Social influencer marketing grows following among hotels

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Red Lion Hotels recently partnered with Instagram influencer @chanteamcintyre to promote its Signature brand.

When it comes to marketing, few tools are as powerful as social media. Thanks to their sizable caches of personal data, platforms like Facebook and Instagram have made it easier than ever for brands to target specific markets based on age, location, gender and interests. 

What can vary widely, however, is how marketers choose to target audiences. One of the fastest-growing methods is Instagram influencer marketing, which focuses on using prominent individuals, typically with large numbers of followers, to promote goods and services. 

"The impact of social media has completely changed the way travelers are making their decisions," said Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Best Western Hotels & Resorts, which has grown its Instagram following to more than 30,000. "In the age of people posting and sharing their lives online, users are more inclined to make travel decisions based on what their friends or followers are posting."

Hotels in particular have proven themselves adept at harnessing influencer partnerships, offering discounts, complimentary stays or monetary compensation in exchange for promotional Instagram posts and other content. 

Rachel Kaplan, director of digital marketing at Dream Hotels, which has more than 55,000 followers on Instagram, said, "Our Instagram influencers are essentially brand ambassadors, and they can be incredibly useful."

Kaplan pointed to a recent Instagram partnership with lifestyle influencer @gigigorgeous, who has more than 2 million followers and worked with Dream Hotels to successfully promote the brand's Pride campaign in June. But while @gigigorgeous' following is certainly sizable, Kaplan said an influencer's effectiveness is more dependent on the quality of his or her following than on the number of followers.

"The influencer market is getting oversaturated," Kaplan said. "So we want to make sure we're vetting our influencers and working with people who make sense for us. Having a large following is great, but the biggest thing for us is engagement." 

According to Kaplan, Dream Hotels has also gotten traction from influencers within the 5,000- to 50,000-follower range. 

Likewise, Dan Schacter, director of social engagement and public relations for Red Lion Hotels Corp., agreed that more isn't always better when it comes to influencer marketing.

"We've found the most success with some of the smaller influencers, because we can be more targeted," Schacter said. "They're also generally cheaper to work with."

Red Lion, which is currently ramping up social media efforts for its Hotel RL and Signature brands and its Hello Rewards loyalty program, has forged recent partnerships with family-oriented lifestyle influencers like @chanteamcintyre, who has close to 23,000 followers, and @lanadmitruks, who has just over 41,000. 

Emphasis on authenticity

Schacter said it's important to ensure that an influencer's following is authentic, as some Instagrammers attempt to pad their numbers by purchasing fake followers. Tools like Fohr provide detailed information on an influencer's audience, helping marketers winnow the wheat from the chaff. 

Once an influencer has been fully vetted, it's time to hammer out details of an agreement. New York-based lifestyle blogger Sunita Ramnarine, who often works with hotel brands and has nearly 170,000 Instagram followers under @sunitav_, said that when it comes to negotiating marketing partnerships, it's important that it be mutually beneficial.

"There has to be a balance in terms of the amount of work that's being asked of me and how I'm being compensated," she said. "Being an influencer isn't about doing favors. It's a business, and both parties need to equally benefit."

She is represented by a management company that sets and negotiates rates for her Instagram posts, videos and stories. 

Red Lion's Schacter said every influencer approaches compensation differently.

"There's no set rule on how much a post is worth," he said. "So it's about having the conversation with each influencer and figuring out what works best for them and your brand. Sometimes we're paying them directly. Sometimes we look at giving them free stays."

And sometimes, he said, influencers simply "want to receive a discount."

In addition to the traditional influencer model, Red Lion Hotels is also exploring an affiliate program that would enable individuals to share promo codes via social media and receive a commission based on how many people book using an influencer's code. 

Many established hotel accounts continue to leverage influencer relationships, among them Jumeirah. Located in Dubai, the Burj Al Arab claims to be the hotel with the most Instagram followers, 784,000.

As for what kind of influencer the brand is seeking, Florence Dubois, Jumeirah's chief brand and communications officer, said, "We look to work with those who complement our brand vision and support us in creating alternative content from a different perspective."

Regardless of whether an influencer has 5 million followers or 5,000, however, the key to a successful social media strategy is authenticity.

"I make sure to only partner with brands and people that I really like and that are a good fit," Ramnarine said. "When creating content, it's really about ... making sure it doesn't look forced."

Erina Pindar, managing director of the SmartFlyer agency, whose @thesmartflyer Instagram account has grown to nearly 23,000 followers, agrees. 

"It's important to understand all the available channels and identify how those relate to your industry, your business model and what your clients want to see, and figure out what makes the most sense for your brand," she said. "Instagram gives us the opportunity to allow followers to feel immersed in the experience as if they were there themselves."

Meanwhile, though social media trends are always shifting, most marketers see Instagram as having major staying power.

Christine Espinoza, director of digital and social marketing for W Hotels, said, "The visual nature of Instagram is such a perfect match for travel. It's also increasingly where travelers are turning to discover new destinations, restaurants and hotels, and [they're] planning their vacations with those 'instaworthy' moments in mind. It's more and more important that we maintain a strong Instagram presence as a brand."

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