The skillset of the on-line travel writer

4 Mar

Regular readers (hello and thank you!) will I hope remember a recent post about how I see travel writing changing. (And I think it's happening increasingly quickly.)

As I explained, I see an opportunity for travel writers to associate themselves with a brand and get paid for doing so.

In return the brand gets credibility and quality content on their website/blog (or even out there elsewhere on the net.)

Here are a couple of interesting live examples:

  • Fiona Hilliard writing the Glove Box blog for Argus Car Hire
  • Lara Dunston and Terence Carter, writing the Gran Turismo blog for HomeAway Holiday-Rentals (screen shot above)

Anyone found any others?

So - what are the new skillsets that a travel writer in the web-age needs?

Here are a few that I can think of:

A blog and a twitter feed - you need to demonstrate that you 'get' web. That you are live in your network.You need to demonstrate too that you get CMS systems like WordPress and would be comfortable writing posts directly into a CMS platform yourself

Comments and followers - you need to demonstrate that the web gets you. People online are following your tweets, commenting on your posts, interacting with you. This is actually quite subtle in my opinion. Or to put it another way... how do you get comments and followers and what does that show about you as a writer? You need to know how to write posts that are opinionated, thoughtful, and encourage others to respond. You need to know how to nurture that discussion by moderating the comments and responding. You need to tweet usefully (an obvious example, don't tweet that you've just eaten a donut or someone on the bus is annoying you if your twitter feed is supposed to be about you as a travel writer. Set up a separate personal twitter feed for personal stuff!).

Connections in the right networks - marketing bods are all about audiences and customer groups. So instead of profiling yourself as say an expert on six different destinations that you've written Lonely Planet guides to or whatever, profile yourself as someone who can interact successfully - with real credibility - with backpackers and independent travellers. Pick an audience and focus on that. I don't know how crucial this one is... but it's certainly interesting. Editors like to be able to think of their freelance writers as having a particular skill or specialism. If someone has a ready made network that targets a particular demographic, wow, that's a powerful thing.

I guess I'd summarise the above points in one phrase: Social Influence

And then as a counterpoint - Search Influence

Page Rank - If you haven't downloaded and installed the Google toolbar - try it! It has a particularly handy Page Rank indicator that gives a rough and ready idea of the relative authority and hence link-value of any website you are looking at. It's a mark out of 10 (Travelblather is currently Page Rank 4). So... a link from Travelblather to your website is worth 4 out of 10 in Google's eyes. Not great, but not too bad either! The higher a site's page rank the more authority the links from it have. If you know a bit about SEO you'll know that links to a site have a huge impact upon its position in search rankings. (Another post on this sometime, but enough for now to say that if your blog has a decent page rank people who know their stuff will want to get you to link to them and this could be a revenue opportunity for you.)

So... if you're a travel writer (be that an old pro or a complete newbie) and you've set up a blog and maybe posted a few times and are now wondering 'why am I doing this?' the answer could be because in another year or two's time it could be your most valuable asset. Print sure isn't dead and it will always be there, but as opportunities for publication in print decline, the alternative will be on-line and in my opinion the winners will be those who demonstrate the qualities and skills I've blathered about on this post.

What do you think? Does this give you hope or fill you with despair?

(Another post you might want to read: The Future for Travel Editors)

25 Responses to “The skillset of the on-line travel writer”

  1. Jan Ross 04. Mar, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

    I guess I fit into this niche! I have been the social media person for The Travel Authority travel agency for about a year now and love it. I write and travel for them. The perfect job! You have made me think that I should write my posts with the idea of getting people to comment in mind. I do get frustrated with the small # of comments - I will rethink this!

  2. Ian McKee (McCluskey International) 04. Mar, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    Funnily enough I think all these qualities are things a travel PR needs to gain too - social influence, understanding, understanding of SEO.

