In the fast-paced world of digital media content development, what a difference a year makes. Since the ATTA’s report last year on how brands can work with bloggers following the June 2012 Travel Blog Exchange Conference, also known as “TBEX”, a trio of new factors surfaced at this month’s TBEX in Toronto, Canada – more travel brands are participating, bloggers are maturing and emerging as a professional, respected category representing an evolved form of multi-media journalism, all while the blogger “industry” is fragmenting as media consumption trends shift rapidly.
It’s clear that brand interest in bloggers is mounting. Last year, a couple dozen solid travel brands attended TBEX – this year, over 130 were represented. That’s a big leap, one supported by the results in the Social Media Examiner’s 2013 Marketing Report, where 62 percent of 3,000 marketers said they want to learn more about blogging and 66 percent plan on increasing blogging efforts – making it the second biggest marketing shift after utilizing YouTube.
Meanwhile, the blogging category, is a messy space with a lot of room for growth, clarity and often, improvement. Fortunately, this process is beginning to speed up, thanks to a growing pool of effective, experienced bloggers who have proven their worth and are driving toward greater professionalism and setting standards of quality and accountability, including measurable return on investment. The success and creativity this latter group delivers is creating opportunities for other bloggers, plus delivering solid case studies with big travel brands from the likes of Expedia, Intrepid, Tourism Australia, G Adventures, and HouseTrip. Small-to-medium-sized brands which begin to experiment beyond FAM trips and paid content also are sure to begin seeing similar results.
A key challenge persists for the travel blogging industry and that is the low cost of entry which requires few “hard” or technical skills. As a result, the category continues to be inundated with aspirational, part-time and hobbyist bloggers. Blogger attendance to the conference more than doubled from last year, rounding out at 1300 this June; the Internet is flooded with new bloggers daily. While there’s nothing wrong with this in its own right from an editorial perspective, an infusion of amateur bloggers can muddy the waters for brands looking for effective content partnerships of the professional caliber. This situation is reminiscent of when social media really hit the mainstream five or so years ago and suddenly everyone was a “community builder,” “expert” or “maven” (read: 80% unpaid interns). Like it’s older social media cousin, blogging as a service industry is now tasked with doing the work of defining terms, evolving quality standards, proving their worth in online marketing – and weeding out less qualified bloggers. It’s still challenging for brands to vet bloggers, and it requires a lot of clarity, communication and participation from a brand to get a lot out of a blogger campaign.
Another challenge is that the travel blogging industry is becoming a very fragmented space (where a few terms mean vastly different things to different people) and that it’s not just about … well, blogging, anymore.
People blog as a hobby or part-time while working in a connected industry as part of professional development, and there are those who are professional bloggers (who might seek out sponsors and advertisers) but consider their blog an editorial pursuit similar to journalism – and would find the idea that a brand would play a role in the messaging of their content unacceptable. Some call blogging their main source of income and are paid for content creation or sponsored campaigns and are utilizing production skills to leverage an audience they’ve built to give extra impact to these services.
Others provide more consulting than creating, some are gifted wordsmiths and storytellers, and some are actually social influencers more than they are accomplished writers, but are effectively telling stories to receptive online audiences with pictures, videos, podcasts – even Pinterest boards – instead of words. People are microblogging on sites like Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, plus contributing to blogging communities, online magazines and online TV and radio shows.
The point is people are working off multiple mediums – and even among the quality industry people, not everyone is doing all of them well. Some specialize in one or two, really making that channel work for them (and their clients / advertisers) and some have a solid reach into multiple. Some of these individuals are actually for hire, and some are not. Some of these people won’t accept FAM trips, and some put those trips at the center of their goals. And blogging is increasingly an ancillary product channel in a larger landscape.
Don’t be overwhelmed. All of this is a good thing.
It means even though your company isn’t Expedia, working with online influencers and content producers can be effective – even if you can’t afford bloggers as brand ambassadors. It means you can afford to experiment. You have options to break down your digital marketing efforts into concrete goals and use targeted campaigns to get there, particularly if you’re savvy about using niche target markets and hiring niche influencers.
Successful Case Studies
Brands can capitalize on the expertise and engagement influencers have created in specific channels. Tour operator Adventure Life joined the ranks of REI and G Adventures in running a low-cost, customized Pinterest chat campaign to educate about their Galapagos itineraries, driving excellent site referrals. This was something that the bloggers behind Pin-Up Live were uniquely skilled to do, having amassed over 700,000 followers on a site known for its referral power and keeping them engaged with vibrant, branded images on weekly interactive chats, which, on average, yield 300-500 likes, 400-650 comments and thousands of re-pins over the following days and weeks.
Brands need to be strategic when using influencers, making sure there is audience overlap, a proper brand fit, multiple value propositions and clear and measurable goals. Intrepid sent an ex-chef with an online sustainable foodie show on one of their trips as an experiment, carefully selecting the Perennial Plate brand because of its parallel target audience and its online media partnerships. The resulting video went viral with over 300,000 likes and mentions in the New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic and more, far surpassing their initial goals. Even though the initial FAM was a ‘cheap’ investment, they carefully researched their options and spent time strategizing as though it was a major marketing campaign – which it has now become, with an entire season of the show dedicated to taking the hosts on a 21 month, 13 country tour of Intrepid’s new foodie itineraries. Intrepid’s goal was 2 million views for the season; after just 4 episodes, they’ve surpassed that.
