Adventures in travel blogging: Turning a personal brand into a business

DSC_0256One of my photo blogging role models, Trey Ratcliff, at the TBEX conference in Toronto / Photo by Dave Cynkin

This week, I officially turned my blogging into a business. You can find me registered in the District of Columbia as a limited liability corporation — Cosmic Smudge Media, LLC to be exact.

I have no employees, no revenue and no real clue about what to do next.

Eventually, I’d like to sell some eBooks, photography prints and perhaps some advertising from this website. There are a few apps I’d like to develop and I’ve got an idea for a graphic novel series that I’m kicking around. For now, I’m hoping to write off some business expenses associated with this blog, including conferences, seminars and maybe some photo equipment, depending on what my yet-to-be-hired accountant has to say.

Sadly, Cosmic Smudge Media is running quite a bit in the red. And will be for the foreseeable future.

To be clear, I don’t consider the blog my business — it’s just a part of it. It’s the brand that I’m developing.

The problem is I’m not exactly sure what that brand is going to be when it grows up. I recently joined the Professional Travel Bloggers Association, though I don’t consider myself a professional travel blogger. I’m headed to London in September for a photography seminar but I don’t consider myself anything more than an amateur photographer. As a New York Times article on travel blogging put it this week, “It’s Complicated.”

The article gave readers a peek into this new world that I’ve immersed myself in. In particular, the author, Dan Saltzstein, points out that there are many travel bloggers who have been able to parlay their blogs into trips sponsored and paid for by the travel industry. It is certainly a caveat to keep in mind when you’re reading a post about all the great places a blogger visited, stayed at and dined at during his or her trip. Trips tend to be a lot more enjoyable when you’re not paying the tab. And it’s simply human nature to write positive things about people who treated you well.

In Saltzstein’s article, there was one paragraph that really hit home. He writes how blogging has evolved from something that was intimate and creative to an entirely different kind of endeavor. Aspirations of traveling the world have gone from “an idealistic statement,” as Saltzstein puts it, to a “transactional one.”

It’s unclear whether Saltzstein was trying to pass judgement on bloggers who take sponsored trips. I’m certainly not. If this blog ever grows to the level where I’m offered a “press” trip, it’s something I would consider, albeit not without some internal conflict. I’m an old school newspaper journalist who was brought up to refuse any kind of freebie. Usually that meant turning down free meals or drinks. Taking a free trip would have been akin to selling your soul to the devil.

But I’ve been out of journalism for almost seven years now and I don’t really consider myself a journalist, anymore. I do some journalistic writing on this blog, but I consider myself more of a story-teller these days. If a sponsored trip helps me do that, well, it’s something to consider.

I went to the world’s largest gathering of travel bloggers in June to find some inspiration and some insights from people who are a lot better at this than me. It appears Saltzstein reported a lot of his story from the same TBEX Conference. He writes:

It’s impossible to estimate the number of independent travel blogs. Thousands of writers and photographers now travel the world registering their thoughts through platforms like WordPress and Blogger. But there is indication that the ranks of the bloggers whose aspirations are not just creative have grown: blogger attendance at the annual conference known as TBEX was about 1,000 this year, more than double that of last year’s event in Keystone, Colo., and the “speed dating” sessions in which bloggers seek sponsors grew to 3,629 from 206 last year.

The proliferation of these blogs, and what is becoming a go-to way of financing them, would seem a boon to the daring people who want to keep logs of life on the road and the readers who want to consume them. But as travel blogging comes of age, the landscape has become vastly more complicated and more fragmented. It can all be daunting — and increasingly difficult for both bloggers and readers to navigate.

When I started this blog in 2011, it was just an outlet for random, sporadic outbursts of creativity. Often times, I’d go weeks or months without updating it. Then, as I became more interested in photography, I started using the blog as a way to add structure to my photo outings; it forced me to think about how I  should photograph places during my travels. In turn, I think it has helped me on my journey to become a better photographer.

It wasn’t until May that I started thinking about where I wanted to take this blog and what kind of audience I wanted to attract.  In April, I posted only one article, which matched the number of postings for the previous three months. Yes, in the first four months of 2013, I wrote two posts, and one wasn’t much more than a photo and a few words.

However, my productivity and traffic are inching up. This is my 23rd post since the beginning of May. In April, I had  460 pageviews. It went up to 1,969 in May and 3,437 in June. This month, I should top 4,000 pageviews. I’ve still got a long way to go before I get within sniffing distance of some of the bloggers interviewed in the NYT article. Yet, I’m not too worried about it or in a major rush to get there. I have no plans to leave my day job. I work on this thing in the evenings (and into the early morning hours) and on the weekends.

In fact, the blogging that I do on my personal time has helped me in my real job as a media strategist for a D.C. non-profit, and visa versa.

Blogging, even on this small scale, has given me some great insights into the SEO juice you get from social media. About 60 percent of the traffic to Cosmic Smudge comes from social media referrals and about 11 percent comes from search traffic.  I’m utterly amazed at my Google ranking on two search terms in particular. When you search for “Oklahoma Joe’s Burnt Ends,” a post I wrote about the Kansas City barbecue joint is listed 2nd (!). Even more amazing to me is that if you search “how to shoot the Lincoln Memorial,” the top link goes to an article I posted this month.

You’re probably asking yourself, “How did he do such an amazing thing?” Well, that, my friend, is a secret that some day you will be able to download from a great little company called Cosmic Smudge Media, LLC for the mere price of $9.99.

The photo of Trey Ratcliff by flickr user Dave Cynkin (co-founder of Blog World, the company that owns TBEX) is used under a Creative Commons license.

Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.

  • Leigh Powell Hines @Hinessightblog

    July 28, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Congratulations, Joe. I look forward to reading more.

    Again, nice to meet you in Toronto. Let’s keep up.

    • Joe Newman

      July 28, 2013 at 8:56 pm

      Leigh, thanks! I’m glad we had a chance to connect. Looking forward to following your work.

  • Simone Anne

    July 29, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    Congrats on making it official! I look forward to seeing how the blog develops. Thanks for the links, too. I work in marketing on the social media side as well as running my own blog & so always find these things super interesting! Thanks for sharing! 🙂 (I’ve bookmarked the NYTs one for later! haha)

    • Joe Newman

      July 30, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      Thanks, Simone. I’m realistic about it, I think the blog will be what it will be but I realized I was starting to pile up some expenses associated with this “hobby” and figured I should start approaching it like a business. Even if it never amounts to much, I think the exercise will force me to track return on investment and get me to think strategically.

  • CancunSteve

    July 31, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    please try advertising to get the blog into the black as it’s worthwhile and should be made to survive

    • Joe Newman

      August 2, 2013 at 8:03 pm

      Definitely something I am considering.

  • James MacArthur

    August 2, 2013 at 4:24 am

    Hey Joe, great article. Although I’ve been blogging for a few years now, and have seen my brand, reach and visibility expand quite a bit from when I first started, I gain great insight and perspective.

    Looking forward to reading more of your writings.

    • Joe Newman

      August 2, 2013 at 8:01 pm

      Thanks for stopping by James!

  • Shanna Schultz

    September 7, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    So, not asking you to divulge all of your patented secrets 😉 I am curious, though, approximately how much time you spend each week promoting through social media versus the amount of time spent writing and doing other blog tasks?

    It would be a helpful comparison for me…our blogs are both “newish”, and I am not getting the bang out of social media that I really want. I have always searched for an answer to the question “How much time should I be spending on social media to make a difference?”

    • Joe Newman

      September 9, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      Hi Shanna! I totally hear you on the frustrations. I don’t know if there’s a secret. Basically, if you could spend ALL of your time during the day promoting your blog, you’d probably be somewhere in the area of the right amount of time. Obviously, that’s not very realistic if, like me, you’ve got a full-time day job. I try to make one or two new posts to Facebook and G+ each day and try to get a dozen or so tweets out a day. On a lot of days, I don’t come near that. Mostly I think you have to concentrate on trying to connect with groups of like-minded bloggers and tweeters to cross-promote each others’ stuff. Have you checked out the Thursday Instagram Link-up? It requires some work but I do think it has helped me get my blog out there. Other folks participate in things like blog carnivals and spend a lot of time on guest posts. All those things, I think, are much more effective than spending a lot of time on Twitter, though I think you have to do both? Feel free to email me at joe AT CosmicSmudge [DOT] com if you want!

  • […] be in Las Vegas for the NMX – New Media Expo where I’ll continue trying to figure out how to turn my brand into a business and will hopefully meet even more new friends. There’s still some growing pains as I figure […]