(This is a full transcript of the presentation we delivered last week at TBEX Athens, as requested by dozens of folks who came up to speak with us after our session. We pulled our research from a broad variety of Branding experts, but highly recommend Alina Wheeler’s Designing Brand Identity as an invaluable resource. What follows is an excerpt from our forthcoming book on Branding for Bloggers, which will include the full results of the PR/Marketing Survey mentioned here.)
First of all, I want to start by thanking you for your interest in our presentation. Branding is a subject we’re extremely passionate about, and it’s also the platform on which we’ve built our entire business. Whether you’re a newcomer just now starting the Branding process, or a veteran blogger considering a complete Rebranding, there are a few key things we’ll hope you’ll take away from our time together:
• An understanding of what Branding (or Rebranding) is.
• An understanding of the power of Branding and how it can benefit your blogging business.
• 10 actionable items– some simple and some more complex– in the Branding/Rebranding process.
I want to briefly tell you a bit about the early history of Green Global Travel, as an illustration of the power the branding process can have for your blog.
When we first considered launching a blog in the summer of 2010, we knew nothing about blogging whatsoever. We’d never read a travel blog before; hadn’t even heard of WordPress (we actually launched on a platform called Joomla, on the advice of our web designer); had never used Facebook for business; weren’t on Twitter or Tumblr at all; and had no experience with building traffic or social media following.
What we did have going for us was our respective business backgrounds: I double majored in Music and Business in college (with a focus on Entrepreneurship), and Mary spent 10 years as Managing Director for a Corporate Psychology firm. Since we had no understanding of blogging, we approached building GGT like we would any other business, spending 5 months planning every aspect of our blog (which we’ll discuss in the “10 Actionable Items” section later) before we even launched the site. And thanks to my 15 years of experience running magazines, I knew how to develop content strategy and manage a team of writers and interns.
For the first year, Green Global Travel was really more of a hobby for us, as we’d also started our own successful improv comedy company in Atlanta. The idea was to build the brand and organically, using it as an outlet for telling the stories about ecotourism, conservation and sustainable living that we wanted to tell. Between our freelance writing/editing/photography for various airline and hotel magazines and our improv comedy shows, making money from the blog wasn’t really our focus. So instead, we focused on slow, steady growth.
But then fate intervened: At the end of our first year, when we had just 6000-7000 monthly page views, a World Wildlife Fund-affiliated company called Ecoventura offered us a week-long small ship eco-cruise of the Galapagos Islands. It was an amazing trip– by far the biggest press trip we’d done– and we were able to get some incredible video footage of Galapagos Sea Lions, rare Flightless Cormorants, Marine Iguanas and Galapagos Tortoises.
These videos immediately got the attention of WWF, one of the iconic organizations that originally inspired the work we do with GGT. A representative from their marketing arm contacted us and asked if we’d be willing to let them use the videos, without compensation, on their travel site. Though common wisdom in the blogging world suggests you should never work for free, we saw perfect brand alignment and an opportunity for exceptional exposure. And so we said yes without a moment’s hesitation.
Within a month of WWF sharing our Galapagos stories, we’d been approached by three other WWF-affiliated tour operators. In 2012, those companies sent us to the Peruvian Amazon, Yellowstone National Park and Churchill, Manitoba (the polar bear capitol of the world). Within 6 months, our traffic had grown to over 40,000 monthly page views. And now, two years later, we’ve been paid to serve as branding consultants for all of these companies, and we’ve recently been hired to be the editorial voice of International Expeditions’ 2015 rebranding campaign.
I relate this story of GGT’s successes, not to toot our own horn, but to to give you some background on how we built our Brand by spending a good bit of time and energy focusing on the business side of blogging.
Over time, I began to formulate a theory: Perhaps we, as an industry, have been approaching blogging somewhat backwards. When we first came along, everyone seemed to be focused on chasing traffic and growing their social media following by any means necessary, even if that meant paying for “Likes” or engaging in wacky schemes to inflate their numbers.
But, as the blogosphere continued to expand exponentially, with thousands of new bloggers emerging every year, we gradually realized that the branding process– crafting a unique identity– was crucial to a sustainable long-term business strategy. We came to believe that solid branding can make it MUCH easier to build traffic and social media followers organically, and that it was also essential to attracting readers, partners and sponsors.
