Influencer marketing: Has the bubble burst?

27 Mar

Influencer marketing: Has the bubble burst?

Welcome Matthew Barker for a cracking guest post. Enjoy!

This is a deeper dive on a presentation I gave at last week’s Travel Zoom conference. You can get the slides here.

Influencer marketing, aka blogger outreach - it’s the debate that keeps on giving.

My title comes from a recent comment about Phil Lee’s decision to stop financing blog trips during his time at Tourism Victoria; one among many in what seems like a wider pushback about the value of influencer marketing.

Phil’s is a common beef. 'Influence' gauged by “a number in the millions followed by a measure unique to a social media platform... A reach the size of a medium-sized nation-state.” Despite the astronomical numbers, he notes that “it’s rare to see a solid measure of effectiveness like sales, arrivals or even something vague but measurable like brand awareness or sentiment.”

You can see this in the case studies and conference talks from any of the professional blog collectives. The metrics show tens of thousands of individual posts creating millions of impressions or, lifting from the old advertising lexicon, “opportunities to see”.

The borrowing from old-school PR vocab doesn’t end there.

Another dinosaur doing the rounds is the Ad Value Equivalent (AVE) of those impressions; as though the old column inches concept that was barely plausible back in the analogue era can be used to assign $ value to impressions in today’s torrent of content, programmatic ad serving and an inventory landscape that is fragmented beyond all meaningful comparison.

Out of curiosity I requested the international visitor numbers to Costa Brava on either side of the 2012 TBEX event in Girona. Arrivals the following year were virtually static: 2,953,097 in 2012 to 2,965,649 in 2013.

TBEX is the largest gathering of digital influencers in the travel space, which makes it (even if it’s not publicly billed as such) by far the biggest “blog trip”. Ready for those big numbers? The event generated 26,967 hashtagged tweets with just under 150,000,000 impressions on Twitter alone. (Google TBEX Girona for an entirely unscientific snapshot of its wider exposure.) So if not in visitor numbers how did Tourism Costa Brava gauge their returns? They told me that the event was considered a branding promotion and that they couldn’t segment or quantify the outcomes from their other digital promotions that year.

If the hosts of the world’s biggest blog trip have no hard ROI data, surely Phil and the growing number of his colleagues are right and there’s something fundamentally wrong with the entire concept?

They might be asking the right questions. But I think their response - which has been to chuck the baby out with the bathwater - is wrong.

We’ve been doing the wrong things and expecting the wrong results.


Let's look at influencer marketing for what it really is - online PR: investing in an activity to engage someone else’s audience. PR is usually about trying to influence people early on in the purchasing process. And travel blog audiences are typically people just browsing ideas - they're a long way from being ready to buy anything. (In marketing speak we think of them as being right at the top of the marketing funnel.)

Travel is a complex product with pathways to purchase that can be exceptionally long and convoluted - among the longest for any consumer purchase. Yet we’ve been expecting influencer marketing to do it all - to move their audience all the way down the marketing funnel - from mild interest to final purchase. Build, engage and convert an audience all in one - as though it has some magical properties.

At the root is a problem consistently highlighted by Pam Mandel among others: the prevailing model for influencer marketing has turned professional influencers/audience-builders into unprofessional marketers.

Asking bloggers to be our marketers has created hyper-promotional and aggressively sales-oriented sponsored content that masquerades as independent writing. It has created blogger collectives that include “SEO content” and native advertising among their service items.

It has created a vociferous debate around ethics, disclosure and transparency too. I honestly wonder if we even know what “credibility” is anymore. Does plonking that standard disclaimer at the end of a post promising that “as ever all opinions are my own” really count? If so it’s a remarkable stroke of luck that bloggers never seem to have a shitty time when they’re travelling on someone else’s dime. Do we know what this is doing to the legitimacy of our messages, and therefore our potential to “influence” consumers in the first place?

But I don’t really blame the bloggers. I blame us, the marketers.

We’re the ones who let them do our jobs for us. This is the ecosystem that we helped to build and we need to take responsibility for fixing it.


What would a new model of influencer marketing look like?

The paradoxical first step would be for the influencers to stop doing the marketing and to go back to what they do best: building, engaging and educating their audiences.

Meanwhile we marketers need to reclaim responsibility for our own jobs and be more realistic about the role that influencers can play within wider content strategy.

A smarter approach would be for brands and bloggers/influencers to work more closely on the outcomes that actually make a measurable impact at the relevant stage of the marketing funnel: cooperating on audience data, sharing engaged users and bringing them in at the top of a brand’s funnel where we, the marketers, can focus on nurturing and converting them into prospects and sales.

