The first three months of 2021 have passed by like fire through a paper town, and we have a lot to report! It has been a far more eventful start to the year than we expected for our blogging business – and mostly in a good way. Our website traffic is back to nearly pre-pandemic levels. A stream of income is finally flowing. We have some travel plans! And life is beginning to unlock here at home in the UK.
But there have been a few roadblocks too. Most notably an elephant-sized one in the form of the Airbnb Associates drama (all will be explained below). Meanwhile, the ongoing circus act of juggling two blogging businesses with freelancing and consultancy work has been tricky to navigate.
Before we get into it, here are the highlights and broad strokes of the year so far:
- Our website traffic doubled between December 2020 and March 2021
- We hit over $1,100 affiliate commission in a single month for the first time
- After attending the virtual ITB Berlin conference we advanced our discussions with tourist boards about supported trips when travel reopens
- Our second blogging business has grown slowly but steadily
- But – like many bloggers – our plans have been hit by Airbnb’s sudden affiliate programme closure
We’ll start with some of the good news…
Our website traffic recovery picks up speed
The end of March marked one year since we first went into lockdown. Back then, our business report for the first quarter of 2020 detailed how the shock of Covid impacted our business as the global travel industry came crashing down.
We lost more than 75% of our website traffic – the most important foundation for a successful blogging business – in a matter of days. Travel bookings ground to a complete halt and have continued to flatline, hammering our ability to earn from affiliate marketing.
The situation also meant a crash in advertising revenue potential, just at the moment we had finally qualified for the Mediavine network.
There was no clear end in sight, making it very difficult to plan and prepare for an uncertain future. But one thing we wrote in that report a year ago rings true today:
“It will probably take a lot of time for things to pick up again – we’re braced for a business setback of at least 12 months – but if we can build on our foundations while riding this out, we will come out stronger on the other side.”
Having weathered the storm and diversified our content strategy, we are now in a position to reap the rewards as travel begins to reopen. And here’s why…
We’re not just ‘back to where we were’
As I detailed in our last business report, we slowly rebuilt our website traffic over the course of last year. Despite some promising progress, we were still a long way off our pre-pandemic levels by the end of December. But in the first three months of 2021, things have really taken off.
Here’s what our monthly website traffic looks like from before the crash through to now:
In March we reached nearly 24,000 sessions and 29,000 pageviews, almost doubling December’s levels. In terms of raw statistics, this means we are nearly back to the peak traffic level we had reached just before the pandemic crash happened.
But there is more to this than just the numbers.
Much of our recovery has been the result of pivoting and producing new content geared towards a changed situation. In particular, our focus on workcations and remote working has been a significant help in rebuilding our traffic.
The travel content that was dominating our website traffic before the pandemic is still way down. Our top five blog posts from February 2020 are still averaging 75% below their previous traffic levels, despite us keeping them updated. One of them is 90% down.
These articles have not lost their rankings in search engines, however. They are simply not getting traffic because Google searches for international travel are still suffering, and will continue to do so for a while yet.
So what does this mean? When our website traffic surpasses our pre-pandemic levels – which it is on course to do soon – we won’t just be ‘back to where we were’. We will be in a much stronger position than before.
When travel does begin to reopen, we can be confident that our website traffic will surge to much higher levels. As long as we can maintain our search rankings, our old articles will recover strongly, and our new content should continue to perform well.
If the pandemic hadn’t happened, we would have been targeting the 100,000 pageviews threshold by this year. The work we’ve done to rebuild has put us in a position where this can be a realistic target again for the next year.
People are curious about future travel experiences
While traffic to our travel content is still way down, there is a promising trend we have noticed in recent weeks. There has been a remarkable increase in clicks on our affiliate links for travel tours and experiences. This is not yet converting into bookings, but it is a very good sign nonetheless.
I will give the example of G Adventures to put this into context. Prior to the pandemic, this was our best-performing affiliate programme.
As recently as January 2021, there were only 90 clicks on our G Adventures affiliate links. In February this shot up to 213 clicks, and then up again to 351 clicks in March, our highest ever in a month.
Back in January 2020, we had nearly $1,000 in affiliate commission booked from just 328 clicks on G Adventures links (although most of those tours were subsequently cancelled).
The 351 clicks in March 2021 did not translate into any bookings. Perhaps this is because people are dreaming about future travel and exploring ideas, but are not ready to book yet.
All we need is for this curiosity to begin turning into confidence. And it is only a matter of time until it does.
Shaping our content plans around the travel outlook
Vaccination programmes around the world are a source of hope and optimism. We can finally see a pathway out of this pandemic. However, the situation with international travel is still far from clear.