This year, we decided to test our theory. To do so, we surveyed every PR and Marketing person we knew in the travel industry, including many major DMOs (Destination Marketing Organizations), tour operators, PR agencies, hotel chains, product manufacturers and more. We sent the survey out to more than 1000 industry professionals, and ended up getting nearly 200 responses.
We asked them each 15 questions (some multiple choice, some fill-in-the-blank) related to how they’ve worked with bloggers in the past, how they’ll work with bloggers in the future, what they look for in the bloggers they work with, the challenges they’ve faced in the process, and how we, as bloggers, can improve our craft. The results (which we’ll publish in full at a future date) were surprising:
• 56% of respondents said they’d worked with bloggers more than once a month in 2014.
• 83% said they anticipated working with bloggers even more in 2015.
• 77% said they found the bloggers they work with by word-of-mouth, which was a significantly higher percentage than those who said they used Google search or professional writing/blogging associations.
KEY TAKEAWAYS: A lot more companies will be working with bloggers in the very near future, and your professional reputation is a key factor in determining who gets that work.
In the section on what companies look for in the bloggers they work with, we broke things down into tangible (things that can be tracked with hard statistical data) and intangible criteria. Here’s what we found:
• External Freelance Outlets and Audience Demographics that fit their marketing goals were just as important as site traffic and the number social media followers.
• 91% of respondents said Content Quality was an important intangible factor, while 73% said Professionalism was essential and 60% said Brand Alignment was key.
KEY TAKEAWAYS: It’s important to cast a wide net by freelancing for other outlets, but it’s equally important to target a specific demographic with your blog. The old saying “Content is King” should be “Content is Everything.” Your content & your professionalism ARE your brand, and companies want to align with bloggers that best fit their brand identity.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Only 60% of these PR people said brand alignment is key?!” But then we asked a more pointed question: “Which do you prefer to work with, a general interest blog with a broad audience reach or a less popular blog whose well-defined brand matches your target audience?” The results were shocking, even to me:
• 63% of the respondents said they preferred the well-defined brand.
• 32% said it depended on the wishes of their client.
• Only 5% said they preferred to work with a blogger with a broad audience reach.
KEY TAKEAWAYS: With this one, the numbers say it all. Crafting a well-defined brand identity and then working with companies who are looking to tap into your niche-focused audience is clearly the path to success if you want to work with “Big Brands.”
At this point you may be thinking, “Damn, why didn’t I learn about this Branding stuff a few years ago?” But the fact is that the Business of Blogging is still in its infancy, and most people who started their blog before the industry’s current boom didn’t really consider the possibility of making a full-time living from writing about their experiences on the Internet.
If you’ve read this far, chances are good that you’re thinking about how Branding can help you move forward as a professional blogger, or perhaps you’re a veteran pondering a complete rebrand. The good news is that, as the quote above suggests, it’s never too late.
Even popular, respected travel bloggers such as Becki Enright and Jennifer Dombrowski have done major rebrands, respectively going from Backpacker Becki and JDomb’s Travels to Borders of Adventure and Luxe Adventure Traveler. If they can do it, you can, too. Hopefully, by the end of this session, we’ll help you understand how.
Branding, whether personal or organizational, is basically a means of communicating who we are and what we stand for. It’s about defining the unique identity that separates you and your business from everyone else. Branding is an organic process through which you can build (or, in the case of rebranding, rebuild) your business on a solid foundation, providing the roots from which your blog can grow sustainably over time.
I think of Branding as kind of like a map: It’s not just about where you are now in your evolution as a blogger, but a guide to help get you wherever you want to go. Think of it a blueprint for every single decision you make about your blog in the future. Does this choice help me achieve my goals for my Brand? If the answer is yes, then go for it; if not, you may want to consider the Opportunity Cost involved.
I learned about this economic theory in college. Defined as “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen,” Opportunity Cost is a way of examining the consequences of every choice we make, including the positives that result from our decision and the negatives that come from not taking a different path.
