Welcome Matthew Barker for a cracking guest post. Enjoy!

This is a deeper dive on a presentation I gave at last week’s Travel Zoom conference. You can get the slides here.

Influencer marketing, aka blogger outreach - it’s the debate that keeps on giving.

My title comes from a recent comment about Phil Lee’s decision to stop financing blog trips during his time at Tourism Victoria; one among many in what seems like a wider pushback about the value of influencer marketing.

Phil’s is a common beef. 'Influence' gauged by “a number in the millions followed by a measure unique to a social media platform... A reach the size of a medium-sized nation-state.” Despite the astronomical numbers, he notes that “it’s rare to see a solid measure of effectiveness like sales, arrivals or even something vague but measurable like brand awareness or sentiment.”

You can see this in the case studies and conference talks from any of the professional blog collectives. The metrics show tens of thousands of individual posts creating millions of impressions or, lifting from the old advertising lexicon, “opportunities to see”.

The borrowing from old-school PR vocab doesn’t end there.

Another dinosaur doing the rounds is the Ad Value Equivalent (AVE) of those impressions; as though the old column inches concept that was barely plausible back in the analogue era can be used to assign $ value to impressions in today’s torrent of content, programmatic ad serving and an inventory landscape that is fragmented beyond all meaningful comparison.

Out of curiosity I requested the international visitor numbers to Costa Brava on either side of the 2012 TBEX event in Girona. Arrivals the following year were virtually static: 2,953,097 in 2012 to 2,965,649 in 2013.

TBEX is the largest gathering of digital influencers in the travel space, which makes it (even if it’s not publicly billed as such) by far the biggest “blog trip”. Ready for those big numbers? The event generated 26,967 hashtagged tweets with just under 150,000,000 impressions on Twitter alone. (Google TBEX Girona for an entirely unscientific snapshot of its wider exposure.) So if not in visitor numbers how did Tourism Costa Brava gauge their returns? They told me that the event was considered a branding promotion and that they couldn’t segment or quantify the outcomes from their other digital promotions that year.

If the hosts of the world’s biggest blog trip have no hard ROI data, surely Phil and the growing number of his colleagues are right and there’s something fundamentally wrong with the entire concept?

They might be asking the right questions. But I think their response - which has been to chuck the baby out with the bathwater - is wrong.

We’ve been doing the wrong things and expecting the wrong results.


Let's look at influencer marketing for what it really is - online PR: investing in an activity to engage someone else’s audience. PR is usually about trying to influence people early on in the purchasing process. And travel blog audiences are typically people just browsing ideas - they're a long way from being ready to buy anything. (In marketing speak we think of them as being right at the top of the marketing funnel.)

Travel is a complex product with pathways to purchase that can be exceptionally long and convoluted - among the longest for any consumer purchase. Yet we’ve been expecting influencer marketing to do it all - to move their audience all the way down the marketing funnel - from mild interest to final purchase. Build, engage and convert an audience all in one - as though it has some magical properties.

At the root is a problem consistently highlighted by Pam Mandel among others: the prevailing model for influencer marketing has turned professional influencers/audience-builders into unprofessional marketers.

Asking bloggers to be our marketers has created hyper-promotional and aggressively sales-oriented sponsored content that masquerades as independent writing. It has created blogger collectives that include “SEO content” and native advertising among their service items.

It has created a vociferous debate around ethics, disclosure and transparency too. I honestly wonder if we even know what “credibility” is anymore. Does plonking that standard disclaimer at the end of a post promising that “as ever all opinions are my own” really count? If so it’s a remarkable stroke of luck that bloggers never seem to have a shitty time when they’re travelling on someone else’s dime. Do we know what this is doing to the legitimacy of our messages, and therefore our potential to “influence” consumers in the first place?

But I don’t really blame the bloggers. I blame us, the marketers.

We’re the ones who let them do our jobs for us. This is the ecosystem that we helped to build and we need to take responsibility for fixing it.


What would a new model of influencer marketing look like?

The paradoxical first step would be for the influencers to stop doing the marketing and to go back to what they do best: building, engaging and educating their audiences.

Meanwhile we marketers need to reclaim responsibility for our own jobs and be more realistic about the role that influencers can play within wider content strategy.

A smarter approach would be for brands and bloggers/influencers to work more closely on the outcomes that actually make a measurable impact at the relevant stage of the marketing funnel: cooperating on audience data, sharing engaged users and bringing them in at the top of a brand’s funnel where we, the marketers, can focus on nurturing and converting them into prospects and sales.

There are mechanisms to make this happen: email, social media and retargeting all offer effective touchpoints for transferring audiences from blogger to brand and then into the brand’s lead-nurturing channels for progression through the funnel. This shifts the emphasis for influencer marketing away from bottom funnel, last-touch lead generation and into high funnel, first/assisted-touch territory where it belongs.

As we see time and again with our work, contextual email, paid social and well-segmented retargeting campaigns are enormously powerful channels for converting digital audiences into prospects, leads and sales. But to work, those audiences have to start out engaged, informed and qualified.

Travel blogs could be a uniquely valuable source of engaged audiences feeding the top of the funnel and into these channels. Partnerships that provide for shared access to user tracking, custom audience targeting and lookalike audiences, all based on qualified, engaged and segmented traffic could transform our approaches to influencer marketing.

Data access at this level would mean grown-up cooperation on multi-platform Terms of Service compliance, privacy regulations, analytics sharing and link tagging. This in turn demands trust, transparency and mutual respect - things that often seem thin on the ground. But the benefits would be immense: bloggers can revert to what they’re best at - providing honest, objective content that their readers can trust - and leave the marketing activities to the professionals.

Not only is this a more effective strategy, it is also eminently measurable.

Provided that links are properly parameter tagged within a consistent architecture we can easily segment first and assisted referral touches generated by influencer marketing activity at the top of the funnel and quantify how it contributes to later conversions via other channels further down the funnel.

