Everything You Need To Know About Blogging You Can Learn From Hip Hop

Time for a true confession: As a freelance writer, I have definitely been intrigued by the possibility of making money from blogging. In this day and age, who hasn’t? I’ve made a little money from Adsense ads, affiliate ads, and a few ad sales on my other website Italofile: The Italy Travel Resource. But it hasn’t been enough to quit the proverbial day job. Actually, as a stay-at-home-mom and sometimes trailing spouse of a diplomat, I can’t really quit the day job.

So, blogging it is!

But I didn’t start blogging to make money. When I started this blog – way back in 2004! – there wasn’t even the possibility of making money from a blog. Julie, of Julie and Julia fame, was live blogging during this time and there was only an inkling that a blog could be a money-maker, either from being turned into a book, from selling tons of ads, or by catapulting the blogger into the stratosphere of writing and consulting fame, a la Ana Marie Cox, formerly and famously of Wonkette.

I started this blog as a way of staying sharp, finding my voice, and, as was the case with Italofile, keeping up-to-date on travel news. My thinking was that these mounds and mounds of posts would be good for my daily writing exercises as well as be good writing samples for anyone who wants to hire me. Those are still my thoughts on the matter.

Six years into it (and four with Italofile), I have gotten a little antsy from time to time wondering when/if the money will come. There have even been times when I thought I should sign up for one of them there A-List Blogging Bootcamps. But the more I thought about it, I didn’t want to be part of a bootcamp. I wanted to be an individual. Find *my* voice.

Alas, given the chance to download a free e-book with A-List Blogging suggestions, I took it. I began reading the tips from Leo Babauta and co. and evaluating my sites against the advice. As I read more and more, it struck me that a lot of these practices, like writing guest pots, were obvious if not always easily implemented. Then I had a real revelation: I don’t have to go to bootcamp because….

Everything I Need to Know About Blogging I Can Learn From Hip Hop!

(Forget for a moment that I am neither an A-List Blogger nor Hip Hop Royalty, and bear with me…)

1. Content is King

How many times have you heard Jay-Z or Kanye West rap about how others’ lyrics are wack (excuse the lame expression)? Or consider how the most respected voices in hip hop have the sickest rhymes. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Mos Def, who wrote the excellent, 500+word, aptly-named song Hip Hop, continues to be a viable and bankable star after all these years rather than DMX, that three-hit wonder who liked to growl crude and not very good lyrics. Compare “scrutinize my literature, from the large to the miniature” by Mos Def to “all I know is pain,
all I feel is rain” from DMX’s Ruff Ryders’ Anthem and you’ll know what I mean when I say content is the thing. In A-List Blogger speak: “there is no better marketing than writing great articles,” according to Jay White of DumbLittleMan.com.

2. Anyone Can Do It

On the A-List Blogging BootCamps website, Leo Babauta says, “Blogs have taken the power from traditional publishers, and given it to ordinary people, like you and me.” (emphasis mine) In Hip Hop terms, that reminds me of hundreds of hungry, determined young kids sending off demo tapes with their best stuff (or, maybe, posting songs to MySpace or similar). Blogging, like rapping, is a skill, yes. But, again, anyone can do it as long as they practice and get their stuff into the hands (or in front of the eyes or on the ears) of the right people (see #3). So if Ms. Mary J. Blige can rise from the projects of New York to become the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, then surely I can rise out of this basement office near Washington, DC, to become a top blogger. Right? Right.

