Oft quoted, Gary Arndt trumpeted TBEX 2012 as “probably the best conference I’ve ever attended…. In terms of a straight return on investment, it was easily the most productive conference I’ve ever attended. It was also one of the most fun.” Mighty high and well-earned praise.
A Chink in the Armour
Declared with no less aplomb, however, was earnest disquiet about the lack of attention to, among other things, quality content creation.
In a comment following Arndt’s enthusiastic report, Spud Hilton, Travel Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and blogger at Bad Latitude on SFGate, was forthright in his concern about “what appeared to be making content creation (specifically, writing) an ugly red-headed stepchild at a conference that touted itself as being where ‘travel writers’ connect.” Hilton led a breakout session called 10 Steps to Writing that Better Engages (and Keeps) Your Readers, the only one at TBEX to focus on gooder righting. (He has since been reassured that “going forward, content creation (again, including writing) will play a larger role in the professional development.”)
Hilton’s reservations continued to resonate elsewhere, though. “We need bloggers with large online presence, reach and influence. But we also need them to be good writers too. If bloggers want to take their rightful place in the marketing mix they need to upgrade the professionalism of their output,” wrote Matthew Barker in a piece also published on tnooz that triggered a firestorm of comments, some of them furiously ego-driven.
At the heart of the debate is how, as Bruce Rosard, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at PhoCusWright, commented, “bloggers need to think and act like the professionals or they won’t be relevant. If you are a relevant journalist, photographer, videographer, you’re relevant to the marketplace, and you’ll be treated as such.”
For Travelllll.com, I’ve already waded into this wrangle with my assertion that you should be a travel writer, not a travel blogger. Now I would like to get a bit more practical and, borrowing copiously from the tips and hints that came tumbling out of the TBEX-tonicked Rockies, serve up a trio of broad considerations for your review. Each offers advice about how to step up your game and become a better writer… and more influential blogger.
Quality over Quantity
Care with fewer and better words, and attention to a comprehensive but eclectic base of social-media influencers are better for everyone than a burgeoning of bunk and the excessive tweeting of twaddle. Alas, care and attention seem to be losing ground to bunk and excess.
Like a growing group of outspoken others baffled by any defence of slack craft, I find much wanting of travel bloggers. Far too often their output is amateurish and undisciplined, a pipeline powered by low pay rates, low expectations and slavish attention to social standing.
That being said, there is arguably a broad consensus that sloppiness truly is undesirable. So I’m going to bank on the notion that the vast majority of bloggers really would like to write well, and that quality is something worth striving for, especially if it results in a passionate and influential following of both readers and industry professionals.
In pursuit of those goals, I think there are two key areas in which quality must begin to outweigh quantity: writing and social media.
On writing, if you haven’t already read any of the world’s leading writing guides, start right now with The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, a simple, slim, but seminal and utterly indispensable English style manual. Other highly recommended readings include Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and On Writing Well by William Zinsser (thanks to Spud Hilton for this one). Another cantankerous but superb essay is ‘Politics and the English Language‘ by the one and only George Orwell.
Thorough review of these resources would help raise the writing bar, but also put to rest any broad disagreements about how to be a judge of good writing (the difference between good and bad is usually pretty obvious) and whether it is even a contributing factor in the success (or failure) of a blog or its writer.
In social media, more and more knowledgeable marketing and PR professionals now recognise that vast numbers of social-media followers don’t automatically translate into meaningful return on investment. Some go so far as to say that quantity is no measure of social media punch. Everyone’s more interested in meaningful engagement. But what constitutes quality if sheer volume can’t be expected to carry the day? Unfortunately, no one seems to know conclusively.
There are, however, analytical tools that can help you understand who your followers are and how best to position yourself with them. For Twitter, services like TweetReach and Edelman’s TweetLevel will help you get a sense of what’s what. You can then work to optimise your outreach with a SocialBro account, which will analyse when your followers are online and active. Use it in conjunction with Buffer App, a simple tool that pushes out tweets at predefined times. Don’t forget to structure your tweet the right way.
Of course, on Facebook, page insights provide reasonable data. Serious bloggers should parse this for a better understanding of their demographic.
Meaning over Mass Appeal
You’ve heard this many times: Choose novelty over pulp, exhibit expertise over expediency. Sadly, in pursuit of broad distribution, most of us are guilty of giving in to popular demand, especially in the form of top-five or top-10 lists. Many of us have also succumbed (or been pressured to adapt) to the kind of formulaic written pabulum that robs travel (or any) writing of its soul. I used to think that the travel sections of major metropolitan-area newspapers were the worst offenders (and they’re still often excruciating), but now blogs have definitely pulled rank. Worse yet, bloggers are not under the thumb of antiquated style guides, reined-in editors or systemic atrophy; instead they choose what they want to to produce, but are not making wise choices.
As I argued in Why Aren’t More Bloggers Writing About Responsible Travel, bloggers should be in the vanguard when it comes to content creation: “Why aren’t more of you – buttressed by blogging skills and vocal in your frustrated desire to be recognised for your craft – helping to drive the kind of change that positions you as leaders? More nimble, more imaginative, more bold and less reliant on traditional revenue sources, you have little stopping you.”
And yet, it appears that you do. For a whole bunch of reasons. Many of these reasons were addressed at TBEX (and other conferences), so it’s high time to do some analysis – of yourself, your blog and your audience. Invest some real time in it, if not also some money.
For insight into the kind of impact you make, set yourself up on Klout (we’ve got a glimpse of it here) or Kred (see what we wrote here) for a debatably relevant look at your influence. Klout and Kred are free and entertaining, if nothing else.
To study the kind of audience your blog has, wade into the thickets of date available for free on Alexa and/or Quantcast. Don’t just look at results for your own blog or site. See how your published material compares with that of other blogs, especially those that are most similar to yours.
Once you’ve completed your analysis, set your creative juices agurgle and think about your own voice, its relevance to the market and reader engagement. Identify what makes you and your blog distinct, when and how you were most successful reaching out to readers, and then assemble proof of your authority. Of course, think beyond blogging to the multiple platforms on which you can showcase your work and your personality. The result, combined with quality output, just might help you get where you want to go.
Real People over Robots
Lastly, it’s been said a lot, but I don’t think it’s sinking in: Writing for SEO is not good writing. Actually, it’s downright bad writing. So write for human readers. If you use WordPress and haven’t already installed an SEO plugin, then something like Yoast or All in One SEO Pack will help you tweak what you’ve done to suit your SEO overlords. But the foundation should be optimised for eyes not Web crawlers.