New variants, outbreaks and question marks around vaccine passports all add to the uncertainty on when and how borders can reopen again safely.
This presents us with a significant challenge for creating new blog content – and the need for this is growing. We are keeping a fluid and flexible approach that allows us to adapt as the situation develops. At the moment, there are three strands to our strategy:
South America looks set for a slow recovery
One of the biggest problems we have faced in the last year is that our travel content is heavily focused on South America – a region that has been grievously hit by the pandemic.
Patagonia, which is our highest-performing destination for traffic and affiliate sales, has had its 2020/21 summer season completely wiped out as a result. Both Argentina and Chile have had strict measures in place, including border closures. Meanwhile, Peru – another of our top focus destinations – has been one of the worst-hit countries in the world.
There has been some promising news in the new year. Chile has achieved the fastest vaccination programme in the world per capita. However, even with more than half its population vaccinated, a new wave of infections and lockdowns has set the country back – which is a warning sign for countries like the UK that good progress with vaccinations is not going to make the problem go away.
So, we are looking towards the long term for our South America content. Realistically, we can hope that the 2021/22 summer season in Patagonia will see tourism begin to return. If this is the case, we may make a return visit ourselves to create new content.
In the meantime, we will keep updating all of our South America content and remain patient until the situation improves. We can only hope this is sooner rather than later – many of our friends in the tourism industry there have suffered terribly and are desperate for good news.
Workcations in Europe
The outlook in Europe is a little more promising. Vaccination programmes across the continent are expected to speed up as summer approaches. Setbacks are still likely, however, and new outbreaks are a big cause for concern. Mirroring the situation in Chile, Hungary – which has one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates – is still suffering a high death toll.
We have had a lot of communication with tourist boards in Europe about our workcations campaign, in particular at the virtual ITB Berlin conference in early March. There is some optimism that a summer season will be salvageable. However, we expect that in reality we will be able to begin planning some trips from around September onwards.
Several tourist boards have committed to working with us on the campaign, and we are also now in contact with various hotels, tour companies and co-working spaces. So, everything is in place to get working on new content once travel reopens.
UK content on the calendar
Over the last year we have found some creative ways to produce new travel content before we are able to actually travel again ourselves. But this gets increasingly difficult as more time passes.
If we need to wait at least six months before travelling overseas again, an obvious option in the meantime is to create content on our home country – the UK. This represents our second-largest audience for website traffic after the USA.
Our second blog, Lincoln and Beyond, will be the main focus of this, as we plan to explore our local area widely through summer. But we also intend to create some UK content for Career Gappers.
This work will begin in my ancestral homeland of Cornwall, which happens to be one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. I am visiting for ten days in May to see my Mum, who I have only been able to see once since January 2020. While visiting I can also use the time to gather content for some Cornwall travel guides.
In summer I also intend to pay a visit to Manchester, my former home city, to create some workcations content (it is one of the top locations in the UK for remote working).
If this content performs well, it will bring more potential to expand in future to cover elsewhere in the UK.
Events on the horizon
It feels like a long time since WTM London in November 2019 – the last physical travel event I attended. I have been able to keep in touch with the community thanks to WhatsApp groups and the many virtual events that have been held throughout the pandemic. But as the outlook improves, some in-person events have been scheduled for later this year.
The biggest of these in our calendar is Traverse 21 in Palma, Mallorca, which has been rescheduled for the end of November. Lisa and I have booked our flights to spend ten days there.
The team at Traverse has also organised a social event for 50 people in London in June, just a few days after the UK government is planning to completely remove restrictions. I’ve got a ticket for this too and fingers crossed it can go ahead!
TBEX Europe in Catania looks like it may also be rescheduled for November, which would be difficult for us to make in between Traverse and WTM London, which is at the beginning of the month.
However, it seems more likely that TBEX will be pushed to spring 2022, in which case we would be there with bells on. Alternatively, we have the option to change our tickets to a different TBEX event, so we’ll keep an eye on their plans for the Thailand and USA conferences.
The prospect of being able to attend travel blogging conferences again is another little ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
The Airbnb debacle
Now for the not-so-good part of the year so far. On Monday March 1st, the travel blogging community spiralled into chaos at the news that Airbnb would be closing its affiliate programme at the end of the month.
Airbnb did not make a formal announcement about this. Instead, it tried to quietly slip it under the radar by adding a note in the FAQs section of its affiliate programme dashboard. Somebody saw it though, and posted a screenshot into the Airbnb Associates Facebook group – sparking an outcry.
