Michael Turtle is the man behind Time Travel Turtle, a blog about his personal travel stories and travel advice. Read how he has been able to scale it to $5,000/mo.
Revenue of $5,000/mo
Email list size of 2,600
Founded in 2011
Hello! What’s your background, and what is your blog about?
Hi! I’m Michael Turtle and I run the travel blog Time Travel Turtle. I started writing it about six years ago and before that I was a radio and television journalist in Australia.
Time Travel Turtle is a collection of my travel stories and advice. In some ways it is a relatively typical travel blog, in that I only write about destinations I have been to, and I offer a mix of narrative, tips and commentary. But I have also tried to take a less common approach and inject some of my journalistic skills.
I have to confess that I never started Time Travel Turtle with a plan to make it my full-time business (which it now is). That means that I have not had a consistent business model and am still trying to get the exact formula right.
But at the moment, I earn at least $5000 a month on average from a mixture of advertising, affiliates, content campaigns, brand partnerships and a few other small miscellaneous things.
What motivated you to get started with the blog?
As I mentioned, I had been working as a journalist (and producer) in Australia for the country’s top media organisations. My career was going very well and I was nicely remunerated. However, I felt like I didn’t have enough control of my life and I wasn’t doing the things I really wanted to.
I was in a comfortable financial position and had no commitments so I decided to head off into the world with the plan to travel indefinitely. I had no fixed itinerary and just went where I wanted when I wanted. I felt like a huge weight had come off my shoulders and I was free of stress.
Of course, in the back of my mind I knew that this wouldn’t be able to last forever, which is why I started the blog right from the start. I wanted to begin building something that I was proud of and that would allow me to continue telling stories – the thing I enjoyed most about being a journalist.
I didn’t know exactly where it would lead… and I actually assumed it would just be a portfolio for freelance work. But when magazines rejected stories that I pitched to them that I thought were great, I would publish them on my blog instead. A lot of them would then get a great response and go viral… and suddenly I realised that perhaps my blog had more potential than I had initially thought!
What is the revenue model for the blog?
The revenue model for my blog has been constantly evolving and I am still not at a point where I am completely happy with the level or the sources – and I’ll explain shortly what I mean by that.
For the past few years, my main source of income has been working with the tourism boards of destinations on campaigns, where I produce a certain level and style of content in return for a fee. This does not mean I have to write positive or ‘advertorial’ style content – it just means that I normally work within their marketing theme at the time and guarantee a minimum number of blog posts, social media, video, online chats, etc.
These campaigns tend to be seasonal because the trips have to occur at appropriate times of year, and I rarely know at the beginning of the year where I will be going and how many I will have. However, I have earned about $30,000 a year from campaigns for the past few years.
The good thing about this revenue source is that I get to see new destinations and have interesting experiences as part of the work. But the downside is that it can be very tiring, leaves no time during the trips to do any other kind of business development, doesn’t always focus on the content I would be choosing to create, and is an irregular income source.
At the moment, I also earn about $1000 a month from advertising and about $1000 a month from affiliate marketing. Both of these have a lot of potential for growth with my site – particularly affiliates. It is not something I even experimented with until the last couple of years and so a lot of my content doesn’t even have affiliate links in it.
One of the longer-term strategies I am trying to implement is to go back and optimize old content and add affiliates.
If I could go back in time and give myself any advice when I was starting out, it would be to focus more on some of the passive income streams and build up a solid base that made the most of them.
What are some strategies you have used for building up the traffic?
I see so many people in the blogging world talk about the ‘tricks’ to get more traffic. They talk about SEO, Pinterest, social media advertising, link-building… so on. However, when I started, I didn’t know about any of that – and I think that’s what helped me get ahead of most of the other who were starting around the same time as me.
When I began writing the blog, I took a different approach to most other travel bloggers and gave it a journalistic feel – interviewing people, writing about the history and trying to give some analysis or context to the destinations I was writing about. It wasn’t just a diary or a series of badly-written opinions. It was a collection of well-written travelogues that took you to a new destination, informed and entertained, and inspired.
Now… the truth is that a lot has changed in the six years since I started and I don’t think the longer-form narrative posts that I do are as popular as they once were. The style these days is for shorter, social-media friendly content. I am constantly evolving with my styles of story-telling but the principle is the same.
Don’t do what everyone else is doing, because the audience for that has already been taken. Find new things to create content about, find new ways to tell those stories, be unique and try to stand out – and then all the traffic-building techniques will happen automatically.
Where I have made mistakes over the years is not to have a broader long-term strategy. I didn’t have an email list until a couple of years ago and I had no plan for capturing first-time visitors and giving them good reasons for coming back (other than continuing to produce good new content).
However, probably mainly by luck, I have found that visitors who have found me through SEO or by my content being shared on social media (and sites like Reddit and Buzzfeed) have become regular readers. I like to think that’s because I have a clear offering – interesting travel stories that go beyond the obvious – and they want to find more.
It’s one of the reasons why I think the travel blogs who try to chase the obvious traffic such as “x number of things to do in x capital city” don’t ever reach the success they want… because they aren’t offering anything new or interesting.
How have you grown the email list?
My email list is only about 2,600 people and it’s one of the areas of blog marketing that I have neglected for far too long and would like to improve this year when I get some time. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t even have an email list until a few years ago and I have made no real effort to gather new subscribers.
I send out only a few emails a year and there is no consistency to the style. It’s probably no surprise that I get quite a few people unsubscribing when they do get something in their inbox from me – it must be quite a surprise!
How do you write great content that performs well?
