If you’re from Northern Ireland and you haven’t heard of Johnny Ward, you’re missing out…
Johnny is the 32 year old from Kilkeel, Co. Down who has blogged his journey to visit every country in the world since he left Northern Ireland 10 years ago.
During another brief trip home to Ireland, I had the privilege of interviewing Johnny this week for a piece he is doing to coincide with the Digital DNA Digital Tourism conference later this year.
Having just announced my own plans to emigrate from Ireland to my husband’s native New Zealand at Christmas time, the encounter was pretty timely for me.
But with his challenge nearing an end, his new base now in Thailand, and his SEO business booming, I had a few questions of my own for Johnny.
Thankfully this inspiring, friendly blogger was more than happy to share what he’s learned along the (very long) way:
Me: Regardless of whether people want to be a travel blogger or not, would you advise people to get online and get blogging in general?
Johnny: Yes. Absolutely. So I’m obviously biased as I love travel blogging and I think everyone should do that. But even if it’s not travel, everyone should have a blog. My girlfriend has a blog because I built it for her. Likewise, my sister has a blog, my Mum has a blog!
The thing about blogging is that there is no potential downside to it, apart from the fact that it eats up some of your time. But so does Coronation Street, you know? The worst case scenario is you have a diary of your life which is cool to look back on when you’re old and grey. The best case scenario is you get loads of free stuff, or even better you end up making lots of money from it.
Tell me a better job, aside from being a Premiership footballer, where everyday you’re just doing what you want to do, and then writing about it?!
And it also helps you develop your own voice. I look back on my early articles in 2009/10, its so cringey to read what I wrote! It’s important to find your voice and understand your audience, too. There’s no 3-year university degree that can teach you that.
Writing it down, reading it back, seeing what resonates with people. And feeling proud of what you’ve written. The only way to do that is to start writing, and keep writing, until you improve.
Everyone has to take that journey. Even if you’re not in the travel world, or even the digital media world. Who doesn’t need to write better?
Me: My son wants to be a vlogger on YouTube when he grows up. So that generation is growing up unafraid to put themselves out there. They want to be media producers. But what do you think about the obsession with doing it simply to “get rich”?
Johnny: I really don’t like that. I read this horrific poll in The Economist. Over the last 30 years they’d asked kids annually what they wanted to be when they grow up. And the most recent top answer from boys and girls was simply “to be famous.”
Not famous for something. Just famous. I think that’s a horrific reflection of society.
So when my story went viral about making 7-figures from blogging, that alone made me sad, because I’d been blogging for 5, 6, 7 years about the beauty of experiencing different cultures. And no-one really gave a sh*t, you know? And then suddenly you make X-amount of money and the World is your best mate. That’s upsetting.
Now because of all those stories out in the media I get lots of emails. But people rarely ask “how can I write better?” or “how can I engage my audience better?” It’s always “how do I make money from it?”
I’m harsh to those requests because, although I’m happy to show people how to technically start blogging, when they ask about making money I literally have a set cut-and-paste reply (the only one I ever use) that tells people to do A, B, C, D steps for 12 months. Then come back to me and I’ll show you step-by-step how to make money.
To this day, no-one has ever come back to me.
Me: And what about the downsides of blogging? Are there any?
Johnny: Working for free is hard. I’m a massive advocate of saying anyone can do it. I genuinely believe it. I’m awful with tech, I’m a pretty sh*tty photographer and I’ve managed to build a brand.
But it’s scary because you have to be willing to work for free for a year, maybe two or three, and then the harsh reality is that there’s no guarantee that you’ll get anything out of it.
If you’re proactive though, and you have the aptitude to stick with it and you know what you’re doing, you stand a better chance. It helps if you have a mentor, too, who has succeeded. I didn’t have that but I do it for my friends.
Then you know it isn’t just pie in the sky, it’s achievable. That helps, too.
Me: When I started blogging, I tried the popular beauty theme, but it bored me. It wasn’t until I began blogging about my job that I felt passionate enough to still do it three years later. So do you think it’s a factor in your success that the work you were putting in to blogging was around a journey you were already on and a subject you were passionate about?
Johnny: It’s the only way to do it, because it’s the only way it’s sustainable. I had a rich man email me thanking me for showing him how to setup a blog but then asking me what he should blog about.
I said to him the same thing I always say; you have to write about what you’re passionate about. Forget about social media follower numbers, because after a few months, it’ll still only be your granny and your mum reading it! That was the same for me too, after 6 months.
Everyone quits at that point. That’s why, when you do succeed, it’s such a dream, because everyone else is quitting so there’s more at the top to collect.
Me: What about the negativity online, when you put yourself out there. How do you cope with that?
Johnny: I got it today. Funnily enough I don’t get it very often because my story is quite a positive one. But when CNN ran the story on me today - which was really great for me, a positive story - the photograph they chose was me somewhere in West Africa with about six kids.
I got loads of black militant Americans accusing me of being a “white boy exploiting black Africans” and complaining that Huffington Post wouldn’t pay a black blogger to travel round Africa. But I wasn’t paid to travel. I’m thinking, “did you even read the story?”
My story first went viral about a year and a half ago, and it really hurt me then. If it goes viral on National Geographic or something, then it usually stays positive because its a travel story. The problem comes if its a story that goes outside your niche and moves across national media, like Yahoo or the Daily Mail, then the comments aren’t so positive.
I got hammered the first time because my girlfriend is from Thailand. I had comments like “once the money’s gone, she’ll be gone” or “get a job, you parasite.” And it really hurt me. It hurt my family, too. I thought it would be water off a duck’s back but it took weeks to get over. Eventually, you’re skin gets thicker.
The more media you get though, the ratio of negativity stays the same. So you just have to be pragmatic.
In the same way that my grandad used to say “you want to pay more taxes, because it means you’re earning more money” - the more positive press you get, the more negativity that follows.
Me: Have you got any advice for people in Northern Ireland who might be thinking of an adventure, making a big trip, or just going off travelling? It’s a big world out there!
Johnny: Sometimes I despair about the new generation, thinking that sharing a motivational quote meme on Instagram means they’re living the dream. Sure, share that, then quit your job and go do something!
People need to take action.
And take ownership. People who are a long way down the wrong path, would prefer to stay on that path wasting more time, rather than admit they’ve made a mistake and start again. I understand it’s scary, but I’m a big believer in just doing what you want to do. What would make you happy?
Sit down, in silence, switch the TV off. Take a piece of paper or your iPad. Give yourself time to think about what you really want to do, and write it all down.
Don’t use money has an excuse. If you’re an English speaker, you can go and teach the language in Asia. Even if you’re broke. There’s nothing to stop you doing that. You can do that tomorrow. If you go and realise you don’t like it, you can always come home.
Take action. Today!