The email was polite and lighthearted. It came from a travel services company and it said all the right things. They ‘loved my blog’, it stated. Then it suggested: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to collaborate?’
To make it happen I just had to post a pre-written article they would provide me with coupled with a specific link, also provided by them. Oh, and I had to quote my price. As they were so nice, they were willing to pay me for the trouble of doing a copy/paste job and hitting the ‘Publish’ button.
They even sent me links to other blogs which had posted similar pre-written articles with a link and promised to heavily promote my blog as soon as I had done my part of the deal.
Minimum effort, social exposure and a cheque?! What’s not to like!
I hit ‘Delete’.
I have been blogging for over a year and a half and for the past six months some heavy thoughts have been playing on my mind. I started blogging because for a few years now I have had this overwhelming need to write, to express myself, to put my opinions across and thus clear up my mind and free up some much needed headspace.
Being caught between three countries – Bulgaria (where I am from), England (where I lived for 14 years and where my husband is from) and Italy (where we currently live), once I settled on a blog name and purchased hosting space, I spontaneously started writing about living abroad, traveling and everyday cultural discoveries and culture shocks. So, if I really have to define my blog and pinpoint its niche, I would say that it is a travel blog with a dose of culture and lifestyle thrown in.
Eager to learn as much as possible about blogging and its travel branch, I threw myself into the deep end. I read articles, followed bloggers, joined groups and even networked a bit.
Initially it was all one happy blur. So much to read, so much to learn, so many ways to hone my writing skills and expand my social media following. It all looked quite straightforward.
There seemed to be a certain path which most bloggers had followed to help them get their writing to as many people as possible. You join a particular travel writing course, you write for certain travel outlets, you post in selected travel groups and boards online, you publish blog posts at particular intervals (daily, if you can manage it, or else at least a couple of times a week), you engage with digital influencers on social media and they help you get the word out there about yourself and your amazing blog.
Once your blog starts hitting at least one or two thousand visits a day and your social media following expands to a few (dozen) thousand followers, then great things, it would seem, begin to happen spontaneously. Invitations for all-expense-paid press trips, requests to judge travel and photo competitions, opportunities for brand collaborations and one-of-a-kind projects will all start appearing in your inbox in larger numbers than you could ever imagine.
Heck, it all sounded quite dreamy. Plus with a handful of travel bloggers actually living the dream, it all sounded quite achievable, too.
And then I started noticing the cracks. And things.
Things which didn’t really seem to be what they appeared to be at a first glance. Small discrepancies here and there. This all confused me a bit. Actually, it confused me quite a lot. And the further I looked into it, the more and more surprised I became at some of the practices employed to make it big in this new blogging world.
With free press trips to exciting destinations at stake, with a social-media-imposed need to publicise your life as though it were a gilded fairytale and with SEO apps constantly reminding you to simplify your blog posts so as to perform better in search engine results, all of a sudden I started to notice travel blogs which were more like a perfect exercise in marketing rather than a genuine story of a person who loves to travel and discover the world with an analytical eye.
If I have to be blunt, I would say that ferocious competition, market saturation and a very narrow writing approach seem to have turned the promising branch of travel blogging into a sort of play it by numbers game. Everything seems dedicated to numbers: from how many people you can get to follow you across the different social platforms to how many all-expense-paid press trips you can be invited to every year.
It is no wonder then some bloggers fall into the trap of certain not really honest practices while at the same time travel writing as such suffers and doesn’t seem to evolve as it should be.
I grew up reading books by authors who had traveled the breadth of Earth and then some. Long before terms such as ‘travelogue’ and ‘blog’ were coined, long before the dawn of the internet, there were people who traveled, explored, and wrote about it in full glorious technicolor detail giving you a lively, engaging and realistic account of other countries and their cultures. The writing was inspiring and made me dream.
Then when the web gave everyone the power to become a publisher and easily write about their own experiences and give their own first-hand advice, the expectation was that this could only improve the quality of writing as a whole and the quality of travel writing in particular. Instead of picking up a book – one of the few which had made the strict cut of a publishing house – you could simply trawl the vast number of travel blogs online and read immediate in-depth accounts of what it means to live and travel beyond your comfort zone.
As it happened, at least for me, this is not quite the case. Nowadays with bloggers conditioned to think that their only goal is to attract a maximum amount of followers, secure a huge number of web hits and thus gain an invitation to a press trip or brand collaboration at any cost, it seems that the general approach is to write travel- and packing-orientated lists, product reviews and destination guides and to present the world as this colourful and perfectly instagrammable place where you can’t help it but jump for joy and take a picture while suspended for a fraction of a second mid-air in front of an instantly recognisable tourist sight.
