It’s hard to believe that we are already halfway through 2020. A year that started with such hope and promise for our blogging business has been swallowed up by a global health crisis, the like of which nobody under the age of 100 has known in their lifetime. So, as is the case for most people working in the travel sector, the last few months have been a time of rethinking, reimagining, rebuilding and refocusing, all while trying to stay afloat.
It’s obviously been a difficult time. But every recession brings opportunities, even in the worst-hit sectors – sometimes especially in the worst-hit sectors. I believe that at times like this, if you can stay calm and focused, and not lose sight of your dreams, there is no reason you cannot flourish. With this in mind, I aim to strike a positive tone in this report.
First, however, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way…
The impact of coronavirus on business
When I wrote our last quarterly report, the UK was one week into a lockdown that has now been in place for over three months, albeit with some slight relaxations. At that time, it was already very clear we were facing an enormous setback to business, which we have now seen unfolding.
The geographical distribution of the pandemic has not helped. The two countries that account for most of our website traffic and business – the USA and the UK – are among the three worst-hit countries worldwide (the other being Brazil). On top of this, South America – the region where we focus most of our travel content and affiliate partnerships – has seen a surge in cases in the last few weeks.
To say this has created a challenging environment for a young travel blogging business would be an understatement of epic proportions.
Traffic and affiliate bookings flatlining
We already saw three months ago that our website traffic and affiliate sales had fallen off a cliff in February/March as lockdowns took hold around the world. What we’ve seen since could at best be described as a painfully slow recovery, and at worst as flatlining.
This is what our website traffic graph now looks like for the last 12 months:
A cursory glance at this may give the impression that February 2020 was a random spike in traffic. That’s not the case, and here’s why.
Our traffic grew steadily throughout 2019 to the end of October, before we were hit by Google’s November algorithm update that affected many bloggers. Following that setback, our growth picked up again. Then, when our new website launched in January 2020, using a more efficient host and a design theme far better optimised for search engines than our previous one, we saw a big uptick with immediate effect.
We can reasonably expect that in normal circumstances, our growth would have continued throughout 2020 on the new platform. But instead, we suffered a steep and sudden drop, followed by a very slow recovery. This can be better seen by looking at our Google Analytics graph of daily sessions from our website launch in January through to the end of June:
Now for the hit to affiliate sales. We began the year with our best ever month of affiliate bookings in January. This is what the picture looks like now:
So, from April to June 2020 – during the peak lockdown period – we made only $461.98 in affiliate bookings. Furthermore, only a meagre $43.78 of this came from travel-related bookings; the other $418.20 coming from affiliate sales of the Blogging Fast Lane course.
Mediavine income also hit
In the last report I explained that we had been very lucky to qualify for Mediavine just before the sector-wide traffic collapse happened. This has since been confirmed emphatically. Mediavine announced in mid-June that it was doubling the traffic requirements for new publishers to be accepted onto the platform from 25,000 monthly sessions to 50,000, with immediate effect. Existing publishers would not be affected. Phew.
However, the hits to both website traffic and advertising expenditure have meant that we are currently earning far less from Mediavine than we would be in normal circumstances. We made $199 in revenue from April to June. With traffic and RPM on a pre-pandemic trajectory, we would have expected this to be in the ballpark of $1,000–$2,000.
The impact on overall business trajectory
None of this is surprising. The hit to our business is in line with what the travel sector is suffering as a whole. Most travel bloggers are reporting traffic down by around 70–90%, and a complete income collapse.
But where does this leave the overall trajectory of our business? I took some time to create a graph of our monthly cashflow since we first started investing in the business in May 2018. This is what it looks like up to the middle of 2020:
As is the case with most businesses, our first financial year ran at a loss as we invested to lay the foundations. The second year roughly broke even, ending up just $112 down overall. Up until the end of March 2020, seven out of nine months ran at a profit, and we were heading for a comfortable profit in year three.
With the business model beginning to work, Mediavine membership secured and running costs down to a minimum, we were on course for our monthly cashflow to reach four figures in the black by now, and to continue growing from there. The following graph shows expected progress if the pandemic had not happened, with a projection for the last three months:
And the effect of the pandemic runs deeper than new bookings not being made. We’ve also faced the problem that many previous bookings have been cancelled. Several hundreds of dollars of expected affiliate income that would’ve been dropping into our coffers these last three months has failed to materialise.