We have everything we need to make real, accurate ROI calculations for assisted conversion paths throughout the entire funnel - but to make it happen we need to fundamentally redefine the relationship between the marketing professionals, our blogging colleagues and the audiences we’re trying to reach.

We've recently started a partnership with Travelator Media, a UK-based blog collective, to tackle some of these questions and build a model for ROI-focused blog campaigns.

Leave a comment or get in touch if you’d like to learn more.

38 thoughts on “Influencer marketing: Has the bubble burst?

  1. A couple of things:

    1) If visits are static, why is this the fault of bloggers and not the fault of every other form of marketing that the destination engages in? Also, looking at visitor numbers seems to ignore economic trends which I'm sure trump any marketing efforts by any destination. During the time that Costa Brava first hosted TBEX they were also named one of the top destinations in the world by National Geographic Traveler. Instead pointing the finger at TBEX, wouldn't it equally prove how ineffective National Geographic is???

    2) Being a blogger doesn't make you an influencer. I dare say almost all bloggers are NOT influencers and have no real audience. I see destinations and PR firms making horrible decisions all the time. They seem to just look for people who the tag "blogger" can be applied. They should be disappointed in the results.

    3) Influencing travel decisions can take YEARS. People don't just drop what they are doing and travel somewhere. At best you can plant a seed in someone's head that comes to fruition, potentially years later. This is true of all travel media.

    4) What are the metrics for print and broadcast? You can't track any of those mediums, yet the amount spent is probably 10-100x greater than what is spent on bloggers. There seems to be an inordinate amount of attention given to online marketing because there are metrics, whereas most other marketing campaigns get a pass because......well, because.

    In sum, I haven't seen much in the way of good influencer marketing beyond "blog trips". Most influencer programs just treat the influencers as an advertising channel, don't do anything more with them, and then expect miracles.

    1. Thanks for the reactions, Gary.

      I'm very deliberately *not* pointing any fingers at bloggers (or TBEX). I'm saying it's nuts that people in the destination marketing trade are throwing large sums at this with virtually zero grasp of real outcomes, and instead are using things like impressions and AVE as their main KPIs.

      Of course you're right about economic trends. Costa Brava's visitor numbers increased in 2014. Was that an economic shift, the drip effect of TBEX, the impact of their other promotions, or was it more likely to be some combination of all the above? Who knows, and this is my point: we're not measuring outcomes from blogger marketing/digital PR when it is actually very easy to measure with a very high degree of accuracy.

      Side note: have you seen the Skift series of DMO interviews? (http://skift.com/tag/fodm/) I've been following along and I haven't found *any* mention of understanding ROI on digital promotions. They're busy CEOs and have got far more on their plates than pesky analytics, but they're all talking about how important digital is yet no one is talking about ROI.

      Being a blogger doesn't make you an influencer but it's the prevailing model that seems to assume otherwise. We're expecting bloggers to do the selling and as you and I are both saying, travel purchase decisions simply don't work like that.

      And yes, how many bloggers are even that influential in the first place? As I've said many times, reach ≠ influence. A website can have massive traffic but if it's mostly single visits from hyper-optimised SEO or StumbleUpon clicks, that doesn't count as an audience you can realistically "influence".

      Another aside: a telling phrase I've heard from more than one DMO recently is about "fake bloggers" i.e. with all the traffic and reach numbers but no ability to follow through with any results. That sucks and it's bringing the whole show down for everyone.

      Yeah, analogue PR doesn't have anything like the same measurability. So does that mean we just shouldn't bother with digital? Or should we figure out how to do it better, accept that the "blog trip" and sponsored post model is bust, and make it actually work.

      1. How does a non-profit DMO calculate ROI? How is that even possible? There is no return because they aren't trying to turn a profit. There is no possible way to even calculate it.

        DMO's are almost always political institutions. Their goal is to point to efforts made to promote the destination to make their benefactors happy. That is why they make so many bad decisions. There are no ramifications to their actions. If they tell their bosses "we had a blog trip", it makes it look like they are cutting edge without providing any details about who was actually on the trip.

        For the same reason, big numbers, wherever they are from serve their purpose because.....big numbers.

        One of the problems is that online marketing is looked at with a microscope whereas offline marketing is looked at with a telescope. To paraphrase Einstein, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

        Online marketers are measuring something, just because they can be measured, and ignoring many things, which may be more important, because they can't be measured.

        This has really twisted marketing perceptions online and has caused it to ignore simple things like brand awareness, which is where most offline marketing money is spent.

        Yes, there are some things which can be measured, but the more expensive the product, the less effective it is going to be. How many people buy cars online?

        Moreover, purchasing decisions usually have to come from multiple sources. If one person talks about destination X, that might be interesting. However, if someone is suddenly hearing about X from many different sources, they might seriously start thinking of something. Again, you can't really assign a sale to any one of the sources, but combined they may have influence.

        I think people are trying too hard to turn marketing into a science, when it is really an art and always will be. This is especially true in travel.

        1. On a macro level a DMO isn't a transactional business so it's not measuring revenue but it should certainly want to better understand the returns of its digital campaigns on a bottom line metric, i.e. visitor numbers.

          As I mentioned in a comment below - the analytics data isn't watertight and it'll never be exhaustive but we could still do a *lot* better than we currently are.

          On a micro level there are often transactional aspects to many DMOs' work, even if they're not their main corporate objective: promoting ticketed events, selling combination tourist passes, sometimes DMOs are acting as booking channels for local suppliers. All things a digital influencer campaign could be effective at promoting *and* be highly measurable.

          "I think people are trying too hard to turn marketing into a science,"

          -- On the contrary, I think a lot of people aren't trying hard enough and are instead choosing to settle for 2nd rate metrics and big sounding numbers.

