This post is for the Big Apple Angie stan who’s been with me since 2006 (p.s. I LOVE YOU), the newbie blogger trying to find her way around the blogosphere, the brand manager wondering why in the world a blogger should get paid to go on free trips and the clueless relative who wonders what the heck it is I actually do all day. I wrote it with all of you in mind, so take what’s for you, leave what’s not and enjoy the ride.
In 2006, I moved to NYC in exactly the cliche way you would expect. Cue the rom-com montage of bumbling small town gal living in a lonely world leaving the familiarity of the South for the bright lights of Manhattan. I started a blog the very same day I arrived at Apt. 1E in Hell’s Kitchen, dubbing myself Big Apple Angie and using it as a diary for all the fun and funny things that happened to me while I lived in the city. It was a faith-based Sex and the City, and I cringe to think how many times I must’ve started a paragraph, “I couldn’t help but wonder…”
I had very little in common with Carrie Bradshaw aside from my NYC residency, but it was the beginning of this writer’s journey. From dating mishaps to growing my faith to forming the friendships that would see me through my roaring twenties, the purpose of the BAA was totally self-indulgent. I wanted to tell stories and keep folks back home updated on my life in NYC. I never had an inkling when I started that my time on the blogosphere would become anything but a creative outlet and a personal time capsule.
Flash forward 13 incredible years and WHAT IN BLUE BLAZES?! Somehow between 2006 and now, the passion I had for storytelling, warning travelers about mishaps on the road and making people laugh at the absurd situations I get into …. has become a full time job. No one is more surprised than me that things have worked out like this!
Wait, you’re still doing that?
I can’t tell you how often I run into an old friend or relative and they’ll ask, “Oh, you’re still doing that blog thing?”
YES. I’m still doing that blog thing, and about 10 other communications-related things. And in a beautiful twist of God’s provision, I’m making more than I ever did as a full-time publicist with no work-life balance. I have control over every project I take on. And I have the freedom to take a nap in the middle of the workday or sing all the parts to the Schuyler Sisters in my office if I want. I made the right choice, guys.
The evolution from that young wannabe writer to the professional creator I am now is not something I saw coming. “Professional Blogger” wasn’t even a career option when I was in college, choosing between a political science degree (too stressful), a journalism degree (low pay, instability of the job market) or a PR degree (forced workaholism but a more reasonable paycheck).
It’s easy to forget the ups and downs and the paralyzing uncertainty I faced fresh out of college now that my career is established and I actually know what I’m doing. Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid for this! And then I look back on the sweat equity that’s gone into creating a long-lasting, authoritative travel website, the years of experiments, the failures and missteps and the evolution of blogging from hobby to job — and it all clicks.
There’s nothing I’d rather do than this and believe me, I know how blessed I am to feel this way. As I continue celebrating my lucky 13th year as a blogger, I wanted to dive into another behind-the-scenes peek at what the industry is really like right now. Especially now that everyone and their mom is selling blog courses and eBooks on how YOU CAN TRAVEL THE WORLD FOR FREE AS A BLOGGER.
Spoiler alert: ya can’t. Nothing’s free in the content economy.
13 Changes I’ve Seen in 13 Years of Blogging
(And 2 Things That Have Stayed The Same)
1.The Whole Point of Blogs Has Changed.
The blog I started in 2006 was a personal diary with random, funny stories and tiny, low resolution photos. My whole circle of friends had blogs – it was just for fun in the blessed time before Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat changed the way we shared our daily lives with friends and family, and then thousands of strangers.
A few years in, my site evolved into a travel blog when I quit my job to travel solo around the world. Again, I told funny stories about my adventures and built a following in the process. I never once thought I could make money doing it.
Sometime in the space between 2010 and now, my content evolved from “I saw a giraffe in Kenya today and also there was a minor plane crash,” to “Here are the best places YOU can see giraffes in Kenya and 10 Ways to Stay Safe in the Masai Mara.” My focus has changed from personal stories to sharing how those stories and experiences can help readers plan their own trips. And now I do make money creating content.
Most of the OG travel bloggers I know have followed a similar evolutionary path. Those who’d consider themselves professional bloggers and content creators are no longer storytellers alone, though we do enjoy the editorial freedom that comes with being the boss of our own publications. Now, most professional blogs have purpose and a mission to go with their storytelling.
2. Nobody Knows What to Call Themselves.
Am I a blogger? A content creator? An independent website publisher? A -gulp- influencer?!
