Much more goes into building a social media empire than picking the perfect filter. With never-ending workdays, an ever-changing industry landscape, and numerous trolls, it takes a lot more work, ingenuity, and perseverance than you thought.
In our new series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with an avalanche forecaster, undercover hotel inspector, and a doctor without borders. Up next: a woman who built a travel empire through social media.
There’s a decent chance you already follow Kiersten “Kiki” Rich, aka The Blonde Abroad, on Instagram (446,000 followers), YouTube (19,480 subscribers), Facebook (165,928 followers), Twitter (27,000 followers), and/or Pinterest (56,107 followers). If you don’t, you’ll want to after glimpsing her dreamy travel photography or scrolling through her deep archive of down-to-earth blog posts. What started in 2011 with a few heavily filtered Instagrams is now a multi-platform business with diversified revenue streams and a formidable team of helpers. There’s a reason the 29-year-old is one of the most successful travel and lifestyle bloggers on the Internet, pulling in a salary the rest of us only dream about: Her global adventures inspire wanderlust (and sometimes envy), and the community she built from scratch fosters camaraderie among twenty- and thirtysomething women much like herself. We caught up with Rich in San Diego to talk about her first big career break, what makes good paid content, and the best way to silence the haters.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
“I’ve always been drawn to the ocean, so as a little kid, I wanted to work at Sea World. [Laughs] Before I went to college, I wanted to study nutrition and become a celebrity chef. A very different life that would have been.”
You studied finance in college. Did someone steer you away from food?
“When I was working my first job as a secretary in a law firm, my boss said to me, ‘You know, if you study business, you can do whatever you want with your life.’ It was the best advice I ever got. When you’re creative, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is monetizing. I’m still passionate about food, but when it comes to running my own business, that education was vital.”
People who don’t know you might think you were an overnight Instagram sensation. But it took a long time to get to where you are. Can you give us your résumé highlights in 60 seconds?
“The struggle was definitely real. [Laughs] I supported myself through school and I’m still paying off school loans. I hustled like crazy. After I left my career in finance, I worked promotional events as a bartender and tray passer. I started making contacts and soft-pitching a travel blog I had started. All of my trips in the first year or two were very budget/backpacker or volunteer abroad endeavors. That was six years ago, so I would definitely not categorize myself as an overnight success.”
A lot of the comments you get say, “OMG, I want your life!” or “Your job is such a dream!” But no job is perfect. What’s something the outside world doesn’t understand about what you do?
“Just how self-motivated you have to be. I hosted a few blogging retreats this summer. Thirty-two people came to learn more about the business side of things. They had no idea how much I did behind the scenes. You have to become an expert in everything. [When I started,] the ‘social media influencer’ trail hadn’t been blazed. We were all just winging it—and still are as the business grows and morphs into weird new avenues.
“The hardest part is keeping up with it. You can’t go on a week’s vacation. It’s every day, all day long. One of the biggest keys to success is building community and talking to people. But when you have over a million people following you on, like, six different platforms, responding to questions is a full-time job! Then you have the actual content creation: the photography element, the curation of imagery, shooting and editing video, writing a daily blog post. . . . It’s a lot! And you’re doing all that while traveling with spotty Wi-Fi—so you’re basically working against yourself. [Laughs]”
That’s something a lot of entrepreneurs can relate to, especially if they’re just starting out. These days, you have a number of people who help you out. What were some of the job responsibilities you couldn’t wait to unload?
“The online world is great because you can do most of this for free, but that makes your time the biggest expense. The first thing I knew I needed but was absolutely terrified to do was delegate the admin tasks—like scheduling content and answering emails. It’s scary: My brand is me! I talked myself out of getting help for years because, like, no one can be me. But you get stuck with monetizing when you spend most of your time responding to your audience instead of reaching out about new opportunities. Then one day, one of my readers reached out and said, ‘I realize there’s a lot more to what you’re doing and I was wondering if I could help.’ She sent me a résumé and treated it like a proper job. She’s been with me now for almost four years.”
You’re a good example of someone who has had success across multiple platforms. Some people focus on one digital space, but what happens when that medium is no longer cool? Or disappears altogether?
“I realized very early on that you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket in this industry. Sometimes I work really hard on Facebook or Pinterest, and then I see people with millions of followers on Instagram and I think, ‘If I only focus on Instagram, I would probably do way better on that platform . . . .’ But then what if something happens to Instagram? Then what? Look at Vine. That was such a reality check. You had these incredible video producers who were just crushing it—and then it died. Like, the app actually had a funeral. Unless Vine users pushed their audiences to Instagram, everything they worked for is gone.”
“I challenged the idea of what ‘travel’ meant. I was interested in fashion and beauty and all types of travel, from backpacking and volunteering to boutique luxury trips.”
