I went to two blogging conferences last year.
One was good, although it could have been better. The other, which was the first one I ever went to, was okay. I was off my face with exhaustion (I even had to go have a little nap halfway through) and did not deliver a good first impression onto anyone I met (more like rabbiting on with complete and utter nonsense, with a little bit of drool on the side). Actually, now when I think back onto it, that was probably the overriding theme for my entire 2016. Stumbling through life, half asleep, drool on the side. Paints a nice picture, doesn’t it?
There were many learnings to be had at both conferences (on the upside, I have an editorial calendar now and am almost semi-prepared), but one piece of advice was hammered into me, on the two separate occasions.
“Your blog will NEVER stand out,” my learned colleagues declared. “If you do not pick a niche.”
Why? Because travel blogging is allegedly too generic. It’s all been done, or said before. Better to find one topic and run with it – else wise you will never get noticed and never make any money, which is the aim of the game, after all – right?
I’ve been blogging for just under two and a half years now, and have published some 220-odd posts on Birdgehls. Unlike the claims of many of my peers, I do not shudder when re-reading many of my first few blog posts.
Rather, I look back on my early days of blogging fondly, as I had no clear indication of what I was doing. And to be honest, that was probably when I was at my happiest, in my blogging career so far.
I’d write about whatever I fancied, whether that be sleeping overnight in a London airport or wondering why it took me so long to fall in love with Berlin (I was and probably still am a bit of a hipster, so it ideally should have happened straight away). These posts do need work – better pictures, a sprinkling of SEO and some social media loving, yet I do not think they’re that terrible, really.
You see, at that point in time, blogging was something I was doing for myself, a distraction from the woes of searching for employment in London. I was happy creating and that’s all that mattered.
In the last twelve months or so, something changed. I’d been blogging fairly regularly, churning out up to three posts a week. I started to wonder – “where on earth is my audience?” Other blogs, which had started around the same time as mine, or were even younger, seemed to be picking up speed and numbers, faster than I could process and I felt like I was getting left behind in the dust.
At this point in the play, I’ll admit I knew nothing about the business of blogging. I’d deactivated my Facebook account over a year ago and thought Pinterest was purely a platform for wedding planning. I didn’t understand how Twitter worked beyond a place for live-tweeting the Bachelor and ranting (actually, I still don’t really know how Twitter works, if someone wants to enlighten me that would be grand) and I still liked using Instagram, as it was before the “follow-unfollow” phenomena took proper traction (Lord help anyone wanting to grow their Instagram these days). I was still blogging about whatever I fancied, which ranged from plastic free living, to whinging about how bad I was at yoga, or touristy sights in London that didn’t suck.
So, I went to my first, then second travel blogging conference and was told about how important it was to have THOUSANDS of social media followers, Google Analytics that numbered into at least five digits and that having a NICHE was king, because you couldn’t just blog about ANYTHING and that all this had to be done in order to become a (da, da, duuuuuum)… INFLUENCER.
Cue, panic on my part because up until then, my niche had very vaguely been “um, expat life and green travel”, which is what I actually did say to several people (hesitation included) who asked me what it was I wrote about, to be met with blank stares. Apparently “anything I damn well fancy” is an even less viable answer.
I stopped writing about my travels in Europe, because Europe had allegedly been done to death. Some months, I’d publish eight posts, then the blog would be silent for two weeks, whilst I went travelling, or stared at a blank page of Word on my computer screen. I tried writing country guides for the first time ever, but found them to be both dull and time consuming. I decided to give up on trying to write about travel and run a green blog instead. After publicly announcing this decision, I reverted back to writing solely about travel once more. I panicked about numbers, kicked myself for not starting up with social media some 18 months earlier and worried I was not inserting enough of myself in my blog posts.
I had no clear idea of what I was doing and it was stifling my creativity, big time. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way – plenty of other bloggers have confessed to having trouble with finding their voice.
Eventually I came to realise that having a niche can mean many things. It can be a topic you write about. It can be the way you write itself – your personality shining through. Some people publish really useful posts, about stuff you actually want to know about. Others pen posts that are more personal, albeit still interesting, particularly if you’re a nosey parker at heart like myself.
My blog was inevitably going to change over time, as I write about things that have meaning to me. I’m in my twenties (late-twenties now… hmfphg). I’m still growing into myself and trying to work out the things that are most important to me (like cheese, German Shepherds, family and friends, saving the world from plastic, etc).
So, I gave myself some time off – well sort of, publishing once a week-ish in September and October. When I returned home to Australia, I was ready to write. I sat down at my computer and thought: “Now. What’s important to me? What have I done that other people might be interested in reading about?”
Then: “What would I be interested in reading about?”
Writing is a bit of a selfish endeavour and I think many would agree with me in saying that when you write, you do it for yourself. If other people enjoy your writing – that’s great! A little ego-stroking never hurt anyone. Yet overall, most people write because they feel they have something to say – they have a story to tell. Six figure book deals and bylines in The Guardian and New York Times are just a nice compensation, if you’re lucky enough.
Using that thought as a benchmark, I began to write. And I have to say, the last three months of blogging have reminded me strongly of when Birdgehls first started. My situation even mirrored that of then – new country (even if it was my own) and I was unemployed (lol). And I think I’ve finally discovered what it is I like to write about.
Inevitably, the answer is anything that damn well interests me.
It may not be the elevator pitch that gets one work in the blogging world. Yet, that’s the beauty of having a career outside of blogging. As fabulous as it would be to see a strong monetary return for the effort I put into Birdgehls, I’m more interested in making new online friends, sparking conversations and pushing the boundaries of my own creativity. This is my hobby. I do it for fun.
So, for any newish bloggers who might be reading this (or those who have been at it for a couple or more years, like myself), here’s my advice to you. Experiment with your writing, for sure. Yet, if you find something doesn’t work for you, don’t beat yourself up over it. Take a step back, take some time off, gather yourself and have another crack at it. Don’t be afraid to publish posts that are outside the norm of what you write about. And above all – do it because you enjoy doing it.
If you’re pushing yourself to meet deadlines, or blogging for the sake of blogging, it’ll show in your writing (or, lack thereof). Trust me on that one.
All my fellow bloggers out there – what struggles have you had, when trying to write or forge an identity for yourself in this brave newish online world?