There are more titles to describe this career than ever before, and depending on who I’m telling, there are 100 ways of interpreting what I mean.
- For example, if I tell my mom’s friend that I’m an influencer, she thinks I’m a jobless, listless, selfish Millennial taking photos of myself all day and living off my husband’s income. (LOL)
- If I tell an old school publicist that I’m a blogger, she may think I attend events for the free shrimp and spend hours posting sponsored content on my Instagram stories in exchange for aforementioned shrimp. (BIG LOL)
“Blogger” isn’t quite comprehensive enough to explain all that goes into running a website, and “Influencer” has fallen out of fashion as every schmuck with an Instagram attempts to get free stuff out of brands for “exposure.”
I prefer to think of myself as a content creator and website publisher. Still, there are as many titles as there are people clamoring to be professional whatever-we-ares, and no consensus.
3. Blogging is Vastly More Time Consuming Than It Used to Be.
When I started blogging in 2006, I didn’t give any thought to the length of my posts or usefulness of the information. A 350-word blog post took me an hour or so to write and publish – and that was pretty much the end of the effort.
Now, posts are exponentially more labor intensive. I write much longer content that takes days, I focus on what people are really searching for, I optimize and edit images, care deeply about the usefulness of what I publish and I have a lengthy sharing process to make sure the content I slave over actually gets to readers who want to see it.
Where a post took an hour in 2006, now every piece I publish is a minimum of 25-35 hours of work, not counting the actual travel time required to gather the content and the back and forth with brands and destinations. It’s more than a full-time gig and not something I could maintain if I also had a 9-5. It’s definitely not a hobby!
4. Being a Professional Blogger is Costly.
I spoke again at TBEX this year about this whole wacky concept of paying bloggers and content creators when you ask them to do work, but aside from the obvious fact that people should be paid for work, there’s a really practical reason I need to get paid in cash and not sunglasses or handbags.
There were audible gasps when I said that my website expenses had already topped $30,000 for the year, and it reminded me that very few non-bloggers realize how much it costs to run a publication like mine.
Back in the day, my only expense was the URL for my site… maybe $6.99/year? Now, I pay for URLs, hosting, backend support, web design, social media tools like Tailwind, cloud storage, email marketing tools, courses and conferences and related travel, software, apps, professional organization dues, computers and cameras, travel insurance, business insurance, an accountant, staff, etc.
Since it’s NOT free to run a site, brands can’t expect to collaborate (a.k.a. Get their product or destination in front of an audience) with independent content creators without compensation.
5. You Don’t Have to be a Good Writer to be a Successful Blogger.
Confession: I hate this.
I loved to write (and I think I was pretty good at it) so I started a blog. That was the only requirement.
Now? Writing talent is not nearly enough. The disappointing truth (at least for good writers!) is that you can be a highly successful blogger and absolutely stink at writing.
To be a top blogger now, you need to be somewhat of an expert in a mix of SEO, email marketing, sales funnels, affiliate strategies, networking, photography, videography, public speaking, branding, pitching, negotiating contracts and rates and for the love of all things holy, inbox management. Writing prowess is a small part of the overall picture.
As someone who just wants to write and make you laugh, that has been a mental hurdle for me to jump over these 13 years!
6. Running a Successful Blog is a Team Sport.
The majority of OG bloggers have a team of folks helping out behind the scenes. In this New York Times piece, The Blonde Abroad and Nomadic Matt shared one way they’ve been able to grow and make millions – by delegating!
I fought this hard and insisted on being a one-woman show for years until I just hit a wall. It’s not reasonable to be an expert in 35 things — there’s just not enough time in the day. Having hired outside help for the past few years, I can tell you confidently it was the right choice.
When someone else does the tasks I really didn’t sign up for (Pinterest, backend development, etc.), it frees me up to keep being creative and having big ideas that keep Angie Away as one of the top travel sites in the world. If I’m spending half my day on admin and chasing down invoices, that creativity doesn’t have space to happen.
7. Blogger Partnerships Can Be A Great Investment.
Back in my PR days, we would’ve laughed our heads off if a blogger asked to get paid. The value wasn’t there in the early days because everyone was just figuring it out. Me included, on both sides of the equation.
Now though? Now it’s a profession with tools and real return on investment when done right.
When brands scoff at content creators who request payment for services rendered, I wonder if they also scoff at rates for advertising in magazines, newspapers and on TV. The fact is, many blogs have even higher reach at a much cheaper price point than traditional media — and with the benefit of 3rd party storytelling and a curated audience.
