The Problem with Buzzing for Brands

I run a travel blog called Ransel Kecil. It has companion Twitter and Facebook accounts. I started it in 2009 with the intention to document my travel memorabilia (stories, to be exact) and along the way, instill the same nostalgia to other travelers by allowing them to submit posts. The site is in Indonesian language, because we believe the urge to travel was about to boom in Indonesia that time, with the rising middle class and the coming of various budget airlines. Digital apps that help travels also started to get popular when local and international startups were eyeing the travel industry. Even after 6 years, the spirit of travel is still alive and well in Indonesians’ minds and hearts. Frictions start to move away slowly, mostly helped by a good technology infrastructure.

The site has groomed a following, very much organically. I never tried to sell ads, organise quizzes, meetups or trips, or any paid efforts. I never intended to make money. I had fun anyway. I just did it for the sake of love for travel.

I know I couldn’t be traveling far and away regularly. It was not my priority to live nomadly. I am just the lame “take-a-vacation-regularly” salary guy who could only go for two weeks maximum. As an Indonesian passport holder, I have to apply for visas every time I want to go somewhere that’s actually where I want to go.

Alas, the site was real fun to keep up, nothing about it is about work or making money.

People in Indonesia start to build their own travel accounts, either posing themselves as travelers or creating a medium, like what I do. Eventually, it’s truly clear that what they want to do is to make money. They do it to be buzzers for brands, and to go on all-expenses paid trips by companies. It becomes very clear that their content is very brand-driven. Their original voices are indiscernable from the camaraderie of commercial messages. The more brands want subtle messages buried in their daily tweets and posts, the worse it becomes. I couldn’t see which post is real and which one is a lie. Travelers become attention whores who speak for their clients. Brands realise this and jump in to the opportunity. Buzzing in social media is definitely a cheaper “media buying” that any brand can have, but with bigger personal impact.

Now, I am not saying that buzzing is not okay. It is absolutely a personal freedom and reward for those who worked hard to build their theme and audience. It is also absolutely fine to take something to a whole new level.

In fact, I did try it too. It was somehow rewarding, both financially and psychologically. It was thrilling and fun to manage your own outlet.

The money isn’t much and can’t pay for your monthly living cost, but I don’t care. It’s not what I want.

I used to receive like five requests a week via email, but I only accepted those who carry the message of genuine travels. I usually cooperate with airlines, travel agents or organisations with social purposes. I planned to take other companies sparingly — telcos, consumer brands, technology brands. I believe corporations are evils, so I don’t want to take them on board.

The money that I earned goes towards maintaining the site, which includes paying the yearly domain and hosting fees, give rewards to my contributors or if anything is left, to help me travel (but that never happened).

By this time, you might have asked: why don’t you go all the way and make this a serious business?

I heard people make US$300,000 a year from a travel vlog. I heard people make US$2,000 a month from a blog by maximising SEO and whatnots. It’s possible, you know!

Yes, I heard many a good thing about blogging as a career and a way to make money. But no, I am not sold on that thing. Yet. Primarily because I see blogging as a creative tool more than a business tool.

So, when people try to “lecture” me on how to make money with my blogs or whatever, I just take the advice as a grain of salt. I want to create, and see whether it sustains me psychologically. I want to be happy with these. In a career where your job is to serve client’s needs, you ought to have an outlet in which you can control.

However, creators need to maintain genuine voices. Respect the audience they have built. Don’t commoditise them. There ought to be a barrier in which they filter or schedule out paid posts.

That said — I pity those bloggers who overengage with brands and clients. It’s their business, and their will, but as someone who previously enjoyed their journey, I could no longer grasp the genuinity of their content.

They are no longer speaking to me as a fan, as a member of an audience who appreciates their content. They’re monetizing off of me.

So, thank you for the “fam trip” reports, the #travelgears you enjoy bringing, and #airpromo tweets you send every “peak hour”. Next time you post, I’ll just disregard it.