It was early evening, the weather was perfect, and I had just ordered a pre-dinner beer in Medellín, Colombia, at an open-air wine bar called El Botanico, the kind of fancy chic restaurant my travel blogger guest enjoyed. Her blog, The Boutique Adventurer, promises “Adventures with a high thread count.” Expensive wine and fine ambiance in a city known primarily for its history of drug trafficking was pretty much her specialty.
A few days ago, she’d promised our small group of Unsettled travelers to explain to each of us how she’d launched a travel blog and reached, in one year, 10,000 followers, and all for less than $1,000. I can throw together a pretty WordPress site inside a few days for less than $100, so it wasn’t the website itself that impressed me. It was the followers. I wanted to know if this former marketing-exec-turned-40-something travel blogger, who boasted of having visited more than 70 countries, knew something about social media engagement that I didn’t.
Prior to meeting, I’d done some background research on her blog. She had filled it with the usual kind of headlines: The Top 12 Things to Do Here, The 3 Cities You Must Visit There, The 6 Must See Sights In That Other Spot. My bar for travel writing is pretty damn high. If you’re not Paul Theroux telling me about his gregarious overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town or Peter Matthiessen describing his zen-like pursuit of the elusive snow leopard in Nepal, it’s going to be difficult to capture my attention on foreign lands.
I had clicked on each of her social media links to get a sense of what she posted and how many people were reading. The 10,000 follower boast was clearly meant to be the aggregate of al her social media properties together, not the reach of any one particular platform. Still, more than 4,000 Instagram followers is not too shabby. I was late to the platform, just passed 100 followers, and still couldn’t decide whether to be using my personal account to tell the story of me, or the story of world through my eyes.
When she arrived at the restaurant, I’d already ordered a local beer, a Club Colombia. She took a while to decipher the various menus. One was for liquor, another wine, and another had the food and the beer together. This blogger who had travelled so widely and staked her future earnings on writing about foreign lands and whose readers trusted her with travel recommendations knew pocito of Spanish. When the waiter came she fumbled about with the two or three words she knew which seemed relevant in this situation – vino, por favor – and combined that with some decisive pointing to order a glass of the house red.
We had small talk about the bar, the ambiance, the city, and then got down to business. I was here to learn. I wanted to know how she’d built such a large audience in such a short amount of time.
When she quit her corporate marketing job, she went on a research binge. She’d been an executive for a large department chain in the UK, so she wasn’t new to promotion, but transferring her corporate skills to a one-person travel blog was another matter. “Google became my best friend,” she said. She told me she Googled things like promotion strategies for travel blogs and how to install WordPress, and built her blog and future from there.
She dripped with enthusiasm at the learning process. She was clearly a self-motivated learner and loved to travel. She’d been posting travel pics to a group Slack channel for the past few weeks, so I could see she was a good photographer. The content was all there, but it was the promotional strategies that got me to lean in. That’s when she started talking about “Instagram Pods” and “Follow Threads.” These were the things a travel blogger should do, if they do nothing else, she told me.
An Instagram “Pod” is a group of people who all agree to follow each other and like all of each other’s posts. Why would you agree to this? Because Instagram selects photos above a certain threshold of likes to put in the search section, the “Photos You Might Like” area. Breaking into this section is likely to earn you even more likes, and maybe even earn you a few followers and that much more attention. It’s the closest thing Instagram offers to going viral, so joining a Pod might help one’s photos break into that section. It is essentially an effort to hack the Instagram algorithm.
As long as online search has been a thing, people and companies have been trying to figure out how to win at it. From the earliest days of buying backlinks to game the Google search algorithm, there has been an arms race of sorts, between the platforms, whose incentive is to increase users and engagement, and the users, who are trying to get attention to what they are selling.
Where does one find out about how to join an Instagram Pod? One way is to find a “Follow Thread,” which is a Facebook post, usually posted within a private Facebook Group, where everyone posts their Instagrams and agrees to like and follow each other. I asked her where one finds these Facebook Groups, and she said she had joined every travel blogger Facebook group she could possibly find, and she kept an eye on the Follow Threads whenever possible.
It was at this point I began to feel slightly sick.
“So your audience is mostly other travel bloggers?”
“Well, yea. I mean travel bloggers are travelers too, right? The companies I’m trying to reach probably want to reach them just as much as any other, regular traveler.”
She had a point. I leaned back, sipped my beer, and contemplated a world in which everyone is now both a publisher and a potential customer. Was the entire travel blogger industry just a gigantic, circular promotional machine? Everyone’s audience was somewhat faked, the product of hacking Instagram algorithms and agreeing to like everything regardless of what the like was actually for, but that was the point, and that was the way the online world worked. Fake audiences are still valuable. They are travelers also.
Suddenly I could extrapolate out to dozens of other online communities, all trying to build their audiences, all trying to get a piece of the pie of advertising dollars, or discounts, or free trips, or subscribers. As a filmmaker, I’d often wondered whether all the Kickstarter and IndieGogo funding campaigns for my friends’ films just represented a gaggle of under-employed, ill-financed filmmakers passing money between themselves – I donate to you, you donate to someone else, and around and around the circular system goes.
I was halfway through my beer, but she was through her first glass of wine and stretching her neck around, searching for our waiter so she could order another one. I asked her if she was making money from the blog. She said no, but she recognized it would take time, and a bigger audience, before she got cash. But in the meantime, she was using her blog to reduce the cost of her high thread-count travel. She did this by writing to hotels in places she was about to travel and offering to write about them in exchange for discounts.
“What if you go there and you don’t like the place?” I asked.
“Then, you find the positive,” she said. “If there were too many children there and they were yelling the whole time and ruining your trip, then you write about how this is a great place to go if you have kids.” The nausea grew. She had never been a reporter, as I had, so perhaps she didn’t understand just how I would feel writing positively about a place I’d hated. My only power as a reporter was credibility, and deliberately obfuscating in a story because its subjects were giving me perks would have destroyed that credibility.
The waiter came, and rather than suffer through her hand gestures, I ordered another glass for her and the check for the table. I finished my beer and contemplated the way of the world. After all, I haven’t been a reporter in ten years. Things have changed. Everything is positive online, even if it’s not.
I wasn’t about to suddenly start joining Instagram Pods and Follow Threads or writing positively about shitty places in exchange for 20 percent off a hotel room. Nor had I interest in starting a travel blog, for that matter. I think what I had hoped to hear is that large audiences came from publishing exceptional content. That where extraordinary stories are, there people go to read. That the key to standing out in the vast ocean of dime-a-dozen travel bloggers was to do something unique and exciting. Maybe I was being idealistic, or naive. There was always that little voice inside my head that insists that I write honestly, as honestly as I can, that the greatest contribution I can make is to describe something as it really is, or, how it honestly appeared to me.
She didn’t have that voice, obviously. But she has an audience, and she is going to get perks, and maybe she’ll even get money to write positively about hotels and restaurants and tour companies. Even if she doesn’t, though, she hit me with her long-term play: to sell out. In the future, she said, big publishers will begin to buy up travel blogs in order to reach the niche audiences they’ve all developed separately. I had to hand it her, it made a lot of sense. If Condé Nast, for example, bought her little travel blog, would it be so different than Vimeo snatching up a little YouTube web series? If it happens, she will have written her way into an actual job with actual money, doing what she loves. And all it will have taken is years of unpaid writing, tens of thousands of dollars spent traveling the world, some nausea-inducing promotional strategies, and a little Instagram algorithm hacking.