James Hills is the creator and publisher of ManTripping.com, a lifestyle and travel site that covers food, drinks, technology gadgets, and automotive as well as other topics related to men’s lifestyle. The site began over ten years ago and serves as an expert resource for men and dads who love to travel. James describes the target male reader of the site as a confident explorer who hates being defined by labels. James and ManTripping have been featured in such publications as the New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, to name a few.
Can you give us an idea of how ManTripping came to be?
Sure. So the non glamorous way that ManTripping came to be is I was doing a bunch of consulting for a variety of women sites and even women travel sites and I started a marketing agency in Chicago right about the time the dot com implosion happened. And as luck would have it I had an office and no real job and also no money to go travel and do stuff that I wanted so I just said “hey, you know what, let’s just write about stuff that I love doing and I noticed a niche where nobody’s really serving the guy market with the exception of some very prurient adolescent type content. And, you know, at a certain age and a certain marital or relationship status there’s absolutely nothing wrong with going to legal establishments and doing legal chemical activities. That’s not me and so I can say “hey, you know, there’s more out there than what you Hangover”.
Not all guys are looking to go to Vegas for a mancation and get some strippers and cocaine and be boy boys behaving badly there’s a lot of really cool stuff that we can do and it kind of spun from there. I got an invitation from a gentleman who was running a [trip] out in Atlantic city and I think he jokingly invited me. He kind of said “ hey, you know, we are running a showboat that’s coming up next weekend. If you can get out here I can host you.” Now, you know, I’m in Chicago so who in their right mind flies much less drives from Chicago to Atlantic City for a free freaking hotel night. Like that preposterous looking back on it but I was new, it was fun, [and] I had time so I did it and it was still one of the coolest trips I’ve done. Great steak and fun time and it kind of spun from there. Other people started inviting me and I’m like “ hey, you know what, this thing where I’m fighting for passion is actually netting cool experiences and then money started following as the site kind of grew and ten years later here we are.
How did you build relationships in the automotive space early on?
With the automotive brands, you know, I’m not sure exactly how that first connection was. But I do want to give a shout out to Brian Brockman who at the – now he’s one of the senior people at Nissan [but] at the time he was the regional guy for the Chicago area and I’m not sure if Nissan reach out to me or if I reached out to them but it was very much like I expressed with the travel side. It was kind of like “hey you want to give me a car for a week and I can drive it around and yeah that’s cool”. Especially I do a lot of road trips and I’d rather spend your tank of gas and your miles on your car than on my car and it was just kind of fun.
And again I think the key there is passion and passion along with value. I think a lot of time people just look at me and they’re like “oh that’s cool you get to go to Hawaii” well yeah that’s cool I had a great time thank you Norwegian cruise line but I came back with like two thousand photos and I have deliverables that I’ve got to do and it is work. But if it only becomes work than it shows in the content and ultimately, you know, it’s not going to sustain you. I had a great concept, it was about the time I started ManTripping, call Chicago Convention in hell and back then you get to use MFA sites and it was just like printing money but it was boring as hell writing about different hotel reviews with, you know, this hotel has great Wi-Fi, this hotel is five hundred steps closer to the convention center. It was money I mean these Adsense clicks were beautiful but I’d burned out and it wasn’t fun so the content wasn’t good and ultimately I dumped the site. But that’s I think a lot of people don’t understand is got to be passion, you got to keep yourself motivated, and yes there’s got to be money there too, to motivate you if that’s you thing, but just keep following for people 5:20) need help figuring out what he’s trying to say)
What are a few of your favorite brand partnerships to-date?
Yeah, I would say travel in general not just a singular brand in the travel world but figuring out how – think about where the money is organized and where the opportunities are organized and figuring out how to appeal to them. I think one of the things that made me vastly more successful was that in the process of building up ManTripping I got a recruiter that invited me to join Sears Holdings Company and I ran the social for different clients for them. And at that point it went from writing about stuff because I wanted to write about it. and if I have spelling error or I have links that are broken who the hell cares because it’s just me and that’s all that matters to going oh my god there’s hundreds of thousands and millions and millions of dollars out there waiting to be taken up. And for better or worse I missed kind of the golden era of the blogger influencer world where nobody asked questions because I was on the other fence giving out those millions of dollars.