Sentences get simpler and shorter, destinations are chosen based on their picture-factor and every experience, every trip of a lifetime gets streamlined into short paragraphs with colourful headings allowing the reader to quickly scan through the page and then move on consumed by impossible travel lust and a bit of envy of the glorious life of the blogger.
In the different travel groups on Facebook I am a member of, I sometimes see people asking for advice along these lines: ‘I am a newly started travel blogger. Shall I write what people supposedly want to read, i.e. guides for particular countries and places, and lists along the lines of ’10 Things to See When You Are in …’ or shall I write about my own experiences?’
And sometimes I really, really can’t stop myself and post a comment along these line: ‘Write about yourself and your experiences in this big wide world. What did you see when you went to a particular place, how did you engage with the local people, what did you learn about the local culture, did you have problems during your stay, how did you feel about it all. And, for the love of God, don’t write yet another half-researched, half-superficial guide to a place where you have been for three days and don’t know much about it anyway beyond whatever the company sponsoring the trip has decided to show you. Don’t compose yet another listicle with colourful pictures and not much text showcasing places you have only passed by, but actually never spent time inside. Instead, go out there and explore, no matter how big or small the destination is and then write truthfully about your experience, don’t gloss it over, don’t make it sound like a fairytale.’
Most often than not though I simply contain myself, as I don’t want to come across as being rude, and also with my small social numbers I know I will not be perceived as the best person to give advice as to how to achieve success in travel blogging.
Irrespective of this and after reading one listicle-dedicated blog too many, now I know for sure what type of blogger I want to follow and thus what type of blogger I want to be. I want to read stories which inspire me, make me laugh, make me think and make me empathise. I want to read the musings of people who are not afraid to be themselves, who write about the world the way they see it and get under the skin of places in the most truthful way instead of simply trying to appease a brand and/or stuffing their blog posts with specially researched keywords.
Hence and based on all of the above I have compiled this list of eight deadly sins a travel blogger could commit. Sorry for being blunt again, but as soon as I detect any of the below transgressions in a blog post, I move along. This saves me a lot of time and gives me a chance to keep searching for truthful in-depth travel and living abroad accounts, instead of keep reading the same type of gushing content over and over again.
The world is a big place and under the sun there is place for all sorts of blogging approaches and philosophies. It is just that with everything that happens nowadays, with life being both so tragic and uplifting, with cultures which both clash and live happily side by side, I am simply looking for realistic and analytical blogging styles. I am done with the visuals-over-matter impossible ideal, with the faux enthusiasm and the unsustainable positivism.
So sorry if this makes you feel uncomfortable, but traveling and exploring, and discovering the world should be something more than simply ticking the entries off yet another list. They should be something more than perfectly arranged coffee cups from no matter which country and which continent. They should be something so much more than a perfectly styled grid, otherwise we are doing a great disservice to blogging and instead of uplifting its citizen journalism value we denigrate it to yet another advertising channel which makes us aspire to what has never been.
As such, here are
THE EIGHT DEADLY SINS OF TRAVEL BLOGGING
all entirely defined by me. So, take them at face value. When formulating them, most probably I didn’t have in mind personally you and your blog. Their aim is not to make you feel uncomfortable or defensive. Their aim is simple – to outline some bad practices in which some of us have or have not engaged at some point in their blogging time.
It would be so great if these practices spontaneously get whittled down. Unfortunately, this is not going to happen any time soon.
1. Buying Followers
With so many brands and personalities to follow, it is incredibly difficult for a new or even an established blogger to attract a meaningful and an ever-increasing number of followers on social media nowadays. And without a significant following you are not considered an influencer. In other words, what you have to say doesn’t carry the all important stamp of social approval or, yet in other words, no-one of importance (i.e. tourism bodies and travel companies) is really that interested in whatever you have to say. So, you have two options. You can graft hard, write splendid content, spend all of your free time networking and building your numbers. Or, you can buy a couple of or a dozen of or even a hundred of thousand followers rather cheaply. A thoughtful seller will even bump your following slowly and gradually so as not to arouse suspicion in your sudden social popularity. The actual downside of this cheat technique is that your social engagement will be unbelievably tiny in comparison with your large number of followers (as they are bought, so even if they are real people rather than simple bots, chances are they will be not that interested in whatever you have to say). The perceived upside though is that now you can bump up your blog’s media pack with some impressive figures and start sending it away to brands and PR companies in an eager pursuit to pick some rewarding press trips and other such opportunities to write about and promote to your ‘large’ social following. The thing is though if you are prepared to cheat at this level, what else you are prepared to lie about in terms of blogging? If your integrity can be compromised by paying for social media followers, what else you are going to be dishonest about?
