Over the years we have worked on many projects in the travel world to try and get our name out there and earn a living from our work. Out of all of the projects we've worked on, this site- a global travel blog focused on long-term travel, and our newest site Discover the Burgh– a local blog for the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have grown the most.
The interesting thing about these two blogs is not their differences in how we run them. To be honest, we run them almost entirely on the same business model. What makes them unique is that the potential for growing and earning revenue on our local blog far eclipses anything we've been able to achieve with our global site.
As such, we wanted to share some of our thoughts today as to why that is, and what you need to consider when launching a local blog of your own to try and get into this (relatively) untapped marketplace.
Let others chase down the global marketplace all they want- city blogging is the next big thing.
The First, and Most Important Question: Is It Viable?
You know what I hate? Guides that encourage you to go create a blog because the author found success in theirs.
It doesn't work that way.
All that comes out of that are would-be bloggers who are not prepared. They end up spending hundreds of dollars through affiliate links, making the author of the post money, while ultimately failing getting their blog off the ground three months later.
I'm going to be honest with you. Yes, this post is going to contain affiliate links, and yes, we'd love you to buy through us- but that is not the point. I don't want you jumping into something you're not prepared for.
This guide is designed to help you determine if you are, and then give you the tools in order to make your blogging journey a success at the crucial beginning stages.
So the first question you should ask yourself is not: how can I start a city blog? But rather: is the idea viable?
The following are questions you should research first before doing anything at all (and our responses for Discover the Burgh). In knowing these, you'll get an idea on whether your city blog concept is viable at all:
- What is the population of the city? Ours is 300,000.
- What is the population of the greater city area? Ours is 2.4 million.
- How many visitors does your city get per year? Ours is 7 million.
- Does your city have a strong city pride? One word: Steelers.
- How many similar websites currently exist? We counted six.
- How many of them are doing it exactly like what you want to do? Out of those six, maybe two for us. Although I wouldn't say it would be direct competition as they are still different.
- Can you do it better than them? Naturally, we said yes based on our experience blogging for seven years at Living the Dream.
- How? We applied our method of covering a city like we do global destinations to make a travel guide, not a living guide, such that it'd be applicable for both locals and visitors alike.
- How much money can you make? A major city magazine's online blog with 600,000 monthly views charges about $3,000 per month per sidebar ad- a healthy $5 CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions). This was a good sanity check for us.
- Can you create content 6 months from now? 1 year? 2 years? We made a list of every attraction, restaurant, outdoor space, food truck, bar, brewery, hotel, winery, etc that we wanted to visit and thought we could write about. That figure exceeded 200 on a very rudimentary first pass which would be more than enough for two years of writing.
- Finally, why do you want to open a city blog? We love exploring our city, and a blog is a great way to force us to see more than our comfort zone and favorite spots (most of which we were going to explore regardless). Done!
As you can see, there are numerous questions you need to ask yourself prior to launching a city blog. If your city doesn't have a huge number of residents or visitors, or doesn't have enough attractions or experiences, your traffic options may not be there. If your city is too large, there may be tons of other bloggers out there doing exactly what you want to do (and may be better at it, too).
If you are like us you may find that sweet spot halfway in between, and those who have that luxury may find city blogging to be a worthwhile opportunity. For those who aren't, you may have to do more research to see if any broader opportunities (state level blogs) or sub-niches (sports, food, wine blogs) may be available to help you refine your idea further.
The problem with this step is that only you can determine the answers to the above questions for yourself, and is something we think everyone must do before starting a city blog.
What You'll Need to Get Started
To get started blogging, you can easily setup a free blog and run with it. But if you're looking to do it professionally, and be taken seriously in what you do, you'll need a customized website. The following are a few of the services we use that are necessary to get off the ground:
- A Custom Domain (Godaddy or others)
- Bluehost Hosting Package (Good price to value for the service)
- WordPress Theme (We use and love Elegant Themes)
I do not want to re-invent the wheel with this post in how to start a travel blog (you can read our full guide at the previous link).
After, explore everything you can to learn basic blogging styles, CSS customization to make your site design shine, and other general practices that we aren't covering here. It'll help in the long run.
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(We also fully recommend having a nice camera- our Sony a6000 mirrorless and 20mm prime lens is wonderful, as well as editing software like Lightroom. Good photos are key, so learn how to use your camera now!)
Blogging may seem easy from the outside, but it is incredibly time consuming and requires a lot of knowledge just like any professional field. As such, those who already run websites (especially global travel bloggers) will have a much easier experience with this step in the long run.
