Tony Eitnier and Thomas Arnold of Contemporary Nomad on Travel Blogging
Tony Eitnier and Thomas Arnold, authors of the Contemporary Nomad travel blog, are two of the most adventurous travel bloggers around. Eitnier, a former language and communications trainer, and Arnold, a former chemist, are drawn to less-traveled destinations—like Sudan. Their travels have resulted in an impressive, if not slightly unsettling, list of experiences. During a twenty-day trek across Zanskar, India, they discovered a unique ice formation that garnered the attention of many scientists, in Mumbai they found themselves trapped in their hotel across the street from the Taj Mahal Hotel, the site of the infamous 2008 Mumbai gunman attack, and in the Andaman Islands they had a frightening encounter with a pack of unruly wild elephants.
The pair were in the southern Philippines when they answered these questions by email from Transitions Abroad columnist Matt Gibson about the evolution of their blog, making money online, and the place of blogging in the literary tradition.
Matt Gibson: You’ve been traveling and blogging for about three years. Did you start ContemporaryNomad.com with the intention of making money? Or did that occur to you later?
Contemporary Nomad: Yes, we started ContemporaryNomad.com with the intention of making it a business. Tony has worked in web publishing for years, so we had realistic expectations about web income and how long it takes to get a business going.
MG: What goals did you have when you first started ContemporaryNomad.com? Have they changed over time?
CN: Initially, we conceived of ContemporaryNomad.com as primarily a series of web pictorials on different regions. The blog portion of the site was meant to be secondary. We had spent a year studying income related to image indexing by Google and felt that pictorials would be the most profitable route. Unfortunately, Google made major changes to its photo indexing which forced us to change our initial concept. The site has actually become much more complex than we initially intended including a more elaborate blog, 360 views, YouTube videos etc.
MG: What is the single most effective strategy that a blogger can use to bring traffic to a blog?
CN: Good, consistent content is clearly the most important tool in bringing people in. Social networking is also vital. This networking is one area that has been extremely difficult for us as we are constantly moving and have limited access to the Internet.
MG: What single change to your website had the biggest affect on it?
CN: Our recent redesign got rave reviews from our visitors; however, the alterations we made to our pictorial design cut our income in half. We have maintained the changes because the new design has also improved content indexing by various search engines, so we hope these changes will eventually pay off in the long run.
MG: Social networking is a great tool for increasing blog traffic, but many people don’t know how to use it. Take me for example. I have just over 100 followers on Twitter. You have almost 8000. How on earth did you get so many?
CN: Social networking is valuable, but it still remains to be determined how valuable. Yes, we have almost 8000 Twitter followers, but I am not sure how much they really follow us. Twitter seems to have become the latest form of information overload. We got many of our followers by contacting other people in the travel industry or whoever expressed a deep interest in travel. I think we have a lot of spam followers as well. That one posting I mentioned on the ice formation in Zanskar probably brings in more people than Twitter. So in the end, I really think it's mostly about good, entertaining, unique content.
MG: In the course of writing this interview series on travel bloggers, I’ve looked at a lot of travel blogs. Yours has one of the best designs I’ve seen. How did you come up with it?
CN: Thanks for the compliment on our design. We just sat down and designed it ourselves. We are not professional graphic artists, so it was a challenge to come up with the graphics. Tony used to have a client who did corporate design, so he knew some basics. We wanted the look to have a contemporary edge to it, so we came up with the subtle black and white shading in the top header images. The most important thing we did is select a narrow width. Many Internet cafes in the developing world have older monitors and outdated browsers causing rendering problems with wider page layouts. Actually, I have noticed major technical difficulties with several of the most popular travel blogs. You can use CSS to a certain degree to control width, but older computers with outdated browsers often don't render modern CSS well either, so you still end up with problems. Travelers we meet on the road often see our page for the first time on older computers. We want the page to look good so they come back. Additionally, we spend huge amounts of time working in Internet cafes with less than perfect computers. If our page didn't display well in such conditions, maintaining the blog would be a nightmare.
MG: About how much, on average, does it cost you to spend a month on the road? Does your blog cover your expenses?
CN: So far, for the two of us, we have been spending between $900 and $1400 per month. Although we are budget travelers, we also splurge on better budget hotels and good food. After all, this isn't just a quick trip, we are on the road full time. Clearly, when we travel faster and move more, we tend to spend more. We are able to cover our travel costs and even save money; however, this income does not come exclusively from ContemporaryNomad.com. We manage another non-travel related website which contributes to our total income. In general, I think it is safe to say that travel blogging is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It is A LOT of work and writing and uploading content is time-consuming and expensive.
MG: Part of this article series focuses on the earning potential of travel blogs. Does your blog earn money? If so, may I ask for a ballpark figure to give our readers and idea of how much a successful travel blog can make?