A lot of the techniques I use to write my content are things that I learned when I was working as a journalist. And the most successful techniques are the big picture ones that shape the whole direction of a story right from the start.
The first thing that I think is really important is to know who you are writing for. You would use a different style of language, a different tone, and different information for different people. I always try to think of an individual person who I am telling a story to – whether it’s someone I actually know or a character I have invented.
Sometimes I even give them a name. As I write, I will ask myself whether this person would be interested in what I’m telling them, what else they might want to know, whether they would think that some of my phrasing is a bit stupid… and so on.
The second thing that’s important is to have a clear message for the story. Your reader doesn’t necessarily have to know what that is right from the start (although, most of the time, that’s best) – but you, as the writer, should always know. What are you trying to say and do with your post?
Some of the examples that I would use for my blog are: “I’m trying to explain in an entertaining way why this historic site is so important” or ‘I’m trying to give independent travellers some practical advice on how to spend a weekend in this city” or just “I’m trying to tell a funny story that will readers will want to share”. Too often I read posts from other bloggers where there is no point and the writing just meanders and it’s very unsatisfying.
My third point is all about the introduction. When I was working in television, I would often spend as much time on the beginning of a story as I would the other 90 per cent of it. And that’s because you only have a very short period of time to grab people’s attention (this is much truer in the digital media landscape than in television or radio). So I think it’s really important to come up with an opening paragraph that really draws people in and wants them to learn more. The same applies to the text you use to promote your post on social media.
And the final point I will make (although I could go on forever about this topic) is about the structure of a story. Content will always be easier to read when there’s a natural flow to it and one subtopic leads on to a next.
A good way to approach this is to create a series of subheadings before you start writing (most of which you’ll probably delete when it’s finished) and then fill in each section one by one. Make an overall statement at the start of each section that signposts where you’re going, then expand on that.
Ultimately, despite all of these tricks that I use, writing good content all comes down to one simple thing: Will the person who I want to read this actually want to read it? If you give yourself an honest answer to this and revise until that answer is ‘yes’, then the content will be great.
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?
The list of things that I would do differently only gets longer by the day unfortunately. And most of them all come back to the problem that there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything. (As an aside, I think it’s particularly hard for travel bloggers because we actually have to leave the computer for days or weeks at a time to gather content, meaning there is even less time to fit in everything related to business!)
To be specific, I wish I had focused more on my email list right from the start; that I had learned about SEO right from the start; that I had been proactive much earlier on social media networks like Instagram and Pinterest; and that I had been more ruthless in deciding where to prioritise my time.
In a more general sense, the other big thing that I would do differently is to have a more refined strategy about the destinations and topics that I was going to cover. I took the approach that I would just go where interested me and write about what I thought was interesting.
I enjoyed that personally (and so don’t regret any of it in that sense) and it certainly helped me bring in new readers (so I can’t complain about that) but it means I’m now not in a position to consolidate and become an expert on certain destinations or practical topics – which is where I think the future of blogging lies in the medium term.
I think quality content around a few niche topics that nobody else is already doing is where the huge success lies. The nice thing about that approach is that it may actually take less time and lead to bigger benefits.
But, then again, the fun thing about being a travel blogger is that even the unsuccessful choices from a business perspective have involved seeing the world – and that was the main point for me! 🙂
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Without a doubt, the most advantageous thing for me was making genuine relationships with other bloggers in my niche. This is not an industry where you can succeed without the help of other people and I am really proud of the way that I have been able to help other bloggers and they’ve been able to help me.'Think about where you want your blog to be in two years’ time and have your system set up to handle that.'Click To Tweet
Going to blogging conferences and other trade events that bloggers attend was the key to taking my site to the next level. The information sessions at conferences can be really useful and give you things to think about (even if you don’t agree with everything) and they are a great way to know which new things to try.
But the facetime with other bloggers is where the real benefits lie. Whether it’s a conversation that gives you an idea, a friendship that leads to a collaborative project, or an introduction that leads to a dream gig – so often it all starts over a drink in the evening at a conference.
I am actually quite dubious about a lot of the online courses that bloggers sell on how to be a successful blogger. It’s not that the teachers don’t know what they’re talking about or that the information is wrong – it’s that by teaching hundreds of people the same thing, these courses are not creating unique blogs and I think it’s had to succeed without some authentic uniqueness.
My preference is for Facebook groups where lots of different people can have their say on a topic and you can look for the ideas and suggestions that best fit your situation. There are a lot of clever people out there but it’s hard to be a master at every single topic. That’s why groups with lots of members are useful because there’s probably at least one person in there who knows what they’re talking about!
What’s your advice for bloggers who are just starting out?
I’ve discussed quite a few things already that I think new bloggers should consider – such as finding an original and authentic topic for the blog, having a very clear idea of who the audience is and what they want, and writing engaging content that people will want to come back for.
Although I have admitted to a lot of mistakes, like not paying enough attention to SEO or my email list or certain social media networks, the truth is that it’s impossible to do it all.
So my main advice would be to just focus on a few particular things and do them really well. And then gradually you can add other elements into the mix if you feel you need them. For instance, I wouldn’t be active on all social media accounts if I was starting again – I would just choose one or two and try to make them really successful.
The other point I would make is technical – and something I haven’t discussed yet. But I think it’s really important to be using self-hosted WordPress and to have a fast theme that has the ability to scale up. Think about where you want your blog to be in two years’ time and have your system set up to handle that.
I have had to spend a lot of time making individual changes in blog posts when I changed overall design elements because I didn’t set up things correctly the first time.
Where can we go to learn more?