  2. Some interesting stuff in there but mysteriously shrouded in too much marketing-speke for me to fully understand.

    The crucial point is surely that followers, likes or tweets or whatever, don't necessarily correspond to anything. That is also true of print's readership numbers, TV viewing figures and so on.

    Which medium has the greatest impact? That's the question these marketing bods should work out for themselves.

    It's an interesting aside that the quality and power of blogs may be so slight because so many of them are crap. Uncritical is part of it yes, but they're often cheesey and shallow too.

    On a recent press trip with several bloggers I monitored their total combined output. Not one thing they reported during the trip will make my print feature. It was mostly trite brochurespeke bollocks illustrated with corny selfies or quite snaps that would be thrown out of any other form of media.

    This relates also to the new model for travelwriting: that we all become self-sufficient digital self-editors. If they're like me, writers are shite self-editors. Editorial works better with a chain of criticism, honing reports to what is interesting, useful, entertaining and relevant. The 100k follower twitter star doesn't have that. The sad old hack does.

    Having said all that I decided to embrace the new. Only today I linked my pinterest to my twitter, I think. From this point on, it's to infinity and beyond.

    1. Hi Simon. Yeah I'm a wordy bugger at times. You should have seen it before Jeremy's edit job.

      But yes, we're saying the same thing: followers, tweets, or any other reach/impressions metrics (including AVE) are not in themselves a useful KPI. They're a means to an end, and for the most part we're not really thinking about the end. It's all spaghetti and walls and hoping that some bookings come out of the other end.

      "Which medium has the greatest impact? That's the question these marketing bods should work out for themselves." -- I agree 100%.

  3. Hey, at least I'm called out for consistency. Whew.

    In research for something else, I talked to a blogger agency a few weeks back. They put tracking codes in all their participants posts so they can see if the stuff's getting read, if readers are clicking through to the sponsor, how long they spend on the page, you know, the analytics that tells you if anything is working.

    I've long been surprised by how negligent many campaigns are about boring analytics. It's simply not that hard to find out if people are Really Reading. I've also wondered why marketers invest in third party blog content instead of content they own themselves. (Oh, wait, hello, Marriott.)

    Hire great writers to make content for your site if you want great content, everything else is an SEO play, thanks to the tyranny of Google. That's what most of these initiatives are about. No wonder the content isn't great -- the sponsor doesn't actually care about, they only care about the Google juice.

    Ramble ramble wanders off muttering... hey! At least I'm CONSISTENT!

    1. See - I knew I could count on your comments Pam. Consistency.

      Yes we need to know about content engagement (finish rate, time on page, pages per session, etc). How often do you see those numbers in a media kit or a case study? How often do sponsors ask for that data after an engagement?

      Even the SEO part if this is daft - there are WAY cheaper ways to get good links.

      Sounds like whoever you spoke to is doing the right things. Good on them.

  4. Thanks for a great guest post Matt - and sorry that quite a few people on Twitter thought I wrote it (wish I had).

    I don't think marketers 'asked' bloggers/influencers to become marketers for them. I think certain more business savvy bloggers started looking for ways to monetize what they were doing and hit on the idea of upselling their product by adding extra stuff and creating a marketing service. And they succeeded. And fair play to them.
    It looks like they created unrealistic expectations though (and maybe this IS where marketers are guilty too - they probably helped).

    The problem is though. If pro travel bloggers can't make money by being 'marketers' too and offering these other whistles and bells - ticking off all the right buzzwords for getting people to pay for their services - how will they?

    The answer, by building a long term quality product that does attract a real engaged audience that they can genuinely influence. But wow, that is NOT easy and it takes time. And time costs money.

    I'd put a handful or people in this bracket already - I doubt there will be many more that get to this level as the field is so busy now.

    1. Cheers Jeremy, thanks for having me here!

      Bloggers do the blogging. Marketers do the marketing.

      If we start doing this properly, the measurable value of engagements and therefore the amount that brands/DMOs are willing to spend will increase, i.e. the pie gets bigger for everyone.

      For all the reasons given in my post, the value of proper audience transfer from bloggers into our marketing channels could be immeasurably bigger than the bloggers trying (in vain) to directly promote/sell our product to their audience.

      Genuine audience transfer is something that smart marketers will pay handsomely for.

      Or we can keep throwing money at smoke, mirrors and buzzwords and keep pretending that the Emperor is wearing his shiny new clothes.

    2. I don't think I've ever heard a candid discussion at a conference about what, exactly, bloggers are selling.

      I sell my skill as a writer, that's my product. Others sell their knowledge about travel in eBooks and print. Still others sell their audiences -- literally, as in they sell their mailing lists, please delete my name from yours, thank you very much. People with travel as a product -- tours, hotels -- use blogs as content marketing and their own SEO.

      And there's a whole 'nother sector of folks who say they're selling "influence and reach" or "impressions." When I'm offered that as payment, I turn it down, so why would I offer it up as a product? I'd rather be paid in bitcoin. :) If you're selling it, you should be willing to be paid in it. There's a bullshit detector test for you.

      So what's really for sale here? Advertising and SEO. The reason digital gets called out on this over print is that there are some aspects of it that *are* measurable, unlike print -- it's really hard to declare the value of the ad folded away into a magazine on my coffee table. I understand the long purchase cycle but I also understand inbound traffic, and the use of a "where did you hear about us" field as part of the purchase process.

      1. "And there's a whole 'nother sector of folks who say they're selling "influence and reach" or "impressions." When I'm offered that as payment, I turn it down, so why would I offer it up as a product?"

        The problem is that most people who offer exposure have none to give.

        Unlike you I am very happy to "free" work for real exposure, and those tend to always be large media outlets. (travel companies are in no position to provide exposure unless maybe you are TripAdvisor)

        If the only thing you have to sell is your labor, then it makes sense to turn that down. However, my business doesn't come from doing work for hire projects. If I can grow my audience by exposing what I do to a new group of people, that is extremely valuable to me.