2. Only Writing About Sponsored Experiences
The second a blog starts posting only about places they have been paid (either in cash or through provision of free services) to visit, I click off. In principle, there is nothing wrong with taking a press trip here and there or working together on a project or two with brands. I have done both. For me the problem starts when the blog does nothing but this, when there is no healthy balance between self-funded, self-researched adventures and sponsored visits to PR-approved experiences. Then, for me, the blog becomes simply one big marketing machine. Blogs need to survive. Travel blogs especially can be very expensive to maintain not just in terms of hosting fees and time taken to write blog posts. They are very costly also in terms of gear you need to have in order to guarantee the quality of your blog’s output (from DSLR camera to such modern gadgets like a Go-Pro and even a drone), in terms of skills you need to acquire – like writing and photo processing – and, most importantly, in terms of money you need to spend to get from one place to another and, once there, to visit the respective sights and discover new ones to share. Not everyone can afford to lead a nomadic lifestyle or to visit a new country every month or so. And readers are thirsty for new content, for bright and wanderlust-provoking pictures, for meaningful recommendations for places they can visit themselves. Here working with brands can come in very handy. Having the opportunity to sample what they offer and then write about it on your blog can help you create some really amazing blog posts. But, at least for me, there needs to be a balance. A balance between how much content is generated based on press trips and how many articles a blogger writes because he or she continues to explore both near and far off places of interest in his or her own time and with his or her own finances. When I read a blog I want to see the person behind it, feel his or her emotions, discover his or her thought process. I don’t want to simply read a regurgitated press release or look at stunning, but very carefully edited out photos which don’t portray the truth about a place. I need to see a balance between the editorial and the advertorial content. I need to know that the person I have spent my time reading has an inner integrity and a real curiousity towards this world, rather than simply shilling a destination because someone has provided him or her with free access to it.
3. Writing About Places They Have Never Been To
I have to admit that this is something which really bugs me. Why would a travel blogger spend the time and energy to write about a place they have no intention and/or the means to go to any time soon and then post a blog post recommending particular things to do and visit while there, considering that they have never done, nor visited any of them?! I got the reply to this question when I received the email I told you about right at the start of this expose. As it would appear, some travel bloggers do so because they are being paid by companies to either post a pre-written post on their blog or to research and write their own article. In both cases though the blogger, it seems, has to include one or more links provided by the company with the resulting blog post. Such paid ‘linking’ aims to improve the company’s standing in search engine results and, as a matter of fact, it’s a practice frowned upon (if not outright forbidden) by said search engines. If a blog is caught engaging in such practices its search ranking can suffer dramatically. Yet, some bloggers seem to do it again and again. The worst thing for me is that the quality of travel writing suffers in result. How can you honestly recommend things to see and do at a place you have never been to? Isn’t this a tad misleading and don’t you have some respect for your readers?
4. Being Overly Positive
This is a rather thorny thing to complain about, isn’t it!? You know how there is this expectation in the blogging world to be always positive about things? Quite often bloggers state that their blog is an escape from real life, hence, they go out of their way to make it pretty and aspirational, full of travels and things we can only dream of. I much prefer reality. Especially in terms of travel writing. I would rather read about the nitty-gritty of travel experiences and get the actual low-down instead of a superficial glossed over information about a particular destination. I would rather compelling first-hand accounts of real life adventures instead of quickly drawn lists with little or no substance at all. Exalting about a particular hotel or resort when the country in which it is located faces serious social and political issues won’t convince me that I need to go there. A level-headed analytical blog post of these issues from a traveller’s and/or a tourist’s point of view may actually make me want to learn more about the country and even consider visiting it. Fawning over a particular sight, but failing to mention, for example, a danger of pickpockets around it or that one shouldn’t go there after dark, is an approach which fosters unrealistic expectations of travel. I understand the need to cultivate a positive disposition and mind, yet a travel writer should be able to inject a dose of reality and in-depth local knowledge into his or her writings.
5. Skimming Through Destinations and Not Straying Off the Beaten Path
Taking Italy as an example, as I currently live here, I can quite responsibly tell you that if I see another listicle along the lines of ‘How to Do Italy in 2 Weeks’ or ’10 Things To Do in Rome (or Venice, or Florence)’, I might as well scream. Scream, not because I don’t like Venice or Florence (I adore them both and I am hoping to visit Rome some time soon), but because, it would seem, too many people come to Italy and never stray off of the beaten path. They seem to be happy to see what thousands of other people have seen before them and do just what millions of other people have done before them. And then, they sit down and regurgitate the same old advice reducing the country to a few carefully selected perfectly produced photos with some text attached to them. Italy and every other country around the world has so much more to offer than a rushed visit to its main cities. This is why I am always in awe of travel writers who stray off the beaten path, who go out there and are not afraid to explore, to engage with the locals on a meaningful level, to uncover hidden treasures like little towns and villages with unusual traditions and amazing sights. On the other hand, skimming through destinations is another issue of the organised press trips when several bloggers are herded from one place to the next, shown the local sights in a quick and efficient way and moved along before they have had the time to actually engage. As such, travelling on your own, planning your own adventures and being spontaneous is paramount, at least to me, in order to develop unique travel writing style.
