Why content is king and story is queen

Me, touching sati prints at Jodhpur Fort, India

Me, touching sati prints at Jodhpur Fort, India

Because it is the travel stories we tell that engage, inspire and motivate travellers

This is an open letter to the International Conference on Travel and Technology, the India travel & tourism industry and anyone else who could stand to benefit from understanding the contribution that professional travel writers / bloggers / photographers / videographers can, and do, make to promoting travel online.

Rajasthan, land of kings (and queens), is filled with heroic stories, fairy-tale architecture, blazing colours and stark landscapes; it is a feast for a traveller, photographer or storyteller. This is me, above, standing at the entrance to Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. You may notice that I am moved by touching the small, red sati prints — for these are the handprints of Maharaja Man Singh’s wives as they left the fort to be burned alive on his funeral pyre. The Maharaja was killed in battle in 1843, and no doubt he was a very brave man. But can you imagine the bravery required for this ordeal?

This is just one of the many stories I have shared over the past seven years as a travel writer / blogger and India traveller. It is stories like these that grab people’s attention, engage their imaginations and motivate them to travel.

And this is why I have concentrated most of my time and effort as a blogger on storytelling; and why I think travel writers / bloggers offer so much to the travel & tourism industry. To a potential tourist, there is a lot of power in seeing an “average” foreign woman in India, standing at a site like this and relating the stories that shaped the culture.

photograph of Mariellen at the aarti in Haridwar during the Kumbh Mela, APril 2010

Me at the aarti in Haridwar during the Kumbh Mela, April 2010.

The medium is not the message

I was inspired to write this blog post by the International Conference on Travel Technology conference, which is apparently the “first of its kind” in India. While I am excited that India is beginning to catch up to the west in terms of using the internet and social media to promote travel & tourism, I am dismayed to see there are no travel writers, bloggers or content specialists on the speaker’s list; and the only nod to blogging on the agenda is worrying: “Blogging: an inexpensive medium to generate leads and value for your website.”

I hope the travel industry in India does not make the same mistake that so many others do in travel, publishing and other industries; I hope they do not confuse the message and the medium. Technologies are just PLATFORMS for telling stories. It is not the technology or platform that grabs people and engages them, it is the content, the stories. It is the content creators — the writers, photographers, vloggers — who supply the stories that engage people on their blogs and social media platforms. And it is the content creators’ personalities that supply much of the draw — for it has been aptly stated that people follow personalities online.

It doesn’t matter how adept you are at utilizing the latest technologies and platforms if you don’t know how to tell a story. Without a story, you’re just putting your marketing “bumf” online — which is usually not very compelling. On the other hand, if travel and tourism boards, organizations and companies work with passionate and talented bloggers, and give them the freedom to do what they do best and the renumeration they deserve, I believe that magic can happen.

Photograph of Mariellen Ward with temple elephants in Tamil Nadu, 2006

Getting blessed by temple elephants in Tamil Nadu, 2006

Capturing the magic of India through story

India is a land of stories. The culture rests on two storytelling epics, the Mahabharat and the Ramayana. And there is so much of traditional and ancient India on display and available when you visit, from the temples of South India to the forts and palaces of Rajasthan to the ashrams of Rishikesh. It is the historical, mythological and spiritual depth of India’s culture that attracted me in the first place, and that captured my imagination. I had always wanted to be a writer, since childhood, but didn’t find my subject matter or my voice until I visited India for the first time in 2005.

But now I’ve been writing and blogging for more than seven years, since I started travelling in India in 2005 (including almost four years on Breathedreamgo). The entire time, my efforts have been driven by passion for “meaningful adventure travel,” travel in India and Indian culture and causes. I’ve learned to be a travel blogger on the fly, not as part of a strategy or plan … but almost accidentally. I’m not technically inclined, I’m not interested in sticking to a schedule or following a lot of “blog building techniques.” No, I just like telling stories, and following my interests and passions. So I am absolutely thrilled  — and frankly surprised — about reaching the #1 spot on Google for my search term, India travel blog. Nice to see storytelling rewarded in this day and age.

Breathedreamgo is top India travel blog on Google

Create something compelling

At about the same time I started writing this blog post, the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) conference rolled into Toronto. I sat down with speaker Sheila Scarborough of Tourism Currents, who will be presenting at the ICTT. We talked about travel blogging, the tourism industry and India.