There are mechanisms to make this happen: email, social media and retargeting all offer effective touchpoints for transferring audiences from blogger to brand and then into the brand’s lead-nurturing channels for progression through the funnel. This shifts the emphasis for influencer marketing away from bottom funnel, last-touch lead generation and into high funnel, first/assisted-touch territory where it belongs.

As we see time and again with our work, contextual email, paid social and well-segmented retargeting campaigns are enormously powerful channels for converting digital audiences into prospects, leads and sales. But to work, those audiences have to start out engaged, informed and qualified.

Travel blogs could be a uniquely valuable source of engaged audiences feeding the top of the funnel and into these channels. Partnerships that provide for shared access to user tracking, custom audience targeting and lookalike audiences, all based on qualified, engaged and segmented traffic could transform our approaches to influencer marketing.

Data access at this level would mean grown-up cooperation on multi-platform Terms of Service compliance, privacy regulations, analytics sharing and link tagging. This in turn demands trust, transparency and mutual respect - things that often seem thin on the ground. But the benefits would be immense: bloggers can revert to what they’re best at - providing honest, objective content that their readers can trust - and leave the marketing activities to the professionals.

Not only is this a more effective strategy, it is also eminently measurable.

Provided that links are properly parameter tagged within a consistent architecture we can easily segment first and assisted referral touches generated by influencer marketing activity at the top of the funnel and quantify how it contributes to later conversions via other channels further down the funnel.

We have everything we need to make real, accurate ROI calculations for assisted conversion paths throughout the entire funnel - but to make it happen we need to fundamentally redefine the relationship between the marketing professionals, our blogging colleagues and the audiences we’re trying to reach.

We've recently started a partnership with Travelator Media, a UK-based blog collective, to tackle some of these questions and build a model for ROI-focused blog campaigns.

Leave a comment or get in touch if you’d like to learn more.

TripFiction – matching travel destinations with novels set in them

14 Dec

TripFiction – matching travel destinations with novels set in them

Here's an interesting new start-up I came across recently. TripFiction matches your travel destination with novels set in it. I love reading books about a place I'm visiting. I particularly enjoyed The Beach by Alex Garland when I was backpacking through SE Asia (long before it became really popular) and Graham Greene's The Quiet American was the perfect book to read whilst traveling around Vietnam.

Sense of place is a crucial part of the joy of reading novels for me. (Is it for you?) Neat idea then. But will it make any money? I asked Tony Geary who set it up a few questions:


How did you come up with the idea for Trip Fiction?
About 8 years ago we were staying at the BelAire Princess Hotel just off the Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. I was sitting by the rooftop pool reading a book called Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett that I had picked up at the airport on the way out. A thriller that absolutely came to life when we discovered that much of the action was taking place in a nearby Soi, a short way beneath us. And the book was great for creating the atmosphere of the city – somehow seedy with (to us) strange customs. A city we then explored, memories of the book still fresh in our minds. It was a great experience as we followed the story. We discussed the idea for TripFiction then and many times over the following years – until we finally decided that ‘the time had come’ to do something about it.

Why will it work?
TripFiction will work because there are enough people who get what we and the site are about. Yes, it will always be somewhat of a niche market – but that doesn’t really impact. We are vastly encouraged by the number of ‘gosh, what a great idea’ mails that we receive from visitors to the site. Getting people to visit the site is crucial to our success, and we are very active on social media. We are also now undertaking a marketing and PR campaign as well as focussing very much on SEO. We are currently making money / funding the site’s continuing expansion by clickthrough purchases from Amazon. We are an Amazon affiliate and earn a small commission on each sale (although the price to the purchaser is exactly the same as buying direct). Where we believe we will make more money / fund the site’s expansion further is by attracting major advertisers such as airlines, car rental companies, hotel groups, and publishers… We are not yet quite there is terms of site visit numbers, but we are getting quite close.

What was the biggest obstacles you had to overcome to launch?
I guess the biggest one was that we decided quite early on that, for credibility’s sake, we needed to have at least 1,000 books in the data base before we could launch. These we identified in online research by location. We then had to manually enter all of them, plus synopses and initial reviews into the site – quite a major and time consuming operation. [This is far less of a problem as we grow – most recommendations to add new books now come from site visitors, authors, and publishers… and we are currently up to over 4,000 books]. We then needed to agree on the name, branding, and brief a web development company to design the site. It all took time, and it all took money.

Why should people use Tripfiction?
Guidebooks do a great job in giving a traveller the facts about a location – the best of them are indispensable. But what they are not set up to do is really add depth and understanding. A work of fiction set in a specific locale can help give a reader the flavour of a place, and extra insight into its personality and character. It can add texture and context. We say’ see a location through an author’s eyes’. I have just, for example read a book called The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer, set in Karachi. The city comes through on every page of the book – the filth, the mass of humanity, the constant traffic jams. The reader feels he is there from the garbage strewn beach at Sea View to the throbbing streets of the markets.