6. Writing Blog Posts Based on Years-Old Memories
I fully understand that often there is a certain lag between visiting a place and actually writing about it on your blog. Heck, blogging is very time-consuming and with all the picture processing thrown in, it can take a good few weeks before a blog post is polished and ready for publishing by which point you may have returned from the place the post is about. Yet, unfortunately, I have come across blog posts written up to seven years after the visit to the described place had taken place. I wonder what type of useful information can be gleaned from such a post, apart from the value of sharing memories online?! In our quickly evolving world, things change dramatically. I remember moving to a small town in Kent, England after 12 years living in London. After six months of the quiet life, I had to travel to London for the day to run a couple of errands. I was amazed how much the British capital had changed within such a short amount of time. I felt like all the knowledge that I had accumulated about London during my 12 years there needed a serious upgrade. It felt like a completely new place. I would imagine all big cities in the world change at similar accelerated rates. I remember reading a blog post offering suggestions as to what to do and see in Venice. The blog post had been just posted on a rather popular travel blog, yet one of its recommendations was to go to Rialto Bridge to admire its beautiful architecture. At that point the bridge had been covered for extensive restoration works for just over a year with another at least six months to go before the bridge would be fully accessible again. It was obvious that the writer hadn’t been to Venice soon.
7. Engaging in Follow-4-Follow, Like-4-Like and Comment Exchange
There are whole groups set up with the sole purpose to facilitate travel bloggers to comment on each other’s blog posts and to mutually like and share each other’s postings on social media. Once a week or more often, depending on the group, its admin would post something along the lines of: ‘Post a link to your latest blog post below and then click on all links shared and comment on the respective blog posts’. I find this a rather sneaky practice aiming to artificially increase social engagement and to make the blog appear more popular than it actually is. Everyone seems obsessed with the number of comments and likes they are getting. So, considering that in the last few years or so, comment engagement on blogs has dramatically decreased, some bloggers would try anything in order to get a number of comments (no matter how inane some of them) underneath their posts. Similar threads promoting like-4-like and follow-4-follow are also regularly posted on such groups. The aim is to follow each other’s social media accounts so as to visually bump the number of followers. Personally, I find this approach quite dishonest as it doesn’t promote organic, meaningful engagement, but a simple accumulation of numbers in order to impress a brand or two.
8. Poor Writing, Storytelling and Language Skills
English is not my mother tongue, so, yes, I fully understand how difficult it can be at times to write and maintain a blog entirely in English or in a language which you don’t speak from birth. At the same time, spelling and grammar mistakes could really detract from a blog post, not to mention articles written in one language but which seem to have been thought in another. In other words, when your knowledge of a language is not deep enough, you happen to think in your own mother tongue and then translate in your head that natural stream of thought into the language in which you blog. The result can be a rather stilted, unnatural writing, which doesn’t make much sense. Linguistic issues aside and even among native speakers, there seem to be an issue with storytelling skills. An ever increasing number of bloggers, it would seem, embrace only too tightly a manner of simplified writing which leaves you, at best, uninspired and, at worst, not being able to recall what you just read only half an hour ago. I think this is down to the fact that bloggers, both new and established, are now so worried about numbers and clicks, that most bloggers feel a terrible need to write what they think people want to read, i.e. listicles and short city guides. This, combined with all of the above, peels off any opportunity for a deep, analytical and beautiful to read blogging prose.
Well, this is all in a nutshell. The above are just some of the thoughts which have been plaguing me for the past six months or so with regards to blogging and traveling. I am sure there are many different points of view and mine is just one of them, so, please, take it or leave it as you see fit.
My main concern though is that practices such as the ones highlighted above actually seem to be turning travel blogs into visuals-over-matter environment where stunning envy-inducing photos matter more than lifting the veil over a country and a culture. We all love looking at beautiful pictures, no harm in them as such. We all love to read something quick and easy to digest, also no harm in that.
The harm happens when our own travel expectations get reduced to getting the perfect photo at any cost ourselves and to visit places based on the potential popularity they can get us on social media instead of striving for some meaningful contact with the visited place, instead of pursuing experiences which enlarge our horizons and/or make us feel happy and relaxed, and instead of simply living in the moment rather always being on the lookout to capture that perfect shot which will get us the most likes.
What do you think?