One of the things I hate the most about people who unveil blogging secrets is that more often than not what they are doing is not a secret and is instead what most everyone is doing to begin with. So when we decided to write about how to start a travel blog here on our site, we knew exactly what not to do.
In our blogging series here on Living the Dream we want to only share useful experiments that we personally tried, and they must meet two categories:
- They touch on points we think most bloggers are not doing right.
- The results can be replicated by others.
In the process of coming up with these tests, we have discovered a lot about how our blog actually grows, and over the past several months we have shared some of our favorite tips throughout several articles.
Today we want to summarize everything we're doing to grow our sites- what has worked, what hasn't worked, and to provide you with a long to-do list of ideas to try for your own blog to help push it to the level where you know it should be.
Are you ready?
Most of What We Do Isn't Writing
Pick any medium you want, be it blogging or updating any of the major social networks, and the most popular piece of advice bloggers give is to produce good content and follow established best practices. Do this, they say, and readers will come.
This is simply not true.
While I will not argue against best practices for a good user experience, most of the tips you'll read are only good for you to reach your existing audience. They have nothing to do with growing, and that is a problem when it comes to figuring out what tasks to pursue in order to expand your audience.
My typical schedule right now for blogging looks a bit different than most, and the reason for that is I am putting all of my time and resources into tasks that will help us grow. Writing actual blog posts, oddly enough, is the least of my concerns.
I'll touch base on this more in a moment, but for now let's take a look at my typical schedule to have a starting point for conversation. When looking at the schedule below, keep in mind I also work a standard 40-hour week in a separate job:
- 7:00am to 7:30am: Schedule social media posts for the day.
- 12:00pm to 1:00pm: Writing blog posts / publishing.
- 5:30pm to 7:00pm: Finish publishing posts and update marketing platforms.
- 7:00pm to 9:00pm (select weeks): Weekly projects.
- 9:00pm to 10:30pm (select days): Continue weekly project(s).
- 8:00am to 8:30am: Schedule social media posts for the day.
- 8:30am to 10:00am: Editing photos from the week.
- 4:00pm to 6:00pm: Continue weekly project(s).
- 8:00pm to 10:00pm: Research/plan new tests to try on future weekly projects.
It is worth noting that the times here, especially on weekends, are somewhat relative and change from week to week, but they do give a good insight in everything I do.
Most of the work, up to 30 hours of our week, revolves around continuing what I call “weekly projects” which includes anything to changing our sidebar around, adding affiliate links into existing posts, creating custom pins for Pinterest, to updating SEO keywords in poor performing posts, and more.
I view writing new articles and updating social media as investing for the future, while offering little to the results we produce today. The reason for this is that people may like your new content right away, but if you're struggling to grow as it is, a new article or social media update is not going to change your trajectory no matter how good it is.
So while you may not be able to change your initial reception to newly published articles right now, what you can change is all of the other factors that help that post succeed in the days, weeks, or months after it is published.
These are the things we try to fix in our weekly projects.
As a result, we look at the bigger picture for two very important topics:
- How we can improve upon existing content that is already valuable.
- What we can do differently on a global scale to change our status quo without changing our update patterns.
As you'll see below, little from these two point has anything to do with how we write new content, yet the approach still consumes the vast majority of the schedule highlighted above. Keeping all this in mind, let's share the summary of all of the projects that have worked, others that haven't, and other key topics that have resulted in growth on our blogs.
Valuable Projects We've Undertaken So Far
Since the vast majority of what we do in blogging is not producing content, we want to take some time to highlight everything we've done on our site over the last couple of years. The following is a list of everything we've done on the back end (hosting/SEO/etc.), on social media, and even tests we've tried that haven't worked like we would've hoped!
By sharing these we hope to spark some ideas on what you can do in order to achieve similar results!
Site Back End Projects
- Migrating from Blogger to WordPress: In December 2014 we migrated Living the Dream (a then six-year old site) from Blogger to a self-hosted WordPress with Bluehost, and performed a rather robust SEO campaign after the migration by modifying our awesome theme at Elegant Themes and the settings on individual posts with the Yoast SEO Plug-In. Our traffic went from a flat 14,000 to 17,000 monthly page views to well over 30,000 page views within one year- nearly all from Google. In early 2019, we switched our theme to the even faster GeneratePress for a bigger speed boost!
