One big slap in the face that many entrepreneurs get too late is they find out that this great idea they’ve invested so much time and money in is one that makes people yawn. Nobody cares enough to spend their hard-earned money on it.
Many bloggers find out the same thing, both in terms of earnings and in terms of attention. After all, attention is a different kind of currency, one that’s in finite supply. If there are 10,000 travel sites and blogs out there competing for the attention of people who love to travel, it’s a resource that may be even more scarce than money to spend.
This article about proving the validity of a start-up has terrific advice for anyone wanting to start a business, not just a tech business. It’s also advice you should keep in mind if you’re thinking about starting or going all-in on a blog. Without validation that people need it, a huge investment in time may be wasted.
What problem are you solving? What are you doing for your readers that nobody else can do like you?
Are you helping a specific tribe, people with specific needs, or people interested in a specific destination? If your site went down, would there be an information void in a specific subject?
Helping people figure out what travel gear is worth buying day after day solves a problem. Guiding horse lovers on their equestrian vacation does too. So does a site on how to study or work abroad, or one answering all the questions of horny single men thinking of living in Thailand. Tribe found, questions answered, traffic secured.
If all you blog about every few days is where you went this week and what you ate there, you are not really providing useful information. You’re not a problem solver, but an entertainer.
We Need Entertainers, but Not as Much as Problem Solvers
If you accept that you really want to be an entertainer and can make it work, okay. There are some very successful bloggers who operate as a cult of personality, letting people who can’t leave their cubicle live vicariously through them in words, photos, and video. We’ve featured several of them here on this travel writing blog. In the offline world we tune in to see Anthony Bourdain, Rick Steves, or Richard Bangs. Understand, however, that most of those successful people have a long head start on you and that for every one of them that has found the magic formula (through a lot of hard work and educational errors), there are hundreds laid to waste by the blogging or TV roadside, with not enough people devoting that valuable currency—their attention. Without that attention, there’s no hope of revenue.
It is much much harder to build a readership or sell a book by saying, “Look at me!” than it is to do so by saying, “Here’s how I can help you with your problem.” (Side note: if you’re a freelancer, how can you solve the editor’s problems? She’s your customer.)
By now you’ve probably thought about other exceptions. “What about Travel + Leisure magazine, or Afar, or Islands?” you may say. First of all, those do solve the problems of a specific tribe of travelers who want to know where people like them are going and what they will do once they get there. Also though, and this relates back to those cult of personality blogs, these are escape vehicles, dream mechanisms. I’ve seen Travel + Leisure on the coffee tables or in the bathroom baskets of people I know have not left the country in two or three years. When they want to check out and imagine themselves in a beautiful place somewhere warm, they pick up that magazine.
T+L surely knows this, which is why the photos take up more space than the text. It’s hard to dream on a gym treadmill if you have to read the whole time. It’s also why T+L and magazines like it spend so much time and money on Hot List and It List kinds of cover stories. If you’re part of the tribe that cares about what’s new and hot, you can’t not buy and read that issue. For the people who must know these things, problem solved.
Plus here’s a fun experiment. Go to the news rack at Barnes & Noble or in an airport and count the niche magazines that help people do something better: look better, parent better, spend more wisely, gain knowledge, lose weight, or improve their lives. Then count the ones that are pure entertainment. The ratio is huge—at least 50 to one, probably higher. You can extrapolate that ratio to the Android app store, to the non-fiction book sales on Amazon, and yes, to the World Wide Web. We spend our time with things that help us get wealthier, make us more popular, connect us with people we care about. Utility wins.
“Hey Tim, what about your Perceptive Travel webzine? A narrative travel site does not solve any problems.”
No, it’s not a service publication. You could argue that it’s just providing entertainment and enlightenment. But it’s not purely that. It was launched in 2006 as an antidote to all the shallow fluff out there, all the surface-level glorified press releases posing as travel stories and the silly top-10 lists that were jumping from the magazine world to the Internet. If anything, the situation is far worse now. So Perceptive Travel does solve a problem for those who want to read unique, in-depth travel stories not chosen according to what big advertisers care about. It gives readers faith, it makes them feel smarter, more refined, and yes, maybe a little superior. That’s a small segment of travelers, I’ll be the first to admit, but for those it applies to, we’re the clear #1 option. If eight years ago nobody reacted or cared, I wouldn’t still be running it. People did read it and care, so here we are, celebrating our birthday. Validation from customers means “please continue.”
Can you frame a description of your book, website, or blog in a way that shows how it solves a problem? A few examples of mine:
- “The World’s Cheapest Destinations book helps long-term travelers and those on a limited vacation budget travel well for less money by choosing interesting destinations that are substantially less expensive than home.” (Ditto for the blog.)
- “TravelWriting2.com helps traditional and new media travel writers be more successful by sharing stories and advice from freelancers, bloggers, and editors.”
- “The Insider Gear Deals e-mail newsletter from Practical Travel Gear helps subscribers spend less on luggage, apparel, and gadgets. It’s a one-page overview of deep discounts, coupon codes, and limited-time sales on travel and outdoor gear from retailers such as REI, Backcountry, Moosejaw, and eBags, with direct links. This eliminates the need for them to hunt around online or subscribe to dozens of other e-mail newsletters to find the best sales.”
If you can easily do a description like this, you’re probably on to something. You’re writing to serve the readers’ needs, not just to hear yourself talk. If you get validation that it’s working, forge on.
If not, you either need to pivot or you need to admit that you’re really trying to be an entertainer.
Don’t get me wrong, we need entertainers too. They help us forget about our problems and our boring lives. We enjoy being entertained and seek out people who are good at making us feel good. But we don’t need travel blog entertainers as much as we need our Netflix, our Spotify, our Comedy Central, and the games on our phones. Hey, there’s only so much spare time in a day. And we’ve got lots of problems that need to be solved…