At some point I was – I get emails from the buyers at the company and be like hey I’ve got twenty-five five hundred dollar Dyson vacuum cleaners can you find a blogger that want to review them. It’s like yeah and there was no expectation to be sophisticated or to look at page rank or UMV or any of those kind of factors but because I had the blogger side as well and knew what ultimately we were measuring I was able to combine the two into a pretty successful program. Ultimately [I] built the blogger program for Sears and Kmart and then later for ProFlowers and Sherry’s berries and those brands. And unfortunately layoffs happen but when I got laid off ultimately that was an opportunity for me to say “okay I get it. I get where the brands are coming from, I get where the retailers are coming from, [and] I get where the bloggers are coming from [so] let’s create a synergy, let’s create something that works. And that’s allowed me to be more successful I think in the blogger side than I would have been previously had I just been somebody writing for the sake of writing.
As a successful blog owner and influencer, you’re obviously really busy. How do you structure your day?
I have a weird schedule and part of that is because on any given week I’m in different parts of the country or sometimes different parts of the world. So time zones don’t matter fully but for sake of argument I’m here in San Diego so I’m on Pacific Time. I generally go to bed around two or three o’clock in the morning because I can publish stuff at two or three o’clock in the morning which is six am east coast. It’s the people in Hong Kong, people in people, the people in Japan are all up and the people in Europe are up as well so it kind of works as a sweet spot to kind of end my day by publishing stuff. That way when I wake up whenever it is nine or ten o’clock in the morning which normally would be about now I’m able to look at feedback and look at questions, you know, does the brand have a question on the post I just published or the comments and then I can fix that and then I take siesta around three or four o’clock in the afternoon.
But that allows me to compartmentalize, it allows me to get work done when there’s less emails going on, allow me to really focus on going through the whole mornings emails from the east coast with time to respond. That being said it’s a shit show because there’s no work day anymore. On any given day I’m working with people in Eastern Europe that are doing coding, I’m working with people and brands in China that are trying to reach the American market, and I’m reaching with ad agencies in New York and working with communities in Phoenix so it’s worldwide.
What’s your favorite social network to use? Do you prefer visual-centric networks, video platforms like YouTube or ones where you can write more in-depth on a topic?
I am an absolute disciple of Google and with having long-form blog posts for a variety of reasons. One of which is that social media just doesn’t provide the long term value in proportion with the time to create the content and I also like to own things. I might be old and I might be stodgy but ultimately a blog post that I wrote ten years ago actually is a perfect example. There was a blog post I wrote ten years ago about mainly golf locations and for whatever reason it was picking up some, not great but relatively decent, web traffic. Well that’s something that I can now say hey okay clear there’s an opportunity for mainly golf locations as an example.
I don’t know what the actual keyword is off the top of my head but there was – I can now say “okay instead of making it a two hundred and fifty word article with some crappy photos and some spelling mistakes that if I redevelop that article into something that is now seven hundred or a thousand words with using the right tools to adjust the right words that maybe I can go from five or ten visits a month to fifty or one hundred visits a week. And that’s something you simply cannot do with any other platform including video because video is kind of once it’s done it’s there. And while there are changes in Google’s algorithm on a daily basis almost, although it’s less than it used to be. It’s generally sane and rational and its goal is to serve a better search result than political or simply volume metric kind of stuff. Google’s already had those battles.
We went through those fifteen years ago where Adsense versus purely organic search and I think we have a pretty good medium. Facebook, absolutely not. Facebook has turned itself into a completely a paid medium and it’s great for that, it’s fantastic for that. And Instagram is just rife with fraud and it’s – I don’t know where long term value for Instagram is but it’s going to be a real reckoning when brands start realizing that they’re paying thousands and thousands of dollars for a picture that’s gone within a day versus paying me hundreds of dollars for a blog post that can generate traffic ten years from now.
