Article by TBEX North America 2022 Featured Speaker, Nora Dunn
With any luck, the worst of the pandemic is behind us, and the travel industry’s recovery will continue steadily. But for anybody who made their living with travel blogging or travel content creation prior to the pandemic, the last couple of years have been rough.
In fact, I’d wager the pandemic spelled the end of many budding travel bloggers’ careers and dreams of earning their living this way. Those who did survive, had to do some fancy footwork.
January 2020: The Land of Milk & Honey
With travel at an all-time high, anybody who was well-established in the travel content creation business was raking in the money. Personally, I was having a banner year. I’d been approached by a major firm to purchase my website, and while the offer was tempting, I decided I wanted to sit back and ride the gravy train for 2020, enjoying the fruits of 14 years of work building my site, and further improving the site’s financials (and consequently the sale price).
Things didn’t exactly go as planned.
March 2020: A Series of Slaps in the Face
By the end of March 2020, I’d lost half my traffic and more than half my income. My income was a pretty even split between display advertising and affiliate sales. The display ads plummeted in line with the drop in traffic, and affiliate income suffered even more, as affiliate providers shut down programs left right and centre.
To add insult to injury a Google algorithm update slashed another 50% of my traffic in May 2020. With traffic down 75% from five months prior, and income down 80+%, I was in trouble.
The Inherent Problems With My Business Model
The point of failure in my business model became pretty clear: my income, despite being from multiple sources, was 100% dependent on traffic to my website (The Professional Hobo), which in turn, was 80% dependent on organic searches through Google.
And the pandemic taught me just how risky that strategy was. I’d suffered significant dips in traffic from Google updates in years past; while painful, for the most part I eventually recovered each time. What nobody anticipated was the complete shut-down of the travel industry.
After I’d finished licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself, I took a hard look at my online business. I found three flaws:
1. SEO is a zero-sum game.
You can bust your butt to reach the top spot on Google by playing whatever SEO strategy is popular at the moment. But at some point, somebody else is going to beat you at it. Staying relevant from an SEO perspective requires constant tweaking and updating. It’s not impossible, but it is a slog, and the bigger your site gets, the larger a task this is.
2. Google loves to change the rules.
Even if you do everything right, Google can release a new update that changes the playing field entirely, and can adversely affect your traffic, even if you did everything “right”. Cue in more tweaks and updates, on top of producing and marketing new content, etc. Having an online business dependent solely on traffic means scrambling to please the Google Gods. This can be disempowering.
3. Travel isn’t universal, and I wasn’t diversified.
This was the real flaw. I thought I was diversified; I had income from dozens of affiliate sources, as well as display ads. But both income sources were 100% tied to traffic. And when the traffic died, so too did my income.
But there was another form of diversification missing: diversification of audiences. My business was dependent on people planning international travel. When borders closed, there wasn’t much reason to be on my site.
Becoming a Better Blogger
The silver lining for me came from identifying a complementary market and finding new income streams. I doubled down on my financial expertise and the emerging remote work market. Both were markets outside of – but still related to – travel that I could pivot my content to serve these markets better.
With this market in mind, I began started developing new income streams. I started a YouTube show, began consulting, and built out ideas for podcasts and online curriculum. It’s still a work in progress, but this shift gave me the momentum I needed to start the recovery in advance of borders re-opening.
I have colleagues who took other approaches.
Some doubled down on domestic travel and started websites to help locals discover their own backyards (which would later help international travelers to the region).
Others started websites that catered to markets that weren’t specifically travel-centric, but could be related to it.
Both of the above strategies were still reliant on Google, but were diversified from the original travel blog enough to build a more stable foundation.
Other bloggers moved away from the traditional website model entirely.
Some who had loyal fan bases created programs to deepen those relationships and allow those fans to support them in exchange for special perks, such as with Patreon and Buy Me A Coffee. Some even created their own custom membership programs from scratch.
And others yet explored new income streams like podcasts, video shows, newsletters, books, and online courses.
Learn How to Create “Pandemic-Proof” Online Businesses at TBEX!
In my workshop at TBEX North America 2022, I will be illustrating how a selection of travel bloggers pivoted to create stronger more profitable online businesses. You’ll learn what their business was like before the pandemic, what happened when COVID hit, and how they changed their strategies – and ultimately how it affected their income.
I look forward to sharing these Pandemic Pivot case studies with you at #TBEXTriCities in April.
Nora Dunn (aka The Professional Hobo) has been a travel blogger and digital nomad since 2007, making her one of the “OG”s. When she’s not helping remote workers design their lives and arrange their affairs to travel long-term, or speaking at conferences for travelers, digital nomads, and content creators, you can usually find her on a crazy train adventure. As a former financial planner, she is also a writer and spokesperson for NerdWallet.ca.
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