NOTE: I don’t usually dive into issues of blogging, but occasionally I do. This is pretty inside baseball sort of stuff, so if it doesn’t interest you, feel free to skip it.
We are in the second inning of a nine inning game in the creation of a new form of travel media. If anyone, myself included, thinks they know how this is all going to end up, they are lying. (not that it will stop me from offering my opinion)
Old institutions are falling apart faster than new institutions are being created. Ask 10 different bloggers how they are trying to make money and you will get 10 different answers.
Freelance writers and seasoned pros are trying to figure out social media and what it is good for, while at the same time new travel blogs are sprouting every day, all trying to vie for limited attention.
Laste year at TBEX I expected about 20 people to show up. 120 actually did. This year the size of the conference tripled and next year it will probably double in size again.
We are in the early phase of a transition period in travel media which is going to probably last the better part of this decade.
Back in the olden days of ought seven, I was able to know many of the travel bloggers on a personal level. There just weren’t that many people. During the last 18 months or so, the number of travel related blogs and sites has exploded. Along with that has come the requisite lists of top blogs, awards and other crap that can be expected in any big niche.
As niches go, travel is pretty small. If you look at some of the monster blogs out there, they tend to be in areas that generate lots of news and discussion: politics, gossip, technology, sports, etc. There isn’t a lot of news in the world of travel. People tend to seek out travel information on an as needed basis, rather than follow blogs passionately like they do in other niches.
That being said, I’m seeing travel blogs hit traffic levels which took me a two years to achieve in less than half that time.
The weird thing is that the travel industry is enormous compared to the industries of the niches I listed above. From a monetization standpoint, the long term potential I think is huge.
How blogs will get monetized is still up in the air. I don’t think there ever will be a single, set way to make money online. Already you see people selling ads, leading tours, selling ebooks, selling photos, offering consulting services, selling real books, and probably things I don’t even know about. My guess, and this is only a guess, is that you’ll see a spectrum of different business models which people will pick and choose from, and use what works best for them.
In the meantime, I see some bloggers who are so desperate to make anything, they do foolish things which hurt them in the long run. They will get worked up over someone selling them $20 for a link, forgetting that this is a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t know what the world will look like in 5 or 10 years, but I do know that building an audience is the one thing you can do today that will pay off down the road. Doing anything over $20 is shortsighted.
This is a tough time to be a freelance writer. Rates are falling through the floor and publications are going out of business. Given the enormous supply of people who are willing to write and the reduction in demand from publications, I don’t think conditions will ever return to where they once were. While there will always be a few people at the top of the heap who will make a career out of freelance writing, for the majority of people, the exchange of cash for text as a business model is gone forever.
The division of labor in large publications meant that writers were immune from the business side of operations. Someone else had to worry about circulation and advertising, while they focused on content. Those barriers are gone and they now have to dirty themselves in the business of business.
Travel writers will need to put out their own shingle, start travel blogging and think of themselves as publishers as much as writers. Trying to stay pure to your craft and just writing will become increasingly difficult.
The future of freelancing (and this is just my speculation) will not be an exchange of money for text, but rather an exchange of exposure and audience for text. It will be more along the lines of the Huffington Post.
Newspaper travel sections are hurting. There are only a handful of full time travel editors in the US today. Their ability to pay for content is shrinking. Someone like me would gladly write an article for free for a major newspaper if it meant driving traffic to my site. If they can provide me the audience, I’ll worry about how to make money from it. I think this will happen because it will be the only choice available when the option is removing the travel section altogether. The economic incentives for someone like me with a blog is totally different than it is for a pure freelance writer. Unfortunately for freelancers, people like me are driving the price to zero and that is the world they have to live in.
Freelance writers have a huge advantage over bloggers like me, however, insofar as they have connections and contacts in the industry they can use to help quickly grow traffic to their blog….if they know how to take advantage of it. There has been increased interest in blogging and social media by some very serious travel writers this year. I expect that to continue.
What is the force which motivates most people in most companies? It isn’t profit maximization, customer service or sales. It is not getting fired.
So much of business world makes sense if you know that people take actions to not be fired. The best way to not get fired is to do what everyone has always done. There is an old saying in technology circles that “no one ever got fired by hiring IBM”.
