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How to Grow a Travel Blog from Scratch to 1.5M Monthly Readers – The Story of TheBrokeBackpacker.com

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Will Hatton worked hard to earn money from his passion for travel. After working in random jobs in construction and sales, Will became one of the most famous travel bloggers with his blog about journeying around the world on $10 per day: “The Broke Backpacker”. Will Hatton shared his inspirational journey to reaching 1.5 million readers per month on a single travel blog.

How It All Began

Before blogging, I worked a lot of random odd jobs, such as construction and other random occupations on various farms across Israel and other parts of the Middle East.

There were two moments that made me realize that I want to travel full-time and write about my experiences.

The first moment was when I worked about 60 hours a week unloading lorries in England. I had to wake up at 5 am every day for that job and earned about £6 per hour, which is almost nothing. Even if I worked really hard, nobody cared. As a result, I would constantly ask myself: “why am I doing this?”

The second moment was when I was planning to join the Royal Marines. Unfortunately, right before I planned to enlist, I had a bad accident in Costa Rica and ended up in a wheelchair for a few months. My leg was permanently damaged, which meant that I could no longer join the army, become a marine, or work as a fireman.

At this point, I was depressed and upset. I decided to just hit the road and see what happens. Of course, I took some risks, but at that time, I saw this adventure as a good opportunity for personal growth. I wasn’t really thinking that it could evolve into something long-term, which is exactly what ended up happening.

At the time I started my blog (editor’s note: in 2010), there wasn’t much info on the Internet about traveling to exotic countries, such as Pakistan, India, Iran, or Venezuela. For me, it made sense to visit these countries and cover them to put out some content that hadn’t been done before. Moreover, I was interested in visiting these countries, as they are super cheap. As someone traveling on an extreme budget, who couldn’t afford to travel in Europe, Australia, Canada, or the United States, it just made sense. 

The travel strategy I chose might be perceived as a bit dangerous. For example, a lot of people think travelling to Iran is extremely dangerous, but in reality, it isn’t. Honestly, Iran is probably much safer than Europe or the United States.

My First Blog Income

I had my blog for a long time and was not trying to make money from it. Early on, it was just a crappy little travel blog, where I wrote about my experiences in India. My mum was one of my most avid readers. There was no pressure on me to try to make money from my blog, which meant that it relied only on organic growth. I feel that it is always better if you can afford to build your blog up a little bit before you start trying to monetize it. It’s certainly a more relaxed approach.

Before I was able to really make decent money from my travel blog, I started a tour company in Pakistan that very much served as a spark of inspiration. It was quite simple, I posted a short announcement on Instagram asking if anybody wanted to come to Pakistan with me. I included a PayPal link and had 16 people sign up within a day. After that, I knew for sure that there are so many ways to make money online.

Broke Backpacker Adventure Tour to Pakistan Day

How to Grow a Travel Blog From Scratch to 1.5M Monthly Readers

In 2016, I had just crossed 30,000 readers per month, which is a pretty decent number. Now, I attract over 1.5M readers per month.

Around five years ago, I started treating my blog as a more serious enterprise. I had a target of publishing 50,000 words per month and I always hit that goal. I was pretty aggressive with making sure that I was writing every day.

During that time, I had no money to spend on leveraging my business. I couldn’t afford to hire other writers, which is normally the very first step that online marketers take. So, I created content myself based on topics I had chosen.

For example, I went to Venezuela in 2016 and took some pictures to share their crazy situation in the midst of inflation.

Venezuela

Those pictures went viral and definitely helped to grow my blog. At that time, for many years, just a couple of people had visited Venezuela, which meant the country received literally no online coverage.

After I posted my guides on Venezuela, many people reached out to me for more. I successfully chose a location that hadn’t been covered before, which is always a great approach for anybody who’s just starting out.

Choosing a Niche

If you’re a newbie blogger, you’re going to want to produce content centered on a specific place. My advice would be to avoid covering New York, as it’s super competitive. The same is true of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris. All of these destinations have been covered literally a million times and you’re going up against Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, TripAdvisor, etc. All these big companies absolutely dominate the search results, so it makes sense to focus on something that is less covered.