CN: I think a lot of people interested in travel blogging hope to throw a blog up, travel for a year, and get rich. You won't. Web pages are real businesses and they take time to develop. You have to build your business, market your business, develop contacts and connections, learn ways to monetize your business, explore unique niches, etc. It's work. Overnight successes are few and far between. Our other website, which is an educational site, took seven years to grow and develop before it became a profitable business. ContemporaryNomad.com is well received and visitors are increasing each month as word spreads about our content. But the site is still in its infancy. Travel blogs take time to develop credibility. Anyone can travel for a year. At two years of travel, people start to notice you. After three years, you have started to gain a reputation for yourself. But even after three years our monthly income fluctuates wildly depending on advertising triggered by our current location as well as whether or not we get some sort of sponsorship. You become a travel blogger because you are passionate about traveling the world, not to make money. The money may come however if people start to notice that passion.
MG: What tools do you use to monetize your blog? Which works best for you?
CN: Right now, as we continue to develop and expand ContemporaryNomad.com, we are primarily using Google Adsense and occasionally sponsored links to monetize our blog. Both have their advantages. Adsense is clearly more consistent.
MG: What non-monetary benefits, professional or personal, do you get from blogging?
CN: There are many non-monetary benefits from running a blog. It's a great creative outlet for writers, photographers, artists, or anyone who has something to say. Moreover, you can develop a sense of community with visitors and like-minded bloggers. And most of all, it's just fun.
MG: Do you think that blog and blog posts follow the literary tradition as, say, short installments of a larger story? Or do you think that blogging as a medium has completely changed the way we write?
CN: Blogging relates to writing traditions such as serialized newspaper pieces and short story writing, but blogging is definitely an art form in its own right. Bloggers have the freedom to shift styles and points of view. One post can be in the first person, the next in the third person. You can play games with tense use that wouldn't be acceptable or sustainable in other forms of writing. All that creative freedom can be overwhelming at times. There is no real model for writing a blog post. We have had to learn by experience how to create postings and blog articles which attract visitors. One thing we have discovered is that our visitors like a combination of shorter and longer pieces. It's clear that we are living in a fast world and many Internet surfers want to be able to read something in a matter of seconds or, at most, minutes. However, slightly longer pieces, while not as popular with visitors, can help lend your site depth and establish your reputation with critics, fellow bloggers, online resources, etc.
MG: Do you think that blogging has improved your writing, your perception, your photography, or any other skill? If so, was creating the blog in part a conscious way to develop these skills?
CN: We have learned enormous amounts about graphic design, web design, traditional and 360 photography, writing, video production and online advertising as well as the travel industry itself. Learning these skills was very much part of our decision to start the blog. Beyond that, blogging causes us to focus more when we travel. Long-term travel comes with the serious danger of burn out, becoming jaded, or numbing to new experiences. Continually searching for new posting ideas causes us to examine our environment more closely. Writing allows us to reflect on our experiences and, on many occasions, the act of sitting down and writing a piece has caused us to completely change our opinions of what we have experienced.
MG: Do you think that the line between blogging and traditional writing will continue to be blurred such that journalism schools and even conventional educational institutions will become less important in the development and appreciation of travel writing?
CN: I hope professional training for journalism does not become less important or disappear. Professional standards and well-researched and well documented articles are a vital part of journalism. Blogging fills important niches, but most bloggers are not journalists and most bloggers do not have the time or resources to investigate something in the same way that major news organizations or media outlets do. In terms of travel writing, blogs are having an enormous impact. Travelers no longer accept the one to two year gap between researching a destination and publication. Moreover, many guidebooks are not investing as much on updating their information as they once were. We recently met a writer for a big name guide book series working on a Laos update. I was shocked to discover she was in Laos for less than a month and had not even done one trek during her stay. The more I questioned her, the more I realized I would not trust her recommendations.
MG: Does blogging make you want to read contemporary or even classical literature more or less? Is there a sense that living in the moment supersedes any study of traditional forms of writing?
CN: Blogging has definitely made us pay attention to writing and language use more than we did before. While reading now, we are constantly searching for stylistic influences, relevant vocabulary and unique forms of metaphor. Most importantly, we study how writers present complex information in a way which is digestible. We recently read "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer. We were tremendously impressed by how he was able to present the complex events surrounding the disastrous 1996 Everest climbing season. Structurally, the book is genius. The classics, on the other hand, are less influential than most might assume. (Although there are exceptions. Mark Twain's humor and quirky commentary on seemingly simple things have definitely influenced us.) However, many associate stilted vocabulary, overly complicated grammar, and extreme use of metaphor with "good writing." We don't. Clear, honestly written, heartfelt posts are our aim. We also like to include the rawer opinion and emotion that many travel writers try to eliminate in the name of "professional" writing. For us, living in the moment does not supersede traditional forms of writing, but we don't feel bound by tradition either.
MG: Is the old distinction between “tourist” and “traveler” completely moot at this point? Do you ever find yourself annoyed by the actions or behaviors of tourists?
CN: The distinction between tourist and traveler is definitely not moot. But travelers are a dying breed. This was a key theme on our recent trip through Southeast Asia, a region which has been seriously affected by bad tourist behaviors. From our standpoint, our biggest problem with tourists is that their bad behavior is making it harder for real travelers to travel. Cluelessness, lack of bargaining skills, and no comprehension of local economies is creating a dangerous two-tiered pricing system which is quickly making long-term travel more and more difficult. Ultimately, this will probably make long-term travel impossible for people who are not extremely wealthy.
