Welcome to the abyss of shameless self-promotion. Those reading from the travel blogging world or generally anyone who works with social media will know what I’m talking about. For others…
Everybody has a travel blog these days. There are mom travel blogs, family travel blogs, solo travel blogs, and (I don’t think I’m exaggerating) about a million couple travel blogs.
The unspoken truth is that a sizeable chunk of the stuff out there is narcissistic crap pushed to make a sponsor happy and set the writer(s) up for their next free trip. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Math says not everyone can be exceptional. Not everyone who fires up a skillet is a chef. Not everyone who registers a domain name with cheeky, travel-themed branding, asking you to follow along on their adventures is a freakin’ Hemingway (myself included).
This is all fine, so far. After all, not everyone who fires up a skillet even wants to be a chef. Some do it for themselves and themselves alone.
My issue is with the game, the game too many of us have accepted as obligatory. That is the game of exchanged shameless self-promotion.
We in the travel blogging world pretend to one another that every blog is important. There are (and again, I don’t think I’m exaggerating) about a million different Facebook groups catered to promoting travel blogs over various social media networks, namely Pinterest, Stumble Upon, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and of course, Facebook.
Within these groups, there are rules on how to play the game. Usually it involves posting a link with the written expectation that everyone else following along will do something with it over the corresponding social media.
Post your pin to the Pinterest group, everyone else must re-pin it. Post it to the Stumble Upon group, everyone needs to stumble it. Post a story to the blog group, people need to leave a comment.
In return, you need to reciprocate. If you don’t in the stated timeframe, people will tag others for not paying attention to their link. “I left a comment on your YouTube video, so please leave a comment on mine,” it usually goes.
While I’m sure some find content through these means that they are genuinely interested in, it’s predominantly fake. That’s right, folks. Some people you’ve seen comment here did so because I commented on their blog and I’m sure a number of the comments (if not a majority) came from folks who didn’t even read the article beyond the headline. Because if you have a decent headline, it’s generally enough for someone to write, “Honduras! That’s so cool! It’s on my bucket list,” without having to read on.
Today, I’m declaring myself done with this travel blogging game. Of course I’ll keep writing and producing content, but I’ll do so without participating in the game of “feign your enthusiasm.” If a story of mine does well, it’s because people genuinely found it interesting. If it doesn’t, well, that happens. I’ll live.
Now why am I doing this? A few reasons.
First, the time adds up. I recently realized that the time I’ve been spending on exchanging comments, pins and ‘likes’ could be better spent on writing a kickass story.
Second, I’ve long found it dishonest. I don’t want to pretend I’m interested in someone else’s story that’s (hopefully) meaningful to them and I don’t want people to waste their time with me if they’re not interested in what I’m saying.
In that same vein, I did once private message a moderator of one of the aforementioned Facebook groups to note that my link was not getting the proper reciprocation. I later threw up in my mouth a little for having the gall to explicitly demand that people pay attention to me. Sure, we’re all by definition narcissistic and wanting people to pay attention to us. But the second I all but tracked someone down for not reading my brilliant work and for not pressing on whatever social media icon was hanging on the sidebar, I felt a little gross.
None of this is to say all travel blogs are crap and that I’m not interested in finding travel blogs. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Fuck that guy. This is an interesting story that I’ve written at my blog,” then send it along. I do want to read and share content that kicks considerable ass, but without the unspoken (or spoken) understanding that I’m going to vomit it across social media.
Here’s an example, Savannah Grace did a photo essay on traveling to Afghanistan. I’m sharing that because I found it pretty damn compelling, not because I expect her to now go through my archives and tweet some nonsense I sputtered on about a few months ago. In fact, you’re free to leave this site now and go read that essay. Do it. I’ll be here.
I know many will disagree with this assessment. There’s an argument to be made that all of this mutual social media fornication will lead to more opportunities to tell more stories. That’s the argument I told myself for a long time and I still abide by it to an extent when I accept certain opportunities. I accept it to the limit I’m comfortable with and can justify with myself. We’re all different, so naturally we’ll all have a slightly different barometer for what’s acceptable.
For example, I use CoSchedule’s headline analyzer to write SEO-friendly headlines. I don’t particularly like the Upworthy-esque headlines I inevitably generate, but it gets my work in front of the eyes of people who might actually be looking for it. I think I’m also going to keep up with my little Instagram comment-exchange group, which sounds incredibly hypocritical given the previous 1,000 words, but I dig our little community.
Those are exceptions I can comfortably swallow.
But this “pin for pin” and “sub for sub” nonsense, I can no longer play along. I want my work to stand out because it’s exceptional and meaningful, not because I joined a private Facebook group and agreed to exchange comments or whatever the terms may be.
I understand we all have to do something we’re not necessarily nuts about in order to succeed, but I just can’t for the life of me picture some of my favorite writers sitting in front of a computer a few hours a day to exchange social media mojo in order to gin up their numbers to (hopefully) impress a potential sponsor.
“@JKerouac — Please catch up on your pins ASAP.”
“@Steinbeck — Nice story! (Said without reading.) I followed you from @travel4life (that means you need to follow me or I’ll un-follow you within a week. Clock’s ticking.)”
“@CherylStrayed — Get back to your computer and comment on my YouTube video! What’re you so busy with anyway? Writing and traveling?”
None of this is real. You and any sponsors or business partners you’re working with may like the higher numbers, but it’s fake. It doesn’t mean a damn thing and people aren’t going to respond to your work if the people interacting with it are doing it out of obligation.
My suggestion? Do what you’re passionate about. Write what you’re passionate about, photograph what you’re passionate about, film what you’re passionate about — and it will all come through to your audience. If it’s solid work, they’ll want to leave a comment and share it with friends.
As far as sponsors and potential partners go, talk about being an ambassador and speaker for what you believe in. I know outlets and companies like seeing themselves in some high-end publication, but it’s there and gone in a month. The real value is in finding ambassadors for destinations, travel companies and products that we writers genuinely believe in, because we’ll want to continue writing about it and sharing it with our respective audiences until calluses grow on our fingertips and our voices become hoarse.
Some companies are starting to see that and find value in it over a one-off article. You should, too.
Frankly, that’s what I’m moving on to.