3. Guest Stars

Who doesn’t love a star turn by Jay-Z on a Beyoncé or Rihanna number? Or a Lil Wayne rhyme on…just about everything? If Lil Wayne was a blogger, he’d probably have blogged for ZenHabits.net and ProBlogger.net by now. This guy – all right, call him “Weezy” but I think that nickname is annoying – has made a living of guest starring on other stars’ songs. According to Wikipedia (the blogger’s favorite news source):

Despite no album release for two years, Lil Wayne appeared in numerous singles as a featured performer, including “Gimme That” by Chris Brown, “Make It Rain” by Fat Joe, “You” by Lloyd, and “We Takin’ Over” by DJ Khaled (also featuring Akon, T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, and Birdman), “Duffle Bag Boy” by Playaz Circle, “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)” by Wyclef Jean (also featuring Akon), and the remix to “I’m So Hood” by DJ Khaled (also featuring T-Pain, Young Jeezy, Ludacris, Busta Rhymes, Big Boi, Fat Joe, Birdman, and Rick Ross). All these singles charted within the top 20 spots on the Billboard Hot 100, Hot Rap Tracks, and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts. On Birdman’s 2007 album 5 * Stunna, Lil Wayne appeared on the singles “100 Million” and “I Run This” among several other tracks. Wayne also appeared on tracks from albums Getback by Little Brother, American Gangster by Jay-Z, and Graduation by Kanye West and Insomniac by Enrique Iglesias. “Make it Rain”, a Scott Storch production that peaked at number 13 on the Hot 100 and number two on the Hot Rap Tracks chart, was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for 2008.

So, it’s almost like Weezy didn’t even update his own blog for two years but was still getting some serious cred thanks to guest posting, er, rapping. But, when he did finally release an album in 2008, it sold more than 1 million copies in 1 week. Sure, it’s hard to compare the blogosphere with the music industry – and who’d want to in this crazy economic climate? – but this anecdote does tell you something: guest posting (starring) pays off. You’ll reach a much wider audience in the long run.

4. Self Promote, Self Promote

For bloggers, self-promotion has become much easier thanks to Facebook and Twitter. Of course, there’s the tried and true way of guest posting, too. But I also think this is hard advice to follow for some of us writers. We write because it’s easier for us to say things on paper or on screen than it is face-t0-face. Overcoming this timidity by promoting our stuff is a challenge.

This is where we need to summon the shameless self-promotion powers of Jay-Z.

From the beginning, Mr. Z (I know, Mr. Carter) has never doubted his rapping abilities. In one of his most recent – and most infectious – hits Empire State of Mind, Jay raps, “I’m the new Sinatra, And since I made it here, I can make it anywhere, (Yeah they love me everywhere).” In Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love, Jay-Z even self-promotes on his guest rap, alluding to his nickname HOVA (the s0-called God (Jehovah – Jay-HOVA) of rap), which is also mentioned in countless other hits from him.

You know, Jay-Z pulls a #3 and a #4 for Crazy in Love and got a wife out of it, too. His way must be the right way. So, don’t fear a little self-promotion. Because if you don’t do it for yourself, who will?

5. Promote Your Other Ventures

This point is related to #4, but I thought it was worth giving it its own header. Did you just finish a book? Do you have another blog that you want to publicize? Are you getting some cool writing gigs? This is a no-brainer, but make sure you promote these seemingly separate ventures on your own, primary blog. I admit, I don’t do this as much as I should (time escapes me). But this is a sure-fire way for people to know about your other projects and for your other projects to get looked at. If you’re not convinced, don’t ask me. Ask Jay-Z again. How many times have you heard him drop Roc-A-Fella, his record label, into his lyrics? Like 1,000 times at least…

A reminder: you can also find me at Italofile.com and usatourismboard.com. Respective Twitter accounts are @Italofileblog and @usatourismboard. And, don’t forget Facebook – Italofile on Facebook, USATB on Facebook. Oh, and did I mention that I’ve been experimenting with a new photo blog called Che Bella!, too? 🙂

6. Shout Outs

My last reason for paying attention to hip hop for blogging advice is all about spreading the love. Hip Hop stars do it all the time – at awards shows, in song lyrics. “First off, I have to give a shout out to my boys…”

Everyone loves to be admired and recognized by their peers. In blogging, a shout-out is simply link love – linking to a site or sites that you admire so that that blogger can get credit where it’s due. Organic links – ones that come from “real” blogs – are what make the blog SEO world go ’round. So shout-outs are as good to give as they are to get.