- Upgrading to a Premium Server: In August 2016 we migrated Living the Dream (a then eight-year old site) from Bluehost Pro to the managed WordPress hosting company Performance Foundry. We are currently waiting on the results of this very recent migration, but considering our homepage load time was decreased to under one second (a 90%+ reduction), amongst many other fixes, we expect great things to happen soon!
- Deleting Non-Performing Content: From May 2016 until our migration to Performance Foundry in August 2016 we went on a robust campaign of unpublishing non-performing posts. Our criteria for selecting posts had three key points. First, the article must receive little to no page views on our site (think 10-20 per month). Second, it must have little to no impressions in Google (less than 100 per month). Third, it must not be a “core” article we need for completion sake (be honest with yourself here, you don't need most of them). Over the course of three months we ended up unpublishing about 500 posts out of 1,100, and saw an uptick in our Google referrals on the order of 5%-20%. This test was stopped early when we decided to migrate to Performance Foundry; however, it showed promise and we look forward to picking it up again soon as a regular practice.
- Looking for someone to help you understand how your site is doing? contact us about purchasing a site report for $100!
- Hotel Affiliates: In November 2015 we added hotel booking prompts into the footers of our Top 50 posts by traffic. The prompt was something to the extent of “Visiting [destination] soon? Book your stay at [hotel] where we stayed to help support our site!” Our Booking.com click-through rate increased from 40 per month to just under 200 per month without any optimization, and our conversion rate increased similarly as well!
- We've since coupled this prompt with the Ad Inserter plug-in (more on that below) with even better click-throughs.
- Adding Social Share Buttons: By adding social share buttons and follow buttons onto our sites, we were able to generate over 100 new shares per month that we otherwise would not have had. Share and social follow buttons are now visible throughout all pages, on all devices. As social networks are moving more and more towards the algorithm that organic shares are rewarded the best, encouraging shares is incredibly important. But we go even further than simply providing the buttons, we bluntly ask for shares at the bottom of our post to help maximize those clicks (share down to see it, and then share this article).
- This may amount to only a 0.1% conversion rate, but at the end of the day I'll take 100 extra shares over 0 extra shares, and that's really all that matters.
- Ad Inserter to Optimize CPM Ads: Are you optimized for the maximum of three Adsense ads on your site? What about on your mobile display and full-width pages? I bet you're not. We installed the Ad Inserter plug-in to allow us to easily insert HTML ad blocks anywhere on our site, and went from showing two desktop ads, zero mobile ads, and zero ads on full-width pages to the maximum on all of them. Our Adsense income went from $100 every six months to over $100 per month immediately. This paid for our switch to Performance Foundry, which in turn brought in more views and higher CPM payouts from there.
- Ad Waterfalls: Ad Waterfalls are an interesting thing, and are essentially a customized code that starts by displaying your highest paying CPM ad network if an ad is available for your rate, and if not runs the next, lower paying CPM ad network you have setup (we only use two, but more can be used in succession). Although this does trigger a load on your server, it can do wonders for your ad payouts. By adding on Amazon CPM ads ahead of our Google Adsense ads in a waterfall configuration, we were able to have $1.75 CPM ads that display 25% of the time in addition to our $0.50-$1.00 CPM ads from Google that display the remaining 75% of the time. As such, we pocket an extra $100 per month or more from a simple code change.
- Mediavine: Since publishing this post we've switched from the above CPM Ad waterfall setup to join the private ad service, Mediavine. (For our Mediavine review, click the previous link.) This ad network requires 25,000 unique monthly visitors to get into and pays out upwards of $20+ per 1,000 impressions- a significant earnings boost from our earlier waterfalls to the tune of $1,000+ a month!
Social Media Projects
- Hiring a Pinterest Virtual Assistant (VA): Through an odd twist of fate we built a travel Pinterest profile with 10,000+ fans, and we spent way too much time trying to make this network work for us. We had decent results, but it was also way too time consuming for our liking. To get around this, we hired a VA take over our account and she is rocking it. Our VA reorganized everything (seriously, check our profile out at the previous link) and started a posting pattern that increased our traffic from the social network by 30% almost immediately- with continued growth expected. I was very hesitant on hiring a VA for the longest time, but having someone work on a network I dislike and deliver results in the process, well, I'll pay for that.