        We've reached a point where the money paid by most travel media outlets is so low that the value of the link or exposure (if done correctly) is greater than the cash payment for people like me.

        People who have a product or something else beyond just selling their labor can find lots of value in exposure....assuming that it is real exposure.

        Also, advertising is nothing but exposure. People buy advertising in TV or print to be exposed to the audience which is consuming that TV show or magazine. There is value in it. If there wasn't, most television networks, magazines and newspapers wouldn't exist.

        The problem of exposure has gotten worse online because attention is so scattered. There aren't just 3 networks and 1 or 2 local newspapers anymore.

      2. "So what's really for sale here? Advertising and SEO."

        -- Yeah that's pretty much what the storefront looks like at the moment, but there could be SO much more on the shelves.

        I don't want to pay a blogger for links (SEO) or to try and sell/promote my clients' products, but I would pay bloggers to help me build qualified and engaged audiences, give me access to their audience data, cooperate on link tracking and everything else I've mentioned above.

        This could go WAY beyond SEO and advertising and it could be much more profitable for the blogger, too.

  5. I've been involved with several companies companies doing brand ambassadorships with them. Some have worked and some have not. Here is what I have learned:

    1) It has to be a long term project. If you are thinking in terms of a 'campaign', it is pretty much going to fail because you are only looking at extremely short term results. You need a long term view. For example, I've been working with G Adventures for 5 years now. The association with that brand has been burned into people's heads. I get people coming out of the woodwork all the time telling me how they've gone on G trips.

    2) Not everything that counts can be counted. Because you can track clicks, we've gone a bit off the deep end trying to track every little thing. Most marketing efforts, especially for big ticket items like travel, aren't trackable. People think about stuff, take time to make decisions, and when they do act it isn't via an affiliate link. In fact with travel, the purchase is often not even online.

    3) Measure in terms of opportunity cost. You can't judge the value of a project in a vacuum. What is the ROI of a $150,000 full page ad in T+L? How often does anyone take immediate action after flipping through a magazine and looking at an ad for less than a second? If you look at an influencer campaign as an alternative to spending money on a print ad, it is going to almost certainly come out looking like a good deal. It is cheaper, and usually MUCH cheaper. It can reach as many people as the print ad, do so more often and (if you have the right influencer) will reach an audience that is more engaged.

    4) Integrate the influencer in your marketing. The failed projects I've worked on failed because the sponsor just wanted more and more mentions. They didn't do anything beyond demand more mentions. Marketing doesn't work that way. Spitting out inorganic mentions just doesn't work. An influencer isn't just an advertising channel. G Adventures has actually used their Wanderers in Residence in their annual catalog, we've spoken at live events, done media interviews and attend their annual conference. I've now visited 26 countries/territories with G. Every time I travel or attend an event with G, it is another excuse to organically mention them on my channels.

    5) Do your homework. I'm constantly amazed at how little research destinations do and PR firms do when working with bloggers. I've met bloggers at TBEX who hadn't even launched their blogs get free trips. Matthew was right on the money when he talked about SEO and StumbleUpon traffic not being an audience. A DMO should not care about search engine traffic at all. If a blogger ranks for a particular term, that's great for the blogger, but from the DMO's perspective, it is just a reshuffling of the rankings. What they should care about is getting more people to search for that term. They should be looking for people with a large, engaged following. The key being 'engaged'. Anyone can autofollow people and get a large twitter following. I've often said the ultimate metric is how many people you can get to come out to a pub when you are in town. You can't fake that. Unfortunately, it isn't really a metric you can track online.

    6) Develop relationships. One problem is that the number of people with real, serious followings is quite small. There are far more destinations than there are real influencers. I would say that the number of PR and marketing people who have taken the time to reach out to me and actually get to know me I can count on my hands. I'm not talking about becoming best friends and inviting me to their wedding, but just bothering to have dinner and be knowledgeable about what I do. Those few people who have bothered to get to know me I will always listen to. I might not go along with what they suggest, but I'll give it a listen. PR/marketing people should develop very close relationships with the top influencers. This costs no money, only time. There is where Jaume at Girona Tourism is brilliant. He knows who's who and everyone knows him. Moreover, he pays attention to what influencers are doing.

    I personally get bombarded with requests to promote websites/apps/products/destinations on a daily basis. Literally, not a day goes by where I don't get an email from someone I've never heard of before where they ask me to promote something of theirs for free. I just delete these things and move on. This is the environment where PR/Marketing people work with influencers. PR people usually just treat them like regular freelancers. Because my time is limited (and getting more limited) I have really pick and choose where I'm going to spend my time. I long ago ceased doing group trips. In fact, any invitation to a pre arranged trip where the schedule is set is something I'm going to pass on.

    The Amazing thing is that I don't see anyone trying to actually figure out what works or bother to do the research. I've had zero people ask me about my experiences working with brands, despite the fact that I have some real success stories and failures I can point to.

    1. In the session that spawned this article I used WiR as the classic example of an ambassador programme done well. It has its detractors but it's clearly an initiative that has nurtured relationships beyond ambassadors and into genuine evangelists.*

      There's a spectrum from shills on one end and evangelists at the other. How the brand deals with the issues you've highlighted here determine where they sit on that spectrum: transparency, audience alignment and mutual respect.

      "Most marketing efforts, especially for big ticket items like travel, aren't trackable."

      I think this is only partially accurate. Yes it's impossible to get a truly watertight view of full funnel ROI but you can still make very educated & accurate estimates.

      If I know what % of my email subscriptions convert over 12 months and the outcome of a blogger engagement is to add 2,000 qualified subscribers to my mailing list, I can make a reasonable estimate on my returns. If the links and clicks are properly segmented and tracked I can monitor that down to each visit. Ditto for various other channels.