Was diversification something you picked up in business school?
“Finance is all about diversification. You never invest all of your money in a single entity. Same with your business. Once you’ve established a brand, the world is your oyster. Every platform has a different audience. The people who discover my content on Pinterest may not be dedicated followers of my blog. Followers of my blog might not watch my YouTube channel. People who watch my YouTube channel might not follow me on Instagram. And people on Instagram might not even know I have a blog! I try to be modest about audience behavior and always assume the least amount of interaction. But I’m also confident that if one of my core pillars fell, like Instagram, I’d have enough audience reach through other outlets to sustain my business.”
So do you jump on every new app or tool that pops up?
“I have a very strong sense of who my readers are, so I need to ask: ‘Does this platform speak to young women? Could I see myself using it? And how is it used?’ When Periscope came out, the fact that you had to download a separate app to stream live video was a deal-breaker. When Facebook released its live video streaming, I liked it much better because people are already on Facebook. I always look at the features added by existing social platforms.”
I imagine that’s a large part of your success—being willing to evolve with the platform and the ever-shifting algorithms.
“Look, you can definitely be upset about it but you’re never going to beat it. So don’t fight it! A lot of the changes are for the best anyway. It’s actually pretty cool that you can now advertise on Instagram, or use a Facebook account to run Instagram and Facebook ads. I’ve seen other influencers grow massive followings this way. That was never possible before.”
Tell me about your first big Instagram break.
“I’ve met high school students these days with 5,000 followers, and I’m just like, wow. It took me two or three years to get to 5,000 followers!
“But for me, one of the first things that happened was a very organic travel experience called The Yacht Week. It’s a sailing experience geared toward millennials with disposable income. Basically, you get a sailboat with a bunch of your friends and join a regatta of, like, 20 boats. They have these events all summer long in different places all around the world: the British Virgin Islands, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Montenegro. I went on it for fun and then ended up writing a beginner’s guide to the Yacht Week. The brand shared it on their Facebook page and to this day, it’s still the No. 1 ranking Google search result. I didn’t know anything about SEO back then, like how to show up in a Google search. That opened my eyes. The whole strategy is writing about something that doesn’t already exist on the Internet. That led me to doing my first press trip, which is when I came up with the model I use today for brand partnerships.”
Were there a lot of travel bloggers working with brands at the time?
“No. And a lot of the girls who were writing about travel were very adventurous and outdoorsy. I was more interested in fashion. And to be honest, I wasn’t taken very seriously within the travel community. I would go to conferences and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re the bikini girl.’”
Did their dismissiveness bother you?
“Oh, yeah. Completely. I tried to take it with a grain of salt, but there were multiple instances where people didn’t take me seriously because I challenged the idea of what ‘travel’ meant. I was interested in fashion and beauty and all types of travel, from backpacking and volunteering to boutique luxury trips. My whole goal with The Blonde Abroad was to show how I travel, and I think that spoke to a lot of women. There’s so much space to create your own niche within travel, I wasn’t caught up with being a so-called travel person. That was unique at the time, and I was met with a lot of criticism. People said, ‘Oh, you’re not a real traveler’ and ‘Who’s ever going to read your blog?’ It took me a few years, but I eventually left them in the dust.”
“One of the first was brand partnership. I was very comfortable in that space because I had done promotional modeling, so I knew how to talk about products and brands. I would approach companies and say, ‘Hey, I actually use your product. This is why it’s amazing and I love it. Here are pictures of me using it. I want to bring it on my next trip. Do you have a budget?’ I would sell them on the idea of investing in me, regardless of what my actual audience size or online influence was. My strategy was to provide them with the content for their own marketing.
“One of the first brands I partnered with was LifeProof, which makes waterproof iPhone cases. I thought their products were amazing, but they could be doing a lot more to promote them. Turns out, PR and marketing teams love it when you help them do their job. So I just sent in a proposal for a marketing campaign. I made it hard for people to say no to me.”
How do you decide what you will or won’t promote?
“One of the hardest things about this job is saying no to money. You get massive offers, usually from corporate brands, and you have to say no based on your own ethics and brand integrity. There’s always a threshold of, ‘Is it worth it for the money, just this once?’ But we say no way more than we say yes. If I said yes to everything and I was putting, like, casino links in my blog posts, people would say, ‘This is just a spammy site.’ As soon as someone looks at you like spam or a scam, you can’t bounce back from that. I realized this by watching other people make mistakes.”
“If you listen to your audience, they’re telling you what they want.”
When you agree to a campaign, how does it work? Do you decide the content or do they?
