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.
Often it turns out that the brilliant idea is not really solving a problem–except for the one in the founder’s own mind. They’re really just spouting off and nobody is listening.
Many travel 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 has a 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. If you are not solving their problem, you are trying extra hard to get them to spend that attention.
This 2014 article about proving the validity of a start-up still holds up well and it 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. Maybe three years or more of your time, actually.
What problem are you solving? What are you doing for your readers that nobody else can do like you?
Is This Blog All About You…or Them?
Is your blog travel helping a specific tribe, people with specific needs, or people interested in a specific destination?
If looked at another way, if your site went down, would there be an information void in a specific subject? Or would nobody miss it because there are plenty of similar alternatives to turn to?
I recently had a consulting call with a travel writer who had at least a dozen ideas too many and I was trying to get her focused on one to start with that really had potential to build an audience. “But I want to be able to get set up with free stays when I travel,” she said, “So I feel like I should work on a general family travel blog to do that.”
Wrong answer. If the goal is just getting perks and not serving a tribe, then the site is doomed from the start.
Helping people figure out what to do in Pittsburgh solves a problem. So does a site about free diving and scuba diving. Guiding horse lovers on their equestrian vacation does too. So does a site on how to study or work abroad. 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 (and even more YouTubers) 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 Travel Channel personalities talk about their take on a place and we watch them react to what’s going on around them in a very edited fashion. It’s good entertainment.
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?” 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 those people like them will do once they get there. They serve the purpose of providing a shortcut to status. Go here, do this, you’ll be part of the right tribe.
Also though, and this still 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 these subscribers want to mentally check out and imagine themselves in a beautiful place somewhere warm, they pick up that magazine (while sitting on a toilet or a couch). The two places I’ve seen the most people reading print travel magazines are 1) in a doctor’s office while waiting to be called and 2) while walking on a treadmill at the gym.
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 actually read text 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. Filter supplied.
Those readers are a tiny percentage of the traveling public, however. So you can you carve out a space that’s for the niche and not the masses?
The Craving for Expert Advice
Here’s a fun experiment. Go to the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble or a sizeable one 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. Make note of how many there are.
Then count the ones that are pure entertainment or news, with no advice to offer you.
The ratio is huge—at least 50 to one.
You can then extrapolate that ratio to the Android app store, to the non-fiction book sales on Amazon, and yes, to the World Wide Web. The ration is even wider. Google’s sole purpose is to answer your questions–not to show you how to be entertained.
We spend our time with things that help us get wealthier, make us more popular, connect us with people we care about. Utility wins. If you can’t help people help themselves, you’re an entertainer, which is a much tougher job to make a living at than being a person who improves lives.
Seeking Validation From an Audience
“Hey Tim, what about your Perceptive Travel webzine? It’s a narrative travel site that does not solve any problems.”
Fair enough, one of my oldest online projects is 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 travel mag 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. It gives them what they can’t find elsewhere.
That’s a small segment of travelers, I’ll be the first to admit, so the traffic for that publication is never going to be huge. But for those it appeals to, we’re the clear #1 option. If nobody reacted or cared when I launched it 15 years ago, I wouldn’t still be running it. People did read it and care, so here we are. Validation from customers means “please continue.”
A good thought experiment before you launch a new blog–or any online business for that matter–is to ask, “Why should anyone care about this? What problem am I helping people with?” If that’s not clear, then ask, “Am I at least appealing to a specific tribe?”
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 all types of travel writers be more successful by sharing stories and advice from freelancers, bloggers, and editors.”
- “The Insider Gear Deals e-mail newsletter 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. 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, which requires a whole different skill set and business plan. You probably need to set up a frenetic social media posting schedule and go hard on getting YouTube subscribers, for instance, rather than focusing on SEO and building an e-mail list.
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. We follow people who can brighten our day and make us laugh.
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…