Sheila agreed that many in the industry are savvy with the tools, but don’t know how to best use them. “People who are good storytellers know the hard part — how to make characters, cultures and places come alive. With technology, you can tell those stories to the whole planet. But … you need to create something compelling. India has amazing stories to tell — interesting people, amazing colours, renowned cuisine. So tell me.”

Sheila is presenting two sessions at the ICTT: “Online reputation management – art of listening and responding” and “Changing technology and marketing trends for the future of tourism.” I hope that working with professional writers is an upcoming trend!

Success stories

In my opinion, the best travel bloggers follow their passions and tell stories. They attract engaged readers and followers, and inspire and motivate them to travel.

And how do I know this? From watching many of my colleagues grow and flourish, and work very successfully with brands and destinations. There are too many successes to name, but a few stellar examples include:

So, the point is that people find stories compelling; Google rewards quality content; and readers respond to personalities. I just hope the attendees of the ICTT, and other such conferences, recognize that without story, and storytellers, you’re just adding to the noise.

If you enjoyed this post, you can….

Get updates and read additional stories on the Breathedreamgo Facebook page.

Buy Song of India, a collection of 10 feature stories about my travels in India. E-book version is now only $1.99.

Subscribe to the free — and inspiring! — e-newsletter, Travel That Changes You.

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37 Responses to Why content is king and story is queen

  1. Lesley Peterson June 6, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    So true, Mariellen. Facts and numbers can be obtained anywhere but it is emotion that gets people motivated and moving (and spending), emotion aroused by vivid images and storytelling . And that is quite a tale of the sati prints. Thanks for telling it.
    Lesley Peterson recently posted..ArtSmart Roundtable: Deciphering Dalí’s The Hallucinogenic ToreadorMy Profile

  2. Destination Infinity June 7, 2013 at 4:26 am #

    ‘Sati’ is one of our traditions that we would like to forget. I don’t know what socio-economic conditions compelled these traditions back then, but we are definitely not proud of this one.

    I think great stories exists in all cultures around the world, but in India, the contrasts and contradictions are just startling, and creates a deep impact.

    I feel that India is an exciting place for tourists not only for its beauty, but also for its ugliness. In India, even ugliness is beautiful. And I hope bloggers will tell both sides of the story, because both can be equally exciting and intriguing.

    Destination Infinity
    Destination Infinity recently posted..Am I the luckiest bike tyre puncturist*???My Profile

    • Rajiv June 7, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

      Sati evolved during the 13th century. Muslim hordes routinely raided India from Afghanistan, Central Asia and what is now Pakistan for gold, jewelery, slaves and most important women. The Hindu slaves and women were often carted off to Afghanistan and central Asia over the Hindu Kush mountains. The “Kush” in Persian means slaughter or sacrifice.

      After their husband’s deaths, Hindu and Sikh wives in order to avoid being carted off to serve as concubines/slaves in the muslim conquerer’s harems, the women ( and men) developed a custom to commit suicide on their husband’s funeral pyre. This evolved into a custom and continued long after the muslim raids stopped around the 17th-18th century.

      Even though Sati was abolished and banned in the 18th century, women in rural areas of northern India, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal pradesh, Punjab, UP, Bihar etc still practice Sati even though it has no sociological relevance to modern society ie muslim hordes no longer raid India for Gold, slaves and women except for the occasional terrorist acts such as that in Mumbai, 2008.

      • Mariellen Ward June 9, 2013 at 11:53 am #

        Thanks for the history behind sati Rajiv, I didn’t know that detail about the invading hordes. It makes sense. Sati is one of those cultural practises that amazes westerners, but we may have had something like that in our distant past too …
        Mariellen Ward recently posted..The green 13: Introducing EcoAdventure MediaMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward June 9, 2013 at 11:57 am #

      “In India, even ugliness is beautiful.” I feel the truth of this. India is so raw, so real … “all life is here” as the character in The Exotic Marigold Hotel said. Thanks for that comment.

      But I don’t think there’s any merit in trying to forget history or the past. Times change, we (hopefully) become more enlightened … and no doubt there was a reason for sati to evolve.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Pre-order inspiring travel book: “Roll out the magic carpet”My Profile

  3. Prasad Np June 7, 2013 at 4:30 am #

    Hi Mariellen: You are so right, whole of India is summarized in stories. This is a country where more than written word it is t he folk lore than has passed history and culture from one generation to the next.

