In this interview, I talked with Dave Lee, Travel Blogger and co-founder of TravelBlogSuccess.com. Dave has been blogging for 10 years and shares with us his experience of using WooCommerce for his site to sell online courses, as well as some tips for for people looking to get into travel blogging.
- How long he has been using WooCommerce and, specifically, how he has used it for their site
- The most successful social platform he has used for selling his online courses
- If and how WooCommerce plays a role in teaching people to monetize their travel blogs
- The biggest challenge he has had with online courses
Bob Dunn: Hey, everyone. Today we are talking with someone that has not only made a career out of travel blogging, but now teaches others how to start it themselves. I know they’re going to be several listeners that would probably admit that their secret wish is that they can make a living from traveling, but I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than that. Today, Dave Lee from Travel Blog Success is going to share with us on how he has used WooCommerce to create his site and business. How are you doing today, Dave? Welcome to the show.
Dave Lee: Hey, Bob. Thanks for having me. I’m doing well.
Bob Dunn: Cool. The pleasure is all mine. I know everyone is anxious to learn about our guest and all that he does and the joys of travels. Dave, tell us about yourself and travelblogsuccess.com.
Dave Lee: Well, I’m in my 10th year of blogging on WordPress, about travel. I began in 2007, ahead of taking a one year trip around the world, which was my dream at the time. I wanted to, of course, document that experience, and also hopefully along the way, show other people how they could plan a similar long-term trip like that. I ended up traveling for 20 months. I started a second blog before I was done, when I found myself living in Medellín, Columbia. Then at the end of that experience, I had no money left. I was thinking, how can I supplement the income I was making from my travel blogs in order to get myself back to Columbia, which I had really fallen in love with. The answer to that turned out to be an online course called Travel Blog Success, which I began working on in 2009, as a way to share what I had learned over the last several years and help other people not only be able to feel comfortable traveling long-term, but to start a travel blog at the same time and get that going.
Bob Dunn: Oh, so the online course, you’ve been doing it long before this trend and wave of everybody’s got to have an online course now. You’ve been doing this since 2009?
Dave Lee: Yes. Part of my original inspiration for creating a course was a blogger called, his name’s Yaro Starak and he had a blog, Entrepreneur’s Journey. I think he still has it. It’s still there. He wrote an e-book, or like a giveaway, that was called Membership Mastermind. He had an online course about how to create a membership site and why there’s a lot of value in that versus writing an e-book. I decided I was going to put what I had learned about travel blogging into an online course and membership site instead of trying to write a book about it.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, interesting, because, yeah, it’s been, like I said, kind of erupting, the online course thing, over the last year or two big time. Everybody’s thinking they need to do that now or wanting to do it, but wow, since 2009? That is a perfect lead into my first question. Since WooCommerce didn’t come out until 2011, obviously you were using something else. At what point did you decide to use WooCommerce? How are you integrating it into your site currently?
Dave Lee: Well, I began with ClickBank as the payment processor and they also handled the affiliate program. I used a couple of scripts that I bought that protected the membership content. It was really awkward. It was like Frankenstein. I know my way around WordPress but I’m not a developer. I’m not a designer. I was trying to cobble together something that was functional. I did, but it wasn’t easy. Then in 2012, I partnered … Actually it might be 2013. I partnered with a friend, Michael Tieso, who’s also a travel blogger at the time. He had a community similar to mine but without the online course. We decided to merge our communities together under the Travel Blog Success name and we went into business together. He did have a design and development experience. He brought that to the table. He was able to redesign travelblogsuccess.com, which was quite nice.
Initially we were working together. Then he wanted to apply for a job at WooThemes, which he did and he got it. Once he got involved with WooThemes, then we really pretty much adopted everything Woo for Travel Blog Success. We began using more Woo plug-ins. I think it was in, I want to say 2013 or 2014, I can’t remember which, we migrated to WooCommerce. That was definitely his recommendation at the time.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, cool. Well, I know Michael well too. Him and I actually do the Seattle WooCommerce meet-up. I can see where it actually … Well, you picked the ideal partner because not only was he into travel blogging but then suddenly he’s part of WooThemes and WooCommerce. Hey, he had it made.
