I’ve tipped a few beers with Jeremy Jones in several locations and have enjoyed the This Week in Blogging newsletter he has been putting together with Christopher Mitchell. He is best known for an international travel blog Living the Dream and local Pennsylvania one Discover the Burgh. We touched base this week to talk about the challenging climate for travel writing and the upsides of a diversified income.
You worked one of the most unrelated “real jobs” of any travel writer I know. Tell us about your transition from working stiff with a side hustle to a full-time blogger.
This is very true! I have a background in Chemical Engineering and worked in the water industry for six years before pursuing my blogs full time. I often joke that my least favorite classes in college were composition and programming, and now I do that for a living—hah!
The transition was a long slog, I’m not going to lie. It took me 10 years of nights and weekends (80+ hour weeks) to finally get my blogs to make a full-time income and I’ve now been doing it as my full-time job for two years.
When it came to making the leap I looked at things from a financial angle more than the potential of the sites as it would’ve been fairly hard to replace my day job income with a side hustle outright. I spent a lot of time using our blogging income to pay off our debts (cars, student loans, etc.) which then allowed me to still be able to survive financially on a lot less while pursuing this career. My life isn’t much different now, except that I can publish content more frequently (which has helped considerably with growth) and that I don’t have to set an alarm in the morning. I’ll take that as a win.
You have a blog that covers the world and another that’s hyper-local. Most people reading this are doing the former, but what’s the advantage of one that just covers your home area of Pittsburgh?
Local blogs tap into a relevancy factor that global blogs often cannot reach. For our travel blog, only a select number of people may be interested in our content from the Maldives, or Egypt, or France. So marketing on social media is much harder. (I’ve pivoted to writing almost purely for search traffic because of this.) Likewise, we can only travel a finite number of days per year so the total amount of content we can generate is limited there as well.
Locally, our content is much more relevant to all of our readers and much easier to create. Around 75%+ of our audience lives within a few hours of the city, which means that everything we write about is accessible at a moment’s notice. We frequently get comments from readers who see a post on social media and go out and check out the park or restaurant that same day. You just can’t get that with global travel.
Likewise, I’ve found that one form of success on social networks is all about getting your audience to share your content. If a reader in Pittsburgh shares our article, their friends and family will see it. In many cases, they also live in the area and may be interested in the topic such that they too may like, read, or even share the content. I cannot overstate how much this has helped our site grow in ways we simply can’t replicate on our global travel blog.
What are your income streams like and how have you pivoted in these challenging times to keep the cash flowing?
I really hate working on sponsored campaigns of any type, so I’ve spent most of my time building up income via display advertising (Mediavine) and affiliate programs. A lot of this is based on the total volume of traffic our sites receive and having the right content in order to convert affiliate sales—so that helped give me a fair bit of direction in the content we publish. (I’ve also published an article on the travel affiliate programs we’ve had success with in recent years.)
Prior to COVID, things were going quite well. Our sites were receiving about 300,000 page views a month combined (75% local blog, 25% global travel) and we were flirting with five figures of gross monthly income almost purely by passive sources. After COVID hit, well, let’s just say I had one month where we barely made $1,000—2020 has not been kind at all.
I’m thankful that local travel rebounded much quicker than global travel (we’ve actually had year-over-year growth the last few months), and the ad revenue we receive on that site is helping us get by. Airbnb also opened an affiliate program this year which allowed us to recover lost hotel commissions quite well thanks to the changing travel styles of the moment. Global travel, well, that site is more or less dormant and I don’t expect that to make any real money on it until the world opens up again.
Once things normalized on those sites, I’ve been putting most of my effort working on new projects in hopes that they start paying off in 2021, 2022, and beyond, but I recognize that I’m in a very fortunate position to be able to do that.
You and Chris Mitchell launched the This Week in Blogging Newsletter and Facebook group this year. What prompted that and how has it been going?
Chris approached me at IMM in New York in January 2020, literally bouncing up and down about an idea for a blogging newsletter he had, and if you have ever met Chris you know his energy level even when he is not excited. So it was a pretty easy pitch for me to sign on with.
The main idea of This Week in Blogging is to fill the void in curating the news that is relevant to bloggers while providing entertainment and value—all in a free, weekly newsletter. He kind of likened the idea to Morning Brew or The Hustle, but for bloggers and those operating in new media.
COVID was actually kind of a blessing for giving both of us more time to start new projects, and this was one of them. We ended up talking about it for about five months, running through dozens of ideas, and monitoring the weekly news to determine viability before launching in the spring. So far we’ve been pretty blown away by the response as we were clearly not alone in thinking this was something needed in the industry. One of my favorite parts is bringing in industry experts to respond to the news each week as well (when relevant); it’s been very insightful!
We still have some big plans in the works for the future and are going to be hitting things really hard over winter when the world slows down again to get some new features and products rolling out.
What advice would you give to a brand new travel blogger or one trying to transition from freelance travel writer to publisher?
I’m a big proponent of niching down and carving out your space on the internet where you are the only one looking at a topic from a specific angle.
You aren’t doing yourself any favors if you start a general city blog when five other people are already doing it well. You’re especially not doing yourself any favors if you are starting the 3,000th general travel blog, either. Even in good times, there are still only a finite number of potential readers out there, and only 6-10 positions on the first page of Google. That’s arguably the largest traffic source on the internet, for now, so being the 2nd, 3rd, or 3,000th to do something is likely giving yourself unneeded competition from the start.
The good news is there is always the potential to look at something from a different angle that can make you unique. Does the world need another blog about blogging? No. But we saw a need for the newsletter, and the blogging component was a natural extension of that. I also started a wine blog during quarantine as well and thought about it from a similar perspective. This is another highly saturated market, but we couldn’t find anyone looking at it from the angle of trying every wine varietal in the world (around 1,300 or so grapes). So while our content may not be much different than other wine blogs, it is simply packaged differently, so that allows our marketing to posture us as being unique.
I think this is where we are as an industry, and is something I’d recommend researching heavily when starting a new site.
Pull out the crystal ball: how and where do you think you will travel next year?
Assuming we get a vaccine at some point early in the year, a lot of my travel plans for 2021 will simply be all the places we wanted to go to in 2020 but had to cancel. I had conferences lined up in Puerto Rico (NATJA) and Delaware (MATPRA) that got pushed to next year. We were also going to visit friends in Seattle this year and decided to push it to next year as well, which is fortunate because TBEX announced a conference in Washington’s wine region in 2021 as well. Naturally, I booked that too.
We were originally going to go to Portugal this fall and hope to go next year. We’re also looking at taking a trip to Georgia (the country) to explore the wine regions as well. It is looking to be a very wine-centric year if we are ever allowed to travel again!
I’ve also been tempted on buying some of those cheap plane tickets I’ve been seeing on Scott’s Cheap Flights for spring travel, but haven’t been able to convince myself on the risk vs. reward proposition just yet (sub-$300 flights to Japan from Pittsburgh are teasing me right now). If I can spend most of 2021 on the road I am all in on that idea: my travel blog is going to need some serious love next year.
Jeremy Jones is a serial blogger who runs several sites including Living the Dream (global travel), Discover the Burgh (Pittsburgh), The Grape Pursuit (wine), and This Week in Blogging (blogging). He started his travel blog in 2008 and made the leap to being a full-time blogger in 2018. Over the years he has visited 74 countries, explored nearly 1,000 spots in southwest Pennsylvania, and is currently working on wine certifications with WSET (Level 2).