Last Updated on October 30, 2020 by Jeremy
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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. These tips are all things we implement on new sites when starting out, and highly recommend for all bloggers.
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– starting out at least.
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. (This is called marketing.)
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. A good chunk of that is now writing, as my marketing plan is in place to promote said articles, but this also took over a decade to finalize in order to do so. For smaller sites, you will likely have more time focused on daily/weekly projects than writing, and there is no shame in that
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.
- 8:00am to 8:30am: Schedule social media posts for the day.
- 8:30pm to 10:00am: Writing blog posts (generally 3-5 articles in a week).
- 12pm to 2pm: Weekly projects (affiliates / SEO / new site designs / Pinterest designs / what have you).
- 2:00pm to 4:00pm (select weeks): Finish articles for publishing.
A good chunk of our work 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. If you would've looked at our schedule from three or four years ago, odds are good the writing time would be even lower and the social/project times would be even greater.
I view writing new articles and updating social media as investing for the future while offering little to the results we produce today (can you sit down, write a post, and get it 5,000 views in 24 hours? Probably not). 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 points 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 (we are now on Managed hosting with BigScoots), and performed a rather robust SEO campaign after the migration by modifying our theme at Elegant Themes (we are now on GeneratePress) and the settings on individual posts with the Yoast SEO Plug-In (we still use this and highly recommend it).
- 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 the four years that followed, our traffic increased to nearly 90,000 page views.
- 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 and later switched to another, Big Scoots, for a huge speed boost. Between that and optimized site designs, we were able to get our load times down to 1.2 seconds which really is huge for SEO!
- Deleting Non-Performing Content: For a few years after migrating to a managed WordPress host, 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's sake for our branding (be honest with yourself here, you don't need most of them).
- Within the first few months, we unpublished 300 or so posts and saw an uptick of Google referrals between 5 and 20%. Over the following year we unpublished 400 more (bringing our article count down to about 400) but have a hard time tracking the data due to other projects going on concurrently.
- 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 (with Social Pug), 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. (Illustrated data was from a previous plug-in that was too resource-intensive. This data is unavailable on Social Pug as far as we are aware.)
- Mediavine: Once we hit 25,000 monthly unique views, we joined a private ad network, Mediavine. (For our Mediavine review, click the previous link.) This ad network pays out upwards of $20-$30+ per 1,000 unique impressions- a significant boost from our earlier setup and really let us supercharge our earnings!
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 they're 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 protected] and we'll refer you if she is available.
- Locally Targeted Ads on Facebook and Instagram: In our opinion, Facebook and Instagram 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 under $0.05 (on Facebook) like we do for Discover the Burgh and can also get new likes on pages and Instagram profiles via this method as well. 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 the social networks are 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 profiles for pennies, and on Facebook 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.
- To read our Opt-In Monster review, click the previous link. To purchase your license for Opt-In Monster, click here.
- Note: While this worked, we no longer use pop-ups on our site as there are some SEO concerns with pop-ups, especially on mobile. Likewise, incentivizing people with freebies is a questionable practice now. Tread cautiously.
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:
- 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!
- Ad Inserter Pro – 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, and the Pro version has even more features available!
- 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.
- Autoptimize and WP Rocket Pro – Two plugins that help with site performance including lazy loading of images, caching, JS/CSS minimization and more. A bit of trial and error testing may be required, and Autoptimize is known to not work nicely with some themes.
- Social Pug – A light-weight social sharing plugin.
- Pretty Links Pro – A link cloaking service that hides ugly affiliate links. Think something like sldkjfs.com/product to yoursite.com/affiliate/product. Much more inviting for a click!
- For more of our favorite plug-ins and some settings we use, click here.
In addition to the above plug-ins, we also are members of several premium services and groups, including the below:
- Big Scoots – 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 Big Scoots thanks to their stellar reviews and recommendations from colleagues and price point- a single site costs just about $35/month, and we pay to have 10 sites hosted collectively for $100/month!
- 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 Big Scoots. 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 up to about 10,000 page views.
- While Bluehost may be cheaper, if you can justify the cost early on, the investment in your server for a premium service like Big Scoots is worth it.
- GeneratePress – Need a site design focused on speed? We use the light-weight and versatile theme GeneratePress. We love this one because it gives you complete control over which features are enabled or disabled on your site (unlike other themes where everything is loaded whether you use it or not). This really helped us get our sites down to < 2 second load time!
- Tailwind – Tailwind is a Pinterest scheduling tool that we use in conjunction with our VA. This allows for advanced scheduling, tribes, interval pinning, and a whole lot more.
- 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!
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 $500-$1,000 between our two blogs, plus a few other one-off expenses throughout 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:
- BigScoots (Both Sites): $1,128
- SATW and NATJA Memberships: ~$250
- Domain Renewals (Multiple Domains): $150
- Computer Backups: $50
- Webcam Hosting: $175
- Misc. Electronic Purchases: $1,000-$2,000
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 affiliate sales, which pull in an average of around $30 CPM total when it is all said and done. So for every one dollar, we spend in a single month, odds are good we're at least making seven or ten back in return.
Considering most of our spending from there is for future growth, we only expect this number to go up in the future.
Thankfully, our spending above has been optimized completely around social media tests, web performance, and the services we very truly need (all outlined in this guide) and we expect these to stay somewhat flat for the foreseeable future as we grow.
Can you say the same? Hopefully after implementing some of the recommendations in this guide, the answer will soon be yes.
For all questions, please email [email protected] Finally, be sure to check back soon as we update more tests into this guide!
Have an existing blog that is in need of an upgrade? Check out the following services we personally use!
- BigScoots - Premium managed hosting with plans as low as $35/month.
- GeneratePress - A customizable theme designed for site speed.
- AdInserter Pro - A widget logic plugin that is quite powerful.
- WP Rocket - An image and caching optimization plug-in.
- Tailwind - Pinterest scheduling tool.
- Mailerlite - Cost effective newsletter service.
- Super Star Blogging - Travel blogging courses- now just $99 each!
- Keysearch - Keyword research tool for SEO.
- Pretty Links Pro - A great link cloaking tool to clean up affiliate links.
Looking for tips? Read our Blog Your Trip series!
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About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.