Takeaways from TBEX

Girona Spain Costa Brava river houses

We stood, panting slightly, looking out over the pristine valley. Far off in the distance, I could just make out Girona’s cathedral spire, nestled in amongst the tree tops.

“Just breathe it in. Peace, quiet…”

An all too familiar beeping sound interrupted the silence.

“…and Whatsapp.”

Behind me, three different phones were pulled swiftly from pockets. A camera flash caught my eye. To the right, far off in the tall grass, our own personal paparazzi was lurking, his lens trained on my movements.

I sighed, turned, and trudged off ahead of the rest of the group. I didn’t much feel like having my picture taken.

Obsessed with social media

This was the second blog trip I’ve been a part of, and the first time there’s been such attention paid to our up-to-the-minute tasks as bloggers. We’d been informed copious times about the relevant hashtags for our three day trip around Girona, and just in case we weren’t taking enough photos or sending enough tweets, the various Costa Brava representatives who travelled with us were on hand to help.

group Costa Brava kayak

Equipped with two mobile wifi roaming devices for the six bloggers in their charge, these guys were at our beck and call for anything internet related. Which was totally appreciated when we happily tweeted about how great it was to milk a cow or drink wine at breakfast.

But it started getting strange when we were gifted with Costa Brava sweatshirts in the heat of the sun, and asked to “just put them on for a moment!” while a requisite photo was taken. And how about when I clicked on a Twitter link to see an Instagrammed image of myself using my iPad, snapped mere seconds earlier by our accompanying photographer, that I didn’t even know was being taken.

The amount of focus on social media interaction is still something inherently strange to me – and I can’t get completely on board with it. Not least because I am iPhone-less and thus have to rely on iPadding my thoughts, when such a lovely, shiny but slightly large and unwieldy piece of machinery is sometimes ill-matched to my surroundings. Like when kayaking down the middle of a river.

While my lack of iPad left me free to enjoy the watery experience, the rest of my blogger companions were still able to Instagram their photos and tweet lines like “I’m on a boat/kayak!” thanks to the provision of a wifi roaming device that we carried with us in a dry bag. But it was more than just ‘being able’ to use social media; we were consistently encouraged to do so, like children gently chided into eating more stranger-offered sweets.

And what was the point of constantly verifying our every movement online? To let people know that we were there, present, in Spain with a tourism board, having fun.

In short, we were using social media in a bid to generate more traffic.

TBEX bloggers kayak technology

The traffic conundrum

There was a big difference between my first conference and my second.

At TBU I was very focused finding my feet and on learning how conferences work. I was a tad nervous at the thought of meeting so many new people, not to mention concerned at how good an impression I was making. Then I went to the Blog House for a few days, realised that all bloggers are, in essence, normal people, and duly headed off to TBEX with a different agenda. One that was infinitely more casual and focused around making connections and friendships with my fellow bloggers. And I realised that, ultimately, I enjoy meeting people and hearing what they have to say in a personal environment much more than listening to a talk in a conference hall.

Two countries, two conferences and a hell of a lot of business cards later, I feel as if I’m part of a community that I can’t imagine not knowing. Most of the people I’ve met are clearly on my wavelength and its been incredible getting to know them.

TBEX Girona bloggers steps

But there’s still the seedy underbelly of travel blogging. The excessive attention paid to the simple conundrum of how to get more traffic that seems to dominate a conference – from how often one should post content a week, and on what optimum day at what optimum time, to how much one should dumb down how they talk to their Facebook and Twitter followers just to get more ‘clicks’.

A particular talk – an unscheduled one – made me squirm in my seat. An overly bright and chirpy American, whose expertise lies predominantly in informing businesses how to maximise their Facebook audience, told us gaily about where we were going wrong.

“How’s your engagement score looking right now? Did you know that quotes are huge on Facebook? Why not maximise your engagement score with a quote? You’ll more likes, and then more audience reach as Facebook puts your posts further up in people’s newsfeeds!”

“…maximise your…what?”

She’s probably right, of course. At the very lest she’s made a lucrative business for herself out of those little upright Facebook thumbs. But the question that kept coming back to me through all this was a worrying one: you know all these social media networks? They’re not actually real. They’re just numbers on a screen – and sure, their combined outreach certainly raises your profile, and presumably each visitor reads at least a little bit of your content – but what if the Internet crashed tomorrow? Then you’d be left with an image of a statistics graph, the backed up files of your website, and a lot of thumb twiddling.