    Not sure I agree with the SEO tool suggestion though - Google toolbar? Hmm. Just think even for basic SEO you need to know a bit more than just page rank - i.e. backlinks. I know Page Rank takes account of that, among other things, but if you can actually see a site's backlinks it tells you that much more (it's also useful to know who's linking to who!). I've got the SeoQuake Firefox addon (there's one for Chrome too) that tells me that instantly, and is less invasive than Google toolbar.

  3. David Whitley 04. Mar, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    Not *quite* the same, but Viator have paid me to write a few blog posts on their site: http://travelblog.viator.com/

    Also, I know Roundtheworldflights.com has been working with Mark Eveleigh - you'd have to ask Stu for the exact basis - although I'm about to embark on something similar next month.

    My blog itself (www.grumpytraveller.com) doesn't make any money, but it has been very handy in terms of getting me known within the travel industry. Well, that along with the Twitter presence. Somehow it has got a PageRank of 3, and I have recently been approached by travel companies wanting to pay for links on it - as you intimate. (I turned it down, incidentally - have used company before and didn't like it).

    The other use of having that online presence is in promoting your other web projects, which might not be as sexy and wouldn't normally attract the attention of others in the media. For example, my other site (www.australiaflightbargains.com) has got media mentions via people who know me as Grumpy Traveller...

    I think Darren from Travel Rants has benefited in much the same way with his Leeds site.

  4. Jeremy Head 04. Mar, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    Hi Ian
    Thanks for the suggestion re toolbars - inclined to agree that the google one is a bit full of gunk that I'm not interested in... useful thanks
    Your comment about a PR needing the same qualities is really interesting. I wonder... does that mean the line between PR and Journalism just even thinner?
    J

  5. DonaldS 04. Mar, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    I'd tend to agree with much of this. I wrote posts for a villa rental company for a while last year (http://www.traveleden.com/travel-eden-blog), and have another tangential, short-term thing coming up soon. Nothing as grand as Gran Tourismo, though (for which, I'd say, Lara D. was an excellent choice). I'd probably also pitch in that it's worth looking at other electronic platforms, too, besides the Web. The iPhone apps I've authored for Instant Cities (http://instantcities.com) have interested a couple of people; so far, I'd judge I've picked up as much money on the back of *having done* the apps as the apps themselves have made in sales (which are steady, no better).

    One thing I'd take issue with:

    > Set up a separate personal twitter feed for personal stuff!

    I disagree. There's nothing more tedious to me than those Twitter streams that constant push out 'travel' content. Whether that's deals, links to blogs (usually one's own) with inspirational content, endless StumbleUpons, or whatever. I much prefer Twitter streams to be integrated travel/personal (like @mrdavidwhitley, to pick an example present). My advice would be: be a travel writer, a traveller, a writer *and* a rounded person in your stream. Just be less boring... and, like you say, no tweets about donuts. Unless you've come across a really extraordinary donut, of course...

  6. Debbie Ferm 04. Mar, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    I've thought of this also, but there's another thing that travel writers need to consider.

    With traditional media struggling, outlets that feature travel writing are disappearing too.

    Web readers are not the same as those who read The Atlantic, etc. and don't have the same affinity for all that lyrical prose found in travel writing. Like all web copy, travel writing will need to more scannable etc. Almost like traditional copywriting to keep their attention.

    This could be looked on as a sad situation or as a huge opportunity for all of the writers out there who were never able to break into those markets. Times are changing. That's for sure:)

    I didn't mean to write a novel. Sorry!

  7. Jeremy Head 04. Mar, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    Hi Debbie
    Yes indeed. I've not covered content and style in this post at all. You are I think very right. Online content needs to be more digestible and less lyrical too. And I agree, from a writer's perspective, not as satisfying to write.
    Thanks for your comment
    Jeremy

  8. Jeremy Head 04. Mar, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    Well... I have eaten a few great donuts (doughnuts?)in my time... but...
    Twitter is cool in that it's so flexible... no harm in coming across with a bit of personality, but the number of twitterers I've stopped following because I get bored of the stream of consciousness stuff that drowns out there occasional tweets of real interest. I suppose it's about balance.
    I do see multiple feeds as the future - my personal feed similar to my Facebook status (Jeremy just ate a fantastic donut) and my travelblather feed for info about interesting stuff I find online about travel writing, links to my blog etc.

