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How Megan Starr’s Travel Blogs Earned $700k+ in 2023 From Ads and Affiliate Marketing

Like lots of travel bloggers, Megan Starr has always had a passion for travel. But Megan is not like most travel bloggers.

Fourteen years ago, she packed up her things, left her home state of Virginia, and moved to Norway. That became her home base for traveling, and she started a travel blog called Megan Starr

to document her adventures but had no intentions of ever turning it into an actual business.

Originally, it was a former USSR country blog, and she also wrote extensively about traveling to places like Kazakhstan, Romania, Armenia, and Croatia.

When she finally realized she could turn it into a business, things really took off.

Today, she has expanded her portfolio to four travel blogs, gets over 7 million sessions per year, and will close out 2023 with an income of over $700k.

Keep reading to find out:

  • What sites she created and why she started them
  • Where her income comes from
  • Her main marketing strategies
  • Her thoughts on SEO
  • Her approach to keyword research
  • How she builds links
  • Her content creation process
  • Her approach to email lists
  • The resources and tools she uses
  • The biggest challenge she’s faced
  • Her greatest accomplishment
  • Her main mistake
  • The advice she would give to other entrepreneurs

Meet Megan Starr

I’m Megan, a blogger and digital marketer from Richmond, Virginia (but living in Europe for the last 14 years). 

Growing up, I was always interested in travel and you could catch me sitting in the back corner of the library reading travel guidebooks about Scandinavia and other places that seemed quite far-flung to me at the time. 

I played college basketball for a while, got my degree, and then ended up in Ohio before picking up and moving to Bergen, Norway. 

And, all these years later, I am still on this side of the pond! I have a visa and apartment that ties me to Frankfurt, Germany… but I bought a house last year in Rovaniemi, Finland, so I am there quite often, too. 

I celebrated my 40th birthday this year (it feels weird writing that!), have a partner (he is British), and am child-free by choice. But, I do plan to adopt another dog in the future if things work out.

Why She Created Her Sites

I created my blog about two years before moving to Norway… so roughly 16 years ago! It was a lifestyle blog at first and then kind of transitioned into an expat and travel blog once I moved abroad. 

Screen Shot 2023 12 21 at 12.23.17 AM

It was just me at the time.

I think I am one of the few bloggers who truly blogged out of passion and as a hobby with no intentions of monetizing it. 

Norway was so expensive when I lived there, so I found myself in former Soviet countries in the east because the Norwegian kroner went a lot further there. 

So, I started blogging about this part of the world and had grown a pretty interested audience around my rambles. 

I was the first blogger to really write about Abkhazia, a lot of Ukrainian destinations, Belarus, etc. with on-going return trips and consistent content. I mixed this content with Norway guides and expat rants.

In 2017, I was without a Schengen visa and doing 3 months stints in places like Bulgaria, Romania, Armenia, Croatia, and Kazakhstan. 

Lenin statue Arin Village Armenia 1 2 1

I decided to monetize my site with ads just to give myself a buffer since I was living out of hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs. 

Once I monetized the blog, I was able to make it a full-time job instantly as I had unknowingly built up traffic over the years when doing it simply as a hobby. My first (and only) ad network has been Mediavine. I am in their Mediavine Pro for two of my sites.

Aram joined in 2018 and we started an Armenia travel site, Absolute Armenia, as he is Armenian. It’s focused on tourism development in the country. 

Screen Shot 2023 12 21 at 12.26.00 AM

About a year later, the Virginia site, Virginia Travel Tips, and my Hawaii site, Next is Hawaii, were started as my audience was looking to stay in the US because of the pandemic and I wanted to create content that could be used quickly and be of purpose during a weird time in the world.

Screen Shot 2023 12 21 at 12.26.58 AM
Screen Shot 2023 12 21 at 12.27.33 AM

How Much She’s Earning

I don’t really evaluate each blog on how much it makes since I run 4 (perhaps I should!) but according to Mediavine, here is a breakdown for 2023. 

Please keep in mind we were annihilated by the HCU in September 2023 on the Virginia site and further by the October 2023 updates on the other sites.

2023 Numbers (through mid-December)

– Megan & Aram: $239,021.25 (4.6 million sessions)
– Next is Hawaii: $42,137.34 (887,567 sessions)
– Virginia Travel Tips: $96,982.84 (1.9 million sessions)
____________
$378,141.43

In 2022, we made $518,817.86 on Mediavine ads across the three blogs (with the Hawaii site not being monetized with ads the entire year).