Circulation and subscription numbers for magazines are total BS and everyone knows they are BS, but it is BS that was mutually agreed upon by everyone in the industry. No one has a clue how many people actually read a given ad in a given issue of a magazine, but advertising decisions are still based on that inaccurate data. Online data is far more accurate, and that actually scares some people, because you can’t hide behind the numbers like you can in print, TV and radio.
If you had $100,000 to spend in an advertising budget, which option is least likely to get you fired?
A) call up Conde Nast Traveler and buy $100,000 advertising, or B) develop a marketing campaign using social media and bloggers and constantly get feedback to improve the campaign.
Of course, you do A because no one will bat an eye at buying ads in a magazine. Even if a new media campaign cost 1/4 the amount and had a better ROI, it will bring a great deal of scrutiny from higher ups, which is something no one who works for a company wants. A few risk takers might try to hit the home run, but most people are happy to just not get fired.
Things are slowly changing, but the day when an ad buy in a print publication is considered the more risky move is still a long ways off. The willingness to dump tens of thousands of dollars on a single ad in a single issue of a single magazine is sort of indicative of how far things have to go. Properly spent, I’m sure that same amount of money spent on a single ad would have many time the impact if spent online.
I am of the opinion that public relations still is rather clueless with respect to dealing with bloggers. The inverse might be true as well, but I’m writing this as a blogger, not a PR person.
I was shocked, and I mean shocked, at the level of ignorance I’ve seen this year with some PR people I’ve met. They had no idea there was a small army of people online writing about travel. As I said above, they are happy to keep doing what they’ve always done so long as they don’t get fired.
I get the impression that everyone in the business knows at a superficial level they need to understand this ‘Twitter and Facebook stuff’, but they really don’t know what to do beyond that. Moreover, their clients are more in the dark than they are, so they have little incentive to really push things.
I also get the impression that many bloggers are just lumped together in their minds and they are all sort of the same to them. If they do a blogger press trip, they just need some bloggers to tell their client they had “bloggers”. Traffic numbers and audience size don’t seem to mean much right now, because I’m not sure that most PR people have any sort of way to evaluate what is good or bad, or convey that to their clients.
I should add that I’ve met some very serious exceptions to my cynical view of PR. I met a few PR people at TBEX who very much do “get it”. It is my hope they multiply and spread over the next few years and that a few of them take the leap to start their own PR firms. The PR people who “get it” should be showered with glowing recommendations by bloggers so they can quickly climb the ladders in their respective firms.
I predict that in 2 or 3 years, most PR firms will have a person in house who’s job is just to work with bloggers and new media people. In 10 years, that role will be unnecessary as everyone will be doing it as part of their day to day work.
On a similar note, I don’t want to leave bloggers off the hook. There is, and always will be, a wide range of bloggers. There will be the consumate professionals and the weekend amateurs looking to just snag free trips. The low barrier of entry ensures that you will never see a uniform level of professionalism in blogging like you do in print. PR companies will have to take the time to find out who is who, and given the large number of bloggers, that is no easy task.
Institutions vs Personalities
Even if I have no clue what the end game looks like, I am fairly certain of one thing: the future is not in large institutional media. The future is in personality driven media, or to borrow a phrase from Jeff Jarvis, entrepreneurial journalism. Trying to replicate magazines online with high cost structures simply will not work. If you want a recipe for failure, just get some offices in midtown Manhattan.
Almost every successful blog you can think of, regardless of niche, has a single person, or at least a dominant personality behind it. They could fire the entire staff of National Geographic tomorrow and people would still read it, because they are buying the brand, not the people. If Perez Hilton, Andrew Sullivan, Mike Arrington, Heather Armstrong or any other successful blogger quit their blog, however, it would probably never be the same.
Institutions came to be because the high cost and barrier to entry in traditional media necessitated a large corporation. All things being equal, people would rather trust and follow a person, but that just isn’t possible for a daily newspaper. It is possible online, and that is exactly what you see.
I think when TBEX ’11 takes place next year in Vancouver, the landscape in travel media will look very different. Some of the things I mentioned above will be fixed or at least addressed. There will be some scandal with some blogger on some press trip. Doors which are now shut will be open to bloggers, but which doors and how wide remain to be seen.
More bloggers will figure things out as experiments in monetization succeed and fail.
I have no idea how it will end up, but I do know it is going to be one helluva ride.