Of course, if you’re linking to a site and dissing it at the same time, you may want to try adding a “nofollow” attribute.

There are probably tons of other ways I can compare the A-List Blogging and Hip Hop Handbooks. Can you think of any? I don’t even want to get into rap rivalries. Though I’m thinking that the blog world equivalent may be flame comments. Ha! That could be a fun future post.

At any rate, I’m just going to keep plugging away like Julie and Ana Marie and Leo and maybe – just maybe – something good or GREAT will come along. After all:

80% of success is just showing up – Woody Allen

28 Things I Learned At TBEX

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend TBEX, a meet-up of travel bloggers organized by Travel Blog Exchange and, in particular, Kim Mance of Galavanting. For those of you who attended and may have met me, I was under the guise of Italofile, my blog about Italy travel (@italofileblog on Twitter), and also as USA Tourism Board (@usatourismboard), an unofficial guide to USA travel that I’ve been playing around with over the last year (to little success sigh).

At any rate, the TBEX conference was incredibly useful for knowledge gathering, networking, and enjoying a few Gin and Tonics on a lovely, if sticky, June evening in New York City. Here’s a list of what I learned, some professional, as well as personal, revelations. I’d love to hear what you learned, too, so leave a comment below.

Things I Learned At TBEX

  1. Travel bloggers and travel writers are the same. We have (or should have) editorial calendars, self-imposed deadlines, and an inherent drive to learn more about the world around us.

  2. My travel writing heroes are real and they are fabulous. Pictured are Jim Benning, Mike Barish, David Farley, and Robert Reid. Not pictured, but also in my pantheon are Johnny Jet, Spud Hilton, Chris Gray Faust, Sean Keener, and many many others.

  3. Your own travel photos are better than photos you’ve “borrowed” from Flickr, according to Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere. (See horribly grainy photo in link #2 – but, hey, it’s mine!)

  4. Travel writers like to drink.

  5. Some travel writers like to drink $300 glasses of scotch. Don’t do that if you’re on a press trip and liquor is comped. Bad form.

  6. If you go on a press trip or get PR stuff in the mail and you’re going to write about it, disclose it. Every time.

  7. Both PR people and travel writers should do research on each other to make sure that their relationships make sense.

  8. If you want to increase your SEO, make sure you add titles, alt tags, and descriptions to your posts and especially any photos or videos that you use because the latter have less of the “market share” on search engines.

  9. Knew this, but it was reiterated at TBEX: Google’s Adwords Keywords is invaluable for SEO.

  10. You can SEO your site to death, but if the content is no good no one is going to care. Write for humans, damnit!

  11. It’s not enough to have a laptop and an iPhone. Travel bloggers use all kinds of cool tools like the Quick Pod handheld tripod for shooting video or taking photos of yourself, the wireless mini battery extender for iPhone, and Pano, an app for taking outstanding photos on the iPhone (as long as the light is right).

  12. My next computer should be a Mac or an iPad. Really jealous of the three TBEXers who won the iPad drawings from TripAdvisor.com.

  13. The people who work at TripAdvisor.com are pretty nice and know how to throw an awesome happy hour (see #4).

  14. I should get to Australia – and particularly the Northern Territory – immediately. I was mesmerized by Mike Barish‘s talk about it during lunch on Saturday. Wow.

  15. If I could write about travel the way Mike Barish casually talks about travel, I’d be eternally grateful to the universe and perhaps much wealthier than I am today. But then….

  16. Overheard at TBEX: “Travel writers have been starving artists for an eternity. Travel blogging’s not going to change that. Much.” Or…something like that.

