Find out how Shannon O’Donnell, a wannabe actress turned a world-traveler. Shannon has been in the blogging world for more than decade, and there are a lot of golden nuggers in this interview.
Revenue of $2,000/mo
Email list size of 10,000
Founded in 2008
Hello! What’s your background, and what is your blog about?
Way back in 2006 I was a wannabe actress living in Los Angeles and working so that I could do auditions and afford to live in such an expensive city. After a couple of years, I decided to take my online job and work from the road. I set off to a round the world trip in 2008 and I started A Little Adrift that same year.
My blog, A Little Adrift, started as an amalgam of advice and narrative, and has largely stayed the same over the years, even if the quality of both has improved. My goal has always been to give other travelers the information and advice they need to travel the world, and to inspire them through stories and photography.
In more recent years, my blog and my brand focuses on responsible tourism and showing travelers how we can use travel use travel as a force for good. I have a sister site to A Little Adrift that is a more granular focus on that topic, Grassroots Volunteering, while my main blog is more about narrative and stories of why this type of travel is so important.
The combination of practical advice and personal stories has worked well over the years and my sites—while not the most highly trafficked by any means—have gained traction and allowed me to further a broad range of goals even outside of blogging: speaking, books, and tourism development consulting work.
What motivated you to get started with the blog?
When I started my blog in 2008, I was among the first wave of travel bloggers and there just wasn’t much information out there for people planning this type of long-term travel. And for those working on the road? Hah! The world “digital nomad” didn’t exist yet. The handful of other travel bloggers shared “dear mom” type entries about their trips, not advice about if I would have internet in India (it was touch and go) and what it was like as a solo female traveler.
My blog was a way for me to document everything I learned and share it for those who came after. It was seemingly simple things that really motivated me to launch A Little Adrift—I couldn’t find a single packing list for long-term travel. Not a single one existed outside of fragmented advice in travel forums. And as I figured out how to file my taxes, replace lost debit cards, and really just live on the road, I developed the type of resources for world travelers that I wished had existed in 2008.
Along the way, I will confess that my online work certainly helped me grow A Little Adrift in those early years. I worked remotely in online marketing and SEO at the time (and for the first four years of my travels), which gave me a leg up since all of those “how to build your blog” websites also didn’t really exist in 2008. 🙂
I was in a unique position with my website (and am still to an extent) in that I never needed it to make money. I have never treated it like a full-time business and I absolutely benefited from having an early mover advantage—there is no way that my blog would have stood out if I launched today and put in a similar amount of effort. It takes a lot more work to make a successful blog now.
What is the revenue model for the blog?
My site has never offered advertising or sponsored content, so the only way it’s directly monetized is through affiliate marketing, and even that is done with a pretty light touch. I am ruthlessly committed to only reviewing and/or linking to things that I actually use.
Affiliate links became a way to monetize content that I had already generated. Since I had a packing list on my site, I swapped out those same links to Amazon ones. Likewise, I reviewed my travel insurance in the early days and then joined the World Nomads affiliate program to earn a small commission from my recommendation.'My site has never offered advertising or sponsored content, so the only way it’s directly monetized is through affiliate marketing, and even that is done with a pretty light touch.'Click To Tweet
I would say this swapping of links happened likely about four years after I started the website, but I’m not entirely sure. I think I started making over the USD $1,000 mark in 2015, and it wasn’t because of anything I had done special—a Google algorithm change helped my site and boosted a couple of key pages to the top of the search results, and that boost still accounts for most of income.
For personal reasons, I virtually stopped blogging from mid-2014 until just this year, updating the site just a handful of times during that time. Right now I average $2,000 a month, but I don’t think that accounts for the hosting costs and such—that’s probably not pure income.
So, in addition to the small revenue opportunities on my site, I always wanted my blog to showcase my work and position me within the space so that I could generate offline opportunities. I currently make money from consulting and speaking, all of which come from the reputation I’ve gained through website (and getting National Geographic Traveler of the Year in 2013 didn’t hurt).
I would say that I make perhaps $25,000 average from that. And then I write about travel for some outlets and likely earn that same amount, $25,000. I also still keep one foot in the online marketing world and have an employee working in an entirely non-travel field, and so that earns me some income, too.
I call myself the reluctant entrepreneur because I am fairly terrible at all of it. I don’t run the website like a business, and that has been a downfall of making the site into more. I love the sustainable tourism development consulting that I do now, and that’s taken my focus, but I could surely make A Little Adrift earn more passive income if I started running it more regularly.
Instead, I am writing another book and sort of letting the website’s existing extensive resources and stories keep it chugging along. So my advice for others is to treat it like a business if you want to earn more, but also don’t discount the value in creating an offline brand and reputation—this is where I make most of my money and it’s something that no Google or Facebook algorithm change can take from me.
