Atlas Obscura keeps a firm divide between its independent travel journalism and its bookable trips. Now its marketers, like copywriter Nick Papa, create and support a separate content ecosystem for the touring side of the company. Nick’s biggest project is the Trips Blog, which launched at the end of last year. The goal was to go beyond the pure marketing assets, like trip landing pages and sales emails, and create editorial content that ties back to the trips in a “non-salesy” way. Nick dives into how Atlas Obscura is playing the long game, how to succeed at travel during a pandemic, and where both strategies connect to social media and newsletters.
Unlike a lot of companies that need to invest in content, Atlas Obscura started with travel journalism and then became a trip company.
It’s a huge differentiator for us as a tour operator, because exactly like you said, most companies are like, “Well, we have this cool product. Now we have to figure out how to build content around it in a way that’s not salesy.” Content is at the core, so when we launched these products, we had this built-in audience of readers. We had already built so much trust with them that they were, no questions asked, willing to go to literally the far corners of the planet with us. They knew that we knew what we were talking about, which is incredible, because before Atlas, I worked at very big travel companies. I worked at booking.com as a content editor, I have been a contractor at Kayak, and it’s the reverse, where you’re retroactively making the content to make your case. At Atlas Obscura, it just feels so much more natural and organic.
How often are posts going up on the blog?
We’re aiming for at least once or twice per week, and this is still very early days for us. We’re still being very purposeful about the types of content that we’re going out with. Right now we have three main buckets, which are interviews with our trip leaders, interviews with past travelers to recall an interesting, specific moment [on a trip], and then photo essays from travelers who happen to be amazing photographers. We wanted to start slow to do something small very well, and then over time we’ll grow into more categories.
It’s still early days for the Trips Blog, but I assume that COVID-19 has been the biggest curveball when it comes to travel writing.
It has been because from a business perspective, we could no longer sell the trips. I think for other brands, like say a hotel, well, the hotel is closed. What can you really say at this time? For us, we were able to immediately pivot to tapping into our trip leaders who we would usually interview. [We had them] go on Instagram Live with us and do different things from home, where our audience could interact with them and get pumped for the time that they could travel again.
Ross Jennings leads this amazing trip through the Scottish Highlands. He’s a professional bagpiper who is on a mission to bagpipe in 100 countries across the world. At the time of quarantine, he was based in Costa Rica, where he was playing his bagpipes. We went on Instagram Live with him and he did a tutorial for the bagpipes, he gave a really brief history, and he played a few songs.
Because of our blog, we had this outlet where we could continue talking about travel and the wonders of travel, because the blog is never a place where we’re asking anyone to book right now. We were able to authentically keep the lights on for awareness of our trips by doing things like this.
During this crisis, our email open rates, blog traffic, and social media engagement had triple digit increases. Even though people couldn’t book, they were bored, they were hungry for something to be doing at home. We were able to deliver pieces of these trips into their homes, through the combination of the blog’s editorial content, and then Instagram Lives that brought that to life and allowed the readers to actually interact with [trip leaders].
Do you think that success is a combination of where you were already positioned, and how you pivoted to accommodate the inability to travel?
It’s helpful that we’re not an online travel agency that wants you to book flights to 3,000 destinations around the world. We actually have these real human people who can have conversations. A big part of our brand is that we want people to feel that wonder is not just around the world, it’s also right around the corner. For us, it was an easy thing to pivot to because yes, of course, from a business perspective, we want you to buy our trips and have a great time on them. But from a brand perspective, you don’t have to travel all the way to Lisbon to enjoy these experiences. You can have them at home. I think the really important thing about the blog is that I never write a blog post hoping that 90% of the readers click the referral link to our website, or that they’re all booking the trip.
I want the content to be interesting to anyone, whether they ever come back again, whether they book or not. I think this was a great opportunity to just create some content that was very relevant for our brand that met the need, but we are really confident that six months from now, 12 months from now, if someone’s ready to take a trip, I hope there’ll be one person who remembers, “Wow, remember that cool aperitivo hour we did [on Instagram Live]? It’s time to go to Lisbon now. Let’s get on the plane and do it, and we know this company is going to take us there. We now know the guy who’s going to be touring us around.” It’s really playing this long game and if you’re not willing to play that, I don’t think you can win in the travel space.
So you don’t have to be traveling to enjoy the wonders of it, but when you are able to travel, keep Atlas Obscura Trips in mind as the people that can show you the way. How is that brand story further communicated on social media and in your newsletters?
We do marketing emails specifically for trips. They go out every week, and before coronavirus, it was typical that the main feature and primary call to action was the trip. It’s much more like, “Buy this now.” We label supporting content with “On the Blog” to reach any reader who isn’t ready to book right now. In these emails, the “places” from our Atlas (our user-generated database of unusual places around the world) at the end are places we visit on the trip.
And here’s an example of a dedicated blog newsletter. The lead section is the featured blog post where we want to send the most traffic. In the next section, we promote related content, including more content from the blog, Atlas Obscura’s independent journalism, and our city guide for the destination we’re covering. In the final section, we link to specific “places” that we cover in the featured blog post.
We try to send out these very content-driven emails that give people a lot of leeway. Are you ready to book right now? Go right to our trip page. Never heard of this before? Here are some more blog posts to read. Are you in the middle of planning? Check out some of the specific places that you can see on the trip.
Every Friday we do an Instagram story that is all about one of the blog posts to drive traffic to the blog from social, and we have a little headline that says, “On the Blog.” We tell them right away, “This isn’t marketing, we’re taking you to content.” That story will perform infinitely better than the Instagram story for the same trip that takes you to the itinerary page where you can book. That one’s like, “Atlas Obscura Trips. This August we’re going here and here’s what we’ll do.” And “On The Blog” says, “Here’s what it’s like to turn 30 in Oahu.” That one always does better.
One of the last Google stats I saw was that [around] 80% of travelers are in the very top of the funnel. It really doesn’t make sense on channels like email or social to be assuming that anyone is ready to book a trip right now, it makes a lot more sense to invest in this content where you’re not going to get a conversion today, but you are going to start to build relationships and trust with those people when they see that you’re actually an expert in what you’re talking about.
It has to be early days for metrics, but it also sounds like certain numbers might not be the priority here. How are you measuring success?
I’ve been doing this for a long time, whether it’s been blogs or social or email, and so many of the metrics I find to be vanity metrics. I don’t need a million page views on the blog, I need a hundred page views on the blog of a hundred people who really care about what we have to say. Of course the growing number of page views is a welcome, positive metric, but what we’re really looking at is referrals. Who read that blog post, got all the way to the end and clicked the box that says, “Go here with Atlas Obscura.” It takes you to the itinerary page and it tells you the dates, the prices, and a day-by-day breakdown of what’s on that trip.
What we’re really looking for is how many people read that post, and even if they weren’t going to book today, next week, or next month, they actually thought, “Yeah, this is really cool. I want to know what this looks like in real life.” That’s really the number that we’re going after that we want to see, from the unique users to how many of them are actually clicking through to our website.