  9. DonaldS 04. Mar, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    We'll have to agree to disagree then. I'd like to hear about interesting stuff you find about online travel writing and those great donuts... without having to follow 2 streams.

  10. Ian McKee 04. Mar, 2010 at 3:30 pm #

    No problem!

    Yeah definitely re PR/journalism line. You're suggesting that writers can get into writing corp blogs, and I've said in this post - http://bit.ly/71vUIs - that PRs can do that themselves. I'd say whoever it is writing the corp blog, it's written for the same purpose: marketing. So once they're doing that, it doesn't really matter what they're job title is or was. Up until recently I was writing a blog for Tourism Ireland, so does that make me a travel writer..?

    I suppose one difference is when an established travel writer writes for a brand's blog they are lending their credibility to that brand, but I'd say that PRs need to learn to build their credibility too. I know, cue laughter at use of 'PR' and 'credibility' in the same sentence, but we've got to adapt too!

  11. David Atkinson 04. Mar, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    Debbie makes a good point. While I still enjoy writing a 1,000-word feature and even reading some of those published each weekend (some not), I think there will be less and less of that kind of work for freelancers in the future.

    The skillset of the online travel writer, then, requires adapting journalistic skills to the medium and playing to its strength - scannable text, links, archiving, multimedia content etc.

    I applaud the freelancers who have gone out there and taken to their skills to a brand-based project, even more so if they are being well paid for it.

    The lesson of the day? Embrace change.

  12. DonaldS 04. Mar, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    > cue laughter at use of 'PR' and 'credibility' in the same sentence

    Not from me, not at all. Just 'being good at it (whatever it is)' is enough to get credibility as far as I'm concerned. I'm sure the really crap PRs that I've dealt with would be crap at absolutely anything they did. It's not just because they are PRs...

  13. Fiona Hilliard 04. Mar, 2010 at 3:58 pm #

    Hi Jeremy, thanks for the mention above! :)

  14. David Whitley 04. Mar, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    Thanks Donald. The fiver* is in the post.

    *That may be five Vietnamese Dong. Hard times and all that.

  15. Hal Peat 04. Mar, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    I wouldn't worry about branding too much if your personal and professional experience have already branded you strongly. I think the real issue for many people who want to travel write is that they don't know what their recognizable assets are in terms of expertise on a particular topic or region of the world. Consequently, they pursue no recognizable focus in their travel destinations -- it's all look at me, turning up in all four points of the compass and complaining about hotels enroute. But what's the ongoing focus or theme or vision that keeps followers following them (i.e., the brand)? Isn't citizen journalism best founded on understanding and being confident that people can be engaged by your srong connection to your own actual corner of the world or category of travel that you know most authentically? I'd think that would be the best way to apply the notion of "think globally, act locally" in terms of transforming your voice and vision to digital media. That's what I'm now trying to do myself, as far as creating my own travel site and contributing to others, and tailoring my twitter followers/followings accordingly. BTW, wordpress is the easiest of all platforms to use, it's the other site builders that offer more bells and whistles both stylistically and technically (hint: dreamweaver) that are the devil to learn.

  16. Fiona Hilliard 04. Mar, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    The point about SEO is especially valid. When writing for a corporate blog, there's a fine balance that has to be struck between writing an informative/entertaining blog and writing purely for a search engine. While writing to an SEO strategy will get you noticed by Google, it is getting your audience to believe that there is actually a real-life human being sitting behind the corporate logo that will help you earn credibility and visitors.

  17. aladyinlondon 05. Mar, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    I agree with Fiona about SEO. Additionally, SEO is important for the "Social Influence" component because the higher your page is ranked, the more people will find it and the more they'll feel it's a credible, trustworthy source. That creates a virtuous cycle of giving you more social influence and search influence as those people link back to you, etc.

