Starting a Destination Authority Site

Oops, it’s been a long time between posts! As usual, I suppose. I’ve been pretty busy working on trying to find a designer for my dining in Kigali site as well as coming up with ideas for my Kigali map designer as well. Lots of design stuff! It’s fun coming up with ideas though and letting the talented design folks do their thing so I’m excited to see how both of these things turn out.

But enough of that! I’m writing this latest post as a response to an email I got recently from David from A Couple Travelers. He and his partner are looking to diversify their (quite substantial) income and came at me with a bunch of questions related to authority, destination-specific sites. As I seem to have the Kigali thing going well, I guess I’m a good person to ask! But rather than just respond in an email, I thought others would be interested in reading my responses. So here goes…

Do you think it’s possible to run such a website when you don’t actually live in the area?

Yep, totally possible. Just like it’s possible to run travel insurance websites without caring or knowing anything about travel insurance. The site will probably be pretty crappy, though, unless you have a partner or staff who do live there.

I built my Kigali site because nothing else existed that could answer any of my questions. I’m always in search of new website ideas and I was in Kigali slowly discovering the answers to all of my questions, so putting that information into a website seemed logical. My problem is that I often have grand plans with my websites and I saw the oppourtunity to make my Kigali site the best resource for the city… except that I didn’t really know much about Kigali at that point and I wasn’t intending on staying for longer than a couple of months.

So I somehow found two people who were into my idea and wanted to write for the site which got me motivated to work on making a good site with some features like a forum and an events calendar. Then they got busy with other things so couldn’t write for me but, by this point, I’d decided to stay longer than expected. A friend of mine helped write some things early on and the site grew fairly slowly and organically. As I learned more about Kigali, I wrote more.

I really think that living in Kigali and having an obvious passion for and interest in the city is something that readers can identify. Being here, going to events, meeting readers when I’m out, meeting business owners and all of that stuff is important not only to the perceived authority of the site, but also to making connections to eventually sell ads down the road.

Do you have experience with that?

Yep! On the back of the success of my Kigali website, I registered a bunch of domain names with the ambition of expanding this model to other African cities. The Kigali model, at that point, hadn’t earned any money, but I was convinced that being the main authority site for a lucrative market like expats and tourists will eventually pay off. Maybe not for awhile, but I’m a patient person. Plus it’s always great to be the first in and to be able to put really helpful info online for the first time and a lot of African cities aren’t really well-served yet with this kind of information geared at new arrivals who intend on living there.

So far the only other city I’ve launched a similar site in is Kampala. In my mind at that time, I could have gone one of two routes. The first was to find a partner who lives in Kampala, intends on living there for a long time, and has the writing and ad-selling skills needed to be a 50/50 partner. I do all of the nerd stuff and they fill the site with content and eventually approach businesses to sell ads. This would mean that the only up front costs would be time and that I could focus on what I’m good at and my partner, who would be an expert on Kampala (or an expert in the making), could focus on all of the things I have no idea about.

The second idea was to keep the site 100% under my control and hire writers, hopefully one or two committed people on a long-term basis. Then figure out the advertising and money-making part later. This would have meant up-front costs for me as well as the responsibility of managing writers and attempting to verify their content without knowing anything about Kampala.

Somehow I ended up with a third option that sort of just happened organically. I posted awhile ago on Nerdy Nomad that I was hoping to take my idea to Kampala and start a site there. A reader put me in touch with a guy called Tyler who lives there and has for awhile. I don’t know the reader and neither does he! It was a friend of a friend of a friend sort of thing. Anyway, I got in touch and we hit it off and have been on the same page since we started this little venture about a year and a half ago. But Tyler runs his own business in Kampala and is a busy guy so we decided to structure it so that I’d be the nerd and he’d be the manager and ad sales guy. We’ve split all of the costs 50/50 and when revenue starts rolling in, we’ll split that as well. Our main cost is our writers…

How did you find local writers?

When we started out, I had a friend living in Kampala who was unemployed and Tyler had a couple of friends who expressed interest in writing for the site. I think we were offering $20-30 per article, depending on length. Our first goal was to write a bunch of Kampala area guides and then we moved into more general articles and then restaurant reviews. We had some ok results with the area guides and, while the writing and insights were ok, it didn’t have a lot of personality and read like a guidebook. One of the reasons I think my Kigali site is so successful is that there’s a whole bunch of quirky personality hidden within the content that people seem to really like. So, while we were getting good content, it wasn’t great and the writers eventually lost interest in the project or got too busy.

We left the site for awhile and came up with a new approach to finding writers. We decided to look for people willing to give a year’s commitment and came up with a monthly salary based on the number of articles we expected and a list of tasks (posting to Facebook, forum posts, answering emails etc). We found two new writers, agreed to the wage and conditions (I think we pay about $250 monthly each for two articles per week and social media and forum stuff) and things have been going great since then. The writers are engaged, so a really good job, know their stuff, and are producing regular content that’s really useful to people. These two new writers are friends of Tyler, as well.

If you were taking this approach, how would you go about choosing a place?

This is a tough one for me to answer since I’ve always built my larger websites out of a passion for the topic. I was lucky because I built most of my early sites before anyone was making money online so I was genuinely motivated by sharing my knowledge. This was my motivation for starting the Kigali site, too – filling a huge void in information for the city. I didn’t start it with the intention of making money from the site. As the site grew, it became evident that it would be possible, but it wasn’t my reason for starting the site. I think it’s dangerous starting websites with money as the motivator because it will take a very long time to come (at least two years for this sort of site, I think) and if you don’t have a love for the city (or other topic), it’s easy to become discouraged and give up.

