Katie Dillon writes a luxury family travel and lifestyle site called La Jolla Mom that is named after her seaside community in San Diego. Before settling in La Jolla, she and her husband spent seven years as expats in London and then Hong Kong where her daughter was born. She joins us this week to talk about how an accidental start led to a successful blog and to offer her insight on the business of blogging.
You have a very popular blog at LaJollaMom.com, please share with us how you got started and what your journey has been like in building your blog to its current readership.
I had an accidental start, actually. We lived in Hong Kong and my daughter was born there. My other expat friends had started private family blogs to keep overseas relatives up to date with photos of their kids and tidbits from their daily adventures. This decreased the amount of phone calls (difficult to schedule with the time change) made and emails sent because people could simply log on to the internet so see what they were up to. So, this is what I did. When it came time to move home to La Jolla, mom blogging was starting to take off. Since I already knew the back end of a blog, I thought having one might be a good outlet for me as a stay-at-home mom. My initial strategy is one that proved to work out well. I focused on topics that I thought I might Google, rather than on my own family ramblings (which is what a lot of mom blogs back then did).
At the time, I didn’t realize travel blogs existed. We’d been expats for seven years and traveled all over the place. I didn’t think people would care that I called Four Seasons hotel home or lived in London. A year or two in, I wrote a series (that is in dire need of an update) about flying long haul with babies and toddlers that absolutely took off. My daughter and I have been crossing the Pacific multiple times per year since she was about four weeks old so it is a topic I know well. It was then that I realized that people did need travel tips and that they did like to read about other people’s travels.
Had I known that, I would have started writing about travel immediately and my blog name would definitely be different. On the flip side, the name has served me well as La Jolla is a beautiful, affluent community in San Diego. Some brands really like this. And, I think readers are more comfortable reaching out to me for travel advice because of the mom part.
I know sometimes experienced bloggers or travel writers think they won’t get much out of the sessions at a writers’ conference, but I believe you were pleasantly surprised by one you attended this year. What did you end up coming away with for your business?
Truth be told, I stopped going to conferences because I wasn’t learning anything. I am good friends with bloggers that I’ve met at conferences. I hadn’t seen many of them in a while so I figured that worst case scenario, I’d go to TBEX in Huntsville and catch up with them over drinks at the bar. Instead, I wound up walking away with new friends and a ton of advanced information about ad networks and affiliate marketing that has already increased my income.
I still believe some of the best networking happens the bar just by talking to people who do what you do. They might offer one small piece of advice that really can make a difference. I was at a different conference recently and just happened to overhear someone at the bar talk about a way that they earn affiliate commissions on a particular theme park. I had already tried multiple times to Google this information. So, I immediately went to my computer and signed up.
You use Adthrive to manage your automated advertising as opposed to Mediavine. Why did you choose Adthrive and what benefits have you seen from its use?
I was hesitant to join an ad network because I worried that readers would be bothered by the ads in the posts, footer and header (I can not bring myself to put ads on my images). To make money with an ad network, you really do have to have a decent amount of ads on every page. But I love Travel + Leisure and Sunset Magazine (to name a few) and they have these ads like this, too. I also worried that these ads would slow my site down and hurt my Google traffic. The end result is that my traffic is better than ever and my bounce rate hasn’t changed so I’m really kicking myself for not doing this earlier. I am earning so much more money than I was with a random affiliate banners or Google ad here and there. I joined AdThrive a few months ago. It’s early days but I am happy with it so far and they do have good customer service.
For bloggers just building their sites, what tips would you share for securing sponsorships and monetizing a blog?
I would do what it takes to buy the good camera gear and learn how to use it. Learn how to edit photos and shoot video well straight out of the gate. There simply will be less time to educate yourself once you start focusing on writing content, gaining sponsorships, and managing social media. I truly believe that good photos can catapult you forward. And start with a clean design.
Your blog is a blend of lifestyle and travel topics including food, products and local events. Do you have specific percentages you devote to each topic? How do you balance your content?
I’ve been more or less a one woman show, with a little bit of help here and there, until this month actually. I write when I can and hadn’t ever managed a calendar. Well, it’s a bit of a shock to now have a calendar. I’m working with a digital agency to whip my work habits and site into better shape. We’ll see how it goes but I’m overwhelmed by the thought of planning a month or two in advance which is what a proper calendar requires.
I have started focusing more and more on my San Diego content because about a year ago I realized that a large percentage of my readers are reading because they’re planning San Diego vacations. I now plan some content based on the questions that I’m getting from them. And, I figured this out partially because I started using more affiliate links so I see what hotels, tickets and tours people are booking in addition to which pages are driving those bookings. You can learn a lot from studying your links.
Time management is challenging for everyone but it can be especially challenging when you’re a mom. What tips do you have for balancing mom time with work time?
I think the answer is really just figuring out how to work as efficiently as possible to gets things done without sacrificing family time. The work simply has to get done so that I have time to pack school lunches, walk the dog, and drive on field trips. Otherwise, it has to wait. (I do need to slot in more gym time… I’m working on it.)
Balance overall is a struggle especially for me because I’m the type of person who likes to burn the candle at both ends. I am learning to delegate which has been a long and difficult process for me. I hit a wall though. My pace is not sustainable unless I get help. So, I addition to hiring professionals to help me with ongoing social media and SEO, I use Fiverr for things like tough photo edits or Canva PDFs that would otherwise take lots of time to make myself. It took me much longer than expected to find good people so expect to invest significant time in delegation in the beginning.
Focus on what makes you money. Instagram is my favorite social media platform but also the one that gives me the most headache. I was spending too much time on it (hours per day at one point) trying to achieve similar engagement to people using alternative strategies that work, but that I’m not currently comfortable with (a very futile effort). The time I was spending on it was totally out of line. My blog generates exponentially more money than Instagram. So, I basically started using Instagram like a normal person and feel so much less stressed out.
Of the destinations you’ve visited around the world, what are three favorites for your family and why?
Hong Kong is my favorite destinations for sentimental reasons so we return every year to see old friends and visit favorite haunts. I absolutely loved living there.
London is another favorite. It’s partially because we lived there, too, but also because it’s full of history, easy to get around and I love its luxury hotels. I took my daughter there last summer to do all things Harry Potter. Not only was it fun to see the city in a different light but you can actually sightsee well in London in the process of visiting places featured in the movies.
My daughter studies Mandarin so we travel to China often. I think the value for what you get there is awesome when it comes to hotels, especially. My favorite city in China is Chengdu (yes, we love pandas and have volunteered as panda keepers) but for longer term stays, I’d say Shanghai. I never, ever run out of things to do in Shanghai. I love the food, shopping, water towns and sort of getting “lost” in random side streets with my camera.
Katie’s knowledge of luxury travel stems from plenty of first-hand experience as most of the Dillon family’s time overseas was spent living in a Four Seasons hotel apartment. Luxe Getaways Magazine, Luxury Retreats Magazine and Four Seasons Magazine are a few of the publications that Katie contributes to. She is also the San Diego editor for USA TODAY/10Best and never fully unpacked. Connect with her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.