- We recently hired our VA, and will be updating this one periodically as things change and hopefully improve!
- If you would like to be put in touch with our VA, please email us at email@example.com and we'll refer you if she is available.
- Follow Backs on Twitter and Instagram: Most people hate the follow / follow-back game on social media, primarily because 99% of people doing it don't think it through and come off as spammers. But this is one that works wonders if you put some effort into it- especially on Twitter and Instagram. We will ignore Twitter now because it is a worthless network by our standards, but on Instagram your follower count is incredibly important because a base number of people who follow you will engage on your updates no matter what. You need this because the more likes you receive, the better your chances are in appearing in the Top 9 for any given tag or geo-location. Getting here gives you more exposure to new users who may want to follow you, and is how all big users grow- but you have to be popular in the first place to make it happen. By following targeted users who are actively following new users in our niche, we were able to build our Instagram followings from 1,500 users to over 15,000 and 30,000 users (on two accounts respectively) in under six months. These continue to grow by 50-150 new fans per day solely from us sharing one image per day and getting into the Top 9 for our chosen tags and locations.
- For a more detailed explanation of our tactic for gaining followers on Instagram, click the previous link.
- Locally Targeted Ads on Facebook: In our opinion, Facebook advertising is worthless to global brands who do not have an engaged audience or a big budget to compete against each other. There, I said it. Luckily, tight, geographically focused markets are still open for cheap advertising, and if you are able to harness the power of your articles on a city level, you may be able to convert clicks as low as $0.01 like we do for Discover the Burgh. All you need is an engaged audience, a target marketplace, and a lot of $1/day tests. Sadly, global bloggers tend to have neither and think Facebook is out to get them through algorithm changes, but we thoroughly believe it is a targeting / audience issue with the content you choose to produce. Through well placed ads we have been able to grow our page at a cost of $0.04 to $0.08 per like, plus drive significant clicks to our site by users who actually care about our content. Yes, picking your geographical location and niche may make all the difference!
- KingSumo to Jumpstart Newsletter Subscribers: In the 15 months of running our local blog we were able to bring in close to 5,000 newsletter subscribers within our region. More than half of these came in through custom contests with the KingSumo plug-in, which offers entry into contests in exchange for newsletter sign-ups. This one has an awesome viral sharing feature that gives bonus entries for each friend an entrant refers, meaning you can let your new found audience work for you. It is worth noting that we think this one works especially well on the local level, because our audience cares about nearly all of our content. Much like with Facebook above, it is easy to build a list of people who don't care about your content and only entered for the prize- meaning you could gather a huge (and expensive) list of people who are not in your target marketplace- be careful.
- The above graph has three arrows, corresponding to the three targeted contests we ran with 200, 550, and 1500 entries respectively.
- Opt-In Monster to Gather Newsletters via Pop-Up: The other half of our newsletter subscribers came in through the Opt-In Monster plug-in, which delivers pop-ups on your site to prompt for newsletter subscriptions. This plug-in is quite powerful and has everything from A/B testing, mobile and desktop splits, trigger on scroll, exit intent, and more when configuring your prompts. The only downside here is that to get the full benefit of the program you need to buy the premium version, but the 1-2% conversion rate we receive (a 500% gain with hardly any optimization), is worth every penny.
Tests We've Tried That Have Done Nothing
- Social Media Hash Tags: Popular convention will tell you to use hash-tags on social networks for more exposure, especially on Instagram, but we found tagging for the sake of tagging to be quite worthless on most networks. Instagram tags are still relevant; however, your top goal in using hash-tags on this network is to get into the Top 9 to be seen longer and by more people, and the only way these are valuable is if you find hash-tags that you can actually get into the Top 9 to begin with. So while we did a number of experiments on which Instagram travel hash-tags convert the best, and learned a thing or two along the way, as we said above being popular to begin with is key. Only then can you worry about what hash-tags work for an account of your size.