TBEX computers hostel bloggers

I fee like I can be this dramatic because I’m very worried about getting in over my head with the business of blogging. I know precisely nothing about computers, or how to code, or what HTML actually is. Someone had to patiently explain to me what a plug in was and why I had to switch to a hosted site – and why registering said site with Google webmaster was integral.

I simply don’t know this stuff – and I’m in huge awe of those bloggers who seem to have magically taught themselves, as well as churning out good enough content to make their traffic soar.

But therein lies the problem. I think of myself, first and foremost, as a writer. I want my words to be the most important aspect of my blog – not the professionalism of the layout or the slickness of the design, or even the traffic numbers. And if I have a readership spike because I posted a “click like for this generic travel quote laid over a generic travel image of a sunset if you agree with it!!” – well, call me crazy, but I don’t really feel like those readers have clicked through to my site because they enjoy the way I tell a story.

I know I have to market myself well to get ahead. I know this is the way that all successful bloggers do things. But again and again, I find myself coming back to the conclusion that my blog is inherently about people and my interactions with them.

girl cow feeding farm

So if I don’t regularly push my Facebook followers to like my photos, that’s ok – because when they email me asking for specific help with a trip they’re planning, I’m already composing the reply in my head. And if I don’t update my blog every two days it shouldn’t matter, because the six or seven solid hours I’ve spent getting one post ready to publish will hopefully be testament to its quality.

Say no to the status quo!

So I won’t be so worried about social media. I’ll keep taking photos and using Twitter, but only go crazy with my updates when time and focus allows it. Ultimately, I know I’m going to be spending five months in Ecuador, where my main priority will be creating lesson plans for my English pupils rather than playing with the filters on Instagram. And while I’ll most definitely still be blogging during that time, those posts are going to involve my experiences, not the optimised key words for my traffic.

There’s only so much pandering to the status quo that I’m willing to do.

Beer glasses Moska toast

Three days after almost falling out of a fast moving kayak, our blog trip crew toasted each other with beers at a local micro brewery. It was the final half hour of the trip, and we were still unable to break the social media spell; no one was allowed to sip their beers until each angle of the raised glasses had been captured by a collection of cameras and iPhones.

I made one more plaintive attempt to bemoan what we were doing.

“Doesn’t anyone think this is getting a bit ridiculous?”

“Yeah, but we only do this when we’re on a blog trip. There’s no way I’d be this obsessed in normal life,” Cailin replied in an offhand manner.

I guess it’s a matter of taking the rough with the smooth; the traffic with the trips; the social media with the social life.

After all, it’s still a job I can’t imagine giving up any time soon.

Many thanks to the Costa Brava Tourism Board for keeping us bloggers fully stocked in beer, kayaks and mobile wifi. Also for providing us with a photographer and thus letting me pretend to be an exasperated celebrity for a brief moment. Despite the sentiment expressed above, it was actually great fun.

 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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17 Responses to Takeaways from TBEX

  1. Naomi October 15, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

    You know, I’ll never forget the last bus ride of that trip, when the wifi devices were away and we were finally disconnected…and we looked out the window just as the bus crossed over a bridge, rolling hills in the distance, past an old stone church that was standing above the river. It really made me wonder how much we had missed, being so plugged in during those three days…

    Girl, you really hit the nail on the head in this post 🙂

  2. Audrey | That Backpacker October 20, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    You said it. I think sometimes the story telling can get lost because we are too worried about churning content fast enough and getting more followers on social media. I think quality content has to win out in the end. 😀

    • Flora October 23, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

      Totally – this last month has really highlighted how many bloggers seem happier to produce quantity over quality. I’m actually pretty glad I realised the pitfalls so early on! Now I can strive to avoid doing it too 🙂

  3. Chrystal McKay October 20, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    I think everything depends on what you’re blogging for. I openly admit I am horrible at social media. I love instagram but only just got into it, otherwise twitter and facebook always take a back stage because I just don’t “get it”. My posts are written to be memories for me and stories to my readers – I don’t focus on optimizing words and titles – I write what I feel like writing, and I hope that over time My writing and photography skills improve. My blog is about my development as much as it is about having people enjoy it. But I don’t seek out numbers obsessively, or really at all, I just hope people will find my blog, love what I write – and that is the best I can offer. So I like that you’re so honest with the way social media dominated your trip and in my mind, took away from the experience of actually being there and enjoying your surroundings. Look with your eyes not your camera.

