Travel bloggers who take you places

Travel blogger Lola Akinmade Åkerström.

Travel blogger Lola Akinmade Åkerström.

If you are a Gen X’er or a Millennial, there’s a very strong chance that your travel decisions are made online with the help of review platforms, booking sites, forums and travel blogs. Travel guidebooks are not sought-after by twenty- or even thirtysomethings. It’s not that they are averse to reading; they prefer to browse their favourite blogs by well-travelled bloggers, requesting recommendations and suggestions on Twitter.

Kirsty Sharman, head of Webfluential, a platform that connects brands with digital influencers, tells of her recent holiday booking experience. She scoured Club Med’s Facebook page and website, read reviews online and asked her friends on social media about their experiences, before booking.

This corroborates a 2012 Nielsen report that 92% of global consumers trust peer recommendations over advertising. “Humans tend to self-doubt. Influencers help relieve that doubt and can turn interested consumers into paying customers,” Sharman says.

Paying customers are why destination-marketing organisations (DMOs) and tourism boards work with travel bloggers.

Traditional print travel magazines and guides have had to compete with the online space. Often these publications have a blog, using the voices of top travel bloggers – such as Lonely Planet and Afar. But poorly designed websites, infrequent updates and slap-dash social media strategies have lost many publications credibility with online readers. It is, after all, a market with a fleeting attention span. 

Click, and they’re gone. Successful travel bloggers, who run their blogs as businesses (the “pro bloggers”), must create compelling content, engage with multiplatforms and campaign strategies while travelling on demanding schedules.

“Nobody is interested in what a DMO says about a destination; [but] when a DMO creates a platform for stories by local people, top bloggers and travellers, magic happens,” says Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, former chief executive of Cape Town Tourism who runs Destinate, a boutique destination-marketing agency. “Visitors are [then] enticed to experience the destination for themselves.”

Keith Jenkins, an ex-investment banker and veteran travel blogger for the Velvet Escape blog, is the founder of iambassador, a professional travel blogger network launched in 2011 that creates paid campaigns for top bloggers. Jenkins says bloggers’ strengths lie in their ability to communicate from personal experience while leveraging social media connections with travel-hungry users.

Compared with print, bloggers offer rapid turnaround on diverse channels, including video, and the ingenuity, especially of full-time bloggers, results in creative entrepreneurship, such as apps, e-books, product and peer collaborations, serial podcasts, and sometimes TV.

Niche audiences allow for very personal connections to readers, beyond what destination-marketing organisations or boards can achieve, says Abi King, who blogs at Inside the Travel Lab, and writes for various traditional publications too.

Travel trends have consistently pointed to the rise in the use of technology in tourism, and in particular in how we research, and inevitably select where to eat, play and sleep. According to Du Toit-Helmbold, the ITB Berlin Travel Trends Report 2015 reveals that “92% of social media users are influenced by travel blogs with up to 72% willing to change their destination choice based on the opinion of friends and networks on social media.

“In China, up to 95% of travellers use travel blogs. Comparatively, 86% of Indian travellers and 66% of European travellers are influenced by the content of travel blogs,” she says.

Social media channels, review portals and travel blogs continue to be popular sources and smartphone bookings in China lead the pack.

South African Tourism (SAT) first engaged with top-tier travel bloggers on a large-scale in 2013 with #MeetSouthAfrica campaign, the first in Africa, after the lauded regional #loveCapeTown campaign run by Cape Town Tourism in 2012.

“SAT quickly saw the value and the quality of the bloggers’ content and influence,” says William Price, SAT’s global head of digital. “We’ve had unbelievable results and we are able to see how well the bloggers and influencers share their content and what kinds of responses these carry from their audiences,” he says.

Nurturing long-lasting relationships with top influencers based on trust and involving local bloggers in these campaigns encompasses a chunk of South African Tourism’s digital strategy.

And how do these “digital influencers” benefit? They’re paid, in many instances. “Webfluential has, over the past eight months, paid over R2-million to South African influencers alone. We’ve executed over 150 campaigns across Africa. Influencer marketing is no longer a future trend, it’s a current tactic,” Sharman says.

But this piecemeal payment is hardly adequate to keep afloat. Lola Akinmade Åkerström, a Nigerian-born, Stockholm-based travel blogger at GeoTravellers’s Niche, says that, to do well, bloggers need to diversify. “That’s why I wear many hats as a freelancer.”

The debates about bloggers’ roles as content creators or marketers (or both) are several, even in blogging circles. Velma Corcoran, marketing executive at Cape Town Tourism who was involved in the #love­CapeTown campaign, is cautious. The 2012 campaign crowdsourced the opinions of locals on Twitter with visiting bloggers asking questions such as: “What are your favourite hikes/picnic spots/areas to visit/places to eat/secret gems?” The response was phenomenal. Today, the peer-to-peer trend, using travellers as influencers, is still stressed.

“At the time it was novel and wildly successful; it also raised healthy debate about whether bloggers, who are paid to come to a destination, could be objective,” says Corcoran.

The Cape Town Tourism team has had to consider whether “the better known bloggers have become such big brands themselves that the destination experience is more brand vehicle than reporting,” she says.

Du Toit-Helmbold sees the bloggers’ roles differently: “Professional bloggers are publicists; in most cases we work with formal agreements on content and exposure,” she says. Many bloggers argue their worth is tied in with the ability to be objective, a requirement essential for fair reporting.

Destination-marketing organisations are partly to blame, Corcoran says, when they plan unrealistic itineraries resulting in a tweet-per-hour marketing-fest, with bloggers getting little chance to explore or rest, which Jenkins ascribes to poor destination-marketing organisation research. He mentions the case of a backpacker sent to a Michelin-starred restaurant or five-star hotel as inappropriate for the audience.

“We believe we need to work with influencers to tell Cape Town’s story; they are often more influential than a tourism board. Always, relationships and authenticity are key to ensuring the stories told are meaningful for everyone,” Corcoran stresses.

Brands, destination-marketing organisations and bloggers agree that at the heart of every trip lies the customer – the regular, paying traveller. Even when destination-marketing organisations and brands analyse the statistics, they could end up wasting time and money on the “wrong” blogger – a bad investment being an inherent risk.

As Du Toit-Helmbold says: “Eventually, you get to know the professional bloggers from the bleggers and the blaggers.”

Ishay Govender-Ypma is a freelance travel journalist who blogs on paid campaigns occasionally. Mostly she travels on her own dime

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