I met Ben Holbrook when I was working in London. He loves Barcelona probably more than I do and I have watched and seen how his blog – Driftwood Journals, has grown from over 200 Facebook Likes to over 2000. I love his site and therefore wanted to ask him how he grew Driftwood Journals and if he could share some tips with us. All the photos in this post are Ben’s – great aren’t they?
What inspired you to set up your Driftwood Journals. and when?
I was living in London and had a good job, but I was heartbroken, grieving the loss of the life I’d left behind in Barcelona, where I’d lived before moving to London. I missed the friends I’d made, the whimsical weekends, the sun, the warm Mediterranean waters, the food. The wine. It was a simple existence and I missed it a lot.
I’d get home from work, drained and hungry for something I just couldn’t put my finger on, and I’d start writing about my life back in Barcelona, about the days that weren’t perfect but filled with joy, and I’d just feel better about everything. It was enough at the time just to know that there was a place, or at least a time in my life, that I could experience such happiness. And as the months past, as my life began to unfold before me, I found myself turning more and more to my writing, to the refuge in my mind.
People began to respond to my blog and it started getting some fairly serious traffic. So I thought, I’ll just keep working and living this and writing about my life here, in London. But it never felt the same. It always felt like a rebound. It never felt like it was my place or that I was somewhere I belonged. So I kept writing about Barcelona and various other parts of Spain. My job was going well, but the more my boss paid me, the more I felt like a fraud, trapped in someone else’s life, doing something I had no real passion for.
I tried to distract myself, I started reading a lot, writing a lot, studying travel journalism at the London School of Journalism. And when I turned thirty something inside me change and suddenly I felt like I had no other option than to go it alone, to try to make something more of my blog, to chase what seemed like the most impossible task of becoming a freelance travel writer. And I’d like to emphasise that I had no interest in being a “blogger”, in being some kind of internet celebrity. I wanted to learn to write well, write articles for magazines and newspapers, maybe even a book at some point. With a lot of hard work, a little bit of luck and a good knowledge of SEO, within about six months I had established my blog and written for a number of mainstream travel publications back in the UK and around the world. I also wrote a guide book for The HUNT Guides.
But to answer your question more simply: I set up my blog because it was my dream to be a travel writer.
2) What are the posts you are most proud of and why?
There’s the one that started everything. It’s about “the best and most essential things to do in Barcelona“, which is very much based on my early personal experiences in the city (when I had no money). I suggested buying a can of beer from the street beer men, for example, and sitting on the fountain in Placa Reial to soak up the atmosphere.
Soon I was getting retweeted by the Lonely Planet and various other big travel brands. A few weeks later that blog post was ranking number three for the search term “things to do in Barcelona” and my traffic went from 8 views a day to over 1000 views a day, literally overnight. It’s the post that made me think, maybe I could do this and do it well. So that post will always be important to me.
And then there’s the first posts I wrote for Ryanair. They sent me to Girona to write about it for their blog and it was the first time I felt like I’d made it as a travel writer, that my dream was becoming my reality. More to the point, I’m really proud of what I wrote.
Finally, there’s the post I wrote about my hypothetical perfect day in Barcelona for my friend Rob’s blog. It was part fictional, but based almost entirely on an actual day I’d spent with my girlfriend, just cycling around in the autumn sunshine, stopping off for tapas and vermouth along the way. In many ways it summed up everything that I felt and still feel about my life here.
3) How often do you write on your blog and where do you get inspiration from?
Not as much as I’d like as I have to prioritise my freelance commissions. I often have three or four deadlines a week, which means I’m researching and going out to take photos and then of course writing, writing and writing and writing. So, although my blog is my biggest passion, because I have complete freedom to write what I want, I only really get to focus on it in between paid projects.
4) How has the blog helped you with work?
Massively. It is absolutely, in every sense, my “shop window”. But it’s more than that, it’s also an entity in itself and I think the commercial world needs to accept that blogs have as much power as mainstream media publications, if not more.
5) What three tips would you give to someone looking to set up a blog (or more specific travel blog)?
- Ask yourself why you really want to start a blog. Does the world need to hear what you have to say or are you just interested in becoming some kind of celebrity blogger? I don’t think the world needs any more “celebrities”.
- Focus on something. Become some sort of expert on it. I basically went from being a hobbyist to a professional by specialising in Barcelona. Give people genuine insight, tell them something they don’t already know. Inspire them, don’t be a narcissist – it’s about how your experiences can help or inspire people to live out their dreams.
- Accept that your blog itself is highly unlikely to provide you with enough income to survive, at least until you start getting lots of traffic. Be prepared to use it as a platform to sell other products or services, i.e. I promote my travel writing services through my blog.
6) Sometimes people want bloggers to do a review of their product or service (restaurant/hotel for example) for free.
Do you think bloggers should get paid for their reviews? Or should them being taken out at a restaurant or staying in a hotel for free be enough? Please explain.
I feel extremely disgruntled when people invite me to do various things “for free” in exchange for me writing about it because it’s rarely a fair trade. Let me elaborate. Imagine someone sets up a new tour company in Barcelona. They send me an email asking if I’d like to tag along on one of the tours, from, say 12pm to 6pm. That’s basically a full day they are asking for, and then they want me to go home and edit my photos and write a flattering blogpost about their tour on my blog (which is basically another day’s work).
So that’s basically two days they want me to give them for free. And they also want to be exposed to my audience, which has taken me years and years of graft to build, also for free. And not only do they want my time for free, but they are also robbing me of the time I could be using to write for paying clients. Sound like a fair exchange?
Another key point which companies, whether it’s tours, shops, restaurants or hotels, seem to forget is that bloggers go on tours and eat out and travel all of the time, constantly, for free, often getting paid for their time. I’ve been on a million tours in Barcelona, I don’t really need to go on another one just for the fun of it, you know? Especially if I’m not going to be paid for my time.
The same applies to restaurants and bars. Sometimes I get invited for “a free drink” or “free lunch”. I was invited to a new bakery recently. They asked if I’d like to go and have a coffee and try a cake “For free!”. So let’s assume that the coffee and cake is €5. They were basically asking me to stop work (work that pays my rent), travel to their bakery, spend an hour or so there, listen to their story, make notes and then go home and write about them on my blog, which is basically half a day’s work. And in return I get what? A coffee and a cake which I could have just bought for €5 and not had to spend half a day working for. The same can be said for low-value products – I’ve been sent all sorts of things to review, but it’s just not worth my time.
Of course, this is totally different as a freelance writer. For example, if one of the travel publications I write for wants to pay me for a blog post about a new tour in Barcelona, I don’t necessarily expect the company to pay me. I’m just talking about being featured on my blog. Again, this is why I encourage people to think about how they will make a living entirely from a blog.
7) What social media platforms have worked best for you in promoting Driftwood and why?
Facebook has always been the best social media platform for me, although I have more followers on Twitter. But I get 90% of my traffic directly from Google, which is more valuable – to me and the companies I blog about – because it’s people actively looking for something.
8) How have you promoted your blog (you can link it back to question 7)
I share everything I write on all of my social media channels at least once. I also make sure all posts are optimised for SEO – if someone’s looking for “the best things to do in Barcelona” then I’m going to make sure that the search term is featured in the post somewhere. I worked at one of London’s top SEO agencies as Head of Content, so I’m more than aware of the power of SEO. But it’s not rocket science. It’s just about getting outside of your own mind and thinking about what your audience is looking for and how they might be looking for it. And then there are links, of course, but I don’t want to think about that…
Thank you Ben for the interview on Being30.com. If you want to find out about Barcelona insights from Ben, check him out on Facebook, Twitter, and Inst