Where do you see influencer marketing in five years? How do you think brands will be interacting with someone like you?
I’m sure there will be other social networks that pop up and at some point others are going to drop off and I think even though pinterest is extremely valuable in terms of traffic for a lot of us it’s past its prime as far as being darling for the brands. In the last two years I’ve seen Pinterest go from being a required pin for a campaign to not even being mentioned and some brands only accept it as something that would fill your deliverable for x number of social shares. I don’t know if Instagram is the next one. I feel Instagram is backed well enough with the billions and billions of dollars from Facebook that it’s not going to go away. Realistically MySpace went away too and there’s going to be something else that comes up and that’s why I like to focus on strictly the long form good solid blog content [and] stuff that I can own as opposed to something that I’m leasing from someone else.
From a general industry perspective there’s already going through a massive shake out with influencers where the brands are becoming what they feel is more sophisticated, some people are being thrown out with the bath water. There is a major auto brand that just experience- honestly some of the stuff that I’ve been going through for ten years with influencers but they had a major issue and essentially they’ve shut down what was a program they were pointing to in being an example of what auto manufacturers should do because they got burned. And there’s dozens and dozens of examples of how brands have been burned by influencers. That’s going to be a trend for the next two or three years but I think that once the hates it – the bad people because mostly people are not bad they’re simply following what they were lead to believe was the right way by brands that did not care and now they do. As that stuff shakes out there should be more money for the legitimate people who can show actual influence or have accumulated just a massive enough of legitimate reach. One of the things that I looked at a few months ago or a few weeks ago was really the difference between influencers and media. You look at people like on a very macro level people like Rush Limbaugh or Oprah who can get up on pretty much any platform and say this is what I like or these are my favorite things and people will act. No matter what the product is simply because that person did it. Those people are true influencers and other people have large audiences. They happen to have both, which is great, but someone like me for instance I’ve always been behind the camera, I’ve always been focused on the marketing aspect of it, I’ve always been focused on SEO, I have a medium – I have a hundred fifty thousand on my site [and] I think that’s small because I’m playing with boys that are bigger than me but to other people that’s large. But I don’t have the immediacy power of saying “I like LG phones so you should go buy one” and having people suddenly react to that, some people do. That’s not where I have it right now but I think that that opportunity is something that’s going to be more and more valuable to brands as we move forward and as there’s fewer people to work with. So those people should get more money and more opportunities but there’s obviously going to be a value simply in having a broad reach as well. So that’s one of my person projects to really focus on how I become more influential. And if you look at my Instagram the particular one of the big changes I’ve done is moving from just simply pretty picture that I knew get good reach and good engagement to sacrificing some of that raw likes to focus on questions that may get fewer likes but get more comments.
Similarly putting myself [and] my face- I mean I’m not a twenty-two year old girl running around in a bikini and I never will be. I’m certainly not going to be a twenty-five year old guy with great pecs like I’m past that, sadly. But self confidence sells and that’s one of the things that was really shocking to me when I started talking to people. I had a conversation with a great lady who has half a million followers on Instagram, she’s very good looking, very talented, and I said “well, you know, must be easy for you because you have a great body” and what told me is she doesn’t like showing off her body but that’s what people want. And so I started thinking okay well here’s somebody who loves thinking nothing while you just wake up in the morning and throw a bikini on and stand in front of a resort somewhere and it’s easy, it’s not. And like the challenge she had is simply people think because she’s beautiful is that she’s dumb. Well reality is she has a degree from London School of [freakin] Economics I mean she’s a super smart girl, super talented and then on the other end of the spectrum you look on YouTube and there’s just some ugly ugly dude’s that can’t speak worth a damn. But because they like cars or because they like food or whatever they have the self confidence to get out there and do their thing and that’s the key. If you just kind of get over that fear and just let your passion comment and have the self confidence to say you know what this is what I’m going to do and the internet is so massive that whatever your niche is somebody out there that’s going to follow. I mean my god have you guys looked at like these eating videos. I mean that’s ridiculous. Why on earth would somebody watch a guy or a girl sitting in their hotel room eating, you know, five hundred dollar room service thing.
