If you’re thinking about working with a blogger, there are a few important points to keep in mind.
“The key thing is that you cannot control the message,” says Mary Jo Manzanares, blogger and conference director for Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX). “You have to be prepared for the blogger to say that something was wrong. In my opinion, you should not only be prepared for that, you should welcome it, because that is your opportunity to address an issue that you may not have known existed. If the blogger is talking about it, you can bet your customers are talking about it, too.”
Manzanares, who has roughly 15,000 followers on Twitter, talks with Editor in Chief Diane Merlino in this second article in a Travel Weekly PLUS mini series on how and why travel brands can partner with bloggers.
Merlino: What can a travel company accomplish by working with a blogger that they can't accomplish some other way?
Manzanares: It's a matter of targeting reach. If you have huge budgets and can buy a television spot on the Super Bowl, you can expect a certain kind of reach and return. But most of the businesses we're talking about here don’t have that kind of budget. Essentially, what you’re looking for is getting the most bang for your buck.
That means really knowing who your target customer is and how you want to reach them, not just shooting out some general advertising broadcast. Bloggers can be used to help you reach that target customer. It's very narrow, it's very targeted, but it's also way more cost effective.
Merlino: There’s a growing trend across lots of industries for brands to personalize communications and make efforts to engage in “authentic” conversations with customers. Where do bloggers fit in here, and what can they do for travel companies in this area?
Manzanares: Bloggers have conversations with their readers, their followers, their fans. We don't call those “authentic engagements.” We just call it “engaging,” because for us it's always been real. It’s the marketing people — specifically the people mired in traditional thinking about advertising and marketing — who all of a sudden are saying, “Oh, we need to have an authentic conversation.” That kind of makes me wonder about what were you having before. It's not “authentic” to us, it is simply real; we don't need that label — it's just what we do.
People read bloggers, especially those who write from personal experience as opposed to more of a digital magazine style, because they want to know our opinion. Do we like it? Do we not like it? What would we recommend? And they know that they can get a response from us when they ask questions. We get emails. We get comments. We get questions on Facebook asking us, “Do you think this is for me?”
That’s ultimately what everyone wants to know from reading any travel content: Is this a right choice for me? Bloggers can provide that information in what we call a conversation, and it's only the marketing people who have had to add in that qualifier, “authentic.”
Merlino: How can a company know if it wants a straight blog campaign, or if Facebook or Twitter platforms would be more effective for a particular project?
Manzanares: That depends on what they want to accomplish. A destination, or a company representing a destination, may want to build awareness in a variety of different ways. What they can do is find bloggers who have the readership that they're looking for and then work something out to get their destination in front of those readers.
You notice I didn't say “get their message in front of the readers,” because the destination’s message or the company’s message is not necessarily what the readership of the blogger wants to hear or know. You can't control the outcome; you can only control what goes into the process. That’s very hard for some people to accept. But it is a way to get content placed in front of target buyers that the destination or business could not otherwise reach.
If they want to create a buzz, if they want to position themselves as a thought leader in an industry, then I would say take to Twitter. Find bloggers who are well versed in the platform and, very importantly, are skilled at using it in a way that can help position the business as a thought leader in their industry.
Engaging customers can be done via Facebook. Find bloggers who are well versed in that platform, and look at ways that they can help use their Facebook influence to get your message out. Facebook is very casual. It's fun. It's a little bit more lighthearted, so the company or destination has to be okay with not taking themselves so seriously. We always say, “Take your business seriously, but don't try to control the message, because you just can't.”
Merlino: What’s new in how businesses and bloggers are working together?
Manzanares: One of the things that we're seeing right now is brand blogger ambassadorships, also known as spokesperson relationships. These are longer-term relationships for companies that are already comfortable working with bloggers. They understand the digital targeting involved, and now they’re ready to try something a little bit more creative and long term.
Merlino: What would something a little more creative look like?
Manzanares: It can be something like hiring a blogger to assist with a product launch. For example, I was involved in the ANA Dreamliner launch out of Seattle, for the Seattle-Tokyo route. They wanted to create a buzz and get the information out about the new route and about the Dreamliner. Seattle is home to Boeing, and despite the problems that Boeing has had with the plane, the launch was a pretty exciting thing around here in Seattle, which is where I live.
They hired a couple of local people here and put together a campaign to build some excitement and momentum and buzz. We were on the plane, and we went to Japan, and we blogged about things that we did. They felt it was a very successful campaign. In fact, they’ve come to me asking for referrals for some other work with bloggers that they want to do. From a blogger's standpoint, you know it's been a success when they come back to you and ask for referrals.
Merlino: How are rates established for a project with a blogger?
Manzanares: It's too new as a means of doing business to have really firm rates. It’s just a matter of finding that sweet spot between the two parties.
A blogger will look at what the work is worth on an hourly basis, and also consider other things. I think about whether I can use the content in other ways. Will I get any additional editorial content out of it that I can publish on my blog, or is it only going to be for this particular client? I also have to consider that if I'm on a trip, then I'm not doing paid work for anyone else. So I look at the big picture.
But there is really no bright-line standard. We all wish there was one, but there isn't.
Merlino: From the travel company’s perspective, how is working with a blogger substantively different than working with other types of media?
Manzanares: The key thing is that you cannot control the message. You must — and that would be in all capitals, underlined several times — you must give the blogger editorial control. That's why they have the readership they do, and that's the relationship you want to capitalize on. Most reputable bloggers will not participate in a campaign where someone else crafts the message.
If you want to look at crafting a message, there are all sorts of advertising options that you can consider in terms of working with a blogger. But you must understand that it is advertising; they probably even have a rate card for that.
I'm talking about the creative campaigns, the things that are a little bit more targeted and specialized. You have to let go of the need to control.
Merlino: Is there anything else a travel company needs to understand about working with a blogger?
Manzanares: If you’re looking at doing some sort of press trip or bringing someone along on an inaugural launch, Internet access is key, whether that be at a hotel or WiFi on the road.
Part of what bloggers bring to the enthusiasm and excitement of a campaign is immediacy. If we don't have Internet access, we have no immediacy, and you will lose a big portion of what we can bring to your campaign that's different. Part of what we're good at is taking a picture and saying, “Oh my gosh, look at what I'm doing!” We see that as value because we're going to put that on Facebook or on Twitter, and people are going to be talking about it, saying, “Wow, I’m so jealous!” We’ll be having those kinds of conversations. But we can't do that if we don't have WiFi.
Merlino: It’s still relatively new for most travel brands to work with bloggers. Do you think it will become standard practice for them to do more creative, immediate, fun campaigns with bloggers in the future?
Manzanares: I think it will become much more common. Creativity has never been standard, unfortunately.
There are some businesses that will choose not to take that risk. I think we’re going to see that brands willing to take a little bit of a risk and enter into these kinds of creative relationships are going to be very satisfied with the results and are going to work on developing even better and more creative campaigns. I think we’re going to see some really fun stuff. The people who are unable or unwilling to understand that we have moved into the digital age are going to be left behind.
Readers are invited to follow Mary Jo on Twitter at @MJManzanares and @thetravelersway, like her on Facebook at Mary Jo Manzanares and become a fan of the magazine at The Travelers Way.
COMING UP: Future installments in a series on why and how travel companies can work with bloggers include:
• Blogger Anne Taylor Hartzell (Hip Travel Mama) talks about her projects with Expedia/Disney, Starwood and Klimpton Hotels;
• Spencer Spellman (Traveling Philosopher) waxes philosophical on bloggers as the bridge between travel brands and travelers.