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Dalene Heck

Episode 83: Monetizing The Authentic Travel Life, with Dalene Heck

Traveling full-time is the dream of many of us. It’s a lifestyle drenched with allure.

On this episode of Destination on the Left, Nicole talks with Dalene Heck, travel influencer and owner of Hecktic Media. She and her husband have been living the travel-full-time dream for nearly 10 years.

Unless you are just plain independently wealthy, you need a plan to make travel your lifestyle. Dalene dives into how she and her husband have monetized their passion, overcome obstacles, and live life that is authentic to who they are – it’s a pretty amazing story.

Dalene tells stories through words, photos and video on the award-winning travel blog Hecktictravels.com.

She earned the title Traveler of the Year from National Geographic, was twice named Voice of the Year by BlogHer, and received a North American Travel Journalists Association medal for Best Independent Travel Blog. In addition to her storytelling, Dalene runs Hecktic Media, Inc., working with travel brands on influencer marketing and social media account management.

More on Dalene’s Background

Thank you for joining me, Dalene.

Thanks so much for having me.

You have such an awesome and varied background. I love that you’re going to be able to bring to us the perspective from both the blogger’s viewpoint as well as from somebody who works in influencer marketing and with social media, so I’m looking forward to our conversation. Before we get started, can you share a little bit more about your story in your own words?

Yeah, absolutely. Roughly ten years ago, my husband and I had made the decision that we wanted to sell everything and travel the world. I know a lot of people talk about doing that, and we talked about it a lot, but finally, we just ran out of excuses not to do it. We left our cushy corporate jobs, sold our house and bought one-way tickets to South America, and that journey lasted just about eight years.

We were just traveling nonstop around the globe, and along the way, we realized we would probably burn through our savings pretty quickly, so we needed to figure out a way to make some money and sustain the lifestyle. After a year of travel, we started Hecktictravels.com with really no idea where it would take us or what would come of it. But we wanted to see where that could take us.

Then a few years after that when travel blogging started to become more mainstream, we started to get approached by brands and others in the tourism industry about working together. Then after they would work with us, they also said, “That’s great, we want to do more of this, can you help us?” We realized that there was a need in the marketplace for someone who could act as an intermediary because there is a big difference between working with traditional media and working with bloggers and influencers.

We started another company that would help some travel brands get into influencer marketing, and we’ve expanded to add social media management as well as some content marketing and social media training, and we are a team of five now. We recently returned to Alberta, so that is where we are now based.

That’s fantastic. Wow. I love that. I’m so jealous that you decided ten years ago to sell everything and travel the world. That sounds like such an awesome adventure, and how cool is it that you were able to take that adventure and turn it into, you know, your second act, right, your next career?

Yes, absolutely. With our business backgrounds, both my husband and I, once we knew that this was something we wanted to keep doing, it was a natural evolution for us to put our business skills to work differently, and it has just worked out. It’s been a natural fit.

That’s cool. Before we dive into some of these questions, can you talk a little bit about how you became recognized by National Geographic as Traveler of the Year? Is that something that you aspired to be, or how did that come about?

It was unfathomable to me, completely, but not to my mother. She was on Twitter and saw a call-out from National Geographic to nominate people for the Traveler of the Year honor, and so my mother applied and sent the email to me saying, “Look what I just did,” and I still didn’t believe that it would ever be possible. Then we started to go further down the road, having interviews with the editor, and then out of 3,000 people, there were ten individuals or groups of families chosen, and we were one of them. I’m still really gobsmacked about that, to be honest. I didn’t imagine it would be something I could have aspired to be.

Well, that’s awesome, and you gotta love Mom. That’s great.

If she’s not your biggest fan, you’re doing something wrong.

Creativity and Collaboration: How to Stand Out From the Crowd

Exactly. That’s awesome. I also like this whole idea of what you’ve done with your business, and recognizing there was this need to help brands understand how to work with media beyond the traditional sense. I’m looking forward to hearing from you on the types of things we should be thinking about when we’re looking at working with bloggers and influencers. Before we get in there, maybe that’s something that’ll come out through our conversation. Let’s just dive into these questions, and we’ll see if we can cover a little bit about those nuances along the way.