      Of course that alone doesn't guarantee any success. I have to have a solid email strategy, I have to have a good relationship with a legit, audience-building blogger so I know my prospects are qualified, they have to know what they've signed up for and why, and so on...

      You need to put a lot of thinking and planning into these things... which I guess is why we're still buying sponsored posts and counting "impressions".

      *Also this: http://ianditravelmedia.com/insights/case-study-blogger-outreach-works/

      1. I think any real influencer project needs to be treated in a way similar to how companies deal with athletes or other celebrity endorsers. I'm not saying this because I think that myself or other bloggers are on the same level as celebrities. We're not. Rather, over decades they've created a template for how to deal with influencers that travel (until now) has never had to deal with.

        Take a look at smaller sports like surfing. (I use this example because I attended the Australian Open of surfing a few years ago and spent time talking to the surfers and companies about how the business works) The top surfers are not household names. Maybe the top 20 surfers can get deals with equipment manufacturers. Depending on what product it is, they will use it during competition or wear it during an interview. For example, they might wear Beats headphones or hold a Monster energy drink. I've seen both happen. The TV audiences that are watching are pretty small. The circulation of surfing magazines is also small by internet comparisons. I think the biggest one was around 25,000 people in Australia.

        The surfing companies have a vested interest in promoting the surfers who have signed with them. In fact most of the endorsement deals have some clause where the company has to place them in X number of ads throughout the term of the contract.

        The idea of a professional traveler is new to the world of travel and tourism. They aren't accustomed to people having a following just because they travel. Samantha Brown did a deal with a cruise line once, and the project was run like a celebrity endorsement (which it was).

        By looking into the world of sports, I think travel companies can get a good template for how to use online influencers. The budgets might be smaller, but how the projects are run can be similar.

        Just for example, lets say a hypothetical destination wants to work with an influencers. They way they typically work now, all the would care about are the number of blog posts, link and social media mentions. But there is so much more they could do if they were creative. They could:

        - Have the influencer speak at conferences. A real travel is usually more compelling than a marketing rep.
        - Sponsor meet ups around the world in major cities. Have the influencer invite members of their tribe to a pub. Have representatives of the destination there and give a short presentation.
        - Shoot a series of videos in the destination featuring the influencer.
        - Have the influencer live in the destination for a few months.
        - Run ads on other media using the influencer.

        There are dozens of other things which could be done. Each of those things are an opportunity for the influencer to talk to their audience about what they are doing and mention the destination.

        1. Sorta related, Gary, my stage ukulele was a gift from a uke shop. They'd been tracking me for a while and said, "You talk about how much you love the uke all over the world. That's good for the uke, and good for business." They're Johnny Appleseeding their axes all over the planet, it turns out, but they're thinking really hard about who they do that with.

          See, here I am agreeing with you. :)

  6. What a great conversation started here! Agreed that the ROI on marketing is always a tricky thing to calculate from magazine ads to the sponsored posts on blogs.

    When I began the travel blogging journey I had to ask myself : why would someone advertise with me when they could easily choose any other outlet with larger numbers, better punctuation, and stunning photography instead of my humble little journal?

    I think a large part of the puzzle is the individual blogger themselves, including personality / quirks. WE are paid to have the experience and share it from our unique perspective.

    By targeting my audience a company knows that can join the conversation that I have with my readers in my way.

    Every blogger (if they're being honest) will have a different experience and view of each place / product, etc. Typically our audience is comprised of people who think like us, have the same budget and aspirations as us...

    It's another reason why this word "niche" will not die: because the marketers are using us for our market- our unique collection of people.

    As Gary said, this is why a long term brand partnership will work. Your conversation grows with your audience, they (figuratively) lean in closer to hear your words, their trust and confidence in you grows, and your recommendations become their actions.

    Ask your audience to let you know when they buy a product / service you've recommended. If your audience is really tuned in, they will, and that can go right into your media kit.

    The lines between marketing / blogging are very blurred, and I don't think that's a bad thing. As long as you're honest with all parties in regard to what is going on - is it so awful that you endorse something you actually love? No. You would have done it for free anyways!

    To touch on what Matthew said about bloggers never having a shitty time on someone else's dime. I don't know about others but I maintain the policy that if I have a bad time I will give the business the opportunity to request that the review not be published.
    Then my feedback goes directly to the company for their internal processing and (hopefully) rectification of the issues. In that case I am not paid to market, but to experience and privately review.

    It is still a valuable exchange for both parties and ideally helps them improve their services for future travelers.

    Being a blogger is a hard job, and at this stage still feels like a start-up industry. Anyone who has worked in a start-up company will remember the feeling of wearing multiple hats.

    A blogger is a writer, a photographer, a voice, an individual, and so much more. The best part about being a blogger? You can be anything you want to be, and those who like it can follow and work with you, and those who don't won't.

    Gary, thank you so much for your input, too! It would be a huge asset if you shared more of your trials, tribulations, and successes of working with brands with us still catching up. These long comments are almost blog posts ;)

    1. Many thanks for your comments Brandy.

      "if I have a bad time I will give the business the opportunity to request that the review not be published."

      Do you not think there's something deeply problematic with that?

      I think it's things like this that make the increasingly blurred lines between marketing and blogging very troubling indeed.

      Surely they should be writing and working for their audience - including warts & all accounts of experiences that weren't up to par?

      I think this is a consequence of bloggers being paid to directly promote and sell for their sponsor. Whose interests are being served, the audience or the benefactor?

      Separating the marketing from the blogging doesn't solve all these problems but it would certainly go a long way to help.

    2. "The lines between marketing / blogging are very blurred, and I don't think that's a bad thing."

