Photo Credit: TW Illustration by Jenn Martins

Focus on Social Media:Influence peddlers

November 22, 2016

It's tough to pin down exactly what a social media "influencer" is today. It could be a blogger with a global audience, an Instagrammer with a regionally focused following or a YouTube comedian who brings a younger group of devotees to the table. But whatever form those influencers take, when they work with suppliers and destinations on marketing campaigns, one thing has to reign supreme in whatever kind of content they are providing: authenticity.

Travel brands and tourism offices have been increasingly working with influencers over the past few years to raise brand awareness. While many readily admit they are still learning how best to execute campaigns with influencers, they all agree that the content influencers introduce to their audiences has to be authentic and fit in with the kind of content the influencers normally provide when they're operating on their own.

When suppliers say they want "authentic" influencers they are describing people who can get their message across in a way that isn't forced and matches that influencer's personal style, making the partnership feel less like a product-placement ad.

Consumers understand suppliers' needs to market and advertise, said David Beebe, vice president of content and creative for Marriott International. However, simply inserting a brand into content, he said, is a much less persuasive way to introduce it than with a message that suggests, "This is an experience I had with this brand."

The latter "is just much more authentic, and [consumers] appreciate that," Beebe said. "They're much more likely to engage with our brand when it becomes something that's very much more natural."

That need for authenticity in marketing mirrors a trend among travelers. According to a study completed earlier this year by the marketing agency Upshot, 87.8% of frequent travelers said having "authentic travel experiences" is important to them, while 72.4% said that authentic experiences have become more important in recent years.

"Authenticity is becoming the primary quality defining great travel experiences among frequent travelers," the study reported.

"That's the great part about influencers -- they're not admen, they're not pitchmen," said Sarah Schmidt, director of earned media at the marketing firm BVK. "They're really supposed to be engaged, to be real representatives and not pitchmen, so their followers can sniff out right away if [the product is] not a good fit for them."

Moreover, influencers can give their followers an extra nudge to seek out experiences such as the ones they highlight.

"People want to fill their own social media with experiences that are unique and meaningful to them, and I think that is another thing that influencer programs can do for brands," Schmidt said.


What is an influencer?

Hecktic Media is a marketing firm that was founded by two travel bloggers, Dalene and Pete Heck. In addition to other services, the company runs social-media marketing campaigns, connecting suppliers or destinations with influencers. According to Dalene Heck, influencers come in all shapes and sizes.

Assigning a number to a social media user, such as defining them by their follower count, would be folly.

"It really does vary, and someone influential can be fairly small as well," she said.

Heck said Hecktic Media does have some parameters, such as only working with bloggers who have been at it for at least two years, enough time to build their own brand and audience. But outside of that, qualifying someone as an influencer requires something of a case-by-case definition.

For example, someone who only posts on social media about Edmonton, Alberta, might not have a huge audience, she said, "but they could be very, very influential to those people who are in the city themselves."

Pete and Dalene Heck, of Hecktic Media marketing firm, hiking in Poland; their company runs social-media marketing campaigns, connecting suppliers or destinations with influencers.
Pete and Dalene Heck, of Hecktic Media marketing firm, hiking in Poland; their company runs social-media marketing campaigns, connecting suppliers or destinations with influencers.

Schmidt agreed that follower count is not the most important thing when selecting influencers to work with.

"The most important part for us is making sure that the authenticity of the influencer matches the brand," she said, and that the influencer has an engaged audience.

Schmidt also pointed toward a subgroup of influencers who are increasingly the target of marketers looking to link them with suppliers: microinfluencers. They "have a much smaller audience but are really hyperengaged," Schmidt said.

Microinfluencers tend to crop up in the lifestyle space, she said, touting passions for things such as fashion or food. An example would be a yoga influencer on Instagram. While that person might only have 500 to 1,000 followers, if a company sends them yoga pants they like and recommend, the company could sell 10 or 20 pairs to their followers -- a good investment for the cost of giving away one pair of pants.

Schmidt said microinfluencers are starting to crop up in the travel space. A good use of one would be, for example, with a food-focused hotel or destination. A microinfluencer who is a chef or foodie could be the perfect person to bring onboard to experience that brand and expose his or her followers to it, she said.

Motivating an audience to do something, whether it's to visit a restaurant or sell yoga pants or something else entirely, is a big piece of what makes an influencer, according to Dave Bouskill and Deb Corbeil. The duo runs travel blog and a host of social media accounts related to their adventure travel brand.

"Influencer is such a broad term," Bouskill said. "And a popular term that people have attached to almost anything, when really, in my opinion, an influencer is someone who can motivate someone else to travel or motivate someone else to purchase something you're promoting, or motivate them to sign up for your newsletter.

"If you can motivate someone to act, then I think that's where you become a true influencer," he said. "It's not about just being a loudspeaker and blasting it out to your millions of followers, but you have to be able to get those people to actually do something."