    • Flora October 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

      Yep, I think it’s really important to know why you’re blogging in the first place. I started my blog while I was travelling so obviously didn’t have much social media interaction as I was out there doing the travel thing instead! But being surrounded by other bloggers who’ve made their blogs into a business – and hence focus a huge amount of their time maintaining that business through social media channels – made it tricky to decide whether or not I should be following along with them.

      It’s been really eye opening to learn about this different side of the blogging world, though – and I think if you can work out a happy compromise between documenting personal memories, as you said, and subtly crafting your posts in such a way as to allow more people to share in your travels, then hopefully you’ll keep your integrity.

      That said, looking with your eyes and not your camera is a mantra I constantly strive to travel by 🙂 A photo isn’t the sole validation of your experience!

  4. Britany Robinson October 23, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    Totally agree with every word here. I, too, consider myself a writer first and a blogger second. It can be so frustrating when the latter title serves as such a time suck. I believe no matter how crucial social media is and will increasingly become, the content is what convinces readers to stick around and come back for more. It might take longer to find those readers, but focusing on your travels and your stories will eventually pay off. Good luck and keep up the quality writing!

    • Flora November 11, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

      Thanks, Britany, I agree with you on that point too: good quality content, which shows you really care about what you’re saying, is what brings readers back on a regular basis. And ultimately I would much prefer to feel like people truthfully enjoy what I write, instead of randomly clicking through from Facebook, being counted as a statistic, and then vanishing just as fast. Here’s to the persevering writers!

  5. Sarah Somewhere October 25, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    Awesome story, Flora! You are a writer, and I can bet you have a LOT more to offer the world than Facebook likes! I echo your sentiment, even though I have never been on a blog trip or to TBEX. I also see myself as a writer, learning about this wonderful new world of travel blogging as I go along. I love it for the freedom it gives us to tell our stories, and for the connections I make with my readers. I have to remind myself that the only the reason for social media to is to get my work in front of an audience (the goal), but that the quality of the content MUST come first, as well as being true to myself. Thanks for reminding me of that again, and I wish you all the best.

    • Flora November 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

      Glad to hear this post resonated with you, Sarah! I honestly do not think that attending conferences or blog trips is integral to being a travel blogger. Sure, it can help you build up contacts and spread your reputation a bit (or a lot!), but all these social media profiles are ultimately a means to an end so that your writing can be seen. We all work online and an audience can always be found, wherever you are.

      One of the biggest things I learned from this experience, too, is that there are no set rules on how to be a travel blogger. It’s up to you to work out how to do it for yourself, in the method that best suits you.

  6. alex November 4, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    much respect to your honesty! it’s not easy to look past the “media circus”

    at the end of the day content is king and everything else is secondary 😉

    • Flora November 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

      Woohoo! Content rules all – media circus be damned 🙂

  7. Sara December 28, 2012 at 6:18 am #

    I’m a little late to the comment rush, but I totally agree. I love reading blogs and have recently committed to writing in mine more often. I’ve been disappointed in a lot of my favorite bloggers lately too because it seems like they are starting to “sell out” and the story, which is the reason I started and continued reading, is getting lost in the process. I’m glad you’re willing to articulate and stand up for what you believe in. I look forward to following your adventures.

  8. Juergen | dare2go October 22, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this… Our “niche” doesn’t even match the always hyped press trips, so for me this was an insight which (unfortunately) confirmed my worse suspicions.

    I tell you one thing: I’m getting very quickly bored with “normal travel blogs” (is there such thing?), the ones who brag about airmiles, how many countries they have visited in the shortest amount of time, and which consequently want to take my attention from country A to country B to country C (preferably jumping continents at the same time) within 3 subsequent posts. I guess most people who read for specific interest, not to escape their boredom, would react similarly…

    BTW: I haven’t posted a single “quote” picture on our timeline (I confess: I’ve shared a couple) yet, but I manage quite regularly an “engagement count” of between 70% and 400% of our “Follower count”. How? I either post interesting observations or lasting useful information.

    • Flora October 26, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

      I don’t really think there’s such a thing as a ‘normal’ travel blog anymore – but I do agree with you Juergen! I prefer reading stories that I can get my teeth into (and hopefully my own come across as in the same vein!), although everyone has their own preferences.

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