Making 100K on St Helena: Confessions Of First Time Photo-Bloggers
STRICTLY COME BLOGGING | Darrin Henry
Just before midnight, 14 December 2016, we refreshed the page and grinned at our new milestone figure – we had done it, one hundred thousand with another 16 days to spare. We have worked our little socks off for this, so that magic figure of 100,000 drew excited breath.
Ok, let’s back up to the beginning and explain.
So You Think You Can Blog?
The internet is amazing, without doubt. But it’s also a wasteland littered with well intentioned blogs, now abandoned as the remaining domain registration heartbeats countdown to their inevitable flat line.
Thing is, it sounds good to start with; easy even. Research always turns up the success stories to sucker newbies into ‘having a go.’ I mean, how hard can it be? It’s just personal thoughts and ideas typed into what’s basically a diary, right?
All of us at some point read a report or a piece of journalism or a blog even, spot a spelling error or two and think, “I could do that better.”
And blogging platforms make it tempting to test the theory.
My own inspiration came in March 2014, meeting and chatting with Gary Arndt, the ‘big daddy’ of the travel photography/blogging world. I loved the idea of developing a photographic website for the upcoming tourism age on St Helena with marketing potential through its global reach. How could this not be fun?
What Makes Us Happy 🙂 What Makes Us Sad 🙁
After convincing Sharon we could do this; we should do this; we spent the rest of the year planning then launched What The Saints Did Next. A photography blog. A patchwork of awesome photos stitched together by the written story, that was the plan. We were already photographers, half the battle won, right?
People would love the photos – of course they would – and keep coming back for more. The words were to be a bonus; but we’d crack it with the photos.
So clicking ‘Publish’ on that first post, we were off – the blog went live on 10 January 2015.
Then reality kicked in. And we felt that kick too. Blogging was – is – hard work. You carefully choose photography masterpieces, agonise over the words, proof, edit, re-read, repeat. Finally hit ‘Publish’ and away goes the newest offering, through the modem and out into cyberspace.
Web statistics then take over and the blogger’s life is reduced to an emoji, smiley or sad; one or the other. Happy emoji is inspirational (stats are up) and brings a warm ‘you like my blog’ feeling. Sad emoji makes you wonder if the internet is still working.
Anyone who posts, publishes and submits work to a wide audience will understand. Approval numbers and comments are the lifeblood that keeps you going.
We try to reply to all comments; each of us responsible for answering on the blogs we wrote.
By the end of 2015, our first full year, we had registered 43,508 unique visitors.
Truthfully, we had hoped for more before we started. But now we understood the game a little better. The internet is vast, there is choice beyond belief which means people are only interested if it’s interesting. ‘Content is king,’ as the bloggers’ mantra goes, so you better make it good.
Right, ok then, year two – 2016 – bring it on.
Saints No Good For Tourism
Almost immediately we were off to a terrible start. In January St Helena Tourism, who had given us great support in 2015, adopted a new policy not to share our blog posts anymore via social media. The reason given was our posts extolled the positives of the island and international visitors would interpret this view as biased, because we were local.
Potential tourists, it was argued, were more likely to trust foreign media articles to offer truthful accounts of the island so, going forward, only those would be promoted. Nothing local. Bummer!
But the beast that is blogging still needed feeding, so despite this setback we were quickly absorbed with gathering content. Visiting ships, photoshoots, local events, culture stories, interesting people and of course the airport has provided really exciting material this year. Add to this our very first Project 366, the ‘photo-a-day’ challenge, another insatiable animal.
A Marriage Under Pressure
Biggest challenge for us both is writing. Photography by comparison is easy, as you might expect. But writing the stories continues to be a nervy experience and consumes most of our time. We proof each other’s articles, a little too vigorously at times, and sometimes the ‘constructive’ critique isn’t always well received! (Sad emoji needs to go here). Nothing tests the marriage like a tepid proofing review!
Drafting, proofing, re-writing, re-proofing… fact checking, transcribing, researching… it’s the grunt work; the unglamorous side of blogging for us. Sometimes I read emails or comments from my friends and think, ‘why can’t I think of those words when I write?’