Social Media and Newsletter Growth
As much as I want to tell you that getting your city blog running is publishing the first 100 articles and getting indexed in Google, I'm not entirely true if that would be the right response. At least not anymore.
You see, successful blogging is more than just one check list item. This is where I think that most bloggers fail because they think that publishing a few articles per week is going to make them grow.
Unfortunately, what happens more often than not is that plan for publishing three articles per week drops to two, then one, and then goes to just a few per month as the result of not seeing any appreciable return on your time. I've seen many bloggers lamenting this on Travel Blog Success, because their growth of just a few page views and a few Facebook fans per week is not up to their liking.
The truth of the matter is simply this: people aren't just going to find your content. You have to shove it in their faces.
Only when your site gets to a sufficient size does the audience and powers that be (meaning Google and the social networks) ensure you carry-on into the future. At the beginning, it is all on you.
The first step into doing this is getting your social media profiles off the ground and building an audience there. This can be done through several avenues:
- Following users interested in your topic on Twitter: You can follow up to 2,000 before being limited, and many will follow you back. Choose wisely. In the first three months we had over 1,000 followers just by targeting users who live in and/or like Pittsburgh by their profile description, and are growing organically by about 100 followers per month after that just by our updates being shared by those followers.
- Advertise on Facebook: On just $3 per day we had one ad bringing in over 500 new likes per week of individuals within 25 miles of our city. Our Facebook page became larger than one of the most popular food blogs in the city within four months on just $300 in advertising. In five months and another $75 it was bigger than Living the Dream (which has over 5,000 fans).
- Find popular hash-tags on Instagram and follow targeted accounts: Growth on Instagram is not as rapid in follow backs as Twitter, but good images going out to popular tags got us over 500 followers in three months.
- Get in touch with the influencers: It doesn't take much to reach out to your local tourist board, neighborhood associations, bloggers, photographers, and city icons and let them know what you're doing. For most, especially local organizations, they'll be more than happy to share your content with their followers (especially if you give a share in return, too!). Just be sure to keep shares of 3rd party content limited as your content is the most important of all!
As you can see, in three months, $300 in advertising, and a bit of outreach on our part we were able to bring in over 6,000 followers from within our city across all social networks.
A new blogger may need more trial-and-error to do this, but these methods do work and give you a valuable jump-start on bringing traffic over to your blog and newsletter.
Our best Facebook ad featured an iconic stock photo of the city and the text “Stay connected with the best restaurants, businesses, and attractions in [city]!” Users within 25 miles converted as low as 5 cents per like!
Posting Patterns on Social Media and the Website
Unfortunately, building social networks and newsletters are not enough to make money online. Unless you are extraordinarily popular with millions of followers, the money will never come on its own (and even then it is very unlikely). No, the list building mentioned above is purely designed for one thing: to get eyeballs connected to your content.
Naturally, you need to be giving your fans content in order for that to happen!
Our update pattern on Discover the Burgh currently takes on the following plan, with every single piece of content being one we personally generated (you can also click on the links below to see our update patterns on the social channels):
- Twitter: 8-15 images and posts per day scheduled via both Revive Old Posts and AutoTweeter Pro.
- Facebook: 1-2 images per day and 1 article per day.
- Pinterest: 10 images across all of sites scheduled via Viraltag. This amounts to 1-2 images per day on Pittsburgh only.
- Instagram: 1 image per day.
- Website: 3 articles per week at a minimum.
This is actually much more work than it sounds like, and we're struggling to make this at times. This is one of the main reasons why most new bloggers fail because if you're going to build an audience at social media, you have to keep at it no matter what.
To reach this threshold we cannot say enough about Viraltag, as mentioned above, and also the fact that we force ourselves to get out and visit one attraction, one restaurant, one neighborhood, and one bar/brewery/vineyard per week in order to be able to produce our minimum 3 article requirement. After the first four months exploring our city we ended up taking over 4,000 images based on this exploration pattern. A few weekends later we had those images sorted, edited, and arranged for constant shares, which allowed us to make our thresholds outlined above relatively easily when using the service.
It is a lot of work but so worth it. The following is a snapshot of our results so far after just six months of blogging:
- Monthly Twitter Impressions: 100,000
- Monthly Facebook Impressions: 700,000
- Monthly Instagram Engagements: 50-100 likes per photo
- Monthly Blog Pageviews: 18,000
- Total amount spent: ~$1,000 in advertising, another $250-$500 in site fees (value of some split with Living the Dream), and a lot of money exploring the city.
So far we have taken very little partnerships on our new site, even if our traffic is now getting high enough where we can offer it. That means that other than a free round of drinks here, or a museum entry there, we've paid for our exploration of the city out of pocket.