Here are some other trends to keep in mind in the Influencer space:
“New Media” and traditional media will keep merging. I wasn’t surprised to see this listed as a top travel blogging trend in the TBEX Keynote by The Planet D. Through my conversations with journalists and freelance writers in the past year, I know that many in the ‘traditional’ camp are adopting digital media formats – and not just to create a social media presence. They’re experimenting with blogging, being available across multiple touchpoints, and some are even experimenting with new ways of earning a living (read: services or content for hire – traditionally an editorial no-no). It may sound negative, but it means an influx of talent is likely, and ethics and boundaries are emerging in this grey area. Bottom line: Lines will continue to become blurred between journalism, online influence and pay-to-play.
The future is visual. There’s a reason Google and Facebook have integrated visual design elements from Instagram and Pinterest. Consider this:
Word-of-mouth is quickly morphing into word-of-mouth-and-image: Kissmetrics reports that YouTube is second only to Google in internet search engines, attracting 300 million users every week, while Facebook touts 2.5 billion photo uploads a month. Visual information, once reserved for very specific uses, is now common parlance, preferred by millions. – New Media TrendWatch
Photos are now the most engaging content on Facebook, beating links, status updates, and videos by a wide margin, but many companies struggle to develop quality visual content on their own.
Bottom line: Bloggers, content producers and influencers will play a key role in providing visual and multimedia content to brands as part of the value proposition for FAMs or paid work – and companies will find it easier to attribute dollar figures to collateral they can use again and again.
Video is The next big thing… and plays a key role in Internet search.
Rob Torres from Google Travel previously shared with us that 75 percent of all travelers are using some sort of video, during either the planning, purchasing or sharing phase. YouTube reports that over 6 billion hours of video are watched monthly (4 hours for each person worldwide and twice as much as last year). Instagram is releasing video capability soon to compete with the growing popularity of video sharing services, such as Twitter’s Vine, which lets users create and distribute six-second shorts.
My TBEX co-presenter, Scott Adams of Birchbark Media, explains, “Video is important because it’s multi-dimensional, multi-platform – and most importantly – lets you provide a deeper experience and tell more of your story. It can also live many different places – YouTube, your sites, partner sites, Twitter, Facebook, – it gives far better SEO opportunity than photos. It becomes indexed by search engines and is content that can help you own your real estate online.”
Video is consumed differently than other types of content. Viewers have even shorter attention spans than readers, and it’s considered above average to have people watch just under half the video length. You want to front load any important shots or messaging. (For how-to tips on Do-it-yourself video, check out this month’s guest post, How to Make a Travel Video by travel expert and vlogger Robert Reid). Bottom line: Video is increasingly critical, but it takes some work to get it right.
You have to provide content on platforms based on how people use those platforms. We’ve already covered that Facebook is ideal for sharing photos, and it’s where people go to share opinions, articles and experiences with friends – but direct sales pitches there tend to be ignored or annoying. Twitter tends to be more female, more “mom” oriented and is a haven for media and PR people; depending on your audience, it may make more sense to do B2B networking there. Pinterest is good for site referrals and pushing retail sales; users love travel imagery but long term inspiration takes longer and requires more strategy to draw people to your other sites. Microblogging is good for images, pithy news and announcements, humor and things that are quick to “like” and share. Longer articles on your blog (and videos!) are good for expanding on niche topics, to help make hard decisions on big purchases easier, and delve deeply into people’s interests and concerns – this is where you can be rewarded for providing expertise.
Bottom line: A good marketing mix tailors the message to the platform, and interweaves a variety of platforms with a common brand identify.
Tracking ROI is not a pipe dream. Adams explains:
Thinking about ROI is more sophisticated now and campaigns are being scrutinized a whole lot more. Measurement has become a lot deeper than just impression. Brands and bloggers are becoming more aware of website conversions, social media engagement (versus followers), lead generation, and conversions/bookings. They’re using available tools to track what people are doing with content and where they go after consuming it. For example, a video on a blog – we know how many people viewed it, but that’s not a very useful metric. Did they follow the provided links and go to the website, or move on? If they did, how long did they stay, what pages did they view? There’s still a divide, where the PR world stops measuring at views as impressions and the marketers go into deeper numbers.
Bottom line: Don’t settle for shallow metrics. Real ROI tracking must begin with brand expectations and goal setting.
No matter what changes, this won’t. Thinking about what is really interesting to your audience must come first – this goes for both brands and bloggers. I suggest that all companies consider this passage from a recent Inc. article:
You’re excited about your company, right? You’re proud of your products, right? Therefore, your best strategy, when talking to a customer, is to tell the story of your company and its products with excitement and enthusiasm, right?
Customers don’t care about your company. They don’t care about its products. And they certainly don’t care about your personal feelings towards your company and its products.
What customers care about is… themselves.
Online audiences are incredibly adept at passing over anything that smacks of blunt advertising or low quality content developed purely for SEO.
Bottom line: If it is not useful or interesting to the end audience, it is Internet clutter.