Happy Blogiversary: Valerie & Valise Turns 3!

The Terrible Twos are over! Today, October 21st, is the 3rd blogiversary of Valerie & Valise. I started this blog three years ago today, and am so excited how far it has come.

Birthdays and anniversaries and blogiversaries are weird, aren’t they? We celebrate each year at the end of year; I’m turning 30 in April, even though it’s the start of my 31st year on the planet.

When I joke that this blog is now out of the ‘Terrible Twos,’ I discredit the fact that in celebrating my 3rd blogiversary, I’ve been blogging for three years. Holy guacamole, friends – that’s longer than any job I’ve held!

Looking back over the past three years, I’ve seen a lot in the world of blogging and specifically travel blogging. I want to share – briefly – the three most important lessons I’ve learned since my blog started in 2013.

Lesson #1: You Need A Niche, But This is Not the Niche You’re Looking For

When/if you consider starting a blog, you’ll here this advice everywhere:

“Find a niche.”
“A niche is what separates you and makes you unique.”
“Your niche helps you land partnerships and make money on your blog long term.”

It’s true that a niche will help you structure your business strategy and content plan as a blogger. A niche will also help you define your brand, making you more appealing to partners and advertisers. Your niche even allows you to carve out a space where your unique voice/personality can shine through, if that’s the kind of niche you choose.

What has unfortunately happened in reality is that most travel bloggers chose among five basic niches:

  • Budget travel
  • Luxury travel
  • Family travel
  • Food travel
  • Adventure/outdoors travel

Some bloggers got creative, combining two or three, such that they write about budget-family travel, or luxury-food travel, or even luxury-family-adventure travel. At the core, they take one of these five themes and iterate or integrate it with other themes.

When I attended BlogHouse in June, I spent considerable time working with the lovely and talented Anne from Part-Time Traveler. As my mentor, she used our sessions to discuss niches, brand, and what the hell I was doing with this 2+ year old blog that had no structure.

If you’re a long time reader, you might have noticed a major shift following that event – my home page and tagline changed, and I started integrating a few different types of content into my plan.

What I learned from my conversations with Anne was that I had been thinking of niches as most bloggers do: pick one, iterate and integrate with other niches as needed, and the traffic will magically come. Let me tell you: the traffic did not magically come. I did not have a niche, and was lost in the wind.

Instead, I started to think of my blog as a platform, which needed support from at least three ‘legs.’ Just like a stool or table or chair, I needed ‘legs’ for my blog, and those legs (what I call ‘content pillars’) would be sub-niches of my blog. They were too small for an entire travel blog, but were topics I was passionate about to help frame my experiences and stories about the world.

In the end, I chose the following content pillars:

  • Film & movies
  • Food & drink
  • History
  • Space tourism

Though you’ll still find other topics from time to time (like packing lists), I consistently come back to these themes, at least once in each story I write.

Note: I should say – in the past few years we’ve seen other sub-niches rise to prominence, the most notable of which is Anne’s. Part-time travel is a huge rising niche, and a great opportunity for part-time travel bloggers.

Here’s my advice, based on what I learned: find your passions, and iterate/integrate those into your blog. Create content pillars from these passions, and you’ll build a blog platform that is sturdy.

The travel blogging space is increasingly crowded, and it’s hard to stand out. You may not attract millions of readers by pursuing your passions as a traveler or writer, but you will attract like-minded people who love the stories you share. That’s the audience you actually want.

Speaking of audience…

Lesson #2: Content is King and Traffic is Queen, but the Monarchy is Failing

I never imagined saying this: the rise of social media is disrupting the idea that traffic is your most important metric. As bloggers, we’re obsessed with our unique monthly visitors. Every partner wants to know this number, as it indicates (incorrectly) how successful the blogger might be in a partnership.

I don’t want to get into the weeds on why monthly visitors is the wrong metric, but instead point out why it’s an increasingly less relevant one:

Say hello to my little friend: Facebook.

Yes, Facebook is disrupting the importance of traffic metrics. Why do I feel this is the case? Because I’ve seen content I share there vastly outperform content on my blog. A great example is this recent video I shared from my trip to Brasov and Bran Castle with Mr. Tripp Tours – Gray Line Romania.

This video – what I considered the less interesting of two I shared in my story about visiting Transylvania – got a huge bump after about two days on Facebook. It went from around 2,000 people reached to over 60,000 in the span of 24 hours, and gained 5,000 video views.

I could never drive 60,000 people to view one of my posts on this blog, and there are very few bloggers I know who could. Heck, I don’t even think news sites drive that much traffic to any one article, except in emergencies or national tragedies.

Here’s the thing: blogging is a business, at least it is when you stay in the game as long as I have.

I want to maximize my returns and the returns of my partners. If I can create content and put it on Facebook or Instagram and drive 60,000 people to view it, damn that’s good! I want to do that every time I work with a partner, and when I write content just for me and my fans!

Rather than harboring a not-so-secret hatred (as many bloggers do), I’ve learned to embrace Facebook and cultivate a curiosity about it. I was one of the first travel bloggers I knew to integrate Instant Articles. I recently doubled down on Facebook as my video platform. My content calendar now has specific columns to track reach and engagement for each Facebook post. Finally, I designated an ad budget from my blog earnings to run ads constantly. Instead of being frustrated and confused by Facebook, I embraced it. And I’m starting to see returns (let me tell ya, it feels good.)