  17. I’m not the only travel blogger with kids. LOTS of mommy travel bloggers were at TBEX including Ciao Bambino and Luxury Travel Mom. The work that these ladies do is amazing and makes me realize that I need to stop bitching about having no time to write. (That said, ladies, are your kids in school, have a nanny, etc.? Or are you parenting and writing at the same time, all the time?)

  18. Having a son with autism also should not hamper my ability to be a kick ass travel writer, as evidenced, once again, by TBEX organizer and galavanter Kim Mance.

  19. Two days to attend TBEX was both too much and too little time to spend away from my kids.

  20. Some travel bloggers look just like their Twitter avatars, in particular @italylogue and @journeywoman. It was so great meeting Jessica and Evelyn.

  21. Journey Woman, aka Evelyn Hannon, is a pioneer of women’s travel, having started in 1982. And don’t ask her to change her website: it’s comfortable, like your grandmother’s house.

  22. Finding your niche is important. More important is sticking with it, getting better with each post.

  23. If you’ve excelled at your niche, create and sell an e-book about it, a la Nomadic Matt. It’s a way to monetize your blog without having to fill it with ads.

  24. Invest in your blog by, for example, purchasing a theme. (Something I learned from Nomadic Matt’s eBook How to Make Money with Your Travel Blog. (See…#23 works!)

  25. The extremely prolific travel writer Zach Everson doesn’t seem to have a geographic specialty, rather his niche is humor, a trait that works for a ton of markets. To wit, this tweet on ethical blogging and this one about shooting travel video and this tweet on traveling within the U.S. Was cracking up the whole time. Wish I had such a gift.

  26. Speaking of gifts, An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town by David Farley comes out in paperback on July 6, 2010. Who doesn’t want to read about the search to find Jesus’s foreskin? Yeah, thought so.

  27. Pam Mendel, of Nerd’s Eye View, is incredibly funny (knew that, TBEX cemented it) and quite the activist for travel writers. I love the way she used her guest spot on a conference panel to demand Free WiFi in hotels. It really is just as important as the lighting and indoor plumbing.

  28. Try to keep the emotion out of travel writing. Look at your work objectively and don’t beat yourself up thinking that every one else but you has got it figured out. As Sean Keener so nicely put it in this tweet:

It’s not about keeping up. It’s about finding your voice and your “why”

Thanks everyone for a great weekend! I sincerely hope I can make it out to Vancouver for TBEX 2011.

Favorite iPhone Apps of a Freelancing, Gadget Geek Mom

iPhone apps for kids

I love my iPhone but I'm ready to upgrade!

I’ve been meaning to write about my favorite overall iPhone apps ever since writing about the Best iPhone Apps for the Italophile on my Italy travel blog. But as a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom, I don’t have a whole lot of time to devote to writing on my personal blog.

Enter BestKidsApps.com, a genius website that I wish I would have started. They are holding a contest for blogging moms right now and the winner could win an iPad. How could I not answer their link love call to write about iPhone apps for kids, especially when I no longer have a Kindle? I want that iPad!

It is not an exaggeration when I say that the iPhone has changed my life, and I have a feeling that an iPad could very well do the same. My iPhone is my lifeline for freelancing, which includes not only writing (WordPress) and marketing (HootSuite) but also getting paid (Paypal). It is also the best tool in my arsenal for keeping my son occupied while we’re doing important errands, like running to the grocery store, post office, or doctor’s appointment. In fact, I, like a lot of parents I know, have to use my iPhone as a sort of reward for my 3 year old if he is on good behavior and/or if I need him to “settle down for a few minutes while mommy gets this post written.” Yep. He’s playing with my phone now.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my son has PDD-NOS, also known as mild autism. He may also have Asperger’s Syndrome, though that has not been officially diagnosed. While electronic gadgets are not necessarily recommended for kids that have autism as there’s a fear that they will “stim out” (get overstimulated) on them, I have found several apps that I like that are both educational and provide tens of minutes of entertainment to a child who is easily distracted.

