookie error! My domain assumes I’ll be working on cruise ships forever, I lost all my comments when I migrated from blogger to wordpress, etc. Live and learn πŸ™‚

    • Theodora says:

      I wish I’d read one like that too! I’m thinking of a new post of all the errors I know now I’ve made with the tech side, because that’s becoming painfully clear to me now.

  27. Thanks for the link. Like others I wish I’d read this before I started. But the truth is that when I started I had very small ambitions for my blog and would never have dreamed that I would (for example) be concerned with traffic and views and other such ephemera. I just wanted to write (gag) πŸ˜€

    The only tip I can offer is to blog with friends. I started to blog with a handful of friends and we’ve all been learning together. We can ask each other stupid questions, learn from each other’s mistakes, and support each other behind the scenes and through comments and links. It’s been invaluable for me.

    • Theodora says:

      I think for as long as you have something that shows you your traffic, traffic will become a driving force. It’s a beast. I wish you weren’t stuck with it, but the fact of the matter is it comes to be important from really quite early in.

      And, yes, if you’re lucky enough to have a bunch of real friends who also want to blog, I think that would be a great way to encourage each other to stay motivated, and learn together…

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