We like to focus on creativity and collaboration on this podcast. I find that they are two topics in travel and tourism that seem to go hand in hand a lot of times. The tourism and hospitality industry is very competitive, and I’m wondering what creative things you have done or what you’ve seen brands do to stand out from the crowd.

Sure. The competition extends into the blogosphere as well. There are thousands and thousands of them out there now. We had the benefit of starting early when we did, which did help us. I think what’s helped us to stand out, and made Nat Geo and others notice. We stick entirely to narrative stories. Most travel blogs nowadays are top 10 lists or six photos from Iceland that’ll make you want to go there, that kind of standard, click-baity type titles, and we have stuck to just narrative stories. I think many of our tourism partners choose us for that reason. We have a dedicated following of people that trust what we say because we share the good, the bad and the ugly of travel. That has enabled a lot of trust between us and our readers, so that’s helped us to stand out.

When it comes to Hecktic Media, trying to connect influencers and the travel industry together, we try to stand above the fray. Here’s what I mean: Everybody these days is starting to talk about vanity metrics and influencers who falsify their reach. There was a big story in the New York Times not that long ago. We’ve been talking about that for years, and it has endeared our clients to us. We have the inside track since we’re on both sides of the table. We can see, and we know exactly what some influencers do to make themselves look better, in order to falsify, and they get these giant numbers that look really attractive.

“Everybody these days is starting to talk about vanity metrics and influencers who falsify their reach...We know what some influencers do to make themselves look better.” - @Heckticmedia #podcast Click To Tweet

Of course, you want your photos of your destination seen in front of 100,000 people, but how many of those are actually bought or how many of those are just engaging because they’re a part of a comment pod? There are many strategies that influencers will use to boost themselves. When we started talking about that a few years ago, it really drove home the ability that we would have. It also started building trust between us and the brands that what we stand for is authentic influence and integrity and honesty in the industry, so that has done a lot for us in just having people trust what we’re saying.

I think that that’s so important. I find that really interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about those vanity metrics? What’s a red flag that you might see from someone who might be using vanity metrics or falsifying their reach in one of those ways?

Yes, absolutely. As bloggers, I’m always shocked by brands and destinations that don’t ask us for a breakdown of where our readers and our fans come from. We’ve never been asked that question, and yet when we ask others that question, we can see they’ve got 20,000 Facebook fans, but 10,000 of them are from a third-world country, and unless that brand wants to market to that third-world country, those numbers are really kind of useless to that brand or destination. Brands need to start asking for those specifics. There’s no reason that anyone shouldn’t give them to you. It’s all easily available, and if they say no, then that’s a red flag right there.

“As bloggers, I'm always shocked by brands and destinations that don't ask us for a breakdown of where our readers and our fans come from.” -@Heckticmedia #podcast Click To Tweet

Instagram, in particular, is quite a hotbed for this kind of activity. There is one website out there, SocialBlade, that will show updates over the past so many weeks, and show how many followers that this person’s getting on a weekly basis, so you can then tell. If they had huge jumps in their numbers, then that’s probably because they purchased them. That’s likely the only way they can get a huge bump like that. So that’s a couple of things that are easy to look at.

We even dive a little bit deeper into Instagram as well, just to look at who’s a part of certain pods and all that kind of stuff, so you can see who’s also engaging in not necessarily falsifying, but some shady ways of boosting their engagement. Basically, asking the questions directly to the influencers themselves and getting as much detail as you feel comfortable with is the best place to start.

So asking more questions and not being afraid to ask, right? Because if they don’t want to give it to you …

No, absolutely.

You’ve used the word “pods” twice now. I hadn’t heard it used in this context before, so can you talk about these pods?