I haven’t just tried to be more curious on Facebook. In September, I ran an experiment to try and figure out how to make Twitter more successful (I failed), and started playing with “Moments.” I play with Instagram stories. Finally, I’m focusing on Pinterest. I have tried to make my blog business an exciting, interesting learning opportunity.

Here’s my advice, based on what I’ve learned: embrace the aspects of blogging that frustrate you. Dive deeper into the analytics to try and understand why content you create fails or succeeds. Sign up for every new feature, give it a try, and see if it works. Learn, grow, and challenge your mindset as a business owner (aka blogger) constantly.

I’m still working to increase my traffic (hello, Pinterest!), but I’m also open to driving “traffic” in less conventional areas, and working with partners on the front lines of social media just like I am.

Lesson #3: Remember the ABCs of Partnerships Before You Agree

As a blogger, the greatest lure – and hugest possible detriment – to your blog is partnerships. As travelers, we all harbor a secret hope of traveling the world for free, blogging along the way. In reality, only the top 0.5% of bloggers will win that lottery. The rest of us will work with smaller brands and businesses whose budgets don’t allow us to jet set the dream life.

That said: there will be lots of potential partners for bloggers for years to come. My job as a blogger is not to get free travel and stuff. My job is to deliver ROI for the brands who choose to partner with me. To do this, I have learned three important steps to each partnership.

A for Align Expectations, then Over-Deliver

When I reach out to a partner or, less commonly, when a partner reaches out to me, I have a responsibility to ensure the partner knows what they are getting into by working with me. This means making sure they have accurate traffic and social media numbers, understand exactly what I will deliver, and ofter – when I will deliver it.

I’m always shocked and saddened when a potential partner is surprised to receive a (really informal) contract from me, outlining our agreed partnership, deliverables, and due dates. It’s a time where most bloggers are frankly shit at writing and marketing. Doing the basics – drawing up a contract and sticking to it – are above-and-beyond.

Personally though, I don’t stop there. Even after a contract is agreed upon, I try to over-deliver on that contract. Are there extra opportunities to promote? Are there places I could share the content I haven’t yet thought of? Is there extra content I could create? (As a freelance travel writer, I often over-deliver by writing stories on other outlets, too.)

A great example was my recent partnership with Flightbucks through Wanderful. The basics of my agreement were met, but I went to Reddit and shared the giveaway there too. This drew massive traffic to my post, and helped me exceed expectations for the partnership.

Pro-tip: Always ask for testimonials after a good partnership!

B for Be Mindful of Brand and Blog Fit

This morning, I woke up to an email from a really cool partner. This household name brand cold-emailed me about promoting a new collection of products they’re offering. It’s damn flattering to consider, but I’m not sure they have a great fit for me, my content pillars, and you as my readers.

At the end of the day, I can’t succeed if I agree to every partnership and end up wrecking my reputation and integrity. This blog was never meant to be an advertising platform for any/every brand. It is meant to be a place that I could share stories and support destinations, brands, and businesses I love.

It’s easy to be lured in by the idea that any partnership is a good partnership, but this simply isn’t true. If a partnership doesn’t match your brand, or your blog, it’s going to hurt you. Even worse, your ability to over-deliver is diminished when you have poor brand/blog fit.

C for Consider Your Happiness as a Blogger

There are two reasons to turn down a partnership. The first is our ‘B,’ the brand/blog fit. The second is that the partnership would not make you happy.

Who am I to talk about happiness? Well, you may remember I took three months off from writing last winter. I had spent the entire autumn writing partnership posts from my summer travels, and the idea of writing was repulsive. Me – a writer – repelled by writing? I needed a break.

I came to realize during my break that a blog comprised entirely of partnership posts is not interesting. It doesn’t matter that bloggers uses or prefers those brands – it’s still advertorial, and loses its authenticity.

Additionally, cranking out sponsored content all the time is stressful. It means I’m never “on vacation” when traveling. I find myself worried about meeting deadlines, unhappy that the content quality isn’t good enough, and concerned that I won’t be able to promote it well. I’ve learned that in many situations, I’d rather paythan partner.

Here’s my advice, based on what I’ve learned: don’t say yes to everything. Consider if a partnership will really help you, your readers, and the brand before saying yes.It’s okay to say no, because brands who hear no respect that you want them to succeed.

What’s Next for Year Four?

Somehow, this became a 2,000 word post – thanks for sticking with me. Before I wrap up, I want to share my own goals related to these lessons. Goals help accountability, and hopefully drive success, right?

Here are my goals for 2016-2017 on Valerie & Valise:

  1. Continue honing my content strategy to focus on my content pillars and topics I’m passionate about.
  2. Improve my traffic to connect with more readers who share my passions about travel.
  3. Continue to optimize my Facebook presence and connect with fans there.
  4. Strive to continually reduce the number of partnership posts until I’m working only with partners I know, love, and trust.

That’s it – sounds simple enough. 😉 I hope you’ll continue reading to find stories you enjoy, and we can continue traveling the world together on my blog.

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Valerie has been blogging since 2001, and has been running her oldest travel blog for a decade. You can find her across the internet on her various niche sites, but she started Site School to help fellow bloggers grow and create better content.

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