What are some strategies you have used for building up the traffic?
Oh man, this is tough because I already admitted to my early-mover advantage. When Is started, the travel blogging community commented on each others’ blogs and we all hung out on this newfangled thing called Twitter and it was grand fun—we grew our sites with the growth of social media. That’s how I did it, I was on social media when others weren’t yet on there, and those who came later followed.
In addition, I do SEO for a living so I have ruthlessly ensure that I follow the best SEO practices for years. It’s the one area that I treated with business-like focus—always maintain good SEO practices, keywords, titles, and a clean site. I may not have been building traffic for a business, but I knew that doing a little bit every day on every post would help my website in the long run.
I have no marketing efforts. I write and share things I love. Some people find that content, some people jibe with the message, and my community continues to grow. This works because it’s the only part I still love after nearly ten years of blogging—I get to help inspire people to travel better. It’s what keeps me motivated to run the site and if you’re not authentically presenting something you’re passionate about, I think people will know that. You’ll lose steam, but even more, you won’t inspire people to join your community.
How have you grown the email list?
My newsletter service costs too much money so I regularly dump people from my email lists to stay below 10,000 subscribers. If it creeps too high, I go in and delete anyone who didn’t open the last missive. That’s terrible business practices, particularly in a world where everyone wants a bigger list, but what they don’t tell you is that it’s a LOT of money to store those email addresses!
That said, email is the single best way to communicate with your audience. It’s the only place where the internet gods—Google, Facebook, Instagram Twitter—can’t mess with the algorithm and make you pay to reach your audience. It’s for this reason that I still keep the email list and pay every month. The people on that list (which, incidentally has a high open rate since I prune it so much), are my tribe and when I come up with new projects (like the book I am writing about travel as a force for good), they will support me.
How do you write great content that performs well?
I write useful content that is more in-depth than anything else out there. I see bloggers writing flimsy travel guides to cities and wondering why they don’t get more traffic, and the answer is quality. I may not have the most readers (about 66K pageviews per month), but those who stick around know that I am going to answer their every question and really help them solve their travel dilemma. I wrote a post in 2009 that has had millions of readers and it performs SO well in search because it’s good… even more, it’s great.
My post about round the world travel costs is thorough, full of resources, and useful. It’s bookmark worthy. Same thing with my Cost of Living Guides for digital nomads and my guides for responsible travelers—these are resources made for people to use. They are not just an SEO play, they are pieces of content that I thought needed to exist in the world so people could travel better.
If you don’t have pieces like that on your site, then you probably don’t deserve the traffic you crave. There’s a lot of information online, your job is to present a unique view and be helpful. People go to Google with a question, and if you don’t have a really great answer, one that is worthy of ranking first, then you know why you’re not getting traffic.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome with your blog? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
Staying motivated to continue in a crowded market is difficult. There are so many travel bloggers now that I can’t even name most of them. I used to know every single one and called them my friend. It’s harder now that the community is huge to feel like you are a part of it, and to not compare with others.
I dropped out of the industry for a few years mostly because of the seismic shifts travel blogging experienced—it was no longer fun, it was something everyone was doing for money. I don’t run my site for that purpose and I don’t want too, so I had to step away and regain the perspective on why I run my site when there is clearly no longer a need for something as mundane as a packing list.
I’ve regained that perspective now, but it’s hard to stay motivated in a crowded space, so my advice for new bloggers is to find your community and rise with them. Lean on those bloggers for support, and make them more than just another chance to network, and instead make them your friends—it’s the only way I’ve seen people survive long-term, is when they have a community around them to weather the ups and downs of our changing industry.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I consider it an advantage that I have never gone the route of sponsored posts and such, although I don’t fault those who have. But as I look for partnerships with for my new book, I have a blank slate of opportunities and no past conflicts of interest to consider.
I also regularly speak at colleges and high schools, so the tone and decisions I have made on my site have also allowed me to create a brand that can easily fit in the offline world and mesh well with the type of work I enjoy (my last project was with USAID, so it’s nice that I have an online persona that makes me a candidate for that type of work).
Some bloggers are so focused on making money that they forget the offline world and the standards other companies need. If you curse and are brash and overly opinionated online, it might help your pageviews but limit your future work. That may not matter to many, but offline branding and sponsorships have always been my goal, so I am glad that I played it safe and PC online.
What’s your advice for bloggers who are just starting out?
As I said, find your community! Make friends, and more than anything make it a business if you want to make money. I benefited from being one of the first, which is the only reason I can get away with running my site this way—if your goal is making money, you’ll need to innovate and connect and find your authentic and unique voice that deserves to stand out in a very, very crowded industry.
Where can we go to learn more?