It’s rare for me to write about blogging issues – and so apologies to my regular readers who have absolutely no interest in this. But I feel like I (and possibly a whole heap of others in this relatively tight knit travel content creator community) have something to say about the state of the industry at the moment and the incessant emphasis travel brands and tourism authorities have on one social media application: Instagram.
Note: this post could also have been titled an open letter to Travel PR reps and DMOs (because if I started writing about the fakes, flakes, wannabes and those trying to profit off them I would have a hard time stopping myself writing.)
I started writing this post a few week ago in response to a few luxury hotels speaking out that they are tired of being inundated with ‘influencer’ requests – and on a personal note, because my follower count looks likely to dip below the ‘holy grail’ 50k followers as I have taken a step back from the platform. (I call it the holy grail because I was once rejected for a large cruise campaign because I didn’t have 50k on Insta – even though I had 100k+ pageviews a month at that time… I still can’t see the logic, but hey, it is what it is.)
Regardless, concerns about the validly of influencer marketing has been thrown around a lot in the last few years with the rise of social media. In the travel industry in particular there have been rumblings of complaints, but it has exploded into the public eye recently with articles dotted across the web exclaiming “Hotels are sick of freeloading Instagram Influencers” (like this one, this one and who could forget the Irish cafe debacle).
The thing is, the genuine ROI (return on investment) providing, hardworking and trusted travel content creators are sick of it too – and have been for years.
Influence in the Travel Industry
It’s not a secret that we live in a world of new media: where every mom, pop, cute cat or dog and a seemingly endless array of women in bikinis/flowy dresses/with their backs to the camera can be considered as ‘influential’ on the ‘strength’ of their social channels.
We’re surrounded by terms like micro influencer, creator economy, digital nomad and mommy blogger – and everyone seemingly wants a piece of the pie.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with that. However when you look deeper – and with the recent outpouring of ‘we’re so over influencers’ from several hotel chains, it’s time to take a step back and have a bit of a reality check. Influencer marketing, whilst contentious, is here to stay. And the travel industry in particular – from both a brand and content creation perspective – would do well to learn how to effectively utilise it.
No dresses and floppy hats here! This may be a bit of an unconventional way to be ‘present’ on my social accounts – but when your audience follows you for travel advice, inspiration and imagery, it was a creative reminder that I am a human whilst continuing to focus on the experience and the destination rather than myself.
The Rise of the Instagram Influencer
Whether you have always dreamed of traveling to far off countries, or making a living from running an online business from anywhere in the world – social media keeps telling you that it is possible (I’m sure you have seen the incessant ads asking you to sign up to a course and your working remotely dreams will come true? right?), and the Instagram/Facebook combination is the best cheerleader out there. As visual people, Instagram gave us a way to see the beauty of the world without having to leave our armchairs and from the viewpoints of ‘regular’ people. Raw content typically relegated to the holiday snaps photography album became as attractive and sought after as posed/professional content. The likes piled up, from hundreds to thousands and hotels & travel brands noticed the traction beautiful images and the working remotely Island-lifestyle could get. For the everyday person, follower numbers became akin to a bank, with engagement (likes and comments) a form of currency. It was the birth of the Instagram Influencer Market.
To be honest, part of me feels terrible that I can no longer achieve the engagement that I once enjoyed (120+ comments on the previous post -> less than 30 comments now), but at the same time, I have stepped back from Instagram and focus my time and energy on SEO and organic rankings. Knowing that the content that I produced only a few short weeks ago (like this and this) is already starting to climb the google ranks where it will benefit an evolving/evergreen audience over the years, constantly reaffirms that it was the right choice – both for myself and the brands that I work with.
The Current Situation
When it comes to Instagram in the travel industry – it’s a great tool for generating exposure and increased brand awareness, for inspiring people to take that first step towards the thought of a destination, hotel, tour or experience. But those likes and comments are very rarely an indication of anything more than someone double tapping the screen when they scroll past a pretty picture and filing it away for future plans. This awareness has a huge value, but it is only the very start of the journey.
Travel is a big ticket item and very often an expensive purchase; people need to plan when they can take leave, how it affects flight (or other transport) costs, who’s going to look after the pets, is it suitable for kids – and numerous other concerns. Inspiring people to travel is essential part of the buying cycle, but no ‘link in bio’ is going to prompt people to instantly drop a grand or two on recreating that image. (And if recreating the image is the only reason for travel, then we have a whole heap of other things to be concerned about).
But it has sparked a thought. And it is that thought that marketers need to be capitalising on.
But first, Instagram – whilst being big business – has created a minefield that has even the most experienced travel professionals are struggling to navigate and some travel content creators have stopped investing time in altogether..
Brands and PR firms of all sizes are chomping at the bit to work with social media starlets, knowing they are key in marketing to Millennials and beyond, and these social media superstars – or wannabe’s are – more than happy to charge for (or trade on) access to their ‘audience’, however big or small that may be. People seem willing to do anything to put themselves on the top of the pile. Unethical practices such as buying followers or likes, partaking in like or comment pods, using ‘save’ threads or joining loop giveaways to boost numbers and to fabricate engagement have become commonplace throughout the industry. Some are easy to spot, some are not and whilst there are several ‘engagement calculators’ (Fohr Card, Klear etc) which set out to identify the good form the bad and to out the people trying to game the system, in an attempt to encourage transparency. But with Instagram restricting their API it is becoming harder to figure out who is the real deal.