The Secret Garden
Internet allowance is also a challenge. We ration daily usage to work within our monthly package of 7 GB. That gives us about 115 MB each per day. It’s a constraint everyone on St Helena deals with. Thankfully the internet is free from midnight to 6am, so we regularly work the ‘nightshift’ to post, promote and research. Work nights, sleep days. In reality we work nights and zombie-walk the days.
Challenges aside, an amazing thing then began to happen as 2016 rolled through the first quarter.
The blog seeds sown in 2015 had sprouted and began to bear fruit.
Referrals from search engines, website partnerships and links on chat forums began to ping. Our Twitter referrals were up (400% in 2016); we started a YouTube channel and learned to use Facebook better. UK media linked to our airport posts; the Guardian, Sky News, BT News, Daily Mail… Other countries’ media also linked stories including South Africa and the US.
The Little People: Strength In Numbers:
But the ‘bread and butter’ web traffic has been directed our way from smaller entities. A community group in the state of Kentucky; a news site in the Faroe Islands; a yachting club in South Africa; a small tourism company in New Orleans; a specialist travel publication; a whale shark page in Kenya; aviation chat forums; online photography groups; an island news site in the Caribbean; the tall ship ‘Class Afloat’ programme; an airline from Brazil, a school in Johannesburg, a newspaper in Jersey, the RMS St Helena, other bloggers, a club in Ibiza… the variety on the full listing is humbling.
Nearly all are small organisations with modest visitor referrals but all contributing to our overall growth. Perhaps most importantly have been individuals who have shared WTSDN through personal Facebook accounts, re-tweeted or encouraged their friends to check us out.
By May we had matched visitor totals for the whole of the previous year, 2015. By November we had doubled that figure.
But it was a bit of a flurry. Weirdly we never really registered or had time to enjoy those moments. Only in hindsight has the achievement sunk in. On a day to day basis statistics seem to roll in slow motion.
Then on 14 December the blog visitor numbers rolled past 100,000 for 2016.
Dance Then Wherever You May Be
It’s been a good two years for What The Saints Did Next. Looking back we were unknowing novices when we launched. Like the new contestants on Strictly Come Dancing, stepping out with two left feet and unable to understand why the judges were so critical. (Sorry non-Strictly fans).
We’ve come a long way. Our ‘heel leads’ are better (more Strictly) although the pro dancers still show us up.
But today our understanding of social media, blogging and promoting online content is vastly improved – the public have voted to keep us in!
That said, our feet remain firmly planted on the ground. Earlier this year we met another blogger who registers up to 70,000 visitors per month! Admittedly she’s been working hard at it for 8 years, but it’s a good reality check for us – we’re making ripples, not waves. Don’t get carried away!
Gary Arndt told me it took five years before his blog established the following that turned it into a successful marketing platform. So we know there are plenty more nightshifts ahead of us. But it’s been a terrific experience so far.
We Remember The VHS Days!
Photo-blogging makes you more appreciative of the detail in everyday life. It’s an education. We’ve connected with amazing people all around the world, established professional links and made some wonderful new friendships.
Our travel adventures have convinced us that local stories told by local people are of enormous value to anyone with a genuine interest in a place.
Sharon and I have been promoting St Helena through our various ventures for the last 20 years and it’s been an amazing journey. We’ve worked through the changing media formats, from the days of 35mm film and 8mm video through to newspaper, radio, and hi-res digital photography.
Blogging is just the latest challenge. Demanding but exciting and fun.
Already 2017 looms large and we’re getting a nervous twitch about numbers. The beast now eats more.
What will the Saints do next?
Funny thing – a lot of the time we have no idea what post we’ll do next! The best stories seem to pop up out of nowhere. Like the Embraer trial flight story, with that incredibly positive interview. Or the cruising nomads on yacht Totem, seeking us out after they arrived in James Bay. And then that freak thunder and lightning storm in November, first time in 35 years! Who would have predicted that?
I guess we’ll just pick up the camera each day and see what happens!
Hope you can join us.