Rules of engagement: travel bloggers v review websites

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Influencers

Travel bloggers have fast become more influential than review websites for those looking to escape to dreamy beaches and buzzing cities. How can marketers tap into the vast array of high profile bloggers without discrediting their authenticity with sponsored content?

Kris Boorman, digital marketing executive, Sagittarius

I’ve seen content creators give their brutally honest thoughts on sponsored content many times, so when a positive review is given, their audience knows that it’s their genuine opinion. I believe that this trust between content creators and their audience is so strong that discrediting authenticity is not a concern. Instead, marketers need to understand that Bloggers and YouTubers must ALWAYS be authentic to keep their audience, ensure that the risk of an online thrashing is kept minimal by carefully assessing their chosen content creator’s suitability, and make sure their service offerings are airtight.

Michaela MacIntyre, business director, Gravity Thinking

Controversially, I don’t think the introduction of disclosure by influencers isn't a problem. It really shouldn’t be, if you’re doing influencer marketing right. An influencer worth their salt has painstakingly build an audience through authenticity and wouldn’t dream of promoting a brand (travel or otherwise) that they don’t like. The good ones know that if they do this, they’ll damage their ability to earn in the long run. So, even if you are paying for the relationship, you can bet that if they’ve agreed to work with you, they genuinely like your product.

Most good influencers will begin their relationship with you with an honest discussion (especially if they’ve not heard of you before) stating that they might choose to not work with you once they’ve reviewed your brand and objectives. Stop worrying about getting around disclosure, marketers! Rather spend more time up front finding influencers who have genuine affinity with what your brand stands for.

Bob D’Mello, head of campaigns, Roast

I’d say there are two things key to strong influencer marketing in the travel vertical. It’s important to identify and work with influencers relevant to your brand – finding the right fit is half the battle. Identify creative and skillful influencers who reflect your brand, rather than concentrating on the size of their following or engagement numbers. And when working with influencers in the past, the more collaborative the approach, the more likely you are to see genuine, authentic content that reflects not just how you see your brand, but how real people see it, use it or interact with it.

Steve Wilkins, head of content strategy, BWP Group

The key for marketers is to build relationships with bloggers and identify key messages early on. At BWP Group, we find high profile bloggers via a tried and tested social media outreach programme and then meet with them face to face or through video conference calls to share our content strategy, and look for possibilities that will provide a win-win partnership. This approach enables us to identify if the blogger will be able to utilise their everyday experience with the products the brand sells or services they offer and provide authentic and engaging content that will resonate with the brands audience.

As somewhat of a self-confessed foodie who loves nothing better to cook and more importantly eat, in my spare time, I am always looking for inspiration for new dishes from far and wide which is why my favourite travel bloggers are the Travel Eaters; JB & Renée who travel the globe and document the vast array of different food and delicacies as they do it.

Tala Byrne, senior channel manager, Dog

Great travel blogs are built on being aspirational, or useful to their audience (or sometimes both!) To tap into the power of travel bloggers without it becoming forced, marketers should give the blogger freedom to create content which still resonates with audiences in this way. Insisting on ‘must use’ taglines, imagery or talking points to be used in the content aren’t a good idea – authentic content needs to represent that blogger’s voice and their take on the brand or product. Ambassador partnerships with just a few bloggers are becoming more prominent and are often the best way to achieve this.

My favourite travel blogger would have to be The Blonde Abroad: not only does she have a killer Instagram feed full of colourful, aspirational shots, but her website itself has some great information – she adds value to aspiring travellers with detailed destination guides accessed via an interactive map and travel tips from solo travelling to exploring on a budget. Her partnerships with brands are always relevant to her readers and fit her personal brand and style as well, which is key!

Brad Smith, commercial director, Sagittarius

Marketers need to ask one simple question regarding any content they choose to tap into. How does this content actually benefit my audience? Put simply if the content provides no real value or benefit or feels like irrelevant sponsored content you risk losing the credible reputation, trust and respect that you doubt worked hard to gain in the first place. If customers are at the heart of what you do then you will ascertain the REAL value to them of consuming that content before you associate your brand with it. If the content is valuable, easy to consume and most importantly ‘personally relevant’ then most customers probably couldn’t care less whether it’s sponsored or not.

Chris Nurko, global chairman, FutureBrand

Paid-for reviews, blogs and marketing, like travel agents, are seen as useful but biased. Holiday researchers want to hear from visitors like them, who paid the same and were treated the same, not given the special attention of a reviewer. Interesting to note, that on sites such as TripAdvisor and its specialist sister Cruise Critic, more than 80% of reviews are positive. In a sector all about creating joy and memories, this underscores the importance people place on sharing the 'good news' of where they have been and enjoyed themselves. We all value having our 'expertise' rewarded, and are happy to share the 'secrets' of a good holiday.

Rich Wand, head of UX and planning, Hugo & Cat

As people start to dream about their next trip, DMOs need to raise their game in how they inspire and lure these potential visitors. This needs a shift from traditional marketing of idealised images and controlled narrative. Travel bloggers have managed to bottle the desired ‘realness' in a way that inspires and captivates. Hugo & Cat clients are already seeing the value in collaborating with influential bloggers, but understand the terms of engagement ensures what creates the connection with bloggers' audiences isn't compromised. Vis-a-vis, clients need to be a little bit brave; give bloggers the freedom to tell their stories to their audience without being censored or filtered. The moment their authenticity strays, the credibility on both fronts is lost. Done well, this is proven to be a potent tool for engaging the motivations and emotional needs of travellers.