However, there are also examples of the opposite situation. I have a friend, a fellow travel blogger, who writes tons of content about one specific city in Europe. He earns a decent amount, which shows you can absolutely go after a very competitive destination if you decide to focus your entire blog around that destination. Whereas, if you run a general travel blog and you’re new to blogging or don’t have much SEO experience, going to visit Paris or Amsterdam is kind of a waste of time.

Tools

The first tool I ever used was Keywords Everywhere, which is a very basic search engine tool that is both cheap and easy to use. I still recommend it to people who are starting out. 

The tool I currently use most is Ahrefs. The problem with Ahrefs for newcomers is the price, as it costs $1,000 per year for the subscription. So, for some people, it’s just not worth it. I always say, if you’ve got three to four other digital nomad friends, just share a subscription to get the most out of it. But obviously, if you’re starting out and you haven’t got people to share with, $1,000 is quite a lot.

Another tool that we use for email marketing is ConvertKit, but again, this is a premium tool. When I started out, I used MailChimp, which was fine for a while and allowed me to build a quick funnel. When somebody signed up, they would receive emails from me, which I had already written. This occurred once a week for 10 weeks. After that, I simply threw some affiliate links at the end of the email to see how they would do. However, our email marketing strategy has changed a lot since then.

ConvertKit is a really cool, powerful tool that can do a lot of things. However, its main function is its ability to conduct AB tests on headlines, which is really useful. Over a period of many months, you can try all kinds of different titles and see what resonates best with your audience. I guarantee that, if you mess around with your titles, you’re going to be surprised by what converts and what doesn’t.

These are the main tools we are using now, but of course, there are many more that make the user experience faster and smoother. My site is fully custom-built anyway, so it’s a little bit of a different breed from WordPress blogs.

To be successful in the world of blogging, you must be organized. Trello is a free tool that allows you to create boards, where you can list tasks and tag people. Just be careful not to create a graveyard of ideas. Manage your boards well from the beginning. I also use static whiteboards, which are all over my house, for a lot of my personal development stuff.

Monetization Ways

Most of my earnings come from affiliate marketing. Here, you can earn on travel by meeting the two main needs of travelers:

  • Gear – backpacks, utility belts, boots, packing cubes, etc.
  • Travel arrangements – accommodations, transportation, etc. 

You can definitely make good money by creating content around rental cars or flight services

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You can also get involved in personalized travel services that are offered by bloggers themselves, such as travel planning, selling a course, or selling a digital product. Because there are many pros and cons, we don’t do very much of that anymore.

Sometimes, we offer brand partnerships and provide slots on our homepage for two-week periods for well-known outdoor brands, such as REI, Black Diamond, Montem, Grail, and others. 

https://www.thebrokebackpacker.com/black-diamond-review/

There are also some seasonal shifts in terms of income. COVID changed this situation a bit, but normally, April to September is the time when we make the most money. January is almost always a terrible month because people have spent all their money over Christmas.

Overall, income really depends where the traffic is coming from. Five years ago, when I had 30,000 visitors per month, a large amount of that traffic was impossible to monetize, because it was coming into the site through search terms, such as “pile of Venezuelan money”. This made it very difficult to monetize that content through ads.

It’s much easier to make a conversion when somebody types in “the best travel backpack” and land on your website, since the intent to buy is already there.

Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate marketing accounts for 98% of my total revenue. Affiliate marketing is something that I’ve encouraged people to try if they’re starting an online journey because, honestly, affiliate marketing is what I am most comfortable with. Affiliate marketing, at its core, is a mutually beneficial relationship, especially if you choose the right program. 

I choose my affiliate programs in a very simple way. Let’s say that I want to promote hostels. Obviously, I know that Hostelworld.com has their own affiliate program, but there may be various other hostel affiliate programs out there. This curiosity may lead me to check Google to see all the available options. I would find that some hotels offer direct programs, while others offer programs through affiliate networks, such as Travelpayouts.

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From there, I would choose a program based on who’s offering the largest chunk as well as user reviews. So if I was, for example, going to work with a specific brand, I might conduct a quick search beforehand to find some reviews, just to check that nobody has had bad experiences, such as not getting paid, which is an issue that I have faced several times. 

I have sold a lot of my own products in the past, but I don’t really do so as much anymore. I prefer users to search for things like the “best trail backpacks”, so I can direct them towards one of my affiliate partners with the best trail backpacks and get paid.