What's next?
Our short term (next few months) ambition is to get site visitor numbers to a size where we can attract major advertisers. Thereafter it is to continue to build the site by adding new books and new locations. We will never be exhaustive, but we will give it a good shot… We will also build greater facilities on the site for members to interact with each other – make it much more of a social media site for those who buy into the concept. Ultimately we will look at expanding outside books – especially to movies, and TripMovies is very much on the cards.

Give us an example of one of the books on Trip Fiction.
How about Terminal City by Linda Fairstein? It's a real page turner set almost exclusively in the few blocks around (and beneath) Grand Central Station in New York. The story is great, but Grand Central – and its history – is actually the hero of the book. The book gives a totally unexpected insight into an area which I thought I knew quite well. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a whole city beneath Grand Central – right down 10 floors to the M42 ‘not on any blueprint’ generating room that converts AC electricity into DC to power the trains. ‘Not on any blueprint’ or plan because of the fear of terrorist attack closing down the whole East Coast railroad system – years before 9/11. The subterranean city spreads out across many blocks both north and south of 42nd Street – and is most bizarrely ‘home’ to many otherwise homeless people known as ‘moles’ who co-exist with the other inhabitants – large rats (‘track rabbits’). They have their own ‘mayor’ and governance. A parallel world that is entered and left through gratings connecting it to the world above…

What do you think of Tony's idea? Reckon it will work? What would you do differently?


Daddy – did you used to be a travel blogger?

12 Nov

Daddy – did you used to be a travel blogger?

A few years ago there was heaps of noise around travel blogging and much heated debate amongst travel writers about these new kids on the block threatening their income and existence. I got pretty bored of those arguments as I'm sure many others did too.

Further down the line I wanted to come back to the topic – with older (and wiser?) eyes.

In particular after reading this post by Emily Luxton on whether it's possible to build a career from travel blogging - rather than just use it as a way to fund an extended period of travelling in low cost countries.

With very low barriers to entry, there's an ever-growing pool of young people (and it is mainly people in their 20s) setting up shop. It's been interesting to see events for bloggers like TBU and TBEX continue to pull in the punters. (Perhaps with less success that in the past though?)

So is it a viable career option?

Tourist boards in particular are paying travel bloggers to work for them. Sponsored campaigns for the likes of Visit South Africa, Visit Scotland and Visit Wales (who I've commissioned bloggers to work with myself) and many others have started to offer a genuine source of income for some better quality travel bloggers.

Other revenue streams look suspect to me. The SEO-industry was all over bloggers for a while effectively buying links with sponsored posts that weren't really about the content produced but were more about the link that they included back to a client's website. Google has stamped down hard on this practice. Gullible blog owners might still be welcoming SEO agency cash in return for posts, but they risk getting penalised. I imagine a lot of bloggers saw what looked like a promising revenue source dry up in the space of 6 months. They thought they were making it… but actually, they weren't. Banner ads look highly unlikely to provide serious income too – particularly with the way the market is moving towards targeting users wherever they are reading rather than working with specific publishers. I think the advertising bucks will become increasingly polarised around a few mega websites that are run by massively powerful organisations – like Mailonline for example. No way a blogger can compete with that.

Meantimes the pool of bloggers keeps growing. Emily's post suggests that the way to stand out from the crowd is to post heaps and heaps of content, work like crazy to build social following, do guest posts to build links back to your own blog. But wow, that must be hard. (Some of he people she quotes in her piece are working 70 hours a week on occasions.) And it must be really difficult to keep an eye on the quality of what you write if you constantly feel pressure to post something new.

I think the first mover advantage has come and gone now. A few high profile bloggers got in early and got established. Google likes their longevity and they crop up high in search rankings. People like Keith at Velvet Escape, Nomadic Matt, Melvin from Travel dudes, Gary Arndt, Nellie Huang. For me, they've made it. These guys are seriously entrepreneurial – they don't just blog, they network and they look for other revenue models like offering travel advice, setting up blogger trips for tourist boards, consultancy. If travel blogging hadn't been there, they'd have probably started some other kind of business anyway.

What about the rest though? The marketplace will become even more crowded. It will get even harder to stand out and make income.

Choosing to be a full-time blogger (in travel or any other category) is also choosing to be self-employed. This is something that's both liberating, but also restricting. A few people have successfully made a name for themselves as travel bloggers and then been hired by tour operators as digital content/social media specialiasts. But I reckon there'll be heaps of higher education courses in social media and digital content on offer soon (if not already) and people who have these ticks on their CVs are more likely to get hired than someone who has spent say 5 years travel blogging.