Something that hasn’t changed — there’s a disconnect for lots of PR/marketing friends who still see blogging with a 2006 lens. Based on the fact that there are maybe 50-100 of us travel bloggers who are frequently getting paid to create useful, bookable content, I’m hopeful the tide is finally turning the old school PR holdouts into believers.
I’ve said it in what, four or five speeches this year, so I’ll say it again: if you (PR folks) do your due diligence and hire the right creator for your project, you will be successful. The only time influencer marketing flops is when the PR team drops the ball in planning, either hiring the wrong influencer for the project or not matching up expectations to reality. Influencer marketing has been a shiny new tool in the PR toolbox, but I’d say at least half of the marketers out there are just not using it effectively.
8. Google is the Boss of Us.
It is what it is.
Websites like mine live and die by Google’s updates. If Google decides my content isn’t valuable enough to show to people searching for it, I’m sunk. So SEO is more important than ever.
For the uninitiated, SEO is search engine optimization. It’s the Internet magic that happens to the words I write, taking them from my website through an ever-changing algorithm into your Google search options.
I ignored SEO for years, believing that people would read my website because I’m a good writer. Unfortunately, that’s not how the internet works anymore! Now, 75% of the time, I make sure if I’m writing a post, it’s because someone out there is searching for the answers and I’m just the woman to provide them. The other 25% of the time, posts are personal (like my Reflections from the Road series) and anything I write about influencer marketing. A girl has got to get her rant on sometimes.
RELATED RANTS YOU MAY ENJOY
- Influencers Are The Worst
- Why I Won’t Work for Free (And You Shouldn’t Either)
- Influencer Marketing: Does Anyone Know What They’re Doing?
9. The Rules & The Goals are a Moving Target.
Ultimately I just want to make a living, help people travel safely and tell stories along the way, but the methods and tactics and rules of doing all that change all the time. It can be hard to keep up!
One thing that’s changed: I share much less personal stuff on the blog than I used to, now focusing the personal, day-to-day behind the scenes on Instagram stories and our email newsletter.
This is also why I go to more conferences now than I have in the past. Would it be easy to just tune all that out and do the status quo? Sure would, and I did that for a while. But there’s always more to learn about optimizing a website, creating better content and just reaching readers in new and interesting ways. I once thought I could just figure it all out myself, but as blogging evolved from hobby to business, I had to really start treating it as a career. Only once I did that did I start to grow like crazy.
The only constant in this industry is change. So you either have to adjust or give up.
10. We Consume Social Media So Differently.
Feeling burned out on social media? You are not alone.
I used to rely on friends and followers to tune in and share my content as I posted on Twitter and Facebook, but there’s been a huge shift in where my readers come from over the years. That was hard for me to accept at first because it felt like maybe I was doing something wrong or that people who once liked my content maybe didn’t like it anymore. But it goes way deeper than that.
First of all, when I started there were only a couple networks and not everyone was on them. It was pretty easy to plop my stories in front of an audience who’d signed up to see it. Thirteen years later, each piece of content I create has to be re-tooled and re-imagined for 7 or 8 different social networks, and all those networks are actively finding ways to hide my content from the folks who want to see it — unless I pay up. As an independent creator, social media sharing has gone from top priority to necessary evil.
And there’s something inherently unsettling about having a career that depends on validation and participation of others. I have more readers and followers than ever, but due to algorithms and I think just general burnout on social media, folks are quieter. My audience doesn’t engage with content the way they used to. Readers are so used to scrolling, scrolling, scrolling until they find something controversial to engage with. If you want to get clicks, everyone knows you can just stir the pot and post something scandalous to get people talking and shoot your engagement through the roof. But that’s not who I am.
Sometimes I wish I had the kind of audience that freaked out over every post, “OMG, ANGIE YOU ARE A HERO AMONG WOMEN. THANK YOU FOR GOING TO WIZARDING WORLD 7,000 TIMES AND TELLING US ALL ABOUT IT.” I could also really go for some effusive beauty blogger love, “OMG I DIE FOR YOUR LIP COLOR, GIRL! YOU ARE A QWEEN! YASSSS!”
I’m only human and I can live on a good compliment for months! But that’s not really how it works anymore.