    Your passion for writing in general and India in particular is evident in the topics and places and stories you tell which I love to read.
    Prasad Np recently posted..Trekking In Himalayas- Bollywood StyleMy Profile

  4. Charu June 7, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    I tried to reach out to India Tourism in the wake of the Nirbhaya incident, and what was surprising was that no one was doing any form of outreach on social media–only the international writers/ bloggers. I hope the country does make use of these platforms (Sulekha has been trying to do this for years) but I have to be honest–in a country where education/ basic infrastructure is not prioritized, it can take years before red tape is superseded and bloggers have the kind of clout we are seeing in others. I hope to see you truly succeed!
    Charu recently posted..Cultural Kids Camps from Around the WorldMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward June 9, 2013 at 11:51 am #

      Thanks Charu. I think you just have to bypass the government, it’s too cumbersome. Luckily with social media you can speak directly to people. I wrote a list of safety tips that I am widely distributing.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..WeGoSolo Dream Destination ContestMy Profile

  5. sonia June 10, 2013 at 4:59 am #

    `Nice post to read. Thanks for sharing with us. Keep up the great work i’ll be visiting to your blog

  6. Keith June 10, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    Hi Mariellen,

    You’re absolutely spot on – it’s all about story-telling, capturing people’s imagination and inspiring them to make that trip. That’s what bloggers can contribute to destination marketing. Several iambassador blogger campaigns we’ve done, including the recent #MeetSouthAfrica campaign focused on story-telling; not only local stories from the country but stories about the bloggers themselves (e.g. overcoming a particular fear, learning from different cultures, etc…).

    I agree, that part about bloggers being an inexpensive means is indeed worrying.

    Thanks for including me in the list above! 🙂

    Keith recently posted..The historic #MeetSouthAfrica travel bloggers campaignMy Profile

  7. Jeff Palmer June 10, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

    Google results are based on your browsing and G+ habits.

    See another search of India Travel Blog.

    Which brings up a common blogger sentiment: “I am the most important person among my friends on the topic in which I am expert.”

    I look forward to your trending twitter chat.

    • Mariellen Ward June 10, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

      You missed my point Jeff. My point was not about me being “an important person.” It was about how Google ranks story-telling type content. The message I am trying to impart to the travel & tourism industry is that they don’t have to be LITERAL about promoting destinations. They can work with storytellers, not marketing copy writers, and still rank well on Google.

      Not sure I understand your comment about a trending Twitter chat … but in fact, the WeGoSolo did trend when I first started it back in February on Twitter.

      Good luck with whatever it is you’re doing.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..WeGoSolo Dream Destination ContestMy Profile

  8. Andrea Rees June 10, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    I agree with you and exactly the kind of sessions I sought out at TBEX. I keep struggling between just churning out posts and filling my site with ‘real’ content. So far I’ve chosen the latter. This is one of the reasons why I really like and am drawn to Matador Network & G Adventures, they too believe in it…and you of course! Which is why anytime you post something, I take a look. You offer real content. I aim to tell stories with the written word and my photography. I do post tips as it relates, but I only post what I feel would be helpful and not to just fill space. It’s much easier to point someone to one of my posts than repeat myself many times as I have been doing as I get a lot of questions about the iPhone.
    Andrea Rees recently posted..How To Transfer Your iPhone Images To Your iPadMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward June 10, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

      Exactly, Andrea. I’ve heard many people say that it’s a good idea to spend time creating some cornerstone, or pillar, blog posts (I forget which term they use), and then refer to them over and over.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..TBEX Toronto highlights (and one lowlight)My Profile

  9. Rajiv June 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm #


    Here is a fantastic new developing story. I am sure there is a great story behind this something that you may want to write about.

    Prince William according to recent genetic studies is part-Indian. He is the direct descendent of his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Eliza Kewark who was part Indian, part Armenian , based in Surat and married a British merchant with the East India company, Theodore Forbes.

    The queen is probably saying to herself,

    “Oy Vai, the future king , my grandson is an impure Indian darkie ! Where did I go wrong?”.


    More on this here


    and here


    This should be Mira Nair’s or Deepa Mehta’s next movie about the British Raj!

