This is absolute navel gazing insidery about content marketing/state of the travelsphere BS. If you’re not part of this scene, you probably want to skip this. My alternate recommendation? Read my friend Doug Mack’s post about getting health insurance working in properly in this country, An Open Letter to Congressional Republicans From a Guy With a Gaping Hole In His Side. It’s sarcasm filled, but it’s also deeply personal, and I might have worn out some keys on my keyboard pounding “HALLELUJAH!” in response. Doug for Insurance Pope. No peace until it happens.
The Borg: Captain Jean-Luc Picard, you lead the strongest ship of the Federation fleet. You speak for your people.
Capt. Picard: I have nothing to say to you; and I will resist you with my last ounce of strength.
The Borg: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.
Capt. Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.
The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.
Capt. Picard: We would rather die.
The Borg: Death is irrelevant.
About a year ago, maybe longer, I was invited on a press trip. “You’ll write about the resort, right?” said the PR rep.
“Here’s the typical stuff I produce when I’m on a trip,” I said, sending a package of samples. “Almost always, I cover the accommodation as part of that, but you know what? I need to have more than “It’s a nice resort” for my story, and until I’ve been there, I can’t say what the coverage would look like.”
They rescinded the invitation. I was too candid, I could have been a bit more diplomatic. I understood exactly why they pulled me — they were, essentially buying advertising and might not get it. I genuinely had no hard feelings.
It doesn’t always work this way. Prior to my last hosted trip, I told the rep that I had no assignments and I don’t commit my blog before I’ve seen the destination.The rep said, “That’s cool, we know what you do. We just want to show you the place, we think you’ll love it and want to write about it.” This approach is a little unusual but not unheard of. I’ve been lucky to do a few sponsored trips — from basic no frills camping to five star luxury — where the only requirement is “Just write about your experience. We invited you because we like your work.” Beyond the basic fact check, my travel sponsors haven’t touched the work I produce as a result. But payment in travel for guaranteed coverage is more common with bloggers.
Much earlier in my career, an airlines offered to cover my flights if I’d list only them as the air provider for the destination. I felt less circumspect when that didn’t come through. Even if I’d wanted to do that — I didn’t — it would not have worked with the guidebook publisher. “Really? Only ONE airlines goes there? REALLY?” I said no.
I’m in a similar situation with an invitation right now — a PR rep recently asked me if I’d cover a specific service. “Highly likely,” I said, “but you have to understand — the final copy is not up to me, it’s up to my editor. He’s the boss.”
I’ve heard different versions of this requirement to cover specific things, it’s not unusual, and my answer is consistent: No guarantee. I’m not saying I won’t do it, only that I reserve the right not to if it doesn’t fit my editorial guidelines. Those guidelines might be externally imposed, or they could just be my own bar for what warrants inclusion on my blog. I recently turned down a content marketing campaign from a hipster menswear company. The money was decent, but it’s simply not related to what I do. They can buy an ad, sure, but to put that stuff in my content makes no sense at all.
When I’m paid to write for a publication, the final content isn’t my call. If the editor doesn’t like what I’ve said about the resort or the destination or the service, they may cut it. No ink. I wrote about Hawaii regulary for an editor who said, “If it sounds like you’re shilling for the destination… just don’t. We know that stuff when we see it.” This remains the voice in my head, even when I’m writing for this insignificant little blog. “Just don’t.”
I’ve been receiving fewer blogger press trip invites lately — why would PR spend money on me when they can spend dollars on someone who’s willing to produce exactly the content they want? My PR profile has probably been updated to say “This one’s too independent. Just don’t.”
Right now, the best way to make money in blogging is in content marketing, or in current jargon, “native advertising”. There are lots of definitions of what this is, but the wolf underneath is that it’s advertising that doesn’t look like advertising. There are a handful of organizations that are capitalizing on this model — they will find bloggers and pay them to write about a destination on their personal sites. They will share each others work and fill Twitter with a PR approved hashtag.
Wait. Let me get this out of the third person so it’s easier to digest. If I were a candidate, the organization would say to me, “I will pay you a day rate. All of your travel will be covered. In exchange for this, you will produce the following items for your blog, your Twitter feed, and your Facebook account.” There’s an alternative: “I will pay for your travel. While you are there, you will produce the following…” The result is that I write a bunch of stuff that looks like it’s work I’d do on my own, but it’s actually pay for play work. I’ve never been asked to participate in one of these pay for play initiatives. Shocker. I know.
Bloggers are contracted to do specific work on their own sites — I’ve heard tell that some get as much as 300 USD daily, plus all travel expenses. They typically disclose the terms of the travel — “This trip was paid for by…” — but I’ve yet to see the terms of the content called out — “I was paid to write about this topic.”
There are those who will “tailor content to your needs” (as seen on an blogger’s media kit) or “create content to meet your destination’s marketing goals” (overheard from a online publisher at a conference). If you attend a blogging conference, you’ll be shown some big numbers from these types of initiatives and told they indicate success. You may or may not be able to extract meaning from these “lies, damned lies and statistics” (as often attributed to Mark Twain). Especially shrewd — and I’d argue, cynical — business types have found a way to charge on both ends of this equation — taking money from bloggers to teach them how to take money from PR.
What’s the risk of PR not getting the write-ups they want? Not much. There’s a contract for specific content that both parties agree upon. The broker who finds the bloggers gets paid, PR gets what the coverage they want, bloggers get an adventure and sometimes some cash. Good business, right?
