As our blog has changed from a hobby to an online business, we’ve started to feel like we’re held more accountable for what we write. People actually read this blog now, and we actually do have some influence on travellers and the places we visit. No, we’re not Lonely Planet, we don’t have millions of followers, we’re not famous and we don’t have the most popular travel blog online, but even a few people can sway the majority when word of mouth starts to spread.
You may have noticed that we have some “reviews”, “accommodation spotlights” and “promotional tours” on Goats On The Road. This relatively new aspect of the business comes with its own challenges.
How it Works:
These types of partnerships are usually referred to as blog sponsorships and they basically go like this: companies offer bloggers free accommodation, tours, gadgets, gear, flights etc. and in exchange, we write an article about our experiences and share it with our readers and social media followers.
A few months ago, we were at a restaurant with a couple of travellers who had contacted us through our blog. Shortly after sitting down, we started talking about their travels and about our blogging life and we were delighted to be talking to people who were genuinely interested in our situation. But then one of them asked us something:
“If you’re getting tours and hotels for free, how can your opinions be unbiased”
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that this idea had come into our heads, but it reminded us of how important it is to be honest to our readers, despite any free services or products offered. The traveller was absolutely right and I think it’s a huge issue for people who look for honest information from travel blogs (as opposed to the increasingly income-driven opinions of guide books and travel magazines).
The way we do things is that when we come to an agreement with a company that is wishing to sponsor us, we tell them outright that all thoughts and opinions will remain our own. We also write that at the bottom of the articles and in the videos that we make in exchange for the services.
That’s not just something we say. We literally stick to it. If we go on a tour, or stay in a hotel, or try out a travel product and it absolutely sucks, we’ll say so. We’re not out to slander companies that have offered us free services, but if the hotel is awful, or the tour was overpriced for what was offered, we’ll speak to the company about the issues we had in the hopes that they will rectify the problems. However, we’ll still publish the article listing the cons.
You’ll notice in nearly all articles about our sponsored experiences we have a pros and a cons section. This helps us to fairly convey some ups and downs of each tour, transportation or hotel we are reviewing/promoting. If there are no cons, we search for them harder and very seldom (especially in hotels) do we write an article without giving some impartial downsides.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect method. In the ideal, honest business partnership, we’d have enough money to pay for all of these cool hotels and trips and we’d just write about them and not have the added pressure of pleasing the company who took us in for free. But as travel bloggers, part of the way that we’re able to share such great experiences with readers, is that they are comped in exchange for the online exposure that we are able to offer.
I think, as bloggers, we have a huge responsibility to readers. We need to be honest about the places we visit, the gadgets we use and the companies that we partner with… no matter how much those companies pay us (or give us).
We also need to be very careful what we write about countries and destinations as a whole. Dariece and I frequently travel to some of the least visited regions on Earth and we always express how safe and amazing they are, but even in positive press we need to be mindful. We must ensure that we’re not leading travellers into a war zone or giving them false assumptions about places that they visit based on our descriptions.
Note: Travel blogs are inherently flawed as a resource for travel safety during political unrest. Old posts are left and forgotten and therefore may be out of date. ALWAYS check the current situation before planning a trip.
In the same way, we are very careful about any negative comments we make about destinations. Making brash, broad statements like “the people in Morocco are not nice”, is not constructive or accurate. We personally had some bad experiences with the people there and we were careful to express that in a responsible and unbiased way.
“The people can be coarse, rude, and even aggressive. But they can also be nice, generous, and hospitable.”
Goats On The Road – 2012
If bloggers visit a destination on a tour, we shouldn’t portray it as the only way to see the country. Perhaps independent travel is still possible. We should research all aspects of travel in that region and report on it accordingly.
Are we promoting good or evil?
Another aspect of our growing responsibility in the travel industry is eco-friendly and sustainable tourism promotion. At a recent TBEX conference in Cancun, bloggers were criticized for promoting dolphin rides. This is, of course, not an eco-friendly activity and by writing about it, we are endorsing and advocating the mis-treatment of these animals (albeit this is a subjective assessment of their living conditions).
We had a similar response from a reader when we wrote that petting tigers was a highlight of Thailand. We wrote the article back in 2012 (and experienced it in 2009), but recent media coverage has revealed that the tigers are often victims of animal trafficking, physical abuse and sedation. We have since removed this paragraph from our guides, but it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
There’s a lot of pressure on bloggers to help travellers out!
These days, travel bloggers are in heaven. There are literally thousands of companies around the world, from small start-ups to industry-leading giants, all trying to utilize the relatively new-found power of blogs. This means that bloggers are making better connections and thus, more money than ever before… but we all need to be judicious in our approach.
Luckily, most bloggers take their responsibilities very seriously and some even turn down money all together to avoid their opinions being swayed by financial gain. (Hats off to them)
Before we started this blog, we were increasingly looking to blogs for useful information to help us on our travels. Our guidebooks were starting to spend more time zipped in our bags, and our research was slowly moving online.
Now that we have a travel blog of our own, we know that it’s important to honour that tradition of good, honest content no matter how much money is in it for us. We feel that the motives in guidebooks and travel magazines are becoming increasingly corporate and travel blogs offer some of the only reliable independent content that can be found these days.
These days consumers are being bombarded with shameless advertising everywhere we go. We can’t even watch our favourite TV show without having the contestants of Top Chef say: “Wow, I really love the easy-to-use GPS system in this new 2015 Toyota Corolla!”
Companies with huge budgets can pay big bucks for promotions.
Worst yet, it’s in our movies. We recently had to turn off the movie Sex Tape with Cameran Diaz and Jason Segel because of the blatant, Apple brand product pushing throughout the entire film. At one point, one character drops an iPad from the window and when Jason Segel’s character picks it up he says: “Wow! I can’t believe the construction of these things!”
As people who don’t appreciate this type of subliminal brand promotion, we surely don’t ever want to have our blog come across that way.
We do our best not to force-feed tours and services down our readers throats. We just offer ideas that they may enjoy when they’re travelling, like: “Hey, we stayed in this awesome hotel, if you’re in the area… check it out!” Sometimes, we work with brands to help them promote online. We only work with them if we think that they provide a service or product that our readers might be interested in. These articles usually just have a quick mention in the middle of one of our story articles, or Top 10 lists – pretty passive I’d say. This type of advertising has a very small impact on our blog, but aside from freelance writing, it’s a good source of income and helps to keep us on the road, and to keep this blog running.
We also have some banner ads to help pay the bills, some affiliate partners who we’ve used and are happy to endorse, but outside of that we really don’t try to push anything on people who come to this site.
We’re very happy that the travel blogging industry has made it to where it is today and that large companies are finally starting to find the value in our content, but we are also aware of our responsibilities as providers of useful information.
It’s similar to the responsibilities that reporters have when the cover a topic. They should be honest and do their best to convey every side of the story. We, as travel bloggers, all need to be careful about what we write and how we portray destinations, activities, hotels, events and products.
When we write “All thoughts and opinions remain our own” at the bottom of our articles, we should all stick to those words.
Our readers and the future of the travel blogging industry depend on it.