    • Mariellen Ward June 16, 2013 at 7:25 pm #

      Well, this is off topic … but thanks for sharing it anyway. Though I think accusing the Queen of racism is tasteless. We are all a mixed bag of genes, and if you go back far enough, we are all related. Spiritually, we are all part of one consciousness.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..WeGoSolo Dream Destination ContestMy Profile

      • Amrita February 9, 2014 at 2:09 am #

        Well said Mariellen! We are all one. In India we say- ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’- the world is a family. Also, we all are part of ‘Parmatman’ or the Supreme Soul. Great that U have learnt a lot abt spirituality & practise it in your life as well.:)
        Amrita recently posted..Biju Pattnaik International Airport, BhubaneswarMy Profile

  10. Rajiv June 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm #


    My sincere apologies,

    That was just a tongue in cheek, off the cough, witty remark about the Queen. In no way did I mean to imply that the queen is racist. In fact, I gather she is fascinated by India and supposedly she is very “pro-Indian” from what I’ve read about her. She has also done a lot to improve inter-cultural relations in England. She is definitely sensitive about ethnic and racial issues. Even though, I am not a Royalist/Monarchist, I admire her.

    My background: I grew up in England and as an Indian got used to being called a “darkie” plus other choice terms by uneducated types. Of course, that sort of plays in my subconscious. In North America , where I live no one uses the term “darkie”.

    My girlfriend who is your kind,(Irish-English European-Canadian) found my joke to be witty and had a hearty laugh!

    Since your topic was about Kings and Queens, I figured you’d find this new revelation about Prince William’s Indian genetic signature intriguing.

    There is a million dollar best seller there perhaps a new plot for MIra Nair or Deepa Mehta movie or a new William Dalrymple or Salman Rushdie book.

    I am really curious about genetic origins, human ancestry/anthropology , human origins, evolution out of Africa since I have a PhD in Biophysics. I have worked in the DNA analysis field that was used to trace his maternal lineage.

    Like you I have traveled extensively 30 odd countries and just amazed by the exhaustive complexity of human civilization. I have a cultural anthropologist’s mind which is why I am so fascinated by your stories !

    Of course, as you said spiritually we are one and part of the same global consciousness regardless of our origins which is the essence of Sanathan Dharma.

    Anyway, I am your ardent admirer and devoted fan of your writings .

    Again, I sincerely apologize for the not so witty quip!

    Peace and sweet dreams

    • Mariellen Ward June 17, 2013 at 6:47 am #

      Thanks for the explanation Rajiv, I appreciate it. In Canada, that kind of remark is seen as politically incorrect, to say the least! You might be interested in the writings of Joseph Campbell. Do you know him? He was one of the world’s leading mythologists, and he was interested in the themes and mythologies that unite people all over the world. He did his PhD in Sanskrit and spent a lot of time in India. He is one of my favourite writers and has probably had a bigger impact on me than any other teacher.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Why content is king and story is queenMy Profile

      • Rajiv June 17, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

        I saw Bill Moyer’s 5-part documentary about Joseph Campbell’s works. It was brilliant. Joseph Campbell had this amazing ability to mesmerize you with stories, of origins, human consciousness.

        But, I am also very much influenced by Vietnamese teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh and Tibetans Pemma Chodron, Sogyal Rinpoche, various Japanese Zen masters and of course Indian teachers such as Vivekananda, Krishnamurthi.

        I kinda shy away from most Indian gurus not sure who is real who isn’t. A lot of them have been embroiled in some nasty scandals.

        There is perhaps only one Indian institute in the west that stands out as untouched by the karma cola nature of Indian gurus and that’s the Vedanta institute founded by Vivekakanda himself in Northern California. It is pristine, isolated, divinely unitarian and untainted by ugly scandals. You can be of any religious background and even be an agnostic/atheist and experience the beauty of the Vedantha institute.

        The facebook site for the Vedantha institute


  11. Shalu Sharma June 17, 2013 at 6:36 am #

    So true about this Mariellan. But the dynamics of blogging has changed no matter what niche you blog in. Its all about content that is engaging and also about connecting to your audience. So I would say, content is king and engagement is queen.
    Have a nice day.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Manuela arrives in India from ColombiaMy Profile

  12. Avi D´Souza June 19, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Hey Mariellen,

    We met at TBEX Toronto 2 weeks ago, Love your blog! I am the guy from Toronto who moved to the island of Roatan and started an adventure travel company, and blog about Roatan (roatan.westbaytours.com). Anyways if you are ever around Roatan, Honduras drop me a line. Hopefully we can get you out on some cool tours, Tiny Deserted Islands or on a sailboat. Cheers, you rock!


  13. greenacresresort June 27, 2013 at 8:40 am #

    Hello Mariellen Ward! we are one among the tourist agent in India. Actually i feel proud by seeing blogs about India that too posted by our guests. Thanks for these nice posts and blog. we are honored! Take care!