However I guess choosing to start the Kampala site is sort of a similar situation except that my partner is passionate about the city and I’m passionate about expanding my little East Africa empire. Kampala was just the next logical choice due to the proximity to Kigali, the fact that it’s an awesome city that I don’t mind visiting, the fact that they speak English and I’d also like a resource for Kampala and since there isn’t one, why not build it myself? Uganda is a much more internet-savvy country and there are more businesses that are likely to understand the world of online marketing than in Kigali. Plus Kampala is a much larger city than Kigali with a larger population of both expats and tourists, so if what I’m doing in Kigali seems to be working well, it stands to reason that a site for Kampala would do even better. I never do keyword research stuff, I tend to follow my gut. But, as I said, I know the stats for my Kigali site and it makes sense that a Kampala site, due to numbers of expats alone, would eventually do much better as far as traffic goes.

If I were to put myself in your shoes, I would choose a place that has some sort of target market of a reasonable size (not sure what that might be, though) in a place that speaks English. The location might be as important as the target market. In my case, expats and tourists are a lucrative market with a lot of money to spend both on doing things and just spending it on everyday life. If you’re able to also identify a defined market that spends a decent amount then that would be ideal. It doesn’t need to be as general as ‘expats’… it could be people who like a certain activity or something like that. I’d also choose a city that you like and have an interest in. Maybe even a place where you would plan on spending a part of the year or one day settling in for awhile. At least to get the site going a bit. If you’re not interested in the city and have no connection to the target market, it’ll be tough.

How long would you say it takes to get something like this up and running and seeing results?

My Kigali site took a couple of years to become popular. Now it’s a very well-known website and people even often reference exact articles or things I’ve said… which is always surprising. When a site is the only thing people find in Google, it will become popular but it takes awhile to build up your content and for the site to start showing on Google. So I’d say two years at a minimum.

Your Kigali site has a really nice forum and it seems like some decent foot traffic. Also you have 20,000 Facebook likes. How did you go about achieving this?

The forum started very slowly with myself and my friend basically talking to each other under various aliases. It would have grown quicker but there’s a well-established Yahoo Group that has always been the go-to for any new arrivals. Probably because there was nothing else. It’s annoying to use and, while it once served a purpose, I think it’s obvious to everyone that it’s not the best format for this sort of thing. My forum filled a need but letting people know about and getting them to switch over it has taken a lot of time. I haven’t done anything special except let it grow organically. I did run a contest last year which got about 60 new people to register, but that’s about it. If there’s no other way for people in the same place and the same interest to speak to each other then starting a forum is great. If something decent already exists, though, it might be more hassle than it’s worth as getting people to change (even from using the crappy Yahoo Group, in Kigali’s case) is very difficult.

The site’s traffic mostly comes from Google, returning visitors and Facebook referrals. The Facebook page is something I’ve put a bit of investment into, paying to advertise with the main goal being more ‘likes’. I think it costs around GBP150 for 3,000 new likes which happens in about a month. For this type of site I see this as a great investment because a large Facebook following is a great thing to pitch to advertisers and also a great way to be able to reach a lot of people quickly. Having an advertiser post an event on their Facebook page, me sharing it and them seeing a large increase in the number of people reached and hopefully a good turnout to their event is something that is very tangible and therefore marketable. The small, square ad in my site’s siderbar isn’t that exciting… promotion on Facebook to a large number of engaged readers is much better. I’m going to put another ad up for Facebook soon to try to push the ‘likes’ up above 30,000. I think it’s money well spent.

Is there really that large of a Kigali following?

I’m not sure what you mean by following but Kigali is a city with a million people but with a large number of NGOs and save-the-world type organisations that are often partially staffed by foreigners. The city is relatively small and the target market is relatively small. Well, it started off small but based on feedback and interactions on my Facebook page, I really think that a lot of Rwandans are interested in the site as well. Plus there’s a lot of movement of people within the East African community (Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania) so I have plenty of African expats who enjoy the content as well. But I’ve kind of made the leap from ‘intro to Kigali’ type help articles to posting about Kigali events, reviewing restaurants, and having a reasonably active forum which I think is useful for all of the city’s English-speaking residents.

Where does most of your traffic come from?

As I briefly mentioned above, mostly from Google, returning visitors and Facebook. The Facebook traffic is mostly my own page. I don’t worry about posting in other forums or on blogs or on other forums. It might be a good idea to troll through other Africa-related forums to see if I can answer people’s Kigali questions and then promote my site but I really can’t be bothered. I think that when a site is the only option in town for a certain kind of content, people will find it. My site is all over Google… it’s hard to avoid if you’re looking for anything to do with Kigali. So I just stick with that. At the moment the site gets around 400-500 visits per day. Nothing major but it’s a very targeted audience, I’d say.

Ok that’s all from me! David, I hope this has answered your questions. Please add any follow-up questions into the comments. Hopefully a few other people have found this interesting, as well. I guess I’d finish with saying that I get a lot of joy from working on my Kigali website. The key to that, though, is that I love this city, love living here, love sharing my knowledge with new people and love continuing to learn about this place. There’s a lot of love! If I didn’t have such a passion for Kigali I really think that would come across in my writing and it wouldn’t be such a popular site. I think the key to a destination authority site is having knowledge to share in a passionate way so if you can’t do this yourselves, make sure you find a partner or writers who can.

Good luck!

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