Dave Lee: Yeah, I mean, I was a lucky guy. I felt like it speaks to the importance of if you’re going to go into business with someone, try and pick someone that has skills that complement your own. I didn’t have that technical experience. That was something he was much more passionate about. Yeah, I really lucked out in that regard. He ended up having to leave Travel Blog Success in the middle of 2015. He’s now working with Automattic and I’m heading up Travel Blog Success.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, the thing about complementing, I know my wife and I had, well, before we even did the WordPress thing, we had a marketing business. I’m the designer. She’s a copywriter. People used to always say, “Lucky you,” because she never had to worry about design. I never had to worry about writing. Having something that complements, it does, it takes so much stress out of your business. Yeah, I can see where Michael was a good addition.
Now, we talked a little bit about online courses. Your site, that’s the focus of your site. Now that people are starting to do them, I think a lot of people are learning it’s not necessarily the easiest stuff in the world to do either, even though everybody’s saying, “Oh, just start an online course. You’ll start making money.” I know that one pain point for many who start is promoting your courses. I’m sure a lot of people want to use social media. Have you found a certain social media platform that works best for you? If so, what’s your secret?
Dave Lee: I think Facebook is probably the most important to us right now, and specifically, Facebook advertising because it’s gotten increasingly hard to get your message out just based on the organic results alone. One thing that we’ve been trying to do more and more of over the past year specifically, is learn how to best use Facebook advertising to promote our courses as well as, and especially during, our seasonal sales when we stand to gain the most in a very short period of time.
Bob Dunn: This is a little bit off the topic, but the same topic is you’re teaching people how to travel blog themselves. Is a big part of travel blogging one of the biggest platforms you feel, is Instagram?
Dave Lee: Yes. I mean, Instagram has become quite popular over the last few years, but unfortunately what I’m starting to hear from our community is that the algorithm changes that are being made by Instagram, which is, of course, now owned by Facebook, have caused a reduction in the amount of engagement they’re getting from their followers. That’s just anecdotal, what I’m starting to hear. Instagram, I do think, lends itself really well towards travel bloggers because we’re typically traveling in far off places. Bloggers learn the different editing apps that they can use like Snapseed, that’s the one I use, so that they can improve the images that they’re being taken even further before sharing them, but actually a lot of people are now going a step further and they use their DSLR-taken images on Instagram. I’m kind of a purist. I still use my phone photos, but people are now using it as a way to showcase their portfolio of photography, not just taking impromptu shots while they’re traveling.
Bob Dunn: Speaking about what you teach through your travel course, of course I don’t want you to give everything away, but obviously travel blogging, it’s all about monetizing. You went through it yourself, figuring out a way to monetize it and you did it through online courses. When you’re teaching people the tools to use in your courses, does WooCommerce play a role anywhere? Do you tend to say, “Oh, use WooCommerce for this, that,” or is it more of a general e-commerce monetization approach?
Dave Lee: Actually it wasn’t until the last few years that travel blogs have really began to take off. It kind of coincided when I partnered with Michael. That’s when things really started to grow, but before that I had been making most of my money from my travel blogs through different kinds of advertising, sponsored posts, affiliate marketing. Those are still methods that exist for people to tap into. Within travel blogging, affiliate marketing has become popular. It’s not necessarily that you’re gaining cold, hard cash for your efforts.
For example, Airbnb, they offer $20 credits. If you can drive enough traffic through your Airbnb affiliate link then you can essentially get accommodation for free, or subsidized by taking advantage of that credit you’re earning. That’s become quite popular, as well as promoting … Now that the travel blogging niche has matured a little bit, there’s more products that have been developed, more digital products: e-books, online courses, and things of that nature. Now there are new opportunities to be affiliates for these products that didn’t exist five years ago. That’s creating new affiliate marketing opportunities as well. Travel Blog Success, we have a generous affiliate program as well, in order to reward our community for promoting us. The creation of products within the travel blogging world, it’s still in the beginning stages. It’s not something that a lot of people do. Travel bloggers tend to focus more on traveling than making money.
Bob Dunn: Yeah.
Dave Lee: Part of our goal is to help them see how they can make money early on and find methods and strategies that are going to work for them that they’re going to enjoy pursuing because trying to make money doing things you don’t enjoy, that’s not something I would ever advise anyone. I personally want to make it fun. I find creating and promoting online courses to be fun, but other people might find writing books to be a better use of their time. There’s a lot of different options for people.
