Starwood did it. ANA did it. Caesars Entertainment in Vegas did it. Expedia and Disney did it, too. These are just a few of the companies that have worked with travel bloggers on highly successful projects.
Travel Weekly PLUS kicks off a mini series on how businesses can benefit by working with bloggers with an interview with Mary Jo Manzanares. Like many travel bloggers, Manzanares wears a lot of different hats. She’s a blogger (Traveling with MJ), online magazine editor (The Traveler’s Way, focused on baby-boomer travelers), a lawyer, and a flight attendant. She’s also conference director for Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX), billed as world’s largest conference for digital travel content creators, including bloggers, travel writers, photographers, videographers, and social media enthusiasts.
In this first installment in the series, Manzanares talks with Travel Weekly PLUS Editor in Chief Diane Merlino about “Blogging for Travel Providers 101,” including how to find and vet bloggers, tracking metrics that matter, and the finer points of working with bloggers.
Merlino: Why should a mainstream travel provider or a destination consider working with a blogger?
Manzanares: Before they can even get to whether it's a good idea or not to work with a blogger, they have to know their goals. What are they trying to accomplish? Are they trying to create a crazy flurry of social media buzz? Are they trying to drive bookings and conversions? We know that ultimately everything goes to that, but with what degree of immediacy? Are they trying to create content for their own website? Are they trying to get editorial content, both in print and digital?
Basically, what is it that they are trying to accomplish, and what would success look like? Once they answer that question, then whether they should work with a blogger — and, if so, what they should do and how they should do it — starts falling into place.
Merlino: Have you found that travel providers are fairly savvy about working with bloggers, completely clueless, or somewhere in between?
Manzanares: It's all over the board. You have some people who are new to the idea, just starting to explore and research, sort of dip their toe in the water and figure out what it's all about. Then you have some companies and businesses that have been doing it for some time, and now are ready to get a little bit more creative. They want to push the boundaries, see if they can come up with something different and new. It’s an evolving concept, and you've got people all over the board on it.
Merlino: Who generally starts the process of working with a blogger? Is it a company’s marketing department, sales, PR folks inside the company, an outside agency?
Manzanares: It depends in large part on the size of the company or organization. For larger organizations that have a relationship with an agency — whether it’s advertising, marketing, or some other type of agency — the outreach usually comes from the agency. But there are plenty of smaller businesses that are running their projects in-house, and then it can be the person in charge of in-house PR or marketing or pretty much anyone, especially in very small companies.
Merlino: Who would you recommend as the best person in a larger travel company to work with a blogger on a campaign?
Manzanares: Speaking from my own personal experience, working with someone who has a marketing background is a good fit. They understand a little bit more about what they're trying to accomplish in terms of being goal oriented. From a blogger's standpoint, you want the project to be successful, but if you don't have a good articulation of the goals from the company, it's hard to know what to do.
Also, marketing understands the bigger picture of editorial content and placement, for social media as well as PR, so a marketing person usually has a better concept on execution of an overall plan. That is certainly a generalization, because I have worked with some marvelous PR people as well.
Merlino: Let’s take a company that's never worked with a blogger before. They have something in mind that they would like to do. How do they find a blogger who is a good fit for the company and the project?
Manzanares: Everybody would like a magic way of coming up with the person or persons who are the best fit. But ultimately it gets back to everybody doing their due diligence, and if the company knows what their goals are, they can start doing the research.
For example, I had the opportunity to do this for a project with Caesars Entertainment. We were having a TBEX meet-up during the NMX conference there a few weeks ago, and Caesars wanted to do a very small, guided tour of one of the new towers on their property. They asked me if I could identify which bloggers were going to be in town for the conference or for some other reason.
They had very specific requirements. They were concerned with the right demographic — Who does this blogger write for? Who are their readerships? — and that was very, very key for them. They passed over some bloggers who might have had much larger numbers in favor of bloggers that had the demographics that they wanted. Because it's not about numbers, it's about the right numbers. And unless you go out and are looking at blogs and bloggers, you're not going to know what the right numbers are.
Merlino: Do you have any pointers on how a travel company can vet a blogger?
Manzanares: When you find something you like, in terms of a blogger or a blogger's style, read them for a while, start a relationship, reach out to them on social media, network with them on Facebook or Twitter.
When you do that, even if that person might not be the right blogger for your project, you have a relationship and you can ask for referrals. I mean, travel is a referral business; we all get referrals on any number of things, and finding the right blogger is no different. It’s about starting a relationship.
Merlino: To sum it up, what are the three or four key actions that a travel company needs to take to find a blogger who is the right fit?
Manzanares: First, know the goals you want to reach. Second, know the target demographics you want to reach — that can be by niche demographic, by age, by location, and so on.
Third, be part of the online community, so that you know where those people you want to reach ”live online” as we say. Do they hang out on Facebook? Do they read blogs? Do they tweet? That involves some work on the part of the company or destination.
Fourth, start forming relationships with bloggers. As you do that, the right people become readily apparent, or you will have people who can make referrals to the right people.
Merlino: What does forming a relationship look like in this realm?
Manzanares: It means connecting with people on their blog. It means engaging with them on various social media networks. It means understanding what they're writing about, understanding their style, their voice — those kinds of things. That way you can determine if the person sounds the way you want your business to sound to potential customers or clients.
Those are the preliminary elements of due diligence a company needs to do. Then you need to ask for metrics in terms of readership and specific demographics, and that gets into the negotiation process.
Merlino: What sort of metrics should a travel company ask a blogger to provide?
Manzanares: If it is a larger business or agency, they are going to have access to some paid tools, and they will know what to use. There’s Compete, there’s Quantast, there's a variety of businesses that run those kinds of metrics tools.
Merlino: What kind of metrics would be most valuable to review before hiring a blogger?
Manzanares: It's really important to know that every system that analyzes metrics has a flaw in it. So what you're looking for is not the precision of the reporting but the trends. You don't want to split hairs over 1,000 readers. I don't know what the plus or minus margin of error is, but every one of them has a flaw, and every one of them can be gamed, so you want to focus on looking at the trends.
If the trends across the board from all of these systems show consistencies, then you know it's true. But if the trends are wilding fluctuating, then you know you're going to need to get some more specific information.
Merlino: Should a company also ask the blogger directly for metrics?
Manzanares: Large agencies usually have paid accounts for those reporting systems. They are fairly expensive, and a blogger is probably not going to have their own subscription. But what a blogger will have, and what a company should ask for, is Google Analytic results. Like the others I mentioned, there are flaws with that system, too. But you should look at it for the trends, and a blogger should provide that information to you on request.
That’s another reason why you need to do your due diligence — so you actually get a response. You can’t just ask a stranger for their Google Analytics, because they're going to ask, ”Who are you?“ You need to let them know you’re asking because you’re thinking about starting a campaign. It’s part of the relationship-building process, which is why I say you should build your relationship first and then ask for information. Nobody wants to turn over their business information to just anyone wandering by.
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 Travel Weekly PLUS installments in a series on why and how travel companies can work with bloggers include:
• Mary Jo Manzanares on how to set rates and how companies can track results from a blogger project;
• Blogger Anne Taylor Hartzell (Hip Travel Mama) shares case studies on her projects for Expedia/Disney, Starwoods and Klimpton Hotels;
• And blogger Spencer Spellman (Traveling Philosopher) on bloggers as the bridge between travel brands and travelers.