No government support for recently created businesses
While I have unflattering opinions on how my home country’s government has handled the crisis, this report is not really the place to air them. One thing I will say in their favour, though, is that a lot has been done to prevent people from losing jobs in the short term, and to help self-employed people.
Unfortunately for me, this support has not extended to any self-employed businesses started in the last couple of years. To qualify for any help, self-employed people needed to provide three years’ worth of tax returns. At this stage in my journey, I have only submitted one year’s worth, with a second imminent; and, as laid out above, the business has only surpassed break-even status in the last few months.
So yes, things have been bleak. It’s a situation that has been tremendously demotivating after all the groundwork that has gone into this business. But among all the woe, there are still many threads of light at which to grasp…
Five big reasons to be positive
The world as we know it may have been turned on its head these past few weeks. But here’s why we can still look ahead with hope:
1. This is temporary.
Pandemics have happened frequently throughout history. They are a fact of life and nature, and it was inevitable that something like this would happen at some point.
What’s also true is that the current situation will not last forever. The ramifications of this global health crisis will undoubtedly be long-lasting, and perhaps some aspects of life will never return to the previous ‘normal’. But every pandemic in history has been followed by an eventual recovery, and there is no reason to think this one will be any different.
People will travel again. We don’t yet know how quickly this will happen, or what exactly will change in the way people travel. But travel they will, and we can adapt as the sector begins to grow again.
2. We have built a solid foundation.
Our loss of website traffic doesn’t take away the fact we have built a quality blog with a solid foundation of content. We haven’t lost our rankings in search engines or the domain authority we built over the first 18 months. When people start searching for travel again, our traffic will come back.
We have a website on Mediavine with a domain authority in the mid-30s. Our site has over 200 blog posts and counting, most of which are well optimised.
As the world emerges into new circumstances we will probably have to renovate and revise a lot of this content, but the foundations are there, and they are strong.
3. Signs of recovery are already showing.
Back in March, our website traffic fell from 1,010 sessions on Friday 6th (the last time we had over 1,000 sessions in a day) to a low of 177 sessions on Saturday 28th. Although the recovery has been painfully slow since, our traffic hasn’t strayed below 200 sessions in a day since 17th April, and has gradually stabilised, averaging nearly 300 sessions per day in June.
At the same time, we have seen our revenue per mille (RPM) rates on Mediavine climb from pitiful lows of below $5 in March to consistently over $13 in the final week of June. This indicates that advertisers are spending again on travel, albeit cautiously.
These are small signs, but they are nonetheless promising, and I’ll take them. As borders begin to open and lockdown measures ease, we can expect things to continue in the right direction.
4. We are part of an incredible community.
I am not quite sure how I would have got through the last few months if it were not for the mutual supportive spirit of the travel blogging community. The network of friends and peers I’ve become a part of during these last couple of years has transformed into an incredible collective support network during tough times.
From blogging Facebook groups stepping up the game to help one another out, to the likes of Traverse holding regular free Zoom pub quizzes and other events, having these connections has been so important during a difficult time, and has given us the motivation to keep going.
5. We are in a position to ride it out.
Without a doubt, our biggest asset is that we still have plenty of runway ahead of us. This is a luxury that not many travel bloggers have right now. Lisa’s stable income from her full-time job means we are still in a secure position, and able to continue investing in the business and keeping it afloat during this recession while we adapt.
And there are always more options available down the line if it comes to it. For example, if I needed to take on some freelancing, part-time work or consultancy, we could reinvest funds to appoint a virtual assistant to help run the business (which we expect to do in future anyhow).
But riding it out does not mean continuing as we were before. Lots of changes are afoot in the way we’re approaching the business…
How we’ve been adapting
In our last report I wrote about how we were aiming for adaptation and resilience rather than total change, and this has continued to be our approach. Career Gappers is still very much focused on travel career breaks, but we have made some careful adjustments to our content strategy:
- Early in the lockdown period we published a post on armchair travel to help people discover the world from home.
