We asked successful travel blogger Robert Schrader what tricks he’s found for keeping his audience engaged, and we loved how honest and refreshing his response was:
“Selfies!” Robert says. “That sounds strange, but an audience loves a strong, likable main character, and while I could post the most gorgeous landscape shot in the entire world and receive a commendable amount of engagement, a picture of me (particularly, in a new destination) will receive dozens of times the attention.”
So Robert says any time you’re going to post pictures or videos, make sure you’re in them!
In addition to making himself the star of his own adventures, the founder of Leave Your Daily Hell says he’s found he gets way more engagement when posting about new and current trips rather than archival content. While he still tries to get as much life out of the evergreen-style content he writes, ultimately he’s found the fresher the blog and the brand seem, the more people will respond to it.
Here, Robert offers his expert advice on everything from developing good blogging habits to taking better photos for your site.
Tell us the story behind Leave Your Daily Hell…
Leave Your Daily Hell started in 2009 as a ranty, personal account of my experience teaching English in Shanghai. To be honest, the only reason I even bought the domain name is that social media (and blog platforms, such as WordPress and Blogger) is blocked in China, and I needed a way to convey my experience to my friends and family that would get around the so-called “Great Firewall.”
I did arrive in China with the intent of eventually creating a widely read publication based around my life (and, eventually, travels), but it took several twists of fate before Leave Your Daily Hell ended up becoming this publication – specifically, the stint of freelance writing gigs in which I moonlighted while teaching English, which eventually led me to the location-independent lifestyle I now enjoy today.
It took me a few years after leaving Shanghai to start generating all my income via Leave Your Daily Hell, but every day of the past five years has been essential to putting together the pieces that now comprise this very visceral thing I call my travel blog.
What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned about maintaining a blog?
I would say first and foremost that it’s not a job – it’s much more than a job. Maintaining a blog, particularly if you do the writing, the images, the design, and the marketing/sales aspect as I do, is really doing the jobs of several people, and if you can’t do each of them with all of your heart – and mind – you’re going to have a substandard blog.
With this being said, another thing I’ve learned about maintaining a blog – and this is perhaps my favorite – is that it becomes a living entity after a while. It provides you with a reason (and, to an extent, an obligation) to create, and thus sort of becomes a parallel version of reality whose parameters you get to control. Having a blog empowers me, and to some extent forces me, to be conscious and present as I travel. My blog is very much alive, and by way of that, it reminds me that I am alive.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that others might have about blogging for a living?
A lot of people assume I’m a bored trust fund kid, which couldn’t be further from the truth: My father is a lifelong steel salesman and my mother does accounts receivable. They’ve been divorced for half my life – and I’ve been financially independent for most of that time.
To that end, people also tend to assume that everything I do is sponsored in some way – namely, my travel expenses. I had an online acquaintance who wanted to take a trip with me ask me if I could “get [us] some tickets somewhere,” since I obviously had the ability to just pull airline tickets out of thin air.
The fact is that while I take two to three “sponsored” trips a year, I run a blog for independent travelers whom I aim to inform, inspire, entertain, and empower. I thus take the vast majority of trips using my own money (which, to be fair, I do earn via my blog), since that’s what my readers will ultimately do.
What have been the best tools you’ve found to grow the audience to your site?
To be honest, I haven’t really used any “tools,” at least not to grow my audience. Tools such as Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics have been helpful in monitoring my growth, but search traffic is the foundation of my readership, and years of freelancing as an SEO copywriter has made me naturally and effortlessly write in a way that search engines like.
What content marketing methods haven’t worked well for you?
I find Twitter to be pretty worthless, to be honest. Engagement is crap, and even if you do manage to start some kind of conversation, the click-through rate tends to be abysmal.
What do you think are some good habits every wannabe blogger needs to develop in order to ensure success?
Wake up at the same time every day. Commit to sitting in front of the computer for roughly the same amount of time every day. Take weekends off, unless you are a travel blogger and your trip occurs on the weekend – don’t wait until Monday to Instagram photos from the weekend! Make your to-do list as far in advance as you can, and if you find yourself with a “Work Day” (i.e., Monday-Friday) but no work, make some work. Blogging is a real job (or, as I alluded to earlier, several real jobs), and if you want to be successful at it, you need to work grown-up hours. Which is not to say 40 hours, but you need to be productive at least once a day during the work week.
What are bad habits successful bloggers should make sure to ditch?
Don’t go out of your way to read competitors’ blogs, even if they’re your friends. Fixating too much on other blogs, especially if you perceive them as being more “successful” than yours, will detract you from the work that will ultimately take yours to the next level, which is matching it as closely with your personality and other idiosyncrasies as possible.
To be sure, while networking in general is important, many bloggers I know could benefit from spending half the time they brown-nose on their content, their strategy, and their overall brand. It’s great to be well-known and well-liked, but ultimately your success boils down to your product. And no one likes a turd, not even a polished one.
What’s your strategy for developing content ideas for your site?
When I’m traveling it’s very simple: I create narrative photo essays that blend my own experience discovering a destination with the factual details anyone traveling there will need to do. It’s equal parts information, inspiration, entertainment, and empowerment.
As far as other content, I always keep a “Sticky” open on my Mac, and a “Note” on my phone, and I just jot down ideas whenever they come to me. If I keep an idea there for a while and I don’t decide I hate it after a few days, I add it to my schedule (which I described earlier), which effectively commits me to writing it.
In general, I’m a person who can be inspired by anything – I free associate very easily. I’m also very opinionated, probably too much so.
Beautiful photos seem to be one of the most important aspects of travel blogging – can you offer advice on taking better photos? What do you look for? What do you avoid?
No. 1: Buy a real camera. Your smartphone – no matter how good Apple or Samsung tells you its camera is, and no matter how good you are at masking the crap quality of the photos with Instagram filters – is not a real camera.
It will be years or even decades before cameras inside non-camera devices can produce photos at the resolution of DSLR cameras, let alone allow the photographer the same level of control, and if you are serious about imagery, buy a real camera – I prefer Nikon for a lot of reasons.
As far as photography itself, my first tip is to go with your own eye. Just as the best writing advice is to “write what you know,” the best photography advice is to photograph what you see. Obviously, you should augment this by following best practices like using the rule of thirds and learning (via experience, not coursework, in my opinion) how to use light, shadow, and color to your advantage, but at the end of the day, a good photo is one which births your own internal perspective into a tangible, physical form.
Finally, I’d say a good photographer – at least one who also aims to be a good online publisher – must be a good curator. If you don’t delete at least half your photos before you load them onto your computer, or if you include more than 10 percent of those in blog or social media posts, you’re probably not critical enough of your own work. The best photographers in the world aren’t those who only take great photos (these people don’t actually exist), but the ones who know what makes their photos great and only shows those aspects of their work.
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