MG: Do you consider yourself an outsider wherever you go no matter how long you stay and participate in the life and cultures about which you write? Is this reflected in your blog posts?
CN: In many countries, especially those in the developing world, integration is a virtual impossibility. This leaves many travelers feeling like outsiders. Interestingly, rather than race, religion, or cultural differences, the biggest obstacle is probably economic inequality. It is very difficult for people struggling to survive to relate to people from the developed world because our perceptions of normal life are so vastly different. People who work ten hours a day in a rice field are going to find it difficult relating to the abstract challenges of a lawyer or an event planner or, as with us, travel bloggers. Over time, we have developed tools which allow us to communicate well with a variety of peoples in the best possible way. We don't really expect to be fully integrated, our goal is to be treated like human beings rather than money bags. We have been surprisingly successful. In the developed world it is easier to integrate, but that usually requires years in a country. We have both spent the majority of our adult lives outside of our native countries and we have both had the opportunity to integrate into other cultures.
MG: Has blogging while traveling developed greater empathy for those you encounter, and in your own personality? Has it influenced your writing in terms of sensitivity to the people and lands you cover?
CN: Actually, if anything, I would say that blogging has made us more critical of the people we meet. Writing about different cultures makes you contemplate issues such as corruption, discrimination, pollution and oppression. We've gotten great responses from posts where we drop the political correctness and simply tell it like it is. Even simple, stupid online bitching can convey important messages. We got great feedback on a seemingly ranting post called "Urine Nation" talking about the pervasive urine stench in Indian cities. We don't view the people we visit to be fragile museum pieces. They are deserving of critique as well as praise — just like us.
MG: Are you concerned that blogging on a particular subject might potentially put someone at risk or danger politically, and has this ever happened to you inadvertently?
CN: Yes, we are very concerned that blogging might put the people we meet at risk. This was a major issue in Tibet and Myanmar where we never used any pictures of people who provided us with information about controversial issues. Actually, we even reduced the number of critical posts because we were afraid the respective governments might assume people shown on our blog were somehow related to criticism. It would be extraordinarily self-indulgent to think that our blog was worth risking someone's safety.
MG: How much time are you "plugged in" to either your computer, smart phone, or some other device during the course of your travels?
CN: We are "plugged in" FAR less than we would like to be. With the kind of travel we do, Internet access is not reliable. In fact, I think this distinguishes our blog from many other travel blogs. We have done many long-term treks and spent extended periods in remote wilderness areas or tribal areas where there is no Internet. To help compensate, we leave a gap between where we are real time and where we are on the blog. Usually, this gap is 10-14 days. But in remote regions such as Western Tibet and Zanskar, we have had to make the gap longer to compensate for extended periods without web access. Preloaded content usually covers our absence during these periods. We openly acknowledge this gap on our blog, but the gap does cause problems from time to time. Coming out of Zanskar and Kashmir, we had a relatively long gap which we were trying to shorten when we got caught up in the Mumbai terrorist attack. We put up a statement explaining that we were jumping to our real time location to document what was going on.
MG: Do you find that being “connected” helps or hinders your work in the short run? In the long run, we all make connections for personal and business reasons, but when do you know that you are beginning?
CN: Internet access clearly helps us; we are never in danger of being "too connected." However, we see this phenomenon in other travelers who have difficulty severing the digital umbilical cord. From time to time, we do romanticize about the good old days of complete disconnection with monthly letters waiting for us in the Poste Restante. But honestly, it is nice to be connected.
MG: What do you look for in a travel blog?
CN: We like blogs about in-depth travel, adventure, and wildlife viewing. We like content with opinion and a sense of discovery. Several of the larger, more well known travel blogs seem to be more focused on self-promotion and marketing themselves. We understand the purpose for this focus, financing these ventures can be a real challenge. But for us, the best content is usually found in smaller sites run by impassioned people. These bloggers are in it for the rush rather than the cash.
MG: What destination would you recommend to first-time travelers?
CN: For first-time backpackers, we would probably recommend starting in Southeast Asia and working your way down into Indonesia. This will allow you to begin in a relatively straight-forward region and build as you go. If you want to stick to the easy path, you can take in Java, Bali, and Lombok. Or go for it, and head out into the more remote, adventurous islands. If you want to plunge in head first, do a Cairo to Cape Town. That will always be our favorite. Whatever you do, spend more time in fewer countries and challenge yourself with off-the-beaten-track destinations.
MG: What destination would you recommend to seasoned travelers, who think they’ve seen it all?
CN: Seasoned travelers should be able to find adventure everywhere, even at home. It's about thinking up new ways to take in each place you visit. Mostly, what you need is time to get into a place. Time will make most destinations rewarding. Some of our personal favorites are Tibet, Ethiopia, Nepal, Namibia, Guatemala, Myanmar, northern Kenya, Madagascar, minority regions of China, Czech Republic, Syria, Croatia, and India. (India makes you crazy, but it is outrageously rewarding.) We are also desperate to get back to the Sudan. Hopefully, the South will settle down in the future.