Airbnb Associates had provided a lifeline for many travel bloggers over the last year. The programme launched in May 2020, enabling content creators to make commission from recommending properties. Thousands of bloggers joined and invested a huge amount of time in the programme.
Some established travel bloggers were making thousands of dollars a month from the programme, and for many it was their only source of income through the pandemic. Many created dozens of articles, some hundreds. All of this work was effectively rendered worthless by the announcement of the programme’s closure, and the income stream cut off overnight at the end of March.
Meanwhile, Airbnb has benefitted immensely by exploiting bloggers who have created so much promotional content for them, much of which will stay live after the programme closure. The company’s official line is that it wants to focus its marketing efforts on recruiting more hosts. But perhaps alienating a large community of influencers will backfire on them.
How the closure of Airbnb Associates has affected us
We were not among the worst hit by the programme closure in real terms. After joining the programme last summer, I only started working on it in January, and so we were not yet making income from it.
In all, I spent about two weeks working on the programme, including a whole Sunday the day before the programme closure news (I don’t usually work on weekends!). Time I’ll never get back.
The most frustrating thing about the news is that we had envisioned Airbnb being a big part of our future strategy, and had been weaving it into our workcations plans behind the scenes. Lots of the content I had worked on had not been published yet, and now probably won’t be.
Ultimately, this is an unpleasant reminder that when running a blogging business, you need to have a diversified strategy with many sources of income. Any affiliate programme or advertising network could be closed at any time. So we need to be able to take the hit, and to find new ways forward.
How are we pivoting our approach away from Airbnb? Just as with the wider pandemic situation last year, we are not rushing to any particular solution. We will try out some alternative accommodation affiliate programmes, monitor our progress and adjust our approach accordingly.
Income and expenditure
Back to some good news. Our website traffic is not the only thing that has picked up in 2021 – we have also seen our income increase.
While travel bookings have remained slow, we have been able to monetise our remote working content and make some of our best affiliate income to date. In march we hit nearly $1,200 in affiliate commission for the month, bringing us to over $2,200 for the quarter.
Our traffic increase has also helped us to slowly build our income from Mediavine. In total, our combined affiliate and advertising income for the last three months has been $2,737.54.
On top of this, we also made another successful application for a business support grant at the beginning of the year – much needed given the typical three-month lag for affiliate payments.
Altogether, our blogging business income for the quarter was $4,770.93. Still a long way off where we would be in a pandemic-free world, but we are more than happy with the progress, and excited for what will come next.
I have also been able to supplement this income with some freelancing and consultancy work. This is not ideal as it takes time away from blogging, but it is a big help until the situation improves.
Outgoings and new investments
On the spending front, it has been quite a busy three months too. Here are our outgoings for January–March 2021:
- Regular monthly costs:
- Photoshop monthly subscriptions: £29.94
- ConvertKit monthly subscriptions: £63.28
- Non-sterling transaction fees: £1.73
- G Suite subscription: £12.42
- Phone bills: £45.95
- Videography equipment:
- Drone and battery: £194.54
- Drone license: £9
- Gimbal: £137.94
- Traverse Waypoint virtual conference tickets: £17
- Traverse Social tickets: £8
- Traverse Money MiniCon tickets: £71.10
- Accommodation deposit for Traverse Social: £3.90
- Flight change fee for Traverse 21 in Mallorca: £0.21
- TOTAL: £595.01 / $820.18
The most notable outlay here is nearly £350 on video equipment. This is very much a future investment, as we build plans to integrate some video content into our blogging. Our Lincoln blog will be the primary focus for this. However, we also plan to create some videos for our workcations campaign on Career Gappers.
This quarter saw us pass a significant financial milestone. Our total income since starting a blogging business has now surpassed our total investment in it. That is not a bad achievement at all in less than three years, especially given the disruption caused by the pandemic (without which we would have reached this a lot earlier).
Priorities and goals for April–June 2021
This statement at the end our last business report has proven to be a good way of working in the current situation:
“In the past we have set quite granular business targets on things like website traffic and income. But in the present circumstances we can’t really do that. Without knowing how the pandemic recovery is going to unfold, it’s impossible to take specific aim when we’re at the mercy of things we can’t control. What we can do is to keep adapting and keep building.”
So, we see no reason to divert from this approach as the recovery continues to transpire. In this report I have already set out some of our key priorities – to keep our travel content updated, and to introduce some UK content beginning with Cornwall. We will also continue building our remote working content ahead of some workcation trips later in the year, if things go well.
When we next report at the beginning of July, we can hope that the the prospects for travel will be looking a lot brighter. Until then, we will be doing everything we can to prepare for it.
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