For example, we’re occasionally offered press trips to 4-star luxury golf and spa resorts, which are perfectly lovely. But they’re not really eco-friendly, and therefore not the best fit for Green Global Travel. So the positives of taking such a trip would be a relaxing vacation, and additional content for our site and our myriad freelance outlets. But the negatives would be betraying our Brand, and potentially losing the trust we’ve built up in our readers.
I see this relationship we have with readers as a long-term investment: Every decision we make for our Brand is either a deposit or a withdrawal. And like any investment, depleting the account balance causes people to lose interest. We always prefer to put long-term strategy over short-term gain.
To put a finer point on it, Branding provides a tangible way for people to understand and recognize your identity; differentiates you from others in your niche; communicates your values and ideas effectively; and distills all the elements of your vision for your business into an easily digestible whole. It’s not about following everyone else’s path to success, but blazing your own trail.
There are a lot more than 10 elements in the branding process, but there are 10 we will focus on today.
Your Mission Statement defines your purpose for existing, spelling out your goals and guiding your decisions. It should answer some pretty deep questions about your blog as succinctly as possible: Who are you as a business? What drives you? Who is your target audience, and why should they care about you? What are the defining values that set you apart? The best brands always stand for something. This is a great way to explain what it is that makes you and your blog tick.
It’s been said that choosing a Brand Name is only 20% creative & 80% practical. Your name is one of your most valuable assets, so it’s worth taking time to research thoroughly, especially if you’re rebranding. You want something that tells your story and helps you stand out in the crowd. When we came up with Green Global Travel, we brainstormed a whole list of different ideas, researched which were most search-friendly and had URLs available, and then picked the one that sounded best in a linguistic sense. One last suggestion: Make sure your name matches your mission statement, but don’t box yourself into a corner. You may or may not be a Solo Nomadic Round-the-World Backpacker forever…
Your Tagline is a like a 10-second elevator pitch in which you summarize what your brand is all about. When done right, it should be able to clearly communicate your unique Brand identity in 10 words or less. Because our site focuses on conserving nature, wildlife, culture and history, we chose “Saving the world, one story at a time.” Our friends at the Center for Responsible Travel went with “Transforming the way the world travels,” while the Nature Conservancy’s tagline is “Protecting Nature. Preserving Life.” In each case, the tagline is short and easy to remember, and the Brand mission is clear and concise.
Think of your Logo as the face of your business. It should be a visual representation of yourself, your goals and your reason for being. For Green Global Travel’s logo, we chose an African-inspired font to reflect the fact that I first learned about ecotourism in South Africa; incorporated a tree frog and hummingbird to pay tribute to Costa Rica, where we originally came up with the idea for the site; and used green (trees and grass) and blue (skies and ocean) to symbolize Nature. There are five different types of logos– wordmarks (such as Google), letterforms (Yahoo), emblems (LEED), pictorial marks (Apple) and abstract marks (Nike)– and they often evolve over time to stay current with design trends. But the best ones, such as IBM, remain virtually unchanged.
Websites are considered the #1 branding tool; not just for blogs, but for business in general. And because web technology is changing so rapidly, Web Design is the branding element likely to change most frequently over time. Many of the world’s biggest blogs, including The Planet D & yTravel Blog, have undergone huge design changes this year, and we’re currently planning a complete redesign for 2015. There are many things to consider when planning your site, including the graphic design style, typography, imagery that reinforces your Brand identity, ease of navigability and mobile responsiveness. It’s also worth researching the psychology of color, as studies have shown that 60% of consumer decisions to purchase a product are based on color. How do the main colors of your site influence your readers’ feelings?
Content has been a key factor is Green Global Travel’s success. Just to reiterate, 91% of our survey respondents said content quality was the most important intangible factor in determining which bloggers they want to work with. So clearly, the stories we tell and the photos and videos we share are a critical element in the branding process. Every story on your site should reinforce Brand identity in some way, because Branding provides both you and your audience with a clear map of expectations. To reinforce your Brand with content, I recommend telling impactful stories that make it clear why readers should care; exploring storytelling forms that will appeal to different types of readers in your niche; being transparent when there is sponsorship involved; avoiding too much self-promotion; and making sure that any guest posts match your Brand mission.