      I think this is a very bad thing. It's led to companies defaulting to thinking a blogger's role, by default, is marketing. It's led to bloggers thinking the audience is the sponsor, not the reader. It's led -- in travel -- to the wholesale promotion of travel in trade for coverage as the de facto business model.It's led to bloggers publishing ONLY boosterish content because publishing anything but promotional material may risk that blogger's business model, which is, see above, travel in exchange for coverage.

      I've done a few initiatives with partners who wanted me to tell The Whole Truth -- yes, seasickness is a very real possibility, yes, you will be dirty for days on end, yes, the hotel is rowdy after dark, but it's also the only one that's affordable... these are the kind of people I want to work with, not the ones who are only concerned with shiny "everything is awesome" coverage.

      This is travel writing as a service. Telling readers not just what's great (or the message that's spoonfed to us from our sponsors) but also what they should avoid or expect to be difficult helps people have great travel experiences too. It's the right thing to do.

  7. Thank you, Matthew, for this post which has spurred a great convo and for the feedback.

    "Do you not think there's something deeply problematic with that?

    I think it's things like this that make the increasingly blurred lines between marketing and blogging very troubling indeed.

    Surely they should be writing and working for their audience - including warts & all accounts of experiences that weren't up to par?"

    Of course we have to present the experience / product in an honest light. But, for my experience when the bad outweighs the good to a point where I can't recommend it at all - I give that feedback to the company for their info.

    Does it hurt my audience if I omit an experience?

    It means that I am then not working for the benefactor in the way in which they wanted - advertising - but in a way which will benefit future travelers. I suppose at that point it becomes work as a professional traveler (or critic, if you will) as opposed to a blogger.

    In my case it's because I would rather my site follow the informed enthusiast over harsh or demoralizing reviews. This is something I learned from experience after having a pretty awful run with a backpack. I gave them a public and honest review which eventually led to them redesigning their product, which they later sent me to try again.

    I was thrilled with the redesign and happy to be a part of something constructive. After realizing the outcome would have been the same had it been in a public or a private conversation I decided to make the switch.

    Do we need to name and shame when we can have the same effects behind the scenes? I suppose these are all very personal terms, but just wanted to explain it from my POV since I find everyone's viewpoint on this very interesting!

    "The lines between marketing / blogging are very blurred, and I don't think that's a bad thing."

    "I think this is a very bad thing. It's led to companies defaulting to thinking a blogger's role, by default, is marketing. It's led to bloggers thinking the audience is the sponsor, not the reader."

    It is up to each one of us to define our role and relationship to respective companies as we cannot control what others in the industry will do. You know your audience is your readership as well as I know mine is.

    However I do not think marketing is a dirty deed when done right. Marketing - by definition- is an announcement or endorsement on a public platform. Therefore every blog becomes a marketing channel when we speak about a product, service, or event.

    I agree with you, Pam, we have to present the whole picture when endorsing something. If marketing (like almost anything in life) is done with integrity, honesty, and sincerity I do not believe it harms our audience. Rather it benefits them in that we get to experience many more things than we would have been able to on our own personal budgets.
    What do you think?

    Gary, great list of suggestions that we should all be thinking about! I especially like the idea of living in an area for a few months. It would allow the blogger to brand themselves with the destination as well as dig into the place and show those gems that we all search for when visiting a new place.

    I agree that we could all learn a lot from the sport world in terms of how to work with brands and what value we bring to each other.

    Love having these kinds of conversations which shed a lot of light on all the different perspectives within the industry and looking forward to more responses. :)

    1. "Therefore every blog becomes a marketing channel when we speak about a product, service, or event."

      God help us. You need to read My Flamboyant Grandson by George Saunders. It's an amazing dystopian near future story with a subplot about marketing gone awry.

      "If marketing (like almost anything in life) is done with integrity, honesty, and sincerity I do not believe it harms our audience. Rather it benefits them in that we get to experience many more things than we would have been able to on our own personal budgets."

      I give folks the benefit of the doubt on integrity, honesty, and sincerity, until they give me an explicit reason not to. Plus, I believe them when they say everything was awesome, most of the sponsored travel I've done is awesome, but you know what? Most travelers won't get the best of house rooms, they won't be greeted with a fruit plate and a bottle of wine, they won't be swanned about the place by a PR rep with an expense account. So sure, it was great, and also, when my sister in law goes, even if she goes to EXACTLY the same places, her experience will be different because she planned it herself and did not get VIP treatment.

      My experiencing something I can't afford benefits ME first and foremost. Let's be perfectly clear about that. The second folks to benefit by that experience are my sponsor, who are getting cheap coverage. My reader ONLY benefits if I produce something of value that they could not get elsewhere.

      I'm not saying you - Brandy -- don't do this, I don't know you or your blog, but the idea that your write up of comped night in a really nice hotel room (or whatever) benefits your reader... how, exactly?

  8. Does "influencer marketing" work?

    Yes. Look no further than WHAM for concrete evidence of this. Christ even I had a WHAM tshirt.

    Are the vast majority of bloggers influential?

    No. At least not on any scale whatsoever.

    Take G + Gary or Jodi as examples. Bruce is a smart guy and a smart business man. That their agreement has continued for this long is testament to Bruce feeling these relationships are worthwhile to GAdventures.

    So this kinda thing can work.

    But the vast vast majority of this kinda thing, from the get go, has clearly been solely SEO/link buying driven.

    While Matt may have high hopes for burrowing down through the data, my gut feeling is that when the true value of many of these relationships is mined out, they'll prove to deliver only fools gold.

    In travel, you need to have either considerable scale & depth or extreme knowledge in a specific topic/area to be able to deliver "influence" in the buying phase. Ideally you want both.

    By and large travel bloggers have neither.

    There are exceptions of course, avid self promoters, extremely talented individuals, location/topic specialists and so on, but for the vast majority, as George used to sing, guilty feet have got no rythm.

    1. Yep. These convos always end up focusing on our (travel) blogging friends, when in fact the average consumer in many market segments probably couldn't tell you what a travel blog is, let alone name one in particular.