Brands, influencers working together

Once a brand or a destination has decided to engage in an influencer campaign, it becomes a matter of finding the right influencers to work with.

"We're getting a lot more interest in working with influencers and how to best go about that," Heck said.

Hecktic Media's first goal in connecting a brand with an influencer is ascertaining exactly what the brand hopes to get out of the campaign.

For example, a brand looking to garner popularity on Instagram wouldn't be a likely partner for an influencer who is primarily using YouTube.

"Everybody uses [influencers] completely differently, but it's definitely increasing," Heck said. "There's thousands and thousands out there, but those who do it well are actually quite a limited number."

Schmidt said public relations tools exist that offer firms and their clients lists of influencers and their subject area, but that is only a starting point. Each potential influencer is personally selected and vetted by BVK's team to make sure they fit into the campaign the client wants, no matter how tedious the process can be -- and it can be very tedious indeed, Schmidt said.

Once a supplier and influencer have agreed to work together, their campaigns can take a variety of shapes, whether it's a video on YouTube, photo coverage on Instagram or something else altogether.

Be My Travel Muse’s Kristin Addis’ Instagram feed is filled with inspirational travel photos.
Be My Travel Muse’s Kristin Addis’ Instagram feed is filled with inspirational travel photos.

For influencer Kristin Addis, the CEO of Be My Travel Muse, who has worked with a variety of suppliers and destinations, "It has been everything from going to a place to just providing coverage on my channels, including Instagram, my blog and Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, all the social networks, and sometimes they want some assets as well," she said.

In those cases, Addis said she might provide destination photos to use in marketing plans. She has also done Instagram takeovers, controlling a destination's Instagram account for a set period of time, and she has appeared in promotional videos.

Marriott International has embarked on a number of influencer campaigns in recent years, such as its book-direct videos with YouTube personality Grace Helbig. However, Beebe said the firm treats its influencers differently than other companies do.

Instead of working with influencers for single campaigns, Marriott signs development deals with them lasting anywhere from six months to a year. The influencers are encouraged to develop the kind of content they want to develop, then match it with a brand it works with.

"It doesn't become an 'insert-our-product-into-your-story,'" Beebe said. "It becomes an original story that we develop together, and it comes off much more authentic."

Most of Marriott's influencer partnerships result in YouTube videos, but the company has also done Instagram and Snapchat campaigns, Beebe said.

Brands reap benefits

While it can be difficult to quantify the results of an influencer campaign, some metrics can be tracked.Schmidt said the most important measurement is "to make sure that their audience is engaged, that their followers are really going to understand the message and the message is really going to speak to them."

Case study: Maine Office of Tourism

The state's tourism office recently conducted a social media campaign using five Instagrammers with marketing firm BVK's help. Read More

For example, a recent influencer campaign that the Maine Office of Tourism ran through BVK garnered "literally tens of thousands of likes, shares [and] comments," many from the influencers' followers, who expressed a desire to visit Maine, Schmidt said.

Hecktic Media worked on an influencer campaign with a mobile photo-sharing app called Trover for about 18 months, identifying a variety of influencers who spoke about using the app.

"During that time ... their engagement increased by 10 times overall, and they credited that [campaign] for a lot of the other press that they also got, where they were featured in Forbes and whatnot," Heck said. "A lot of that came because of the buzz created by the influencers themselves." often works with brands and destinations, such as the Cayman Islands. often works with brands and destinations, such as the Cayman Islands.

Bouskill and Corbeil of have seen quantifiable results of their work by, for example, driving up things like signups for American Express cards (they are brand ambassadors for the company) and tour bookings. 

With Quark Expeditions, Corbeil said, readers got a 5% discount on trips, enabling Quark to track the efficacy of their campaign. The last trip the duo did with Quark was two years ago, and the company is still getting referrals from, she said.

"Not only is it about raising brand awareness, because that's a big part of it from a promotional side of things, but also from a booking side of things," Bouskill said.

Addis said influencer campaigns give brands a better chance to fish where the fish are.

"Everybody tells me this is uncharted territory for them, this is new, because it's hard to get the budget approved for this kind of new media when traditional media is tried and true and everyone knows it," she said. "But you can just get so much further, I think, with these platforms when people aren't watching TV commercials as much. ... You have to reach them on the platforms where they are spending their time."

Employing a similar line of thinking, Beebe posited that social influencers are the new networks.

"They're really our new version of an ABC, an NBC, a CBS," he said. "They bring everything to the table that a network does if you look at it from the basics. They bring their creativity, their production, they bring the ad sales portion ... they bring the distribution and the audience. And that's exactly what a network would have sold or sells to brands today -- all those things."

The difference is that social influencers are reaching a new audience, Beebe said.

"They bring, really, a two-way conversation," he said, "and I think the most important thing your digital influencers bring is really that 'being authentic.'"