In 2022, we didn’t focus too much on affiliates as ad money was pretty good and we took on a lot of paid projects in Armenia. I don’t have the exact number, but I imagine we made about $150,000 on affiliates in 2022 (I didn’t use Affilimate all year, so it’s hard to get the number).

But, in 2023, we focused a lot on affiliates and have currently made $270,173.26 according to Affilimate (the affiliate tool we love and use). 

Affilimate Screenshot 2023

Affilimate does not include some of our affiliates, however. It is missing our Amazon, Guide to Faroe Islands, Welcome Pickups, and Manawa. Collectively we probably made another $12,000 across those platforms.

In total, for 2023, our confirmed income is $700k+.

Megan Aram 2023 Mediavine screenshot
Megan & Aram Mediavine income
Next is Hawaii 2023 Mediavine screenshot
Next Is Hawaii Mediavine income
Virginia Travel Tips 2023 Mediavine screenshot
Virginia Travel Mediavine income

As for traffic, before the updates in September 2023, we did fairly well. 

Now I am waiting to see how things shake out once this settles a bit. We lost about 85% of traffic on the Virginia website and a fair amount on the Hawaii site (which was actually down about 80% before HCU because of the fires on Maui).

I used to work around 15 hours a day on my sites a couple of years back! 

Now, I’m barely working as I have spent a lot of time on the road this year. I hope to get into one place and can work a bit more consistently again (although without those 15-hour days)!

Megan’s Top Marketing Strategy

My degree is in marketing and I have always had a knack for understanding the buying process, which I find kind of goes over the heads of many other bloggers. I mainly just focus on myself and what I can contribute to the web and travelers. 

One strategy I have always been pretty keen on is identifying the purpose of every post I put out there. When determining the topic, I know whether it will be focused on ad money, affiliate income, or simply just there to support other posts on the site. 

I also write a fair number of posts that really aren’t great for monetization but they land users on the blog and that is the goal, first and foremost.

For affiliate income, top-fold boxes have been super helpful for me. I think I was the first blogger to put these across the blog back in 2019 and it was just an idea planned out by my Get Your Guide manager and me as we know that around 80% of people don’t scroll past the top screen on their mobiles (or desktops). 

I would say these boxes have accounted for 70%+ of my affiliate income. I am currently trying to scale them back a bit in 2024 and removing ones that have not converted as I had hoped. Below is an example from an article about Reykjavik in winter.

Screen Shot 2023 12 24 at 6.25.13 PM

The Importance of SEO

SEO is really important, but I have kind of stepped back from the on-page side of it this year. 

I run a few niche blogs and on those sites, I write about everything pertaining to the destinations, so wasting time curating SEO-heavy articles just isn’t the best use of my time. 

On the main site (Megan & Aram), I use it a little bit more as it is a general travel site. But, I figured that Google is smart enough to realize what is good and not good content regardless of overdoing it on keywords and semantics. 

I thought that until the Helpful Content Update in September 2023 – now I am not so sure!

I find off-page and technical SEO far more important than on-page at this point of my blogging journey so I tend to focus more on that.

Keyword Research

I use Semrush and will do research when necessary, but I’m at a point where I just write whatever fills in a content gap on the blogs. 

The only thing I really use it for is if I question how an audience searches for something. I will research that and write down different variations of things just to ensure I am using the right terminology and phrases. 

My audience is heavily American, but I have been out of the US for so long now that I sometimes forget how we phrase things.

Lenin statue in Yerevan Armenia

I don’t tend to look at the competition, but when I see certain blogs in the top results, I sometimes shudder as I know they are hard to beat (generally because they are very good!). 

But, I usually still write the post because I figure if I can get a small piece of the “pie,” I still can enjoy a bit of success on the work put forth.

Link Building

I don’t link build much. I will sometimes go into blogger groups and put a request for a few fresh swaps on content, but then I usually forget about it by the next day and never get back to the post. 

I do some collabs with other bloggers when fitting, but it is far fewer these days than before as I don’t really see the value.

Her Content Creation Process

The main site has about 800 live articles, Hawaii has about 100, and Virginia about 200. The Armenia site has around 200.

Regarding the content creation process… this is one of my weaknesses. 

When I’m creating an article from scratch on my own, it’s fine. But, we have a team of writers and it goes through a process that can be a bit mentally chaotic for me as I manage it all. 

I have a VA creating briefs for the writers, then I assign the content. Once finished, it goes to our editor and content manager, who will get it in WordPress for me and ready to go. 