Sure. What happens is, for instance, a group of Instagrammer friends will decide to join what they call a pod. So say there’s 30 of them in this pod. What will happen is, as soon as someone posts an Instagram, then everybody in this pod is obligated to go and like the photo and leave a comment on the photo. This will automatically boost up that post in the Instagram algorithms. It’ll make it look more popular, so it is getting out to more people that way.

It is improving the reach, but you’ll see the string of 30 comments, and it’ll look like, “Oh, wow, this Instagrammer has a lot of engagement, has a lot of really great people wanting to see their content,” when really those people are obligated to leave those comments. So it’s not true engagement at the end of the day. This is a rampant issue.

Okay, but could that strategy actually work and provide more engagement and more impressions based on that algorithm, or is it just in general just not a good practice?

I mean, potentially. I’ve never seen anything that says it does. I’ve seen people disprove it, but it’s really hard to tell because there are so many variables in each post. For someone to say it really works or doesn’t, it’s really hard to tell. It could, but I would be careful of people doing that. To participate in one of those things takes an awful lot of work, and it always baffled me why influencers won’t just spend that time focusing on the quality of their content and producing in other ways. The jury is out, but I’d still be wary of people that are using these tactics. What looks like solid engagement may not really be that.

Right, that makes sense. Well, that leads me back to talking about your own blog and how you are focused on developing your own quality content. You focus on this difference between narrative stories and versus say a top 10 list. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Did you just start with the narrative and never stop? Was there a point in time where you made a decision, a conscious decision, to say, “Now, this is our tone, and this is how we’re going to approach our blog?”

Kind of both. We just started writing that way, and to be honest, I struggled to write those top 10 lists. I’ve been asked to do it for some other publications, and I’ve done it, but to me, that’s not a fun way do it at all. I much prefer to craft a narrative. It was about four years ago, around the same time we started Hecktic Media when we knew that the style of our storytelling and the way that we do it doesn’t typically do well on Google searches, for example.

You know, the people that are really making a lot of money from their travel blogs are doing so because they have those click-bait headlines and they’re getting click traffic. This pushed them up for ad networks, and they can earn a lot of money that way. We were at a turning point a few years ago where we realized that, okay, the way we like to tell stories, we’re not going to make a ton of money from this. We’re not even going to make enough to sustain ourselves, so there was a decision point, and that’s when the opportunity to help brands also cropped up.

We decided to keep doing what we’re doing, telling the stories that we’re telling. But our focus also had to be on Hecktic Media. That’s the way that we were going to have a sustainable lifestyle and be able to continue traveling and funding a new business. It’s worked out well, and I just can’t honestly imagine blogging any other way. It wouldn’t be fun for me anymore, and it has to be fun or else I’ll resent it every day.

Well, I think that’s interesting that the way you write can be driven by Google and what Google awards you points for. But you decided to keep your content in the narrative, storytelling format where you feel you’re providing more value, versus trying to make content that plays the Google algorithm game.

It is getting better. Google is getting smarter, and it’s not about stuffing keywords anymore. We’ve started to gain a little bit more traction because Google is getting better at recognizing quality content. So it is going a little bit more in our favor, but we’re not going to beat a lot of these other types of articles that are out there.

“Google is getting smarter, and it's not about stuffing keywords anymore. We've started to gain a little bit more traction because Google is getting better at recognizing quality content.” - @Heckticmedia #podcast Click To Tweet

Dealing with Bumps in the Road

You’ve gotten us off to a wonderful start. I want to switch gears just slightly, still talk about creativity. I like to learn from challenges or adversity because I find that creative does show itself when you’re faced with a challenge. I’m wondering if there is a challenge that you have faced as an organization and the creative solution that came from that.

Definitely. In November of 2016, I was diagnosed with leukemia. I lived in the U.S. at the time, and as soon as I could get on a plane back to the free health care in Canada, I did. I was immediately admitted and went through six months of really rigorous treatment. I’m on the other side of it now, and the prognosis is very good, but at the same time, it’s been a rather slow recovery. When you write a travel blog, or you have a company of five people, and you’re the CEO, both are going to be impacted pretty severely when you just can’t work or travel like you used to, so that has been a challenge.