- In May we published a piece on career skills that travel can help develop, which is now the foundation for a new series of articles honing in on specific skills. While this keeps the focus on travel for now, it also opens the door to diversify away from it later, if the situation dictates.
- More recently we published a batch of articles on small group tours in South America. This is in response to many experienced industry professionals predicting small group tours to trend strongly in a post-pandemic world. We were already an affiliate partner of G Adventures, a leading small group tour company that has acted swiftly to put new safety and hygiene measures in place.
- In general, our new travel content has focused on big-picture articles to help people dream and plan for the future. This has included a series of backpacking guides, and compilations such as bucket lists to inspire travel planning.
In total we’ve produced over 30 new pieces of content since the beginning of April, which has kept things ticking over nicely. As we move forward we will likely move our focus to updating our existing content as the situation changes, while continuing to publish our series of career break interviews.
Our e-book project is under way
As I outlined in the last report, we have pressed ahead with the production of an e-book. I was lucky to be selected to participate in a small beta group for a new product creation and marketing course by the Blogging Fast Lane founders, which has been a huge help in guiding the way on this project.
The focus of the e-book has altered slightly as I have progressed with it. It was initially intended as a travel career break guide, but will now focus more broadly on how to take a career break, whether for travel or for other reasons. This switch lines up with the broader strategy of content diversification, and it can always be adapted in future to focus on travel.
A second blog is coming
Here comes the biggest change. Behind the scenes in the last few weeks we have been intensifying the preparations to launch a second blog, which will focus on our home city, Lincoln in the UK. We have already bought a domain and we are working on the branding – all will be revealed soon!
When Lisa and I moved to Lincoln last year, it was my intention in the long term to create a second blogging business here once we had made sufficient progress with Career Gappers. It may seem counterintuitive, but now seems like the perfect time to do it.
By bringing a personable, local voice to the efforts to promote Lincoln as a destination, we can play a role in helping the tourism sector here get back on its feet in a post-pandemic world. And with domestic tourism widely expected to return strongly before international tourism, a window of opportunity likely lies ahead.
I am now balancing my time roughly 50/50 between the two blogs, which I expect to raise to 80/20 in favour of the new blog a few weeks either side of launch, before balancing out again in the long term.
As I’ve described above, the income situation has been pretty grim throughout this second quarter of the year. In addition to the diminished affiliate bookings, a small piece of sponsored content and basic Mediavine revenue brings our quarterly income total to $760.98. We still anticipate a tough period to come before this begins to look up.
To offset this a little, we’ve been able to keep our operating costs to an absolute minimum. Some platforms have given us payment freezes or discounts, and so our expenditure for the quarter is at the lowest level to date:
- Regular monthly costs:
- Photoshop monthly subscriptions: £9.98
- ConvertKit monthly subscriptions: £52.91
- Phone bills: £96.69
- Non-sterling transaction fees: £0.96
- Additional investment/costs:
- Domain purchases and renewals: £105.53
- TOTAL: £266.13 / $330
One thing to note. Athough the pandemic impact has meant our income is a long way off where we were aiming for by now, we still made more income in Q2 of this year than we did in the same period last year. So we may be disappointed, at times dejected, but we’ve still come a long way. Another reason to be positive.
Priorities and targets for July–September 2020
Busy times are ahead. With the situation still so uncertain for travel, I do not feel it will be helpful to set any traffic or income targets for the next quarter. Instead, we will keep a laser focus on adaptation and new projects.
By the time you read our next report, my aim is to achieve the launch of both our e-book and second blog, while keeping the Career Gappers site ticking over with regular and updated content.
We can come out of this stronger
At the onset of lockdown, I was beginning to think about 2020 as being a lost year for the business. It looked as though the impact of the circumstances would mean at least a 12-month setback in our progress.
Now I am looking at it differently. The situation is not what we expected, and is far from ideal. But it has created an opportunity to innovate, diversify and take on new projects.
We may arrive into 2021 with lower website traffic than we had at the beginning of 2020. But if we have successfully adapted our business while creating a second one to boot, and with new skills in product creation and videography, then we will be in a far stronger position than we were before.
The dream has not disappeared from the horizon.
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