I then go in and add personal insight where I can and then publish. This process is far too complex and quite frankly, isn’t working all that well as it has left me with 300+ articles in draft because I can’t get to them all on my own. So, fixing this is another 2024 goal. 

I am also terrible at finding time to update guides. My new goal is to focus on that more, as well.

As for EEAT, I have some writers who are experts on certain destinations and Aram is an expert on others. 

For me, I get my EEAT from my travels in places. I cite my mistakes and my wins in a very genuine manner. 

While I am good at this on my main site, I honestly have failed at this on the Virginia site (and parts of the Hawaii site). It is something I am fixing now. I need to provide better insight and tips for people.

Her Email Lists

This is probably my biggest failure in blogging. 

While I started out as someone who had loyal readers and a community, I don’t anymore. I kind of backed away from that style of blogging (regrettably). 

I collect emails a little here and there on the blogs, but I have never done anything with that list and I would feel uncomfortable surprising readers from 2 years ago with an email. 

I understand email marketing and have even done it for brands, so this is pretty inexcusable. Perhaps a 2024 goal?

Her Favorite Resources

Before starting a travel blog (as a business), I would learn a bit about the customer first and foremost. 

Define your intended audience, understand the buying process, and follow travel trends a bit. 

Then join some Facebook groups and be a sponge… but not too much where you emulate someone else’s entire business. Yours will be different, no matter what you initially think. 

Megan in Greenland

Also, take what many people say with a grain of salt. A lot of people in these Facebook groups fabricate their numbers and experiences, unfortunately.

Then ask successful people what mistakes they made and how they would do things differently.

Her Go-To Tools

Affilimate is great for tracking affiliate income and user actions, Semrush for SEO stuff, and I just started using RankIQ to update old content and it seems pretty great so far. 

That is all blogging stuff… I guess I don’t really use much else outside of work!

I use Asana to manage my team.

Her Biggest Challenge

Honestly, that would be Google. 

I am playing in someone else’s sandbox and I feel a bit insecure about that and don’t like it. I don’t love social media and am at an age where I just feel a bit apathetic about Instagram and stuff and I refuse to dive into that to diversify my income (which I need to do to feel a bit more secure). 

I do like TikTok as a user, so maybe I will give that a shot.

I also have struggled because I didn’t build my team right and scaled in the wrong direction. 

I have a lot of people doing the “same thing” and not the things that really need to be done or are helpful for me. I am restructuring in 2024, as a result. 

AI is also leaving me a bit concerned. While I find the answers AI is giving laughable, it also leaves me squirmish. 

Fortunately, travel is usually not an “impulse” buy, so I feel there is still a place for travel blogging. 

But when I see some of the stuff out there that was clearly created by AI, I genuinely feel bad for the traveler who is using their hard-earned money and vacation time and planning with information that will fail them in the long run.

Her Greatest Accomplishment

For me, it’s not working for another person. I like to call my own shots. If I fail, it’s on me. If I succeed, it’s also on me. 

And I can celebrate my successes with a trip somewhere without worrying if I exceed the 2 weeks of vacation I would have if I worked for someone else.

What She Wishes She Knew When She Started

Since I started long ago, even before Instagram was a thing, I don’t think I can say as the industry has changed so much! 

But, I do wish I had monetized earlier. I was so hesitant as I felt my hobby would be lost when the blog became a job. 

That never actually happened… In fact, it made my travel more purposeful and I now step into those museums and attractions I wouldn’t have stepped foot in before as I need to grab a photo and experience the place myself.

Her Main Mistake

Not building an email list is up there! I hope to rectify this in 2024 (not holding my breath though, as this is a goal every year for me). 

I also wish I had been more hands-on with my content in the last few years on the Virginia site. I am updating it now and realize how horrendous a lot of it was. Honestly, I’m ashamed, as a Virginian. 

While I think Google got their HCU update very, very wrong, I think my Virginia site being impacted was warranted and a good kick in my butt to fix my content strategy for future posts.

Her Advice for Other Entrepreneurs

Industries change. I have been through at least 3 major shifts in travel blogging and all three times I have thought my world was going to end and I’d lose all income. 

Adapt to those changes or you will be out of a job. 

And while people can be mad at Google or other reasons for the ever-changing industry, we have to realize that this happens in every single industry in the world… not just the web.

Kyiv Ukraine 2011

If you have something to offer the web or your potential audience, hop on board. There’s always room for more if you add value. 

Competition keeps me on my toes and if people click on a blog that isn’t mine, at least they clicked a blog and not a Reddit forum or Tripadvisor page, meaning blogging still serves its purpose and I can stick around a little longer.

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