For the hotels that sparked the recent outcry of ‘no more influencers’ It’s not simply a case of being taken in by ‘fakers’ (of which there are many) but a wider issue of the disconnect between what ROI the brand expect, what Instagrammers are offering, and the reality of what is achievable – which often lies somewhere in the middle. (And don’t even get me started on the Influencer Aggregators who all want to insert themselves as the paid middle man between brands and creators – as if it wasn’t hard enough for creators to get paid in the first place.)
Where the waters get murkier still are the inclusion of fashion instagrammers in the promotion of travel content; and there is a difference between someone with a travel account looking great and bringing life to a picture and someone who’s sole goal is to promote outfits or accessories. Some fashion/lifestyle accounts do this really well, but unfortunately many of them do not. As a representative from the Dusit Thani hotel in the Maldives so eloquently put it: “10 different bikini pictures a day on the beach is great for the bikini company. But you can’t even tell where it’s taken. It could be anywhere in the Maldives.” (Go figure..)
When you add in that the exposure of a post is entirely depend on the level of engagement in the first hours after which there is a sharp decline (and what forces the unethical practices mentioned above) marketers should really be assessing if their budgets can be better spent elsewhere – say on a more holistic, all encompassing, full coverage campaign rather than placing all their eggs in the Instagram basket?!
Back Away from The Gram
Ultimately, whilst Instagram will forever hold a place as an inspirational visual medium, it’s time to Back Away From The ‘Gram when it comes to stand alone Influencer Marketing in the travel space. Instagram plays a vital role in inspiring world travel, but should be backed up by substantive content and (IMO) brands should be seeking out permanent, evergreen content on trusted travel blogs that have the ability to not only showcase a destination to their current audience, but also reach a wider, more organic, evergreen audience seeking reviews, information and inspiration from real people (and not celebrities) through search engines.
How Travel Brands and PR Companies Can + should work with Travel Content Creators
Now you may have read the above and fallen anywhere between an earth shattering, “why hasn’t it occurred to me before”, to “duh, of course”. And whilst I hope at least one part of the above was useful, I have put together this quick guide below to how to work with influencers to make sure the basics are out there publicly to help businesses and brands of all sizes maximise their ROI when it comes to Influencer Marketing. The genuine content creators are loud and proud about their sites, their readership, their socials and their brand partnerships – but with all the noise, it may be hard to hear/see/find them.
Picking the right individual/brand to partner with – on the basis of who their audience is and where they are based – can reinforce a brand and encourage bookings. Even if those bookings may be 6-12 months or even a few years down the line. Their content will remain online for an exponentially longer time than a single Instagram or Facebook post, and if written with search engines in mind (if the influencer has a good grasp of SEO – search engine optimization if you were not sure) will soon find itself of Page 1 of Google and reach a much larger audience on an ongoing basis. A single instagram post will be gone within 36 hours.
- Consider Instagram – or any other social media network – as complementary to permanent content. Travel content creators have had to cultivate their followings and have loyal fans, which is great for getting your brand out there to targeted individuals and building awareness; but it is not the be all and end all. Social media platform algorithms change often and even those with high numbers may only reach a small % of people who have actively chosen to follow them.
TIP: Check out the engagement rate (likes + comments / follower count) and aim for above 7% for account below 10k; above 4% for accounts above 10k; and over 2% for accounts above 100k. These are slightly higher than what has been put out there as ‘standard’ but should help as a basis to cut the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
- Request full website stats from an influencer before entering into any discussions (where they do not have an up-to-date media kit online):
- Request Monthly Unique Visitors and Monthly PageViews per Google Analytics (the only trusted metric in the industry);
- Ask about the gender of their audience and location
- Ask WHO their audience is, what they like, the type of trips they take and how they spend their money. If an influencer doesn’t know who their audience is, how can you be sure you are marketing to the right people?
- Ask where their traffic is coming from: Direct, Social Media, Referral, Organic? Hint: Organic traffic is best.
- Can the person demonstrate a thorough understanding with a healthy (and growing) amount of traffic from several articles? (i.e they are not a one hit wonder)
- Be prepared to pay for quality.
- This is an industry where anyone can succeed with thousands of people at different levels of their journey. And this results in work of varying qualities. If you want to pay peanuts, expect monkeys. For those at the top of their game they have usually spent years building their site, have mastered social media, SEO, writing, web design, photography, networking and wear a hundred different hats. Be prepared to pay for their knowledge, expertise and time.
- Put a contract in place. Be specific about what you want and on which channels but don’t stifle their creativity – that’s one of the main reasons to work with someone in the first place.
- Don’t expect immediate results: Ranking content in search engines can take months. Be prepared to wait to see a return on your investment.
- Actually Share the content that is being produced on your Brand channels. This one may seem counter-intuitive, as you are working with an influencer to capitalise on their audience, but the fact they are producing content with your brand at the centre is a great way for you to put out ‘promotional’ content without being overly self-promotional and create buzz around a different demographic within your own audience who may respond better to a particular style or type of content. This in turn will also help you drill down into what your audience likes, and as such, how you can capitalize on it.
Influencers will also inevitably put a personal spin on your brand, giving real life thoughts and opinions which are something the public love to hear and will only bolster your relationships with your customers and improve the reach of the campaign, thus reaching a new audience outside both of your networks.
If you got this far, thank you so much for reading. I’d love to hear your comments – whether you agree with me or not; and even more-so if you think I have missed a vital part of the Instagram puzzle. If you don’t feel comfortable expressing your comments publicly, please feel free to email me at maketimetoseetheworld(@)gmail(dot)com.