Carolyn Spencer Brown , editor, Cruise Critic

Reviews by travellers are vital and carry more weight than paid-for or paid-by bloggers because the reviews are honest, real and often are related to the aspects of Travel that the ‘average person’ wants to know. The details and things-to-consider that an experienced traveller such as a blogger might take for granted!

Billy Leonard, senior account executive, Harvest Digital

They key to tapping into the network that travel bloggers have is realising why travel bloggers are so influential. People want to romanticise and realise the trips that we see travel bloggers experience. Consumers want to see personalised, authentic reviews from people they can trust – not heavily branded content. Sending travel bloggers on holiday is an easy way to get them to give unbiased reviews. Don’t try and control the messaging, remember that making sure that you still retain authenticity is the key here. And avoid branded hashtags! Nothing screams #ad more than a branded hashtag.

One of my favourite travel bloggers is Emily Luxton. I’ve worked with her previously and I really admire her work ethic and integrity. I encounter so many bloggers that are only in it for the money, so I really admire that about her. Plus her Instagram is literal #travelgoals.

Cat Birch, marketing manager, Koozai

Influencer marketing has fast becoming a vitally important strategy within the marketing mix for every industry, but especially so in travel. Blogging, vlogging and social influencing is now an established career and we need to get over the fear of paying for these services. Work with bloggers rather than buying links. Collaborate as you would with a freelancer, create relevant content and campaigns and only work with influencers who naturally fit with your brand. The more natural and fitting the partnership, the less focus there is on sponsoring.

Will Weeks, head of content, Contiki

Credibility is based on how bloggers engage with and are perceived by their audiences, so how marketers research and evaluate during outreach is vital. You need to ask yourself, does your product legitimately fit within their brand and travel behaviour, and how does their audience trust and engage with branded content? When it comes to money and credibility, you have to trust your product. Pay for the experience, don’t pay for the endorsement. We’re increasingly seeing value in the advocacy driven by micro-influencers, particularly their impact across dark social. It’s a great, scalable way to combine influence and authenticity.

Theresa Santos, account director, Immediate Future

Travel bloggers are ten-a-penny, but the ones with cut through are those who look at the world from a different angle - they show places in a way that brands simply can’t. Choose bloggers who fit with your audience and have a slightly quirky take on travel, then let them put their own spin on the content they produce for you. By slackening the reins on creative control, you’ll ensure the blogger’s contribution is authentic and in the process, they’ll lend some of their cachet to your own brand.

My favourite travel blog is more of an Instagram account – I love @Paperboyo’s take on the world – he transforms famous views and landmarks into something completely different and makes me want to visit all of them in the process!

Grant Owens, chief strategy officer, Critical Mass

For the Marriott Hotels site (http://marriott-hotels.marriott.com/), the brand opted for a “quality over quantity” strategy. Instead of publishing content about hotel properties or travel destinations at great frequency, they're seeking out high-minded topics (e.g., “Entrepreneurship” and “Curiosity”) penned by well-known authors and cultural authorities. The end product is a high-quality, quarterly digital magazine that lives on the Marriott site. The focus on special, quarterly topics, rather than traditional brand-promotion, ensures that both the authors and brand retain their authenticity, which is vital for connecting with the core audience.

Joanna Arnold, chief executive director, Vuelio

The “authentic” and “relatable” image that has made superstars of bloggers and other digital influencers makes it little surprise that most will react violently against anything that threatens that image. This doesn’t necessarily preclude “sponsored content”, provided no one’s insisting it appears in disguise, but a better approach (certainly for the influencer) involves some level of co-creation. Co-creation is a broad church, though – some influencers are happy to take direction, others will run from any pre- or proscription, while most will be willing to negotiate finer points within a framework of mutually beneficial agreed outcomes. When brands identify the influencers they want to work with, considerations should be as much about how they work as what they produce. And of course, brands need to understand the risks – even when remunerated, bloggers can and will describe any experience, no matter how purportedly luxurious, just as they find it.

My favourite travel blog is A Luxury Travel Blog. What I like about the blog is its plethora of content and great balance of captivating copy and images. If I am looking for inspiration for my next holiday, I always make sure to check what A Luxury Travel Blog recommends.

Robert Philbin, head of creative, Latitude Digital Marketing

Don’t look at it as a “tapping into” exercise. Look at it as an invitation for genuine criticism/praise. Offer a free stay at your hotel. Quality bloggers will Instagram their experience. You don’t need to force it as a condition of the agreement. They might even write a blog, produce a video, record a podcast. It’s their prerogative. If your hotel is excellent, their word-of-mouth recommendations alone are going to cover the cost. If it isn’t, their criticism might be just as valuable, too. If they ask for payment, don’t be offended. This is their life … not a hobby.

Nico Sarti, head of digital strategy, TVC Group

Be clear: Outline your goals from the start and be open about the reasons why you are connecting with bloggers to support your brand message.

Collaborate first: Treat their platforms as a playground, you are on their turf, so to a certain extent you need to follow their rules. You are trying to promote your brand as much as they are trying to make a living out of this. It has to be a fair exchange where they create and the advertiser curates.

Exclusivity: Allow these individuals to have access to exclusive experiences to make sure their content stands out, it’s newsworthy and breaks through the noise of common travel reviews.

Andy Black

All by Andy