To quote branding expert Matt Dunn, “Social Media is an amazing tool through which we can build, energize and empower communities to support our Brand.” Social media is not just about sharing your own stories and engaging with your followers; it’s also an opportunity to establish your Brand as a leading authority in its niche. We always recommend that our clients use social media to be a content curator, not just a creator. By sharing stories from other great content creators within your niche, you convey to your followers that they can trust you as an expert authority on the types of content they’re interested in. Social media can also be strategic as well: Sharing stories from a company or blogger you want to work with is a great way to establish a connection. When we write about a DMO, non-profit organization or tour operator, tagging them on social media often leads to them sharing our stories with their audience, who often become new followers.
PR Outreach has been a huge factor for us in terms of creating sponsorship opportunities, press trips, freelance gigs and more. And because of my media background, it’s been part of our branding process from the beginning. We made a list of every company in our niche that we admired, aligned with ideologically, or wanted to work with. We included DMOs, tour operators, gear manufacturers, PR agencies, non-profit organizations and media outlets. Then we researched the PR/Marketing reps from each company to find their name, email address & other contact info, which Mary put into a spreadsheet. Whenever we have big news to announce–maybe every few months– we’ll send out a press release to our contact lists. It usually takes 3-5 press releases to get someone’s attention. But by slowly and steadily cluing people into what your Brand is about and marking the milestones on your journey, you eventually define your Brand in their mind as a leading authority. In essence, you’re helping PR reps do their job (and they confirmed via our survey that email is the best way to reach out). Press releases can also lead to media coverage for your blog, which provides broader exposure and allows you to reinforce you Brand message through other channels.
When it comes to advertising, everybody’s got their own approach. I’m not here to judge anyone else’s methods, but here are a few things that have worked for us… A few years ago I became fascinated by the concept of Native Advertising, which is designed to be seamlessly cohesive with your other content. But the debate over making advertising more unobtrusive isn’t new: I remember arguing with the publisher of a newspaper I edited in the ’90s that content and readers should come first, and profit would follow. We’ve been testing that theory lately, selling an average of one Native Advertising post (with clearly disclosed, no-follow links) for every 3 non-sponsored posts, and we’ve made nearly $4000 in the last 6 weeks. For example, we sold sponsorship of a story on the History and Different Types of Glamping to an upscale dude ranch. We also sell sponsorships of our trips to companies who align with our Brand and want to reach our audience: Helly Hansen sponsored our journey to Norway, while Enterprise Rental Car sponsored our North Carolina road trip. Again, it’s all about Brand alignment and finding a natural fit that doesn’t interfere with content quality.
For a long time, there was a significant portion of my Freelance Work that wasn’t well-aligned with the GGT Brand. But, as we discussed earlier, having freelance outlets is a HUGE factor for attracting press trips and partnerships. Over the last few years we’ve focused our efforts on pitching outlets that would allow us to cover our core topics – ecotourism, adventure, conservation of nature/wildlife and indigenous culture – for a broader audience than we can reach with our site. We’ve had to work our way up the ladder, which occasionally meant writing for less than our normal freelance rate or working for free for non-profits such as World Wildlife Fund and Sustainable Travel International. But, going back to what we said earlier about considering opportunity cost when making decisions, this “free labor” was a strategic decision that has paid off incredible long-term dividends. Our company Green Travel Media recently signed a content/social media marketing deal for International Expeditions’ (a WWF-affiliated eco-tour operator) rebranding efforts that was worth more than we made in all of 2012!
Obviously, we can only dive so deep into the concept and process of branding in a 45-minute presentation. But hopefully our time together has given you a lot to think about and some actionable items to work on. If there’s one idea I hope you’ll walk away with today, it’s that branding is perhaps the most important tool that we, as bloggers, can use to define our distinctive identity and separate ourselves from the pack. –Presentation researched & written by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett; thanks to Laurence Norah & Vera Wolters of Finding the Universe for their photos
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As you may have read, Mary and I are getting extremely swamped with Green Travel Media, the “Just One Rhino” charity project we’ll be announcing soon, and other commitments. And it has always been our goal to make GGT a true multi-author site.
