Travel bloggers – time to stop navel gazing and get on with the job. Please
The early to mid-1990s saw an explosion of exciting, creative and independent (indie, not signed to major record labels) bands in the UK.
The music industry and fans in the UK, like many others around the world, were hungry to hear cutting edge bands, find the next big thing, enjoy listening to those willing to at least try something different.
The period was known, again, as a “Golden Age of new music”, one to rival in terms of intensity and creativity that of the 1960s (The Beatles, Rolling Stones), 1970s (The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks) and 1980s (The Smiths, The Cure).
Inevitably, groups of bands with similar styles came along at the same time. The so-called Nirvana-style grunge bands were in one group, Britpop (Blur, Oasis et al) was the name of another.
Bands in another group were known as the “Shoegazers” (Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse, the final days of the fabulous Cocteau Twins) – a somewhat whimsical collection of groups titled, perhaps cruelly by the music press, because of a tendency to strum hard on their guitars but stare moodily at the floor rather than the audience.
Some of the bands had modest success in terms of record sales, but they all gigged hard, often playing support roles on each other’s tours around the country, etc.
Turn up, for example, to a Slowdive gig in London and punters would often see various members of countless other Shoegazer bands in the audience, or standing at the side of the stage (staring at their shoes!).
Soon enough, the press got bored with the music and decided to aim its ire not just on the creative output of the bands, but on the community around it.
It quickly became known as “The Scene That Celebrates Itself” in the pages of the weekly UK music papers such as the NME and Melody Maker.
Eventually, a few of the bands managed to extricate themselves from the “scene” and went on to have further success, in particular Ride, but mostly the others simply fell by the wayside due to being, well, mediocre and often too wrapped up in the community and not concentrating on how they might push forward.
Why give this potted history of a relatively small scene in a completely different industry from nearly 20 years ago?
Unfortunately the Shoegazer situation in the early-1990s can be compared to where travel blogging is in late-2011.
Let’s get something straight – Tnooz is an active and eager participant in the travel writing and blogging community, not by virtue of being “bloggers” (see why Tnooz is more than a blog by our CEO Gene Quinn) or writing about destinations on our travels, but because we are generally interested in how travel content is created and shared around the web.
We take part in various events (Tnooz ran an Appy Hour at TBEX in Vancouver in June this year and we are a proud co-organiser and moderator of the annual and fantastic TravelBlogCamp in London) and many of us on the team probably count many writers and bloggers as excellent contacts and even, given the social aspect of the community, good friends.
But, officially, we view the community from a B2B perspective, trying to understand it through the prism of how the industry likes to work with writers and bloggers… or not.
And this is where a potential problem lies.
A few incidents in recent months have given us cause to think that for all the talk of the travel blogging world finally coming of age, with events, trips and initiatives dedicated to it, a lot needs to be done to improve its overall image.
First of all, why should it improve its image?
The social media and content manager of a major tourism board said this during in private conversation at World Travel Market in November:
“The problem with travel bloggers is that, outwardly, to people like me and also DMOs [Destination Marketing Organisations], they seem to be writing solely for just themselves or other bloggers.”
Well, the obvious answer in part is that bloggers often write just for themselves, using the web as a way of charting their journeys around the world.
But for every Hey-Me blogger, there are countless others trying to be professional, secure some kind of revenue from the form to support their travels, even become businesses in their own right.
They want to reach the industry, be paid for content either through one-off commissions or be taken on trips (more on that later). While this is certainly starting to happen, it simply isn’t on the scale where an entire community can be supported.
The second, equally important issue, was highlighted in a discussion with a senior figure with similar responsibilities as those at the tourism board, but with a large, global airline:
“I see so much of the content – and it’s kind of okay. What I do not see are metrics that are useful to not only me as a potential supporter of these bloggers, but in the wider marketing world of ad agencies.
“It is wonderful for these people personally that they might have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, but as we know Twitter is a snapshot of a certain individual’s daily life. The metric is nonsense. I want to see hard numbers which, crucially for me, as to where, who, why, when visitors are reading the actual content on their blogs.
“I am rarely shown this data, perhaps because either they do not use analytics platforms at all or are simply too embarrassed to disclose it.”
The “it’s kind of okay” line, when asked to explain further, was short-hand of sorts for “there is a lot of poor, poor travel content out there”.
A very recent example is the so-called GoJordan initiative. A group of bloggers was whisked away to the Middle Eastern country for a jaunt around the main sites, encouraged to do their thing on Twitter and write copious amounts of content about their trip.
The wonderfully waspish David Whitley captured it all in a terrifyingly sarcastic but hilarious article a few weeks ago. He later wrote another piece explaining the reason why he wrote the original, such was the backlash he received from, err, travel bloggers.
Once again, the metric being splashed around the web after the Jordan campaign was about Twitter “hits”, a figure which is, by all accounts, utterly meaningless to a marketer, it being primarily about follower numbers, not readers.
The same could said for the – sorry, controversial comment here – bizarre and often tedious Twitter chats such as #TNI and #TTOT. Certainly they are perhaps interesting initiatives for the community, but do they truly serve anything else other than allowing bloggers to show off their knowledge?
Both of the anecdotes from the industry above are intrinsically linked. The so-called circle jerk behaviour of bloggers does not help the external image of the community, especially when it often struggles to explain to potential partners why they should be included in various initiatives, or simply paid to write.
There are some stand-out success stories, of course. Lara Dunston and her partner Terence Carter’s project Grantourismo with HomeAway (explained further here) is often quite rightly cited as a shining example of how writers can work with the industry in a meaningful and medium- to long-term way.
But there is certainly a sense in the industry that many bloggers are either too busy whining amongst themselves or with journalists, writing for each other, and simply not taking the professional approach of trying to understand what an audience can be and how to grow it (the critical element being reach, something every marketer wants to know more about and potentially exploit).
So here is a rallying cry of sorts.
Let’s continue to have a few events each year such as TBEX, TravelBlogCamp and Travel Bloggers Unite, where bloggers can swap ideas and debate issues – exactly the same as the industry does at numerous conferences around the world.
Keep an eye on the excellent Travelllll, a fairly new site doing a fine job of bringing some of the discussion under a dedicated media brand for bloggers.
But rather than continually debating the differences between bloggers and journalists in a myriad of articles littering the web, willy waving about which trip a blogger has just secured, perhaps it is time to just focus on the content.
Write more articles about destinations and airlines and hotels and tour operators and activities. And rather than retweeting each other’s content on an hourly (often more) basis, dive into your analytics for a bit longer and come up with data and trends which can support the commercialisation of the craft.
The headline above is certainly not intended to suggest that bloggers are lazy or not focused on their passion for writing – but unfortunately the opinion from some parts of the industry (those that would seemingly want to support blogging commercially) is not a particularly healthy one at present.
There is a decent enough argument now to suggest that the new Scene That Celebrates Itself needs, therefore, to show its desire to embrace the art of simply writing excellent travel content, rather than endlessly debating the concept of blogging and worrying (publicly) about what everyone is doing.
The industry does have a genuine desire for quality content, whether it’s from bloggers or journalists or PRs or consumers. The talented bloggers will rise to the top and be able to compete head on.
So just get on with it for a while and see what happens.
Kevin May is a senior editor and one of the co-founders at Tnooz. He was previously editor of UK-based magazine Travolution and web editor of Media Week UK from 2003 to 2005.
He has worked in regional newspapers (Essex Enquirer) and started his career in journalism at the Police Gazette at New Scotland Yard in London. He has a degree in criminology, a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism and will be publishing his first book - a biography about electronic band, Depeche Mode - soon.