The impact has been that I’ve had to put my faith in others, which is a little bit difficult. We’ve had to creatively come up with ways to tweak our blog a little bit because we can’t travel like we used to. You know, those consecutive, chronological narratives are hard to write when you spend a few months at home. We turned to some others to help collaborate with us, with guest writers and that sort of thing, and we also tweaked the mission of our blog into a bit more of a wellness focus.

For example, we went out to Nova Scotia this past summer, Cape Breton Island, for a week in a partnership with Tourism Nova Scotia. My challenge was to walk as much as I could. That became the travel story with Nova Scotia as the backdrop, which is pretty amazing, and just really push myself and base the content on my recovery, my journey, and kind of victory over this.

The results were very substantial. We got emails from people that had gone through the same thing. Everybody knows somebody that’s gone through this or has done it themselves, and it resonated with people. They sent emails like, “I’m going to do exactly what you just did,” and it really worked well for both us, for me and my recovery, and for Tourism Nova Scotia.

For Hecktic Media, it’s been really good business-wise. That sounds terrible to say, but it’s forced us to slow down. We have our first home in eight years, and actually being grounded and being back in Alberta has been really good for business. We’ve been fully embraced by Travel Alberta and other tourism partners in the area. We have lots of projects in the works with them, and it’s just been really good.

We’ve been having to creatively say, “Well, what else can we do,” and applying our knowledge in a new way. So we’re doing social media training, which we hadn’t done before, and other sorts of things. You know, it’s changed a lot for us, but they’ve been good, solid changes for the business overall.

Well, thank you very much for sharing that. I love it when guests are just totally open and transparent, and I really appreciate you sharing that journey. I know you said it might sound bad but it’s been good for business. I’m one that believes there’s a silver lining in everything. I think that’s your silver lining. As a business owner myself, I can certainly relate to wondering how I would handle that. This whole idea of having faith in others and kind of rethinking your business so it can operate with or without you – I think it’s tremendous.

I love how you not only find the silver lining in becoming more grounded and buying your first house in eight years but also the Nova Scotia and your recovery and your journey. I can imagine that a lot of your followers are finding a lot of inspiration from what you’re sharing and from your honesty and your openness with them as to what your journey is all about. I think that’s awesome.

Yes, the response has just been tremendous. I’ve just always been blown away by how supportive the community is from around the world. I’m always that honest, probably to a fault. People know way too much about me, but it’s also very cathartic and therapeutic for me to share at the same time, so win/win/win.

That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. Now looking into the future, are there some projects that you’re excited about in the coming months that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Yes. We’re off to Spain shortly. This is the second time that we’re heading back to the Costa Brava region to work with the tourism board there. Two years ago we put together some downloadable photography e-books on photo walks. Now we’re going back to do cultural guides. We’re excited to get back there. I need a Europe fix every once in a while. For Hecktic Media, we’ve got some cool, innovative things in the works locally. Can’t share it yet, but hopefully soon.

Then another thing too that I’m excited about. The good thing about being home is we’ve actually been asked to apply for two different tourism boards, to be on the board of directors. One of them should be confirmed shortly, and the other one we’ll still waiting to hear back on. I’m excited to be on the other side of the table again and look at the whole spectrum of what a destination needs to consider beyond the social media and the influencer marketing. That’s going to be a really good personal growth for me, so I’m very excited for that.

I think that’s a great opportunity. The more you can be immersed in the whole industry from all sides, I can really see how that’s going to be a huge opportunity for you, being able to understand what’s coming at a destination from their viewpoint, but then to bring your viewpoint to the table as well. I think that that will be another win/win/win.

Yes, I’m excited about that.

I’m wondering, as you were talking about your trip to Spain, do you ever combine both your businesses? You might be coming into a destination like Spain doing some, as you said, influencer reporting from that destination, but at the same time maybe while you’re there, doing some consulting or some of your social media training? Have you married those two things together beyond Alberta?