Affiliate marketing can take you very far. It’s absolutely possible to make six figures per month through affiliate marketing.

Sponsored Posts

We used to sell sponsored posts around six years ago, but no longer use this approach. However, I do have a funny story about this monetization method.

Many years ago, I bought around 20 different recently expired domains that still had all their metrics, which meant that we could sell sponsored posts on them. 

When I got a client, I could sell them 20 posts rather than one, which was way better. I messed around with that for a while, but the sponsored post industry collapsed around four years ago. This made things much harder because Google changed how it was valuing links, which basically became worthless. While that’s a bit of a simplification, the amount of money you could receive for a link dropped significantly and now we very rarely sell sponsored posts.

Occasionally, we sell sponsored posts, but it isn’t really part of our primary model. Doing it can kind of make you feel dirty. After all, you’re working hard on your blog, sharing great content, and then somebody contacts you and offers you $80 to post a link to an online casino on your site. 

I definitely understand people who are at the beginning of their journey and accept such deals, but I would also like to provide two pieces of advice. First, always consider which posts you take and which you don’t. Second, periodically raise your prices and don’t count on sponsored posts as a long-term strategy, because they aren’t.

Traffic Sources

99.5% of traffic that visits my website is organic. It took me some time to begin focusing on SEO, but once I did, I really liked it. 

What I really like about SEO is that the answers are all there in the data, you just need to be able to read that data. All the information you may need is there, you just need to collect enough data and analyze it. If you are creative about where you are getting your data from and how you are choosing to analyze that data, you can find a winning strategy and apply it to everything you are doing.

We don’t use social media, because I hate the concept. I used to be on some of those platforms many, many years ago, but, now, I don’t even have social media on my phone. Instead, we use a bit of email marketing. Bloggers and anyone working online should always be collecting emails from the very beginning. This was one of my biggest regrets in terms of my blog. You don’t have to do much with those emails until later, just collect them for now. 

From a business point of view, I prefer SEO to social media, because I have more control with SEO. If you want to be successful in the social media algorithm, the main thing that matters is the amount of hours that you’re willing to pour into responding to comments. However, I feel that there is a mental health cost that comes with using social media. Social media can be a really powerful tool for driving traffic, it’s just not one that I use.

Travel Content

I’m not the best travel writer out there, but I would consider myself to be above average. That’s because I’ve taken the time to polish my writing and hone my craft. Becoming a strong writer takes time. It also requires you to be willing to accept feedback and put your stuff out there. 

If you want to polish your writing, the most important thing you can do is to read. If you’re not reading, you’re not going to have much inspiration to draw from. I’m a prolific reader. I always have four or five books that I’m reading at once. I finish a couple of books every week. With travel writing, it’s taken time for me to improve. I’ve struggled to teach myself how to write, especially since I’m dyslexic, but I really enjoy it.

For me, writing is a constant process and, honestly, it’s always changing. Sometimes, I can sit at my laptop and bash out 15,000 words in a day, while other days, I will sit on my laptop and write three sentences over an entire day. 

In addition to writing skills, I also have some skills when it comes to leadership and putting teams together. Currently, I have an incredible team made up of 14 full-time workers and some part-timers. All of that very much allows me to do and achieve more.

To scale your blog, you can hire content creators, but make sure to consider the smartest approach to doing so. If you are deep in the weeds of creating all of your content, it can be very difficult to take your head out of the sand and look around to hire someone. You should create a strategy and figure out what direction the business needs to be going in, as creating content is a really important part of growth.

A lot of people are attracted to the idea of running a blog because they think it looks glamorous. Anybody who thinks that running a blog is an easy way to make money is incorrect. It isn’t. Being a digital nomad does not mean that you work less. In fact, it means that you work more, especially during your first two to three years, when you are building your business. It’s a long process, but the rewards (if you are successful), are amazing and worthwhile. After all, running an online business, whether it’s a successful blog or something else, can earn you six figures per month. 

If you are passionate about exploring the world, sharing your adventures, inspiring people, discovering new information on how to travel better, longer, cheaper, whatever, then go for it! Absolutely go for it!

Want to share your story? Travelpayouts welcomes all bloggers with any travel-related experience. Write to us at [email protected] with the following subject: “Story for the Travelpayouts Blog”.