Five links on Friday – 16 September 2016

The best time to start blogging is now.

The Flickr Curve.

Something I discovered pretty early on in managing social media is that the lifecycle of most social media channels follow the Flickr curve. There is the same shape to search volume on Google over time: 3 years of growth followed by slow decline.

Even successful ones, like Facebook

They do so for different reasons. Flickr boomed and died, Facebook boomed and then moved into an app. Nobody is googling for the Facebook login page any more because they’re always already logged in on their phone (and every other device). With the benefit of hindsight, search behaviour for any social network looks cyclical. At the time, you have no idea where on the curve any social network is.

There’s weirdo outliers like tumblr. You should buy tumblr and work out why.

Blogging has followed a similar trend with an imaginary golden age from 2004 to 2007 followed by a slow decline.

Visits from Google once mattered for blogs and now it’s much harder to reach those people who no longer search for blogging as a genre. The search engine has recently announced that it prefers to show restaurant reviews from “reputable publishers” rather than from smaller fry which is as good as a death knell for small review blogs.

Blogging (and especially food and travel blogging) has returned to the state where it is as unpopular as it once was when I started a decade ago for three reasons and it’s both amazing and kind of shit.


As the mainstream food and travel media has collapsed in on itself, the mainstream blogging that has replaced it is as tone-deaf as before. Half the fun of my early days of blogging in Cambodia was taking the piss out of travel journalists parachuting in for the weekend, who filed the same food story about spiders and then retreated to cooler climes. Now journalists can no longer afford a parachute and land on the ground in a fine pink mist, the food and travel bloggers that have filled the airspace are more amoral than simply misunderstanding the cultures they cover.

Whether it’s video-blogging on behalf of the North Korean government or the Thai military junta, we’re left with as Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson puts it

…content creators so determined to deliver an upbeat, brand-friendly message that the uncomfortable truths of the world—personal and political—go mind-bogglingly, witlessly ignored.

This is where we were a decade ago.

Nobody is going to make any money

In the medium- to long term, there’s only three ways to make decent money out of writing your own blog posts without using it to bring in links to some other business.

These are:

  1. Gather a team with an obsessive focus on a single vertical (e.g. Skift, Digiday, Food52, Lucky Peach) and build something that looks literally nothing like personal blogging.
  2. Con other bloggers to work for you for free (e.g. Huffington Post, Medium, tumblr).
  3. Con other bloggers into believing that they too can make money with their blogs and then sell them ebooks/courses/nomadic lifestyle.

If you get in now and aren’t prepared to do any of those things, it’s for the love of the game and not to make any form of remuneration. Around ten years ago there was no real expectation that any money could be made from it until people started posting $100,000 cheques from Google, and then expectations began to change. There’s a chance that blogging will never again be profitable which leaves the field open to the committed amateur.

The end of the blog influencer market

Even though I’m a firm believer that influencer marketing does next to nothing for most food and travel businesses, the last five years has seen a change in the way that businesses measure the initial value of influencers. Now, businesses look at their social media following first and not their written work on their own sites which ends the market for blog influence.

If you’re the sort of person who wants to be Instagram-famous and wallow in the spoils that come with that fame then you’re no longer likely to be evaluated by your blog, because you don’t have one. This has the positive effect on blogging in that it keeps image-obsessed wankers away from writing more witless listicles and instead focussed on which VSCO filter to use. It’s like watching the shallow end of the pool recede in favour of the depths.

Early on, bloggers never expected to be influential because there was a fair expectation that nobody would read your blog. Most of the time, nobody did. Now they’re no longer seen as influential because businesses have picked a different arbitrary and pointless metric to value online work.

The conditions of the early-2000s are back. Nobody looks for blogs actively. There’s a mounting ressentiment with the state of food and travel media. There is zero chance that bloggers will earn any money or wield any degree of influence.

I used to tell people that the best time to start a blog was ten years ago when the conditions were identical. I’m beginning to think the best time to start is now.

What if influencer marketing does nothing?