Bob Dunn: That’s interesting when you were talking about the affiliate with BNB. In the travel blogging where you’re saying they’re not quite into the products, that’s still kind of the beginning for the travel blog area, is there a lot of, what do you want to say, affiliate trade? We will mention your hotel. They give us a room. Do you see where I’m going with that? Is that more prominent in the travel blogging than actually the hard, cold cash coming out?
Dave Lee: Yes. That’s one of the fringe benefits of pursuing travel blogging as opposed to perhaps other forms or other niches, is that there are, and this increasingly the case now, opportunities for you to leverage your influence in order to go on press trips. I’ve been on a press trip to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas in 2010.
Bob Dunn: Wow.
Dave Lee: I’ve been to Indonesia on a two week press trip to see orangutans in Borneo. As you can tell, I like primates.
Bob Dunn: Yeah.
Dave Lee: I’ve been on a couple of trips with G Adventure, the Toronto-based travel company, in Patagonia and Mexico. There are these opportunities that travel bloggers are pursuing where they’re not necessarily getting paid any money but the travel that they’re doing is being subsidized by the company, the PR company or the destination. That’s a huge thing. It really can cut down on your expenses.
Bob Dunn: I was going to say, it’s a different whole approach to monetizing. Monetizing via travel blogging, even though you do want some of that cash, is a different animal entirely.
Dave Lee: It is. It’s usually what people focus on first because that’s the dream, is how can we travel for free, but if you do it long enough you realize that you can keep traveling, especially if you’re organized and good about pitching, pitching destinations at PR companies. You can keep going for a whole year, stringing one press trip to another, but that’s not going to put money in the bank. Bloggers have come around to that. It’s kind of like a drum that’s being beaten louder and louder, that they need to think about ways that they can make cash as well as go on these press trips. One of the more popular ways, but it’s mostly accessible now to the people with the biggest audiences, is to become a brand ambassador for a travel-related company. That’s one way to go about potentially entering into a multi-month or multi-year contract where you’re being paid to promote a company long-term.
Bob Dunn: Okay. Finding that mix now is the new approach and that’s something you’re wanting to do through your courses is introducing these new ways.
Dave Lee: Exactly. Then I could also throw in freelance writing. We’ve got a course that specifically focuses on how do you go from being a blogger to being a freelance writer. Even though that’s a tough slog, there’s still a lot of interest in people that want to pursue freelance travel writing even today.
Bob Dunn: Yes, we know somebody that actually has a nice mix of both. Those are good paired together. Now, talking about your online courses, and this is the big, loaded question, what has been the biggest challenge for either creating or, if you have something on the other side, selling online courses? What have you found to be the one that really was your biggest challenge?
Dave Lee: I feel like when Michael and I were working together it really gave me an opportunity to get familiar with WooCommerce and Sensei, the e-learning plug-in from WooThemes, as well as a lot of the other related plug-ins that we have installed. We have at least a dozen plug-ins by WooThemes on Travel Blog Success. It’s definitely there’s been a learning curve to getting to know WooCommerce, Sensei and all those plug-ins. At this point I would say our biggest challenge is improving our conversion rate and finding ways to just improve our sales funnel. First, being aware of the sales funnel and now being able to look for places where people are falling out of it and plug both holes and then trying to ultimately improve our conversion rate, because we do get pretty good traffic to the site because we’ve been around a while. It builds up a lot of back links, a lot of affiliates have promoted us. I think it’s about, for us, it’s right now how do we increase the odds that someone that lands on our website is going to make a purchase?
Bob Dunn: Because not only one of the largest challenges for a lot of online courses, it almost seems like an ongoing challenge. It’s something you just can’t let up on. Very, very, very cool. Great information.
Before we move on, is there any other pearls of wisdom that Dave can share with us about online courses, payments, conversions, all that good stuff?
Dave Lee: I do want to say that I have had a really positive experience using Braintree to handle our credit card transactions. Specifically there’s a WooCommerce Braintree gateway plug-in, I think, that was developed with WooThemes and SkyVerge, that we’ve been using. It’s been working wonderfully for us. It now also allows us to accept Paypal payments without people having to leave the website. In terms of trying to improve conversion rates, I think that’s something that you want to focus on, is how can you make it as easy as possible for people to pay you in as few steps as possible? I think that’s one thing I’ve really enjoyed using, and not just the plug-in but Braintree itself. They have a really easy to use interface. Before we were using Braintree for credit cards, we were using Stripe. It may have changed in the last year or so, but I found their interface to be less user-friendly than Braintree. That’s been something that has been quite positive and easy to use. You don’t have to be too technical in order to implement it.