But people do and people are fascinated by it. I don’t necessarily say that’s what I want to do but if you look at that and say the difference between them and me is simply they are getting out there and having the self confidence to own what they do and to define what they do and that’s one of the things that I’m trying to do on a self-reflection perspective. And one of the things that I try to coach are guys and men who blog about that ideally it’s okay to do whatever you want. Like if you want to be – actually I don’t know if you guys know Christian from dad sews. Okay, he’s a dad and he’s a sewing blogger. I don’t know if there’s a more tiny, tiny niche out there than that but he freakin owns it and he’s awesome at it. I love the guy he’s amazing, I wish I could write him on some of the trips we do and some of the campaigns but he’s so niche. But that being said he did talk about I think on – Mario Batali referenced him he did some stuff on national tv, the sewing industry is embracing him and I don’t know his financials but he’s making money, he’s passionate about stuff, he’s got people who truly cares what he thinks. If there’s a pair of scissors that he likes people are going to go out there and buy it now. And sewing is not a small niche it’s not a niche that I’m familiar with but there’s millions and millions of people that like to sew. That’s one of the things I like to try to help guys understand even if I’m trying to learn the same lessons is figuring out how to make these niches we all like doing profitable and engaging. Another guy I was working with, Jason Sasaki, from Sasaki time a few years ago he was like “hey how are you getting these opportunities? How are getting to go to liquor trips? Why are brands sending you bottles of booze?” and I kind of talked to him and said “ well, you know, you work at Disney why aren’t you just blowing the crap out of Instagram and Pinterest?” and in the last year or two he went from almost nothing on Instagram and Pinterest I think he’s got, I’m probably going to get the numbers wrong but I want to say, twelve or fifteen thousand on Instagram now, incredible engagement, and something he’s just passionate about and he’s now monetizing that too.
I don’t know if he’s making a hundred of thousand of dollars on it but he’s making exponentially more than he was before and that’s just something that all of us need to work together and stop operating in silos. And I don’t want to follow what the mom bloggers have done because the mom bloggers along with the amazing greed and terrible content they have done a lot of good stuff and women tended to help each other. A lot of guys didn’t because either we were afraid of admitting our failure or weaknesses but that’s got to stop. And in order to succeed you’ve got to work together and I’ve guys that, you know, now I can pass an Instagram post to. And I’m not asking for likes, not asking for share, or not asking for anything that’s immoral but simply saying “hey here’s something cool” making sure we all work together and there’s space out there for everybody and that’s one of the reasons why with the blog trips we’ve started transitioning from just doing a cool trip somewhere to adding an educational element. We are working with the, it’s probably too early to talk about but to heck with it, we’re working with the battleship Iowa over in San Pedro and we’re going to do a war room and instead of just talking about random stuff like hey how do you do this on Pinterest, how do you do this on Instagram over a beer. Like we’re going to have a freaking war room on a battleship and that’s just one of the cool things [because] in reality it’s a conference room. There’s nothing romantic about what we’re doing but it’s making it cool, making it fun, making it guy friendly, and, you know, hopefully we can create the next generation of influencers because the market is right. I mean there’s always opportunity for people who are passionate.
What has been one of your favorite cars to drive in recent memory?
That’s an easy one because I just came back from Vegas last week driving the ZR1 corvette and so seven hundred and fifty-five horsepower seven hundred and fifteen pond foot of torque. My only disappointment on that was the fact that we didn’t get to take it out on an open track. And we’re on track but something like that had a top speed of two hundred and twelve miles an hour and what they were really showcasing is how fast it could go or how quick it was as opposed to how fast and so driving it around a private track with quick turns that kind of stuff was amazing. I mean it was just – it felt perfect to sit in, the steering wheel was amazing, the acceleration going around a corner was just unbelievable but I like to go fast too. Like it would be nice to take that out there – you’ve got some nice roads in Arizona. You know what I’m talking about.