The Yelp Elite Party Kiss of Death

In Melbourne, online review platform Yelp holds parties to reward their elite users, freebies where their high performing members get to sample the wares of Melbourne’s restaurants. Yelp’s elite are their best users who are handpicked for the frequency and quality of their online reviews, Yelp’s unpaid labour that earns each elite member some degree of influence.

The parties are replicated by Yelp the world over and for businesses have the same basic premise: that having these influencers in your business will improve the business’s prospects on Yelp. There’s good data to suggest that in other markets, a change in average Yelp scores has a causal effect on the profits of a business, so in theory, it should work well for restaurants.

In Melbourne, it marks a restaurant for death.

Senoritas, Joe’s Cafe, Virginia Plain, Orto Kitchen and Garden all closed post their Yelp parties. Happy Palace changed from offering an “ironic”/racist take on Chinese food to a paint-by-numbers burger bar. I’d hardly say that the Yelp parties are causing the closures and the correlation may have to do with a restauranteur having reached a point where they’re willing to try anything to market their business. The problem is that they’re not changing the status quo nor giving restaurants a boost that ensures their long-term viability. The failure rate is probably close to industry average which would mean the long term impact of this form of influencer marketing on a restaurant is zero.

Influencer marketing for food and travel either does nothing or its impact is so marginal that almost any other form of marketing is vastly superior.

The best travel bloggers money can buy

Over the last four years, I was social media manager at a destination marketing organisation, Tourism Victoria. I was the person that upon whom every travel blogger pitch would eventually land. As a social media manager, every travel blogger that you see is up for sale. About a year in, based on a huge body of research and a few campaign successes, I decided not to support any influencer marketing at all. No more freebies from my pocket, and as much as I could, discouraging it from everyone else in the whole state.

Over that four year period, international arrivals grew by 7.8%, outpacing the Australian national average of 4.3%. Domestically, it was a similar story. It’s unlikely that the decision not to do influencer marketing caused this but it certainly didn’t hurt. It also meant that I could focus on things that had more easily measurable results.

There was an inevitable backlash from bloggers. I particularly like this post from Caz and Craig Makepeace, who after I refused to bankroll their family holiday to Wilsons Promontory complain that:

But why haven’t I, or almost everyone else I’ve spoken to from NSW and other states out of Victoria, been there or heard of it?

For one, Tourism Victoria does a crap job at promoting their state. That’s evidenced by the fact that we only planned on being in Victoria for one month because we thought the state would be boring besides Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road, and possibly Phillip Island.

Tourism Victoria were doing such a crap job that where they were planning on staying in Wilsons Promontory was fully booked when they arrived.

We were super-annoyed that we didn’t plan better and book ahead for accommodation. We just turned up expecting to get a camp site and pitch our tent.

But with Wilsons Prom being popular with Victorians we had no chance of getting a powered tent site.

I’ve paid attention to what other destination marketing organisations are doing. Room 753 in Queensland; where influencers were invited for a customised, all-expenses paid visit to the Gold Coast. They held the world’s biggest Instameet with a reach of 22 million which would be the equivalent of 10% of Instagram if it was reach to unique users. The Human Brochure campaign in ACT which invited hundreds of influencers to experience Canberra and frankly, I thought was a great campaign from a state with a small budget willing to back a big idea. At the other end of the scale is Thailand’s BFF mega famil, where 900 journalists, bloggers and travel industry types got the best international junket that a military dictatorship could buy.

It hasn’t shifted the underlying problems anywhere whether they be dated tourism infrastructure and experience, the underlying wrong perception that a destination is boring school excursion territory or beachside murders during the first military coup that looks to have worn off the teflon. I can’t find any destination that has shown a measurable improvement over the past 5 years as a result of giving away free travel to anybody with an above average social following.

Both ACT and Queensland have lagged behind the other Australian states for tourist arrivals and expenditure. The states that are more heavily invested in influencer marketing are going backwards roughly proportional to what they’re spending on it.

What if they all picked the wrong influencers?

In social media, there are no right influencers, insofar as somebody’s past performance is not predictive of their future performance and the most cost effective strategy is to target a massive number of average- or below average influencers(pdf) rather than cherrypicking from the top. This looks more like traditional mass marketing than influencer marketing.