      My own dear mother travels more frequently than virtually anyone I know, as far as "qualified travel prospects" go she's got to be pretty high up there. She's always thinking and planning her next trip but if it wasn't for my tiresome conversation she wouldn't have the first clue that travel blogs are even a thing.

      She is pretty familiar with a certain SE Asia travel planning website though, so draw your own conclusions there.

      The stuff that I'm talking about - using people with reach to encourage consumers into our marketing channels - could apply to anyone with a legit audience, certainly not just travel bloggers.

      1. I've heard from a few corners that DMOs who have done bloggy initiatives were "happy with the results BUT won't be working with bloggers who don't have outlets besides their own."

        Telling, no?

  9. Really interesting discussion here, and one I've wanted to see happen for a long time.

    I've worked on both sides: agency, and as a blogger. A non-monetised one, I'd add.

    I agree with the vast majority of what's said above, and especially would like to see Brandy's response to Pam's last question about how a VIP comped press trip benefits a reader, always something I've wondered, too ;)

    But also just wanted to respond to Brandy Bell's comment above, and address her question on why marketers would get in touch with her:

    "I think a large part of the puzzle is the individual blogger themselves, including personality / quirks."

    Well, Statcounter visitor paths will tell you if the marketer who is emailing you has spent any more effort understanding the "quirks" of your blog further than the About / Contact page. (Check the time of e-mail against arrivals on site in your stats, and subsequent path, if there is one. Usually it's home page -> about -> contact me).

    Don't get me wrong, the very, very occasional marketer will get in touch because they've genuinely read your blog and like your style and have read a few posts and seen a good fit, but mostly that won't be the case.

    Put simply: it's numbers / coverage / links / positive reviews that are required from most approaches in your inbox.

    Up until seeing the comment above, I genuinely thought this was something widely understood, if not mentioned explicitly - but perhaps it isn't?

    My time getting in touch with travel bloggers for an agency led to discovering some undoubtedly lovely blogs and people, but for every genuine story out there, there were a million and one websites being set up solely to feed the marketing machine, and each would tout the thousands of daily (stumbleupon etc) views they got.

    They all said in "media packs" and "work with me" pages that their readership was made up of 20 something to 30 whatever committed travellers etc - the general public, or so it could be assumed - but it seemed to me that the vast amount of people reading and commenting and sharing posts were fellow bloggers, also looking to climb the ranks and make money / press trips as well.

    In short: I've always wondered who's reading all this sponsored content - isn't it just other bloggers all wanting the same thing to happen to them?

    1. hahaha, yes. good work J. there's a funny little self-serving circus of untrained, unedited uselessness masquerading as some sort of citizen travelwriting. the bad old hierarchies of print would've made mincemeat of 99% of them. where are the stories, ideas, analysis? the similarity of the words blog and blag are no accident.

      BUT the real culprits in this sad tale are the marketeers who can't tell gold from shite. they think journalism/influence, whatever you call it, comes down to analytics and pie charts. bollocks. it comes down to quality content and if you can't spot that without resorting to faintly ridiculous statistical analysis you're surely in the wrong business.

  10. Great conversation and probably long overdue.

    I have also become quite jaded about the term "influencer," and I think there are two problems. The first one is the one that we are discussing here: the blurry line between travel writing / blogging and marketing; and the expectation that blogging activity should / could be linked to actual ROI.

    I think the other problem is that the industry seems to be dazzled by numbers. So, bloggers then also become obsessed with getting big numbers -- sometimes in place of developing their skills as writers or photographers, or their expertise in a specific niche or destination, or their ability to engage readers.

    I think some bloggers probably actually do have influence in their niche -- whether it's a type of travel or because they know a region really well. Not necessarily because they have big numbers, but because they really know their stuff.

    I don't have huge numbers, but I do know that I have a lot of influence in my niche. I have spent many years carving out a name for myself as an India travel "expert," and as a result everyone from my readers/followers to other travel bloggers to mainstream media from all over the globe (including in India) contact me for advice, tips, quotes, interviews, etc. I recently wrote up a case study about how I am keeping an ashram in north India busy with a steady stream of my blog readers.

    I would never claim I have influence in any other area except my niche. But even so, I have found it very difficult to "monetize" and I'm not sure I want to. I didn't quit my job as a marketing copywriter to 'follow my dreams' and become ... a travel marketing copywriter. I am increasingly interested in separating my travel writing from marketing efforts, and if you look at my blog, I have been writing almost exclusively travel stories -- the same kind you would see in a magazine -- for the last year or so.

    So, I have started a side company to offer my expertise as a 'content marketer and social media consultant' and I am freelance writing for mainstream publications. In other words, I am looking for ways to make money related to my blog and my niche, but not directly from it. And ever since I made this decision, I have fallen in love with blogging again.

    1. Thanks for your comments Mariellen.

      To your first point - if a brand is commissioning work from a blogger (or anyone else) as part of a marketing effort, there should be a way of measuring that in bottom-line terms and understanding the actual ROI.

      But yes, to your second point: the big numbers alone are not a part of that calculation just by virtue of being big.

      It seems clear that niche expertise is a major component of potential influence. There are many ways of amplifying reach to connect content with the target audiences, but you need something quality, legitimate and "influential" to amplify in the first place.

      Also agreed about the separation of blogging from marketing, which echoes my points in the article. I'm obviously not saying we need to stop partnerships between bloggers and marketers, but I do think we need to stop expecting the bloggers to do the marketing.

  11. hello again everyone,

    Pam, thanks for the book rec, it's now on the list.

    I see your point about the VIP treatment when we arrive at a hotel, but isn't it our job to sort out the difference between what a typical visit would be? (as much as possible, because everything that revolves around customer service is subject to fluctuation depending on staff, etc)

    As in, maybe I get a sit down over a bottle of champagne with the PR rep, but I don't talk about that on the blog, nor do I promise that to my readers. Do I get the best room in the house? Sometimes, and if I do - I say so.

