This is a guest contribution from Lauren Juliff.
I was sitting on my bed in a mosquito-filled guesthouse in Belize when I received the email. It was from an editor at one of the biggest publishing companies in the world – she’d stumbled across my travel blog and noticed I was working on a book about my adventures; she wanted to know if I could send her a draft of what I’d written so far.
I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or pass out. When I’d decided to write a travel memoir, I hadn’t been sure I’d ever finish it. I wasn’t even convinced I was a good enough writer to pull it off. As I was battling my way through those early planning stages, a book deal had been the last thing I was looking for.
Several months later, while I was neck-deep in the process of putting together a book proposal, I received an email from an editor at a different publishing company. She’d discovered my site, saw I was writing a book, and wanted to know if I would be interested in working with her on it.
It wasn’t until I received that second email that I realised I’d been setting myself up for success all along.
I Focused on Building a Strong Brand Above All Else
When I started Never Ending Footsteps back in 2010, I had lofty dreams of making it as the biggest name in travel blogging. I was determined to create an enormous site, packed full of helpful resources and advice, and to be known worldwide as a travel expert.
Within the first few months of my trip, I realised that I was not in any way the type of person you should be taking advice from. I ended up scammed, lost, and robbed, fell into rice paddies, and was abandoned at borders. I got caught up in a tsunami, sat next to a dead body, and accidentally ate a cockroach. It turned out I was a terrible traveller.
For a while, I faked it. I hid my misfortune from my posts in the hope that I’d somehow figure out how to travel without everything going wrong. I tried to write useful guides to the cities I’d stumbled through and share travel tips I’d learned from other bloggers. My writing was inauthentic, dull, and my readers weren’t coming back for more.
After gaining little success, I flipped my focus and built a brand around being a walking disaster, something nobody else was doing in travel blogging. I created a page called The Incidents to chronicle my many disasters and linked to it often. I changed the slogan of my site to Traveller, Writer, and Walking Disaster. I created an Incident of the Month section to include in my monthly travel summary posts
My site had a strong message: travel can transform your life, even if you have no idea what you’re doing, everything always seems to go wrong, and you have panic attacks whenever you have to leave your pea-sized comfort zone. Anyone who visited could immediately tell that I was doing something different to other bloggers: I was writing about how not to travel the world.
One of the editors would later tell me that it was my site’s unique hook that led to her wanting to work with me. She could see that I was sharing a story that hadn’t been told before.
Engagement Was My Most Treasured Metric
The majority of bloggers focus on growing traffic and revenue above all else, but I decided to take a different route. Sure, more visitors and a larger income would have been great, but building a tight-knit community was a bigger priority for me.
Rather than concentrating on building the largest site with an enormous audience on social media, I instead worked on connecting with my current readers. I researched which style of posts received the highest number of comments and social media shares, so that I could replicate this in the future. I spent a huge chunk of time writing detailed responses to comments and emails to build a strong relationship with my readers.
On social media, I did the same. I tracked which type of posts resonated with my followers on each network and made sure to reply to all the comments. Eventually, I reached the point where I was achieving similar levels of interaction that accounts with five times the number of followers received.
Publishers are looking for proof that your audience would spend money on a book you’ve written, which is tough to show as a blogger, because your readers are used to receiving everything for free. When the editors came to my site, they could see that my readers cared about my story through the thousands of supportive comments I’d received. It also helped that anytime I mentioned my book in a blog post, I’d receive a dozen comments asking when it would be out.
I Prioritised Telling My Story Over SEO
After deciding to focus on how not to travel, I started to study storytelling techniques. Once I’d learned how to write about my travel disasters in a compelling way, the interaction on my site skyrocketed.
Unexpectedly, having these posts gain hundreds of comments and shares on social media helped them climb the rankings in Google. Blog posts with the titles, “Violated in Bangkok: My Unhappy Ending” and “There Was a Dead Woman on my Slow Boat” weren’t written with SEO in mind, but now rank for “Bangkok massage” and “slow boat in Laos”, despite those keywords not being targeted in any way.
When I asked my editor why she decided to get in touch, she said, “[you] caught my eye because you seemed so friendly and accessible, and your blog clearly had such a unique hook. There are lots of perfectly well-written travel blogs out there but lots are simply ‘where I’ve been’ stories – perfectly fine, but not something that will sell huge numbers.”
She wouldn’t have gained that impression if my site had been full of resources on where to eat in Paris and what to do in Mexico City.
I Realised the Importance of Networking Early On
As soon as I started my blog, I dedicated several hours a day to chatting with other travel bloggers on Twitter. I left comments on every travel blog I could find, I participated in Twitter chats, I joined Facebook groups for travel bloggers, and I arranged to meet up with any bloggers who happened to be in the same place as I was.
When I asked both editors how they found my site, it was through other travel blogs. One editor found me after a travel blogging friend mentioned my site in a blog post, and the other discovered my site through a friend’s list of recommended travel blogs.
While you don’t want your entire audience to consist of other bloggers, having everyone on your side will improve your chances of success.
I Wrote As If Everyone Was Reading
You never know who might be reading your blog.
One of the editors had been following my misadventures for over a year before she sent me an email. As soon as she spotted that I was working on a book, she jumped at the chance to work with me. By that point, she already knew my story, had evidence that I consistently produce high quality articles, and could see that I had an engaged readership.
The lesson here is to write as if Important People You Want to Impress are reading your every word. You won’t know if they’re subscribed to your site or if they’ll happen to stumble across it one day, so you’ll want to be prepared. Don’t publish anything that you’re not proud to put your name on, go through multiple rounds of edits, and make sure that all of your posts have a strong, consistent message.
Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something Different
It’s scary to look at what everyone in an industry is doing and decide to do the opposite, having no idea if it will ever pay off. I’m proof that it can. You don’t need to follow the crowd. Find a way to stand out, become known for trying something new, and write as if everyone is watching. You never know who might come across your blog and what it could lead to.
Lauren Juliff is a full-time traveller and professional travel blogger at Never Ending Footsteps, where she writes about her many travel disasters. She recently released her first book, How Not to Travel the World, which chronicles how she conquered debilitating anxiety through being one of the unluckiest travellers in the world.