But we got a lot of Likes

This is the end slide of every case study in social media influence in the travel industry. A number in the millions followed by a measure unique to a social media platform and a giant blue thumbs up. A reach the size of a medium sized nation-state. It’s rare to see a solid measure of effectiveness like sales, arrivals or even something vague but measurable like brand awareness or sentiment. It is straightforward to measure this with independent pre- and post-trip surveys of an influencer’s audience and thanks to Facebook and Twitter, it is cheap to target those audiences with a survey. But virtually nobody does.

Influencer marketing is a grand distraction for the tourism industry but at least it is one that seems mostly confined to industries that don’t traditionally hire people who study maths. There’s a reason that you don’t see many finance bloggers getting a free home loan. It is probably illegal.

How influential are Australian food bloggers?

Apart from that mythical beast return on investment, the hottest topic in social media measurement is influence. Does anything that happens on a blog or in Facebook or in 140 characters or less drive people to change their behaviour?

I’m banking my current career on it – so I have a small vested interest in saying that it does. While it is easy to make the argument that the totality of social media consumption causes behaviour changes if only due to the volume in which it is consumed, it is currently impossible to judge the influence of any single tweet or blog post with accuracy. There are a few tools out there that claim to be able to do this but they’re extremely easy to game.

Just to separate out food blogs, at a rough guess, there are less than 30,000 people in Australia who actively read a food blog. By actively read, I mean read the homepages and news feeds, revisit a blog at least once a month – rather than visit them as the result of a Google search. Around a thousand of these people are the food bloggers themselves. There are a small handful of Australian blogs with more than 30,000 Australian readers but those visits are certainly not all active readers.

30,000 is just my educated guess: I came to that number by pouring every blog in my list of Australian food blogs into Google Ad Planner, which lets you see an estimate of the traffic to most websites on earth, and looking at the reach figures that were spat out the other side. Ad planner is not accurate: it tends not to measure blogs with less than 15,000 unique visitors a month, which is almost every Australian food blog.

Active readers are important because they’re the people most likely to be influenced (to some degree) by everything that a blogger writes. Everyone else does not see everything. This is of the utmost importance if you happen to be in public relations and prone to throwing out freebies to bloggers. If the blogger does not have an active readership, you may as well give your free meal ticket to a dog because even if the blogger in question writes a ten thousand word dissertation on the power of awesome contained in your generic stock cubes, if their post doesn’t rank in Google then nobody will read it.

Almost 80% of my readers come via search, thanks to me ranking well for a few very generic words in Google. It’s not to say that they’re a worthless audience (and if I started running ads again, I can use them to take cash from indiscriminate and international advertisers) but they are an audience that is very unlikely to convert into an active reader. They arrive, service whatever question that they need to answer or laugh at some of my deep-fried stupidity, then bounce off into the wider Internet. Traffic from restaurant aggregator Urbanspoon or Tastespotting behaves in a similar fashion: a once-off visit that makes the most cursory scan of the photos and then leaves.

Most often the question that the Urbanspoon/restaurant searcher is looking to answer is “What is the restaurant’s phone number or address?” because restaurants tend to have appalling websites where this vital information is not readily apparent. I AB tested this on my Dosa Hut post after getting a number of phone calls to my personal mobile phone asking for Indian street food.

Put the address at the top of the page instead of the bottom and average time spent on that page drops by around 30 seconds. In either case, none of these visitors have ever returned to my blog and read another post. A handful returned to the Dosa Hut post, possibly to get the phone number again. It would only be possible for me to influence these people’s behaviour if I had something extremely negative to say about Dosa Hut. At the point that they’re visiting my website, they have already decided to contact the restaurant. It’s altogether possible that they have already been there.

Influence in blogging relies on attracting an audience who is in a state of mind to be influenced, not one that is looking for confirmatory advice or whose intent is already set. It’s not to say that influencing that thirty thousand is not important as they’re the people who influence others food choices, have higher incomes and spend more than your average person on eating out. It does however suggest that Australian food blogs are a bad fit as a vehicle for most mass market food products.