- Hash-Tag Tip: If your account only gets 200 likes per image, using a hash-tag that receives 20,000 likes per image in the Top 9 is going to be worthless to you. Search for ones that receive anywhere from 150-400 likes per image in the Top 9, with a decent total image count, and use those instead!
- Reviving a Dead Facebook Page: I do not want to get on the Facebook algorithm hating bandwagon, because I am a firm believer that Facebook is not the problem for most, it is either your updates or your fan base (or both). You may have great content, but if your audience doesn't engage the simplest reason is that they do not care. If they don't care, Facebook doesn't care, and your organic reach will always be horrible. We've tried just about everything there is to jump start our poor performing Facebook page, including trying to build a new audience through advertising, and we're throwing in the towel and automating it all. Yes, we do get traffic from Facebook. Yes, we do get some engagement on our page itself. But at the end of the day our site thrives through Pinterest and Google, and putting time, effort, and money on something that is already dead is not going to fix it. The only cure here is to start over, which is something we may do in the future.
- Why am I sharing this sentiment? Odds are good you have a social network that is not working for you, and it is time you accept it rather than stressing out over something you may not be able to fix.
- Hustling Our Blogs to Get Features by Businesses and DMOs: Our friend Expert Vagabond gave us sage wisdom to make connections and share our articles and social updates with the destination marketing organizations (tourist boards) and businesses that we have featured. The theory goes that many would be happy to give a share as their region or business was featured in a media outlet online. I stand by the fact that this is incredible advice, but it simply did not work for us no matter what we tried- one DMO even told us our content was too old to share (though the content was not time specific). I suspect this one works wonders if you figure out a good method and keep up with it, but we gave up because we invested too much time with only a small return. You may have better luck.
The Most Important Plug-Ins and Services We Use
In many of the above tests we talked about plug-ins and services we personally use to change the trajectory of our blogs from stagnant growth to rapid expansion. A summary of our favorites is outlined below. To learn more details about each of the plug-ins, click the image above or link below to be taken to the service's site directly.
The following are some of our favorite WordPress plugins used on our sites and discussed above:
- OIO Publisher – OIO Publisher is a great invoicing tool for display advertising. It takes uploads automatically, tracks actual views, and invoices automatically. If you don't have an ad this one also waterfalls down to your standby CPM ads, ensuring you always have an ad on display! OIO Publisher Software is approximately $47.
- KingSumo – KingSumo is a wonderful contest plug-in that collects entries via newsletter sign-up. The viral share feature is our favorite as it helps our audience work for us in exchange for referrals!
- KingSumo is currently free with membership to the Professional Travel Bloggers Association (see below for more) and is $198 for a one site license.
- Ad Inserter – Ad Inserter is a powerful plug-in that turns HTML boxes into shortcodes that can be placed anywhere on your site. This is a free tool that allowed us to supercharge our ad placement as well as affiliate link prompts almost overnight!
- Revive Old Posts – Revive Old Posts is an automatic social sharing plug-in that cycles through posts of your choosing (by tag or category) in an automatic time interval. Perfect for Twitter and, for those who no longer care about the network, Facebook.
- SumoMe / Monarch / YARPP – These three plug-ins are all about encouraging people to engage with your content. SumoMe and Monarch have a number of options for encouraging shares, while Yet Another Related Post Plugin (YARPP) displays related posts by category/tag in the footer of your articles to keep readers on-site.
- Note: Monarch has some plug-in compatibility errors, and sometimes the automatic count for social fans misbehaves and triggers massive server load times. We update our like count manually on this one to get around the load time issues we've seen. It is on our list of possible replacements moving forward.
- Yoast SEO – Yoast is the most powerful SEO plug-in on the market (that we know about at least), and offers a number of custom features around your site to ensure you're hitting all the best points for search engine optimization. We used this one considerably after first migrating, and still use it on our posts with every single edit.
- Opt-in Monster – This plug-in has a fairly steep yearly price, but is worth every penny in my mind as we discussed above. Our newsletter subscription rate went up by over 500% after installing, before hardly any optimizations, and is only improving from there. How much are subscribers worth to you?