So here's my question. If you get to say 30 and you've realised you're only ever going to scrape a pretty modest income from travel blogging. Maybe you're thinking about getting married, buying house or whatever… what do you do? What's the exit plan?

The utter irony of links

8 Jul

The utter irony of links

I got an interesting email last week. It was from a guy who worked in SEO for a digital marketing agency. He was asking me to remove a link to a well-known travel company that I had put in one of my posts several years ago.

I don't accept money for anything on this blog. The link was in a perfectly decent blog post about family holidays along with links to several other travel companies.

It's hugely ironic.

Since Google started to really clamp down on guest posts and other attempts to generate links which SEO agencies have been using to try and game the rankings, people have become utterly terrified about links.

Why? Because Google is penalising some sites that have obviously large numbers of links linking to them from odd or inappropriate places. It's also penalising sites (primarily blogs) that seem to link out to lots and lots of other sites in ways that suggest they might have been paid to do so.

I explained to the emailer that this link he didn't like was totally in context. No whiff of anything dodgy about it. He replied that he agreed but this blog is 'themed around SEO' so better to be safe than sorry.

I explained that it isn't. I touch on SEO sometimes, but it's about digital marketing. His response was fascinating:

You’re totally right… it’s crazy. My job title includes the word SEO – yet when I see the words ‘SEO’ in a site, I assume something bad is going on. Unfortunately there’s been so much in the negative side of things with that word that even people who know it’s not necessarily negative (like me) still automatically assume it is. We killed a lot trust in our industry I think.

I've done quite a lot of work with mum bloggers recently too. Several of them now 'no follow' all their outbound links because they are worried that they might get penalised.

(A 'no follow' link is basically a way to link to something with out passing on any SEO value.)

The thing is Google's algorithm is still very much based on links - despite what they might say. If everyone stopped linking or using no follow links the whole thing would be pretty much useless.

I find it utterly hilarious that something I used to do to show I really rated a company, an article or a person (ie linking to them) is now seen as negative.

It shouldn't be. It's utterly contrary to the way the internet should work.

Have you had any weird link removal requests from SEO people?

Image: Ravages on Flickr

We have hardly begun with paywalls

27 Dec

We have hardly begun with paywalls

I've been thinking about charging people to read content online - sparked in part by this post - How publishers can save themselves - by Greg Satell (he's well worth following).

His point I take issue with is this: "Paywalls are rarely profitable once losses in advertising revenue are factored in."

His 'golden rule' which summarises this thinking is "marketers will pay more for consumers than consumers will pay for content." (I don't disagree with the rule). But by extension, the thinking goes that you're better off gaining as wide an audience for your content as you can by making it free - so that you have more opportunities to 'sell' your readers to potential advertisers. (ie more pages to hang advertising off). He's not alone in this thinking of course. Many others seem convinced that free is the only way to go. Just recently the team at Matter who have been championing quality writing online have dropped their paywall. They're witnessing 4, 5 even 6 times as much traffic now by dropping a charge of 99c per article.

So, are paywalls a dumb idea? I don't think we're halfway to knowing yet.

It hacks me off that people are trumpeting the death of the model on the basis of 12 to 24 months of effort. (It’s a couple of years since the New York Times put up its paywall.)

Of course, it works just fine for the big players who aggregate content like Google if everything online is free and available to all. But I feel like the constant message 'free for all is how it should be' is very simplistic.

It is fair to say right now that a broadstream publisher of news like the New York Times in the US and The Times in the UK is quite possibly making less money pursuing a path of charging fairly high subscription fees to access their content. The much reduced traffic that comes with the paywall seriously reduces ad revenue. But it's early days. I hope that not everyone opts for the 'let's just give it away and hope we can make it pay somehow in the future' model.

A few thoughts then about how paywalls might pay-off and why I think they are a good thing.

1) Data. Sure, advertisers want eyeballs. But increasingly they want deeper connections with readers (see 3 below). The old adage that has never been attributed: 'I know 50% of my advertising doesn't work, I wish I knew which half' still holds pretty true. At what point does it become more interesting to a media business to be able to sell the data on say 100,000 highly engaged regular readers that they know all about versus a million that just flit across their pages and leave again? And if a publisher really knows their readers - there are heaps of other things they themselves could start to sell them. Tip of the iceberg. One trend that I do believe in right now is 'own the data'.

2) Quality. I've banged on about the trade-off for the reader when it comes to free content a lot. The advertiser-funded free content model encourages high volume publishing with low editorial resource. The result is large numbers of often poorly researched, low detail pieces. For people who want to be informed, it's often a poor experience. Candidly, it's turning the web into a craphole. It's encouraging short termism in the extreme.

3) Trust. The latest revenue stream 'innovation' in the free content model is called 