“I’ve had management for a couple of years now, which has helped streamline this process. My manager jumps on calls with potential partners to explain the basics of how it works. We also throw out our rate card right away: ‘This is the reality of what it costs for me to produce X, Y, and Z.’ On a trip, it might be a day rate that includes a certain number of social media promotions. Or, if I’m going out to shoot a video for somebody, I require a plus-one to help me film, an editing budget, and a rate for shooting. That usually ends or starts the conversation. A lot of people still think, ‘Oh, if I send you a silk pillowcase, will you post it on Instagram?’ It’s like, ‘Thank you for the free product, but that’s not why I do this!’”
Well, they wouldn’t do it if so many influencers weren’t willing to post selfies with a free silk pillowcase.
“Yeah, absolutely. And in the beginning, free stuff is amazing. It feels like you made it! But free doesn’t pay the bills. At first, I had no idea how to charge people. What is an Instagram post worth? But over the years, I’ve been able to calculate a solid return on investment. We do full campaign analytics for our big clients where we break down impressions, engagement, reach, all that stuff—and then we use those briefs to recruit future clients.”
Do travel influencers talk to each other, or is it so competitive that you would never ask your peers for advice?
“The industry is very closed. It’s quite sad. I don’t care—I’ll share everything. Me saying what I charge doesn’t mean someone else can charge that. There’s no way to compare. Someone could have the same number of followers as me but charge way more for a beauty product review than I could. That’s just understanding your audience and how relevant it is to what you’re promoting. On Facebook, there are travel blogging groups, travel Instagram groups, and travel Pinterest groups. They’re supposed to be helping each other out, but they’re not. It’s just a place to brag: ‘Oh, I got this campaign.’ Someone will ask how they did it in the comments and . . . silence. It’s silly.”
There are many shortcuts Instagram users can take nowadays to generate reach: You can buy followers. You can join pods, where the likes and comments are tit for tat. What do you tell newbies looking for an easy in?
“I tell the people I mentor not to waste their time with [Instagram pods]. You want real people who are interested in what you’re doing to follow you—not people following you because they also want to be influencers.
“When I first started, I had to educate brands on why they needed to use online marketing. A lot of times I would reach out to a hotel and they’d say, ‘We only host actual journalists.’ Now, there’s way more people using social media and it’s the standard for direct, targeted marketing. If you focus on a single platform and do all the right strategy, 100 percent you can kill it.”
Is it best just to ignore the haters?
“People are always looking for a reaction in those types of situations. As for hate comments, YouTube is the worst. It’s just so negative. People post very strongly worded things like, ‘I hope you die.’ Why would you write that?! I’ve backed off YouTube a bit because their audience actually scares me. Instagram is so much more positive. If someone writes something negative, the community deals with it. Same on Facebook. I call it the Blondehive. [Laughs] I don’t even have to respond to comments, my followers are already on it! They say, ‘Read this blog post, this’ll tell you exactly what you’re wrong about.’ It’s the best form of comeback. Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, your parents are rich, lucky you,’ and I’ve literally tagged my mom in a comment and been like, ‘Mom, can you let her know how much you earn?’ Then they shut up. [Laughs] People don’t realize, like, ‘Hi, I’m a real person. I have feelings, too.’”
Do you ever get to take your mom on trips?
“Yes! It’s the best thing. Before I started this, my parents didn’t even have passports. Two years ago, I took her on a campaign for a cruise company. We had a private butler and everything! She also visited me when I relocated to Cape Town in January. She traveled by herself, which she had never done before, and I booked her an extended layover in Paris.”
So you now call South Africa home when you’re not on the road?
“I have an apartment there, but I’m still on a tourist visa. I want to apply for residency and spend half the year there and half the year in California. Living out of a suitcase becomes pretty tiring, and it’s not the best thing for business.”
What do you like about South Africa?
“It has an incredible energy. It is a melting pot of language and culture and history. The city of Cape Town itself is a very cosmopolitan. Beautiful beaches, beautiful weather, incredible cuisine, friendly people . . . and the cost of living is just as cheap as Southeast Asia. You see a lot of travel bloggers moving to Bali and Chiang Mai and Berlin, but I wanted to do something different. So I followed my heart to Cape Town. It’s still unchartered territory for a lot of Americans. I foresee big things happening down there and I want to be at the forefront of covering it.”
Last question: What’s your five-year plan?
“The biggest thing for me in the next year is hosting women’s retreats around the world that aren’t yoga and green food. [Laughs] We have a waiting list of over 1,000 women. I’ve also had a lot of experience traveling with different products and figuring out where things fall short. So I’m planning to produce my own product lines, like swimwear. I want to create a bikini for every body. Luggage is another one—I’ve tried so many different types and nothing has really wowed me. There are always things they could do better, so I figured why not just do it myself? The beautiful thing about social media is that I already have a built-in customer base. If you listen to your audience, they’re telling you what they want. And now, after doing this for so long, I have my own capital to be my own investor and invest in the things I’m really passionate about. It’s the purest form of business.”