Travel Blog Exchange 2012: Three questions for next year

As the dust settles on the Travel Blog Exchange’s annual networking shindig, several hundred hopeful travel blogtrepreneurs* are heading back down from the rarefied air of Keystone, Colorado, notebooks stuffed with motivational ideas on converting their travel sites into publishing powerhouses, advertising platforms and profitable online businesses.

The travel blogosphere is a huge and diverse place, but TBEX is quite consciously aimed at a specific segment: people who want to go pro and make their living from blogging.

For those of us on the other side of the industry fence, PR people, advertisers and web marketers, this is a hugely important audience. The role of bloggers in the travel marketing ecosystem has long been established and will only increase in importance as content creators, audiences and platforms all diversify and become ever more embedded in the principles of effective web marketing.

But given that most doubts about the role of bloggers have long since evaporated, it appeared to me as a first-time TBEX attendee that the blog world’s leadership is failing to help bloggers adapt, evolve and, dare I say it, mature to fulfil their rightful place at the top table of the travel marketing mix.

This is not to criticise the event organisation in any way. Aside from a few lengthy lunch queues and the absence of any free coffee this was one of the best and most professionally organised conferences I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to more than my fair share.

What I’m griping at is less the quality of the event, and more the substance of what was actually being said on the stages and podiums themselves. So in the spirit of constructive criticism, here are three questions that I would want to see addressed at the next TBEX conference.

How Do We Improve The Quality Of Output?

The most surprising feature of the two-day program was the near absolute absence of anything concerning the quality of output, or journalistic skill in general. Out of several dozen sessions, just one addressed the question of how to be better at travel writing.

This is important to me as a content commissioner because bloggers tend to produce travel writing that is more amateurish than their traditional travel writing counterparts.** Writers who have cut their teeth on professional magazines and newspapers are generally more likely to produce journalism that is well researched, detail focused and engaging to the reader than writers who write mostly for their own blogs.

Sure, it might be common sense that professional journalists can usually write better than (most) self-publishers, but for us in the industry that just ain’t good enough: 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.

How Do We Improve Innovation?

A second surprise was the anaemic level of innovation on display by many of the big-ticket speakers. Although “monetization” was the undisputed buzzword of the conference, the reality is that many of the big personalities in the travel blog world are locked in to an out-dated model of mass user generated content (UGC) publishing.

Many of the speakers represented sites that have followed the traditional route to online travel publishing success: pack a site with vast quantities of UGC that is either produced for free or for pennies (usually between the $10-25 mark) and aimed at no real audience or purpose, and pursue a rapacious approach to social media follower building, regardless of the quality or value of your connections.

This quantity over quality approach to travel publishing is easily commercialised by showing naïve advertisers huge numbers of unique site visitors (but little qualitative visitor engagement) and selling Adsense, sponsored posts, text links or banner ads on a CPM model.

I should point out an honourable exception here: Ross Borden from the Matador Network was emphatic in his rejection of the CPM advertising model and called on bloggers to find more innovative commercial partnerships with the travel industry. But what are those strategies? No one seemed to know.

As it is, it’s the marketers who have to come up with all the new ideas. But why should it be that way? Why isn’t the innovation flowing in the other direction too?

How Do We Improve Value & ROI Measurement?

For marketers, entrusted to make significant decisions on the best use of our clients’ scarce budgets, the question of value and ROI is by far our most important consideration. What we do with those marketing budgets has an immediate and direct impact on bottom lines, and if we screw up we’re in trouble.

But in the blogging world ROI seems to be a secondary concern. The most interesting comment I heard all weekend was an exasperated request from one of the ski resort’s PR guys: “How do I put a value to all this? Do I give a blogger a free day pass, or do I put them and their entire family up for a week?”

I share that guy’s pain. If pro travel bloggers want to be treated as equals by the industry they need to learn to play by the rules. As a marketer I don’t only care how many uniques per month, subscribers, Facebook fans or anything else your site has. I also want to know about your engagement rates and ROI. I want to know what you can do in exchange for my client’s money.

That I didn’t hear the phrase “ROI” once this entire weekend suggests how far we have to go.

In summary, none of the above is intended as blanket criticism levelled at the community as a whole. Overall the blogging community is doing great things and has deservedly earned the industry’s respect. But from my perspective I would like to see more leadership on the issues that really matter, and much less emphasis on the fluff. Travel blogs have a bright future in the industry ecosystem but after TBEX 2012 it’s clear that we’re not quite there yet.

*I’m definitely claiming that phrase in the unlikely event that someone else hasn’t already invented it.

**I’m choosing my words very carefully so as not to tar all bloggers with the same brush: many of the bloggers who write for us are excellent travel writers.

Originally posted on the Hit Riddle Travel Marketing Blog

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