Voice Toddler Cards (Talking Flashcards) – This is the very first kid-specific app I downloaded. It cost $.99 but has provided hours of fun for my 3.5 year old as well as for my almost 18m old. The app provides flash cards in a number of different categories – animals, colors, shapes, numbers, etc. – and you can set the language in either English or Spanish. The feature that my kids like the best on here is recording your own voice for the flashcards. It helps my son improve his speech and it’s also fun for me to hear his little voice recorded on the app.

Math Cards – These are in the same vain as the flashcards above. My son is obsessed with numbers, so I figured why not give him the opportunity to learn addition, subtraction, and the rest of it? At 3.5 years old, he doesn’t really do much beyond the addition category. But I’ve got this card in my pocket should his interests change.

PBS Kids Photo Factory – This is just a super fun app that lets you add your favorite PBS Kids cartoon characters to pictures on your iPhone. Add Curious George, Super Why, Elmo, and any other character to your child’s photo and upload it to Facebook to share with friends and family. I like that PBS made it so you can only add one of each character so you don’t end up with a photo of a 1,000 Elmos and I also like that you can adjust the size of the character so it fits into your photo. You’re supposed to be able to arrange the character to the front or back of your photo, but I haven’t gotten that to work yet. Nevertheless, a cute little app. And it’s free.

Going Places by Model Me Kids – I recently downloaded this app by Model Me Kids, which is a company that produces “social stories.” If you don’t have a kid on the spectrum, this will look like a pretty boring app on the face of it. In fact, it’s a lightweight app that teaches your kid how to act in different social environments by showing you visuals of proper behavior. Some of the social situations that are shown here are the restaurant, the hairdresser, and playground. It’s really helpful to have these visual cues for my son. He can relate to the kids shown in the photos on the app and the stories also act as reinforcements for behaviors we have taught him. It’s a free app and takes up very little space.

On a side note, there are several apps out there that are geared toward the spectrum set or kids who are having trouble transitioning into bigger kid behavior (like potty training). I am especially impressed by the Grace App and the First Then Visual Scheduler, which both use PECS, a teaching system which helps kids avoid tantrums by understanding how their day will progress. I’ve considered downloading the latter, but despite its good ratings I’m reluctant to download it because of its $9.99 price tag. I think I’d me a little more apt to buy this app if I could have it on an iPad which ostensibly has more memory and permanence.

Musée du Louvre – This was a surprise to me, but my son loves this app. I came to download this app because I was browsing through my Genius recommendations and saw that the Louvre app was free (not sure if that will always be the case). At any rate, my son loves scanning through the photos and playing the videos, even though they are in French. He especially loves to watch the Venus de Milo video. And given that he has a tendency to remember long scripts, I fully expect him to be talking about art history in French any day now. By the way, when he wants to play with this app, he says “more art.” Cute.

While all of the above apps have proved their worth or utility, I do have to admit that my son’s favorite apps aren’t in the app store at all. They are the apps that come with the iPhone, especially YouTube and the iPod. Thanks to these two apps my son can watch either his favorite advertisement (that Kia commercial with Muno and the Sock Monkey in Vegas) or a full episode of Yo Gabba Gabba.

Well…lunchtime is over and my iPhone battery is running low. So I don’t have time to provide a long list of my favorite non-kid apps. But I will tell you that two apps I could not live without are the Public Radio Player app and Cardstar, a fantastic app that stores the bar codes for all those store discount cards you’ve got in your wallet or on your keychain. I swear that every time I bust the latter one out at a store people go “ooh” and “aah.” As a mom constantly questioning whether I’m losing touch with what’s current, the Cardstar app always makes me look like a star – even when all I’m doing is buying diapers. *sigh*

(Ha! Just as I was finishing this post up comes this article that two-thirds of all apps in the iPhone app store are for kids!)

Photo © BestKidsApps.com