Bob Dunn: That’s a great tip to hear because I know that I’ve had the chance to talk to them, I think, at WooConf. Braintree and PayPal, of course, had their booths together. I chatted with them about that, but that is a huge, huge pain point for people starting any commerce site, is the payment gateway, figuring out that whole piece. I’m glad you shared that because not only if you’re not into travel blogging, if you’re into any kind of e-commerce, I definitely agree with you there and would recommend people checking that out.
Yes, we have learned a lot. I know we could probably talk forever and ever. I may have you come back at some point and tell me more when you’re ten times more subscribers and you have that conversion rate thing down to where you’re never worrying about it again, but I do have a few other questions I want to ask you. Before I do that, I’m going to wrap around to our sponsor again and tell everyone a little bit more about Postmatic, who is a modern engagement and email marketing platform for WordPress. It does integrate with WooCommerce, allowing you email beautifully designed product announcements to your subscribers. It also works with WooCommerce review system to email notifications of new reviews to your team and let them leave a response right from their email. I know for a lot of people that get a lot of reviews, that’s going to be a really cool feature. They just recently added that.
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Dave, now we’re going to talk to Dave the shopper. Dave, who likes to shop, are you a big shopper online?
Dave Lee: I just moved back to the United States recently. I would consider myself a big shopper, but while I was traveling so much I wasn’t really able to take advantage of that.
Bob Dunn: Okay. Well, let’s see if you have any insights on the … I have three questions here I just like to ask our guests. It also helps other shop owners to know what they’re maybe doing wrong or what they could improve on. The times you’ve been able to shop online, is there anything that you found that really frustrates the heck out of you? I mean, it’s just like, why can’t these people figure this part out or do this differently?
Dave Lee: I wouldn’t say it really frustrates me, but I do really appreciate it when it’s as easy as possible to pay and checkout. When the checkout process is as easy or as close to Amazon’s One-Click payments as possible, that to me makes it a much better experience. I don’t want to spend five minutes filling out a form with all my billing information and credit card information if I can avoid it. Even using the auto-fill features on my Chrome browser, I just really prefer it when a shop makes it super easy for you to pay and move on with your life.
Bob Dunn: I think that’s a big one, and we kind of even mentioned it with the checkout, making that easy and stuff. It is. It’s very frustrating when you’ve got to go through the loops. I don’t know, since you’re just kind of maybe getting back online and seeing what’s available online, is there anything that you know is available to buy online but there’s no way in the world you would ever get it online, you’d need to buy it in person?
Dave Lee: I am not big on buying clothes online. I know Zappos is the poster child for buying shoes online, but for me, the idea of having to return something by post, even if it’s postage-paid by the company, it just doesn’t appeal to me. I’d much rather go into a store and try on clothes and walk out knowing they fit me than to order stuff online and it arrives and it doesn’t fit me the way I like it and then I have to send it back. I don’t have the patience for that.
Bob Dunn: Yeah. I’m with you there. Yeah. Was it really this color or this pattern? I didn’t know this was all little clown faces until I got up close to it, you know? Now, you may be already doing this, but if money, time, resources, you could do anything, not worry about how it made, is there something you would love to sell online?
Dave Lee: You know, I’ve always tried to sort of … Well, I shouldn’t say always. Since my early 30’s when I made this change in my life to pursue this trip around the world and then travel blogging, I’ve always told myself that if I was independently wealthy, would I want to be dedicating so much time to blogging and writing about travel? The answer, it keeps coming back yes. The same would go for what I’m doing with Travel Blog Success. I just feel like it’s a very good way to empower people, to get out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves and see the world and that we’re all better off when people do that. Being able to have some kind of a positive impact or influence on someone traveling to a new place or someone starting a blog for the first time and having the support they need to continue with it, that to me is exactly where I want to be. I really don’t have anything else that I would think about selling online at this point.
Bob Dunn: You are living the dream.
Dave Lee: I like to think I am.
Bob Dunn: Cool.
Dave Lee: I feel really grateful for all the experiences I’ve had.
Bob Dunn: That’s great to hear. I want to thank you Dave, for taking the time to share your expertise with us.
Dave Lee: My pleasure.