To that end, we’re hiring four Green Global Travel staff writers,” paying them $25 per story and requiring them to turn in one story per month. These stories will go through a thorough pitching and editing process and will have hard deadlines (just like the other publications I edit), so there will be an educational component involved in these positions as well.
There’s no specific word count on our stories: I run GGT just like a magazine, with different story “departments.” Sections such as Go Green Tips, Global Culture and Endangered Species Spotlight tend towards the 600-800 word range, while our Destinations and Eco News pieces tend to be 1200-1500 and up. And of course we also do Photo Essays as well. Basically, the word count is whatever the given story requires.
We realize that $25 isn’t much, but we’re only just starting to make any sort of real profit on the work that we do on GGT. As we grow, so will our staff and our editorial budget. And of course our people will get dibs on many of the paying projects that come in through Green Travel Media.
The $25 is basically just a token: The real opportunity is for long-term career development, working with me as your professional editor. We’re looking for folks who REALLY believe in what we’re doing and want to be a part of it, not people just looking for any paying gig.
If you’re interested, please send us an email including a brief summary of your blog and your professional writing experience (if any), and a link to ONE story that you feel best represents the type of work you’d like to do for GGT to info[at]GreenGlobalTravel.com. People who have been writing about ecotourism and conservation issues, and who have supported GGT’s work in the past, will be moved to the front of the line. Thanks in advance for your time and consideration! –Bret Love
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Keeping secrets is a funny thing: I’m very good at it, but I find it excruciating when there’s exciting news to share.
You can probably imagine the pain (oh, the PAIN!!!) of sitting on this announcement for the past 6 weeks or so, waiting for all the I’s to be dotted and T’s to be crossed so we could finalize the details of our agreement. I didn’t want to talk about it for fear of jinxing it, because this is by far our biggest business deal since Mary and I launched GGT four years ago.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a Blog Hop about one of my favorite subjects (Writing) by two of my favorite bloggers, Susan Portnoy and Jessie Voigts.
Susan Portnoy is a safari addict, world explorer and photographer who blogs as The Insatiable Traveler. She’s traveled to over 35 countries and looks forward to every new experience, especially those that involve authentic cultures, wild animals or remnants of ancient civilizations. She is a contributor to Yahoo Travel and her work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Mashable, & more. When she’s not traveling, Susan is a veteran communications and PR consultant (most recently at Condé Nast). This fall she’ll oversee press for the return of Fashion Rocks and Movies Rock, two prime-time CBS specials that celebrate the relationship between fashion and music and movies and music respectively.
Jessie Voigts is a mom who loves sharing the world with her daughter. She has a PhD in International Education, and is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding, especially with kids. She has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled around the world. Jessie is the publisher of Wandering Educators, a travel library for people curious about the world, and Journey to Scotland, a resource for traveling to Scotland. She also founded the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program. She’s published six books about travel and intercultural learning, with more on the way. You can usually find her family by water, anywhere in the world.
Read on for my answers to four not-so-simple questions about Writing, and to find out which 3 blogger friends I’ve invited to join the Blog Hop… Continue reading
Let’s get the obvious out of the way, right from the get-go: Dolphin tours are bad for dolphins.
Organizations such as the Humane Society and World Animal Protection have long condemned captive Swimming With Dolphins programs for their inhumane treatment. As depicted in The Cove, these dolphins are captured in the most horrific cull you can imagine, with those that don’t pass muster immediately slaughtered.
Of the dolphins that do survive, 53% die within the first three months of captivity (causes include chemicals in the water, human infection and stress-related illnesses). Food deprivation is often used to train dolphins to perform tricks, and long-term captivity has been proven to have devastating effects on the mental, physical and emotional well-being of all cetacean species.
Like a lot of travelers, we didn’t fully understand how bad captive cetacean facilities were until a few years ago. I took my daughter to swim with dolphins in the Bahamas in 2006, then Mary and I swam with them in an open-water setting in Curacao in 2009 (just before The Cove was released). But in the years since, we’ve done our best to educate and inform our readers on the subject, including interviewing Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite about the problems with captive cetacean facilities last year.