I chatted with a travel blogger friend the other day. My friend was rattled because PR companies had been telling the writer what to cover — and what not to cover. This blogger has a contract, it’s not with the PR company. Things are getting muddy, it seems. Is there an increasing expectation that the blogger’s job is to amplify the PR department’s message?
My friend’s story is a bit extreme; my own is probably more common — offers rescinded, or rather, not made at all. And in case you think I’m being naive, I’ll happily share with you that my traffic remains consistently unimpressive, though I will swear to you under oath that it is 100% organic — my site has no hidden pages designed to capture search terms or to hide links, I have never purchased Twitter followers or Facebook friends (all common traffic gamer tricks). What you see is exactly what you get.
If you look over there on the side bar, you’ll see some of the places my work has been published. Missing? My best paying market, one that’s invisible to most people who see me online, but kind of a dream for a lot of travel PR. I write a quarterly travel column for a publication that’s targeted at wealthy, healthy retirees. Thing is, if you look at me only as a blogger, I’m kind of a bust.
Years ago, when things were just picking up for travel on the web, Conde Nast Traveler flew me out to New York to cover an awards ceremony. My flight was diverted to Chicago because of a system failure. I learned later that what happened was kind of a big deal, but at the time, I had no idea how serious the situation was. I snapped photos and blogged about the incident when I was finally in my New York hotel room.
A while after this incident, I was called to be a witness in a post-traumatic stress lawsuit against American Airlines. I have no love for AA, but the landing was not traumatic, the cabin did not fill with smoke, people were not screaming and crying. In fact, it was so non-traumatic that when I saw the fire equipment racing towards our plane on the O’Hare runway, I did not realize it was for my flight. And take note — I was seated in the window seat in an exit row. You know what I did not do? Open the emergency exit door.
The lawyer for the woman filing the PTSD case asked me a lot of questions — she tried to suggest that I was not very observant. I tried not to laugh. She said something else that I thought inscrutable at the time, but am now beginning to understand. “Isn’t it your job,” she asked me, “to promote air travel and destinations?”
“First of all,” I said, “I fly coach and I hate it. I think of it as a necessary evil to get from place to place. If I could take the train to Europe, I would. And secondly, no, that’s not my job. I’m not a marketer. I write stories about travel. That’s my job.”
About a year ago, I left a blogging conference with a nagging sense of unease. At that conference, I had two conversations that left me concerned about the creeping redefinition of what bloggers do. The first discussion was about an exotic and expensive destination a blogger wanted to go to. I’d been, and I started to talk about how it was possible to do this trip in a surprisingly affordable way.
“Oh, no,” the blogger said, cutting me short. “I’m not going to pay for it. Absolutely not. I’m going to find a luxury sponsor, I shouldn’t HAVE to pay for it and I’m not going with a budget carrier. No way.”
The other conversation was about an idea I’d been kicking around, I was trying to get a sense of if it might generate the right kind of interest. It was for a travel writing workshop — I’d partner with a destination who would foot the bill for travel and accommodations. We’d blog about the destination while we were there. It would be a hands on “press trip content that doesn’t suck” workshop done in real time. I was asking a well established blogger if this was interesting.
“Would I get paid for my time?” said the blogger. I was speechless, a situation that does not happen very often.
I get bogged down in this nonsense something terrible because it’s happening all around me, held up as examples of success (meet the puffer fish, he looks bigger than he really is!) and published in insipid posts (here we are with cocktails in the golden hour light!) splattered across popular blogs.
I see content marketing taking over my social media feeds too. I’m not going to lie, I get blue when I see people who are old friends shift their online personas to include punctuation that looks like it came from brand robots. If I wanted regular information from a travel brand, I’d follow the brand feed. “We’re breathlessly excited about our #travel to #destination with #brand #triphashtag!” Yay you. Unsubscribe.
These conversations, the shift of focus, have had me demoralized. I volleyed back and forth between feeling like a failure because I’ve not cashed in on the dominant model and being angry that the dominant model devalues so many things that are important to me. Other times, I’m frustrated by the fact that I don’t fit — my values are traditionally journalistic (disclose, fact check, put a firewall between advertising and editorial, etc.), but my medium is all new school (blogging, Twitter, Instagram, etc.). It’s only recently that the fog has started to clear. Why? Because I’m beginning to realize that this stuff, this marketing strategy and branding and content partnerships, this is all irrelevant to what I do. It doesn’t line up with my goals in the least.
Content marketer, public relations, brand ambassador, search optimization strategist, native advertiser, awareness consultant… none of these things are my job. Increasingly in this landscape, bloggers are acting like it’s their job and opportunistic PR reps are capitalizing on that attitude. We didn’t get here alone, we’re being told — in conference rooms and closed forums and workshops — that it is our job, it’s how we become successful. On the whole, we don’t question it.
But I’ve never been easy with the presumption that because I’m a blogger, I must be a marketer too. I’m not. Marketing travel is not my job. I don’t want that job. My job as a blogger is exactly what I told that lawyer: It’s to write stories about travel. Sure, you can hire me to write marketing content — I’m a hired gun by trade — but you can’t hire me to write it for my readers on Nerd’s Eye View. I’m confident that no one is reading this thinking, “You know what I need from Nerd’s Eye View? More commercials.”
I don’t know what you think your job as an independent blogger is, but mine is to write stories about travel. I know I’ve inverted the metaphor here, but anything else is irrelevant.
Capt. Picard: Reports of my assimilation have been greatly exaggerated.