    What I tell them is what the hotel was like, where it's located and why that's great, how much it costs, and usually what other cheap hotels they can stay at to offset the splurge of staying at this (undoubtedly) expensive hotel.

    I know it benefits them because I have readers - and I know for a fact they're not travel bloggers ;) - who then book the cooking classes, hotel rooms, and events. In many cases they have messaged me personally and I do an email intro to my contact, so it's a conversion I get to witness.

    Admittedly, not a scalable model for referrals, but it is one that brings me great pleasure knowing that my "work" does benefit all parties.

    In the instance someone doesn't find the review helpful they can simply navigate away. Sponsored content is something that is never included in email newsletters so any happenings upon it are through organic search or perusal of my website.

    What I provide to my reader that they cannot get elsewhere is my own voice, experience and the relationship that we have built together over the years.

    There's a plethora of websites out there that cover the majority of what is being said on travel blogs already and done in a more professional, more fluid, more broadcasted way than my own (and many others).

    Not being delusional here or thinking that I can see a hotel with eyes like no one else, that is absurd. I simply am who I am, go where I go, and tell them about it - hopefully they choose to follow.

    I also run a private Facebook group where I share a lot of my website content and have open discussions over a broad range of topics - including my sponsored experiences - which also leads to a higher level of trust and conversions. It's what works for us.

    Jo- thanks for taking an interest and chiming in with your experience! It must be fun being on both sides of the industry and I am sure you get some good looks into the heart of it all.

    I believe my statement was misunderstood as I never said they contact me, I asked why they would choose to work with me. Everyone I work with has been someone I approach or who has been personally referred to me; generic media inquiries are typically binned.

    My own answer to the question has the influencer bubble burst? No, it is simply acting as a bubble and floating onto a new landscape with the ever shifting winds.

    Would-be influencers must ramp up their services offered as a simple URL isn't cutting it anymore, as Pam said.
    This is when it's time to dig into the skill set and pull out other ways of influencing such as the variety of great ideas that Gary listed above.

    It's also when these proven conversions and demonstrated selling power (because really, isn't that our ultimate goal when "influencing"?) matter more.

    We all know followers can be faked and blogger circle jerks are never-ending, but those things are a distraction and waste of everyone's time.

    What is crucial is the conversations we have with our readers, their trust in our word, and the happiness of our partners.

    Customer (be it reader, sponsor, client) satisfaction is a bubble that will never burst.

  12. Fascinating discussion. Thank you everyone for contributing so much - and please continue!

    A few things from my experience with my marketing hat on. I have worked with quite a number of the more high profile travel bloggers commissioning them to do stuff for a large UK DMO. What have I learnt?
    - Don't expect traffic from their blog posts.
    - Sure, their blog posts offer SEO value and I'm not going to ignore that.
    - Be totally explicit about what you want from the relationship (And by that I mean write a detailed contract).
    - Work out exactly what success will look like and agree what KPIs you will use to see if you made it or not.
    - Don't restrict your campaign to just working with the blogger to create posts for their blog. The blogger is very useful for creating engaging content that will resonate with the audience I want to target. That audience will be found within the blogger's sphere of influence to a degree (if they are good) but you REALLY add value to the campaign by going and finding more of the audience out there on the web and promoting what you have done to them.
    In summary - as a marketer spending a client's money (with their agreement!) - it's about marketing - the whole toolkit. The blogger element is just a part of the set-up - not the whole of it.

    1. Thanks Jeremy,
      So following on from your points; I realise there are confidentiality points, but generally (and as you've put them out there);

      * How much traffic would you see from blog posts?
      * How did you measure the SEO value?
      * What did you expect out of the relationship?
      * What would success look like?
      * How did you find more go the blogger's audience?


  13. Thank you for inviting me to comment from Twitter, Jeremy. Sorry it's going to be so staccato but I am juggling many deadlines right now...

    Overall, I would echo many of Gary's points. Of course, people need to measure what happens in these relationships and that not everything that can be measured is valuable. That includes TBEX and Costa Brava but without having access to that data (and comparable information for other similar regions) I don't think we can draw much of a meaningful analysis here.

    The industry is changing and I have learned plenty just over the last few years. I think that's what you asked me to share here and so here goes.

    In brief, what I've learned from working in various ways

    - there are many myths about working with bloggers (and luxury travel in particular)
    - expecting one or two metrics to tell you something deep about the complex process of booking travel is a nice dream but just that. You need to look harder.
    - DMOs tend to have an unhealthy obsession with driving visitors to their website rather than visitors to their destination
    -readers rarely click on links to DMO sites. They click on links to hotels, tour operators, cruise lines, airlines and social media networks
    -many readers prefer not to comment in public (like me!) - they DM and email bloggers instead (depending on the niche)
    - social media activity falls at the weekend yet many DMOs ignore this
    -debates like this seem to be very polarised and miss the mainstream events going on
    -the best partnerships are those where the company/brand/DMO listens to the blogger rather than presenting them with a sheet of instructions/wish lists/contracts etc - (and I'm sure the same is true the other way around)
    -many bloggers are rubbish, many DMOs are clueless. So what? The faster we all move on to working with the right ones in the right way the better.
    -a mention of my blog on someone else's in my niche sent 10 x more traffic my way every single day for more than a year than similar mentions on Lonely Planet, The Independent and the BBC
    -it's entirely possible to work ethically and be paid. The fear of everything crumbling to nothing if you say a word of criticism haven't been borne out in my experience. Only once have I had someone ask if I could rephrase something in a more positive light. I said no. They said OK. That was it. I've since worked with them again many times.

    Like I say - apologies for the brevity but there's a lot going on right now! See you soon - Abi

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