The secret here is that we were going to do that anyway. For others, this is something you really must be prepared for, as you'll have to be ready for another $100-$200 per week in “research” costs just to generate content for your site.
Even if we never make that back (which I am sure we will), it doesn't bother us because odds are good we were going to spend that money exploring our city anyway.
How Much Money Can You Make?
Now the million dollar question- how much can you make city blogging?
Taking a step back, I'm going to point out the obvious and state that I wouldn't be writing about city blogging on my global travel blog's Lifestyle Design and Blog Your Trip series if I didn't think there was money to be made in travel writing.
Unfortunately, when it comes to income generation a global travel blog is not it. (A more detailed analysis is included in this article.)
The reason for that is you are too far removed from the point of sale.
Is a reader of yours going to go out and immediately book a $3,000 vacation because they read a blog post of yours? No. You may influence their decision to go on the trip, but that could be 6 months, 12 months, or 5 years down the road. Odds are good they're not going to return to your site to book a trip via your affiliate link to say thanks for the 30 seconds of information you provided them.
The best global blogging can do is grab someone's attention on trips they were already planning to take and in the process of booking that very day. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this means your conversion rate is going to be practically zero, and this is true even for us. Now fashion bloggers on the other hand can make millions of dollars because their entire market is built on impulse buys right that very second- which shoppers are more than willing to do each and every day.
See the difference?
City blogs may still be on the less-impulse end of the spectrum, but let's go through the ways it is better than a global blog:
- A visitor from within driving distance is probably going to visit in the near future.
- A local can hop in their car and go out to a restaurant right now.
Odds are good that someone is reading a city blog for ideas on what to do now or in a pending visit, and your ability to influence their decisions is far greater than on a global scale- at least for a good majority of your visitors. (For us about 50% of our audience can go out and enjoy anything we write about that same day. Another 20-30% can easily come in for a quick weekend trip too.)
So, about the money. The following are a selection of ideas for how you can make money with a city blog along with some of the rates and conversion estimates we're thinking are possible for Discover the Burgh.
- Sidebar advertising: $2.5 – $7.5 CPM based on size
- Advertorial posts: Flat rate per year based on traffic
- Hotel affiliate commissions: 0.1% conversion at $5 per night and average 3 night stay.
- Living the Dream currently has a 0.033% conversion rate.
- Product sales: 0.1% conversion resulting in $2 commission.
- Living the Dream currently has a 0.2% conversion, but we promote more products here than we likely will on our local blog- at least starting out.
- Hourly or day rates for services: Beginning at $25 per hour and increasing by popularity.
- Ad placements on a map: Flat rate per year based on traffic
- Coupons in your newsletter: Flat rate per month based on subscribers
- Social media advertising: Flat rate per update based on reach
What was the ultimate earning figure we came up with? It all depends on how you monetize, and how aggressive you are with finding willing partners in your region, but we came up with figures of roughly $50 to $75 CPM, across all ads, commissions, and services, on a monthly basis.
So 10,000 monthly page views could be $500 to $750 per month.
50,000 monthly page views could be $2,500 to $3,750 per month.
100,000 monthly page views could be $5,000 to $7,500 per month.
Naturally, I would be doing you a disservice if I said you will actually earn $500-$750 the month you hit 10,000 page views. Odds are you wont. In fact, most local bloggers wait until they are much more established to monetize, so these numbers are slow to start and often lag until your network of contacts grows.
For Living the Dream, at 30,000 monthly page views we're earning about $750 to $1,250 per month- or $25-$40 CPM, across all income streams, with a very similar monetization platform that we're pursuing for the local blog. As you can tell, the projections we're coming up with locally are significantly higher (on the order of 200-300%).
In the end, we kept our monetization plan for the end of this post because we simply do not want to recommend you opening a regional blog because you're pursuing money. We do believe that city blogs are the future of travel writing, and there is a lot of money to be made, but at the end of the day only those who run their site because they are passionate about the region (and know what they're doing) will succeed.
Like any business, that means you'll be spending a lot of time and money to make that happen, and may take several years before you see any return on your investment.
Only those who are prepared for that should make this leap, and if you are one of those people, the tips, advice, and services outlined in this post would be a great starting point for you.
For more ideas on what to write about on your city blog, check out some of our most popular posts including 156 Things to Do in Pittsburgh, the best Pittsburgh restaurants, or our neighborhood guide to the Strip District!
Looking for more information on how to promote your blog? Click the previous link to learn all of our secrets! Or for other popular articles, check out our TBEX review, or our tips to improve your travel blog.