11. Niche is a Big Deal to Emperor Google.
This is not great news for the OGs who have personality based blogs – a.k.a. Angie Away – who travel all over the world and write whatever they want about wherever they went. It’s hard for Google to pigeonhole a site like mine with a grab-bag of different content and destinations, from Aruba to New Zealand. I write about dancing like Jane Austen in Bath and dressing like Napoleon Dynamite in Idaho and Kim Kardashian’s stupid butt ruining my birthday… Google doesn’t always know what to do with that kind of broad spectrum travel writing.
Blogs and content that are more focused on specific like “Women Travel Tips” or “Caribbean Travel” rank better, and that’s why you see the majority of new sites focusing less on people and their RTW trips and more on a really specific angle.
12. Posts are Longer than Ever.
By the way, thanks for sticking around this far!
I see folks snarking online about why recipe bloggers have to tell their whole life story before you get to the recipe… so here’s the tea. It’s because longer posts keep readers on the site longer. That’s good for ads, it’s good for time-on-page stats and it’s good for SEO. It’s literally how the blogger who developed that recipe you just used for free buys food.
I used to shoot for 500 words tops when I just told funny anecdotes about life in NYC. I graduated to about 1,000 words per post for a few years when I went full time into travel. Now when I post something informative like a destination guide, I make it extra, extra juicy, so there’s no limit to how many words a post can be. I want it to be helpful to whoever stumbles across it, so they get everything they need in one place.
And the longer readers stay on my site, the happier Google is and the happier I am because I make more money. Everybody wins and I get to keep the lights on.
13. “Free” Travel Isn’t the Point.
When I started this mad endeavor, getting a few free nights in a hotel or a press trip invitation was a wonderful way to get content and write my way around the world. But the whole industry is different now, especially for the veterans who’ve done this for many years. One free hotel night is not going to provide enough value, time or real life experience to do the quality work I need to do to make my content awesome.
I swear it’s not my goal to be the poster child for getting paid for work. But when a brand asks me to partner on a project that’s going to take me a week to publish, I can’t do it for free. It’s not even a question anymore, and that’s probably the biggest change of all for me in 13 years of doing this. There’s no 1-night hotel stay worth 40 hours of work! Now that my site is a travel resource for millions of readers, I have a variety of income streams. It makes more sense most of the time to pay to go where I want and then cover as I see fit.
Trades are always going to be a part of the equation, but brands need to get onboard with the value of what they’re asking for before saying, “We don’t have a budget but we’d love to buy you a cheeseburger and have you write 10,000 words for us.”
Gonna be a no from the pros, dawg!
It’s all so much more complicated than it was when I typed www.Blogger.com into my Firefox browser on my 25 pound HP laptop for the very first time.
But it’s also an incredible blessing to be able to be in the middle of this burgeoning industry, growing along with it and figuring it out as I go. It’s risky and it’s uncertain, but when I quit my PR job to step into the unknown, it’s sort of what I signed up for.
What hasn’t changed?
So much has changed since 2006, it feels like I’m not even doing the same thing I set out to do. In so many ways, I’m not. With monetization and professionalization of the industry, even the act of traveling is different for me than it was 13 years ago.
But some things are the same, and those two things drive me to this day.
1. Integrity Still Matters.
I still only write about destinations, experiences and products I love. I still always tell the truth about my travels, even when they are ugly or not as advertised. Especially then, as a matter of fact. I consider it an imperative.
The further I get down this road, the more opportunities I turn down. Often it’s because the product or destination just isn’t a fit. Could I accept the payment and write about best car seats and strollers for cross country road trips? Sure… but we don’t have kids yet, so that really doesn’t make sense for Angie Away right now.
In a sea of changes, one thing that will never change is my commitment to truthfulness. Whether a post is sponsored by a brand or destination or not, you’ll always get the truth here.
2. Storytelling is Still the Foundation.
Do websites with drab, keyword-stuffed posts make a zillion more dollars in ads than mine? Yep, they really do. But if I have to choose between making money hand-over-fist but writing vanilla content OR making a decent living and being a storyteller in the midst of it all, I’m always going to choose the latter.
No matter what changes in the industry, these two tenets are always going to be foundational for Angie Away. I don’t speak for everyone in the blogosphere, but that’s my take.
- OG Blogger friends, how have things changed for you since you started blogging?
- Newer bloggers, do you think you’ve got it easier now that the way is paved and there’s an instruction manual of sorts? Or do you think the industry is so saturated that it’s harder to break in?
Would love your thoughts in the comments! (Please, please leave comments. For old time’s sake!)