  14. Savi of Bruised Passports June 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    I loved reading this entry Mariellen. India has so much to offer, it’s never ending. I’m fortunate to have explored a lot of the country while growing up. Have you explored Leh and Ladakh yet?

    On the flip-side, Indian passports need visas for EVERY country (thus the name of our blog ‘Bruised Passports’) – aah you win some, you lose some 😉
    Savi of Bruised Passports recently posted..Why do we travel? For THAT sunset in EgyptMy Profile

  15. T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries June 28, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

    Excellent post 🙂 I think, as travel bloggers, we have a responsibility to tell the stories and share the cultural highlights of the cultures we are exploring…and that’s best done through fun stories 🙂 Not pictures of food, pictures of hot-air balloon rides or scuba diving or activities…but through immersion in the culture. Telling about the people, the culture, the history, the love, the life…not just the attractions.

    • Mariellen Ward July 3, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

      Yes, I agree — I am much more interested in getting to know new and different cultures than simply partaking of inexpensive hedonistic pleasures while I am there.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Protecting the Abode of ShivaMy Profile

  16. Srimanta June 30, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    Really so nice blog and full-capacity of good articles. India is a great destination of amazing tourists places, Rajasthan is one of them most attractive destinations. Thanks for sharing this valuable information. Always learning new stuff here.
    Srimanta recently posted..Sunday Snapshot : Corbett Nation ParkMy Profile

  17. Brahmadas July 2, 2013 at 5:37 am #

    Dearest Mriellen Ward,

    First of all, Sorry that you was not able to participate in first season of ICTT 2013. I can understand your feeling, hope you will be the prime invited person in next season.

    I am basically an SEO person, as I was recently hired by Kallada Travel House, I got that golden opportunity to attend the ICTT conference 2013. In my case it was really a co-incidence. It was more than my luck to participate in that ICTT international conference which is comparable to pub con and mozcon etc. Even I have viewed most of the available sessions of all International social media and search marketing conference via YouTube videos, It was my first live session to meed international travel experts like Sheila Madam, Social Media experts from Bluewire media, Adam, Selina Power, Chad, the social media power generator of Michigan.org. Karthik Prabhy from Tnooz, Suresh Babu from web marketing academy Linked expert Philip.

    Hope your open letter to ICTT organizers may be turning point in my social media career.

    I have been digging for Travel bloggers like you. I am really happy find Breathedreamgo though a comment put in blog post of Philip Calvert.

    I would like to use this comment to appreciate you for all of you post published in Breathedreamgo website.

    As a professional SEO I know the importance of writing impressive stories and content, I know the importance of making the visitors interactive. As Sheila Madam said, in India most of us have all of these resources and most of us a not utilizing the available things in right manner. Hope the next sessions of ICTT conferences may be more nutritious than the first session which will run through the case studies and experience sharing by potential travel bloggers like you and persons like Anita Bora, Sharell Cook etc etc.

    Plz keep in touch, Thanks and regards for you and Breathedreamgo.


    0091 – 9020807078

    • Mariellen Ward July 3, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

      Thanks so much for your comment Brahmadas, I really appreciate it. I hope we are able to meet one day. I also appreciate your SEO perspective, and that you realize that good content and storytelling can be just as SEO friendly — perhaps even moreso — than simply churning out keyword dense copy. I too hope I get to go to a conference like this and impress upon the tourism industry the benefits of working with professional story tellers. Cheers!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The green 13: Introducing EcoAdventure MediaMy Profile

      • Brahmadas October 4, 2013 at 2:13 am #

        Thanks for your reply Mariellen Ward.

        Sure, will meet in any other conference connected with social media, tourism, SEO.

        Have a nice time

  18. Sawrah October 16, 2013 at 11:46 am #

    I know this is an older article, but I had it in my inbox to read and finally did. I just attended my first TBEX and was a little overwhelmed with the tech talk. I want to focus on story. It is great to see such an established blogger talking about this. Thank you so much for this article!

  19. Amrita February 9, 2014 at 2:16 am #

    Well said Mariellen. Telling the right stories in an engaging manner is how we can inspire ppl to know more & experience more for themselves. You have a lovely blog & hope U keep coming up with gr8 blogposts on #Incredible #India! 🙂
    Amrita recently posted..Biju Pattnaik International Airport, BhubaneswarMy Profile

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