While I was in the middle of a jungle taking field notes and learning about the human-elephant conflict with a local organization called SLWCS, I wasn't just getting an education on an important branch of wildlife conservation. Believe it or not, those two weeks in the jungle taught me one other surprising lesson: they taught me how to be a better marketer.
Confession: I Was Approaching My Job Wrong
For the past two years, I've worked for Go Overseas as our Director of Content Marketing and I've personally come up with or approved the idea for each one of roughly 400 blog posts published over the course of that time.
Since Go Overseas' content and articles aim to educate our readers on everything from digital nomad destinations to the ins and outs of getting a paid internship in Latin America, I need to be familiar with a fairly broad set of experiences and topics.
Fortunately, I've been lucky enough to have personal experiences with high school trips abroad, studying abroad in college (twice), getting CELTA certified, taking a gap year to teach English in Costa Rica and the U.S., and volunteering abroad with the Peace Corps in Madagascar.
Until last October, I felt like these experiences qualified me as a sort of "general expert" on just about all of the topics Go Overseas covers -- especially volunteering abroad. Surely, my RPCV status qualified me to create ideas, edit, and give feedback to our writers on volunteer abroad focused articles... right?
After spending two weeks volunteering in Sri Lanka, I began to think that I might be wrong about that. My experience as a Peace Corps volunteer had given me a very strong impression of what it meant to volunteer abroad, and I marketed to that demographic more often than I did to our voluntourist segment -- without fully realizing how different they are. Strangely, it was precisely this that would eventually lead me to be a better marketer.
How I Understood Our Audience Before the Trip
Before heading to Sri Lanka, I understood that my time as a Peace Corps volunteer wouldn't necessarily match the experiences of a person who volunteered for four weeks somewhere, but I don't think I had a realistic idea of how.
Now, post-jungle-epiphany, it seems pretty obvious. Of course volunteering with organizations like the Red Cross or the Peace Corps is pretty different than spending two weeks with a volunteer travel provider as an unskilled 27-year old. Still, it took experiencing both sides to truly see the differences.
Originally, I had assumed that the main differentiator in the experience of a PCV (or, for that matter, a UN volunteer, Red Cross volunteer, etc.) and a voluntourist was the amount of time spent volunteering and amount of training and / or skill required for the job.
Nonetheless, I still believed all international volunteers' main goals would be the same: to make a difference in the quality of life of communities abroad. As such, I marketed volunteering abroad with the following definition in mind:
Previous definition of international volunteers
Potential international volunteers are interested in making an impact abroad, becoming an integral part of their host community, and view volunteering as a professional asset.
Because of that, we published articles like "A Volunteer's Guide to International Development" and "Career Ideas for People Who Have Volunteered Abroad". Our advice asked volunteers to be aware of how sustainable projects were, and we took a "help people while developing professionally" angle for a lot of these topics.
However, I wasn't always publishing the right stuff by relying on this definition. Though it would have fit well for a blog geared towards PCVs and sometimes fit well for us, volunteering with Greenheart Travel in Sri Lanka taught me that I was forgetting to address some key topics, pain points, and emotional hooks in our content marketing.
How Has My Approach to Content Marketing Changed?
Late on our first night, while swatting unidentifiable bugs away from our necks, I chatted with a British chef and B&B owner who was on the volunteer project for about five weeks. In the midst of the usual small talk, I asked him what had drawn him to volunteering with this project.
"I didn't want to spend my time [in Sri Lanka] doing all the normal touristy things. I wanted to do something different, get away from the major attractions. And besides, I quite like being way out here." he told me. Though there's undoubtedly a similar appeal for PCVs, I wouldn't have gotten quite the same answer when asking "so, why'd ya join Peace Corps?"
However, his response was very reflective of other volunteer's reasons for joining our project -- usually for a couple of weeks, but no more than a couple of months, at a time. Over the course of our two weeks there, I talked to a few other volunteers and learned that they had largely been interested in the project because they wanted to:
- Do something different with their vacation time abroad
- Learn more about a topic they're interested in
- Experience the "real" or "authentic" side of a country they're visiting
- Contribute to the countries they're visiting
The intent was more "travel differently" than it was "make an impact" -- though of course making an impact and other altruistic motivations were certainly still there.
After those conversations, I decided to rewrite my definition of our volunteer abroad audience. If you asked me now, I'd define volunteers abroad as:
*New* definition of an international volunteer
Potential international volunteers are interested in traveling differently, authentic experiences, learning, and contributing to projects that are making an impact abroad.
Over just two weeks, and in one of the least expected settings I could have imagined, I began to feel at once like I was doing my job wrong and that learning so gave me the potential to be a better marketer once back in the office.
Now That I'm Out of the Jungle, What Will Change?
It's always scary to admit that you were wrong, especially when it's about the thing you do every day (your job). Even so, learning that I was wrong has been a positive change overall.
I may not have cracked the code on getting us to double our blog readership or triple our conversions, but I do think this knowledge will make me a better marketer in 2016.
How exactly? After giving it a lot of thought, I decided we could improve our marketing efforts for volunteer abroad programs by:
- Including more experience oriented articles
- Taking more of a "travel differently" angle, less of a "make an impact" angle
- Limiting post-volunteer career advice type articles
- Speaking less vaguely, more concretely about voluntourism experiences
Has traveling ever made you better at your job? Tell us about it in the comments below.