In addition to the above plug-ins, we also are members of several premium services and groups, including the below:
- Performance Foundry – Those who blog professionally, managing your server is a constant concern. Between breaking your site through updates, optimizing for speed, dealing with growth, and so much more, there is always a question on when to upgrade. We decided to go to Performance Foundry thanks to their stellar reviews and recommendations from colleagues, and are looking forward to seeing the results of the change as they come in over the next several weeks and months.
- If you buy a package through Performance Foundry, tell them Jeremy at Living the Dream sent you.
- Bluehost – For those who are just getting started, Bluehost offers cheap server space for those who want to work on WordPress (we highly recommend this), but can't quite afford the premium services like Performance Foundry. The quality of service can be hit or miss here (based on input from our colleagues), but we've had very little issue running our sites on Bluehost.
- If you're looking for a good, mid-level package, we recommend Bluehost Pro as it includes a dedicated IP address and site backup services (which we have used many times after breaking our site through accidental code changes).
- Elegant Themes – Like the way our site looks? We use the Vertex theme from Elegant Themes with only minimal CSS modifications, and the $89 yearly fee gives us access to over 80 more in case we ever want to change! Out of all of the theme networks we have researched, this one has an incredible selection worth considering.
- A developer license is available for lifetime access for $249, and we plan to upgrade to this one at some point in the future.
- The Monarch plug-in mentioned above is complimentary with Elegant Themes as it is a part of their network.
- Viraltag – Viraltag is a great scheduling service that allows you to bulk schedule uploads to multiple social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. It has done wonders for saving time on updating social media and is a good halfway point between doing everything yourself and exporting to a VA. Viraltag offers Bloggers six months of free service in exchange for a published review, and charges $9 per month after that. Note: We have since upgraded to Tailwind which is a similar service for Pinterest but far more powerful for roughly the same price.
- Super Star Blogging – A premium blogging course that dives into the details for all things travel blogging- great for beginners and affordable at $99 per course!
- Professional Travel Bloggers Association – While I may be somewhat disappointed with how the PTBA has progressed over the years, the one aspect this travel blogger's organization has not failed on is offering of free premium plug-ins to its members. A few we personally use include KingSumo ($198) and Viraltag (which is was offered in a limited special for the association, but is no longer valid). Other perks include discounted Genesis Framework Themes, a free walking tour with Walks of Italy, and more. Not bad for a $75 annual fee and a low barrier of entry!
A Breakdown of Monthly Expenses
Now that we've shared everything we've done to grow our sites over the last couple years, it is time to answer one very important question: how much does it cost for us to run our two blogs?
Although blogging can be free, those that pursue this professionally will have significant costs which range from as little as $10 per month, per blog to $1,000 per month, per blog (or more).
We did a quick poll of the community on a Facebook group we are a part of, and found that while most bloggers spend on average between $75 to $150 per blog per month, those that who run their blog as a full-time business spend upwards of $350 to $700 per month, per blog, and justify the spending with the statement: “the more I spend, the more I earn.”
Thankfully, we feel the same for our established sites.
Each month we spend roughly $700 between our two blogs, plus another $1,500 spread out over the year- and that does not even include local spending (for Discover the Burgh) and travel expenses (Living the Dream)!
A rough breakdown of our current expenses includes the following:
- Professional Travel Bloggers Association: $75
- Domain Renewals (Multiple Domains): $150
- Computer Backups: $50
- Webcam Hosting: $175
- Misc. Electronic Purchases: $1000
You may look at our spending and think it is a lot, and that is true. But I am happy to say that nearly all of our monthly fees are paid for solely by our CPM ads and Amazon affiliate sales, which pull in an average of around $7 CPM total when it is all said and done.
Any other private ad sales, custom campaigns, affiliate purchases, or CPM income from page view growth is cash in our pocket. Considering nearly all of our work is to encourage site growth, these latter income streams will turn into something quite lucrative very soon purely from us just getting more eyeballs on our sites.
Although we have a few more items we'd like to pay for that would have a recurring monthly fee (such as moving Discover the Burgh over to Performance Foundry and adding on another VA or two), we thankfully have little to no spending that increases through scale outside of our newsletter. To put it simply, we're close to maxing out our planned spending for the foreseeable future, and everything after that will be profit no matter what happens. All we have to do is stay the course.
Can you say the same?
For all questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, be sure to check back soon as we update more tests into this guide!