This article is part of our August series on travel and hospitality. Click here for more.
Technology has transformed the travel market, with disruptive brands such as TripAdvisor ushering in a new age of transparency powered by user-generated content. Now that a new transformation is afoot, a growing number of brands are moving beyond simple user-generated content to partner with influencers to bring a new level of context, authenticity, and personality to travel marketing. The travel industry, which has historically marketed itself based upon selling consumers a dream, is harnessing the power of real experiences to drive more meaningful emotional connections with consumers.
A new wave of influencers is powering this shift. Anna Whitehouse, founder of Mother Pukka, the parenting lifestyle brand which has almost 100,000 followers on Instagram, believes this change in approach is being driven by a desire for real experiences. She said: “Ten years ago, when I was sent on a press trip as a journalist, I would write about the place in terms of function—rooms, food, view, friendliness, etc. Now I write and vlog about hotels and travel experiences in a more personal way.”
By using social media to show not just a glossy image but, instead, a warts-and-all diary of travel, Whitehouse is forging more emotional connections with consumers. She explained that there was a shift from simply answering the question “what does this destination offer” to “how do I feel here.” “Travel companies we’ve worked for want to know about our experience instead of getting an obvious puff piece that sells the place,” she said. “On a recent trip to Martinhal resort, a boomerang video of my daughter beaming as she’s chucked in the air by my husband in the swimming pool made them more bookings than a lengthier blog post ‘selling’ the facilities.”
Tapping into the emotional context of influencers’ personal travel experiences is a core marketing strategy for a growing number of brands. Molly Malone, social media campaign manager at Butlins, said that the brand believed that the best way to show all the brand has to offer was by sharing the experiences of guests. Sharing genuine content from visitors as opposed to simply churning out its own highly stylised images allows the brand to capitalise on the genuine emotion of “real families making memories.” “We hope that sharing their images on our social channels allows us to provide authentic and real content,” she said. “This same belief extends to the bloggers and influencers that we work with, who offer their own genuine insight into the Butlins experience and are able to engage with their own audiences and, in turn, ours as we repost to our channels.”
Tapping into the power of existing customers is a key marketing tool for a growing number of brands. Anthony Svirskis, CEO of Tribe, said that while, a few years ago, travel brands started using influencers by gifting them holidays or hotel rooms to incentivise them to create visual content or blog reviews, that was changing. “The landscape has shifted, and because influencers are far more accessible than they’ve ever been, travel brands often don’t need to gift a holiday—they can simply connect with influencers who have already been on that holiday or stayed at a particular hotel,” he said. “Who better to talk about the genuine experience of the W Hotel than the influencers who made the decision and spent their own money booking a room there?”
Ben Tan, executive planning director at BBD Perfect Storm, said that now consumers knew how authentic voices sounded, there was no desire to return to saccharine copywriting or professional editorial. “The taste for ‘real’ only goes one way, and as A-list influencers are increasingly co-opted by the commercial world, the centre-of-influencer gravity is shifting towards micro-bloggers,” he explained. “This is where we find genuine joy, actual outrage, and honest vulnerability with non-celebrity credibility. And, conveniently, this comes at a lower cost and more engaged audience.”
Given the ephemeral nature of social media, maintaining a meaningful micro-blogging presence can be a substantial community management task for a business. However, Tan pointed to the success of Airbnb’s micro-blogging community, which provides an ongoing stream of transparent and credible content as an example of the payoff to this investment. He said: “As traditional communications evolve into real-time conversation, this is a step towards the future.”
Beyond Branded Moments
The channels by which influencers will provide consumers with context to any given destination are increasing. Trevor Hardy, CEO of The Future Laboratory, said that the use of AR, VR, and live-streaming would mark the next iteration of this experience, as travel brands’ advertising campaigns move from a two-dimensional screen to a more hands-on, dynamic experience.
There is a trend that underlines why marketers should guard against seeing investment in influencers as too ephemeral for meaningful long-term commitments. According to Ellie Gauci, executive strategy director at PSONA, consumers are increasingly searching a destination on Instagram as a way of finding what to do or where to go. This is a shift that makes historical posts increasingly important. “Images are the travel sector’s currency in social media,” she said. “So investing in those platforms has to be top priority.”
Capitalising on the authentic personalised context afforded by influencer content is also making its way into traditional above-the-line advertising. Ian Samuel, chief commercial officer at influencer platform Buzzoole, said that influencer-generated content was being used within traditional media more and more, which is a trend with significant implications for traditional ad agencies.
“Gone are the days of big agencies dominating the market and dictating the terms,” he explained. “Now people are questioning whether we need agencies at all in the influencer space, when brands and consumers can connect with them directly and rely on user-generated content that’s created specifically for a brand.”
If influencers can provide brands with the authentic context to power emotional connections with consumers across multiple platforms, then their long-term strategic importance for marketers is set to grow. Smart brands recognise that user generated-context is here to stay.