  18. Matthew Teller 05. Mar, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    Thank you, Jeremy and everyone, for another thought-provoking discussion - so thought-provoking, in fact, that I've gone & blogged about it...
    http://is.gd/9K4uK

  19. Vtravelled 05. Mar, 2010 at 3:51 pm #

    Your first point is so right, Jeremy. Of course, you look at someone's style and expertise first of all, but as someone who commissions online travel writing, I can't stress enough how increasingly important it's becoming that the writers I use are switched on to the world of social media. When someone sends me a pitch that I'm interested in, one of the first things I do is find out if they're on Twitter and see how many people subscribe to their blog, if they have one. As far as SEO is concerned your social influence and search influence, as you put it, are now so intrinsically linked that you can no longer really afford to focus on one without the other.
    Maxine / Editor - http://vtravelled.com

  20. Alastair McKenzie 05. Mar, 2010 at 7:36 pm #

    Um, actually pagerank (the little green bar) is just window dressing and means pretty much nothing.

    Yes, I've always found that hard to swallow too, but if you've been active as long as I have on SEO forums like http://www.highrankings.com/forum/ (since... 2003, gulp) you'll know just how much contempt and derision the SEO gurus have for Pagerank, and how much irritation that so many website owners get distracted by it.

    See this post for an overview

    http://www.highrankings.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=17365

  21. Mike Gerrard 05. Mar, 2010 at 10:27 pm #

    To bring this down to a more mundane practical level, Jeremy, you might want to give your own home page a going-over. Of your first four 'Recent Features', one link takes you only to the Mail's travel home page, and the next three recent features were published in 2005, 2004, and 2003. I know myself how easy it is to let websites get out of date, believe me.

  22. Mark Hodson 06. Mar, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    This a really interesting debate, with some valuable insights. However, there's one myth about SEO that should not continue to go unchallenged.

    I refer to the idea that writers can choose to write either for humans or for search engines. If that was ever the case, it isn't any more. From a SEO point of view, you are better off writing something genuinely interesting (for humans). Then those humans are more likely to add comments (as we all have) and - most importantly - link to the article from our own sites (as Matthew has done, above).

    Incidentally, some in the SEO community argue that Google should stop displaying toolbar PageRank (because it's pretty meaningless. See Alastair's comment and link, above). Others actually like it, because it distracts the ignorant hordes from the important factors. Not being rude, I'm just saying.

  23. Jeremy Head 09. Mar, 2010 at 9:55 am #

    Hi all
    I think the SEO/toolbar debate might make an interesting post of its own. Despite the reservations I find the Page Rank score is at least something that someone who knows little about SEO can at least use to get some idea. Sure there are better more complex ways of analysing the relative SEO value of a website. I know little about this debate, but the page Alistair links to doesn't dismiss it out of hand - far from it. It just points out that it's not particularly exact and quite correctly points out that page rank of itself doesn't equate to profit. (I'm going to ask someone from the SEO team at iCrossing to comment or maybe guest post sometime. Interestingly no one at iCrossing has ever said to me 'Do not use it, it's rubbish.')
    I certainly never suggested writers should write for SEO or for humans - completely agree with Mark's points. What I meant by Search Influence wasn't 'can the writer write copy with search terms cleverly inserted into it... I meant 'does the writer have an existing piece of web real estate (ie a blog or website) that has good authority from an SEO perspective.' If so, that makes them interesting to me as a commissioning editor for a number of reasons,
    1) They could maybe link to my sites from theirs and pass on useful link equity
    2) They clearly 'get' web if Google ranks them well...
    Cheers and thanks for continuing interesting debate! Fab stuff
    J

  24. Jeremy Head 12. Mar, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    This is a test comment

  25. Adam 12. Apr, 2010 at 4:23 am #

    The fact that travel writers today need to "get" the web, and let the web "get" them makes perfect sense. As technology evolves, everything is becoming more and more social.

    I'm sure a lot of people would argue that too many people screaming in a room is a bad thing, but that's why you have to work at interacting--on both sides. I'm optimistic that all the social networking tools at our fingertips are going to make travel writing & travel blogging more interesting & more exciting in the very near future!