That’s a good question. A little bit. We’ve done some with Nova Scotia where it’s beyond just the standard things we do as influencers. Some of the destinations we’ve worked with have come back to us. Once they trust that we can do a good job and we convince them that we’re good people, then they come back to us and hire us to do other things for them. It might be to find influencers in a specific niche or that sort of thing. Speaking opportunities as well have come up out of that too.

We did that once in Belize. That was a few years ago, where we did some onsite social media training for a hotel as we were there experiencing the hotel. We’re always open to it. We’ve also done full influencer marketing campaigns where we happen to be one of the influencers. That doesn’t always happen because we’re not always a good fit, but we always let people know the option is available.

Oh, that’s great. That’s terrific. I can see how that could be a benefit for the right destination if it’s a good match.

Yes, definitely.

Successful Coopetition Collaboration

Thanks for sharing a little bit more on that. We’ve talked a little bit about collaboration. You talked about collaborating with guest writers when you were focused on your health and not able to be as active in your business, and I’d like to move on and talk a little bit more about collaboration. One of the things that I’m a huge believer in is this idea of “coopetition,” which essentially is where perceived competitors might come together to create big wins, things that they couldn’t do on their own. I’m wondering if there’s a time when a collaboration between competitors has either worked for you or that you’ve observed or been part of that type of collaboration?

Yes, absolutely. There is a blogger based out of Denver, Sherry Ott of Ottsworld.com. I think we have made three trips together now. She’s like a sister. She’s coming with us to Spain and she did the same project with us in Spain before, where we’re both bloggers kind of serving the same niche except she’s focused on solo travel.

We get along so well together, we work well together, and for us to go to a destination together actually is a big win for the tourism board, because we don’t mind bunking up together. You know, one car rental and we’re off on our own. While we’re there, we’re able to help each other, take photos of each other doing things and all that. So we’ve worked out a nice collaboration with her.

There are times where we’ll pitch both of us to attend a destination instead of just one outlet. There are some cost savings for the destination, and we can amplify each other’s message. It’s been working well.

How did you connect?

Many years ago. Probably five years ago, and we just really became good friends. When the first project for Spain came up, we knew that they were very familiar and liked working with her as well. We knew it was more than a two-person job, so we asked her to join us. Costa Brava was very excited about that.

We did that first project together, and then she was with us in Nova Scotia. We also went to New Brunswick last summer. Then we joined forces again in BC and now back to Spain. It’s just so complimentary to have the three of us together. It’s a really fun experience, and it provides a new twist to our stories and everything, so it just worked out really well.

I would agree that that sounds like it would be a great benefit to the destinations. I like that you’re thinking about the cost savings, and not only that but the amplification of what each of you is bringing to the table. That sounds like a wonderful partnership. I’m wondering, as you’re working in that partnership if you have any best practices or anything that you use to set the groundwork for a successful partnership that might be beneficial for our listeners.

I think what’s worked really well with Sherry and with us is that we do share a similar value set. None of us engage in any of the cheating-the-system kind of antics. We’re just focused on narratives and putting out high quality. She’s a great photographer, and so is my husband, and so they spend a lot of time helping each other with that sort of thing.

I think it all comes with just the very basics, just the similarity in values and product because if one is highly focused on getting that Instagram shot where they’re standing out on a cliff with a big floppy hat and a long flowy dress, those can take a lot of time to put together. With us and Sherry, we’re always focused on the story and talking to people to get a story. Because we have the same focus as well, our time together is spent very effectively. I think that’s the biggest thing, is that we just have a similar mindset and just kind of a similar value of how we approach our work.

Best Practices for Working with Traditional Media and influencers

That’s great advice. This whole idea of having that shared value set I think is so important, but then you went on to explain how it’s not just the value set, but it’s also kind of the skill set, and the quality of the content that you’re producing and that that matches as well. I think that’s just great advice.

Dalene, I knew this would be a great conversation, and before we wrap up, I wanted to back up to the idea of the difference in working with traditional media versus working with bloggers and influencers. Can you share with our listeners a few best practices? If they’re thinking about working with bloggers or influencers versus the traditional, maybe travel journalists, what are some of the things that they should be keeping in mind?

I’ll admit first that I haven’t worked a lot with traditional media, so I can comment on the bloggers and influencers and I’ve done one group tour. I try to stay away from them, like a fan trip that includes both, but things that I think are very different; bloggers typically want to chase after their own stories and be open to that, whereas I think a traditional journalist typically goes in with a very specific angle. Not saying bloggers don’t either, but we definitely need more free time to be able to do that sort of thing.

I’m going to need a few hours a day to put that small video together for Facebook, or edit photos for Instagram. So I’m going to need that extra time in the day to make sure I’m reporting in real time on the road because that’s what’s expected.

I think the other thing is just making sure to ask the questions. It’s quite different when you have a traditional journalist posting for an industry-established newspaper, magazine, whatever it is. When it’s an influencer with their own platform, it’s very important to dive into that and to find out who their audience is if it’s a good match, is their audience legitimate, and all that sort of thing.

“When it's an influencer with their own platform, it's very important to dive into that and to find out who their audience is if it's a good match, is their audience legitimate.” - @Heckticmedia #podcast Click To Tweet

I’d say those are the two biggest differences in consideration when starting to work with influencers;  the extra time on the trip when you are planning it, as well as just making sure that they’re the right fit in the first place.

I think those are both excellent points. Are you suggesting that maybe for bloggers, you need that more leisurely, more time at each stop, instead of trying to jam into the schedule everything that you can fit in a day?

Oh, absolutely, and to allow for some free time to just go and get the photos that you need as well. My husband would want me to emphasize this: don’t schedule dinners at sunset, because that’s when he wants to go out with his camera. No breakfast at sunrise, no dinners at sunset, and let them have that free time so they can get that big, juicy photos of your destination. That overly scheduled time is his biggest complaint about organized trips.

Well, that’s gold. That’s gold right there. Those are some of those things that might seem like a “duh” moment, but if you’re not thinking about them, if you’re not the photographer, you might not be thinking about that. I think that’s fabulous advice. Then one last question on this topic, you mentioned fans, and you mentioned being on a fan that was mixed, only one time that was mixed between influencers and traditional. What about having a fan that’s a handful of influencers, though? Have you seen that work, or do you have any advice for making that type of fan trip work?

I’ve seen that work well and not well. I think aligning for activity is very important. Don’t throw a food blogger in with someone who’s adventurous and wants to be out hitting the slopes all day, while someone else wants to be touring a bunch of restaurants. I was on one recently. It worked out well, but there was one Instagrammer who just was getting nothing for her shots. She had a great time and was seeing really interesting things and getting great stories for her blog writer, but for the first three days, there was just nothing Instagram-worthy.

It’s very important, I think, to align niches and align expectations of the influencer. In order to maximize their output and give them the best opportunity to showcase the destination to their audience as it is expected. Bloggers and influencers wear a lot of different hats, so to lump them all together can be robbing some of them from time that could be spent doing something else that would align with them better. To put them all together, you have to be very careful.

“It's important to align niches and align expectations of the influencer. In order to maximize their output and give them the best opportunity to showcase the destination to their audience as it is expected.” -@Heckticmedia #podcast Click To Tweet

That’s a great point, and I like that example of the Instagrammer versus someone from another channel. Dalene, I appreciate you sharing all of your time and your knowledge with us today, and I want to thank you for joining me. Before we say goodbye, can you please let our listeners know how they might find you?

Yes, absolutely. With the travel blog, we’re on all social channels as @Heckticmedia, and the “heck” has a “k” in it because of course, that’s our last name. Then also Hecktic Media Inc. is where you’ll find our broader services.

That’s terrific, and we’ll make sure all those links are on your show notes page as well. Again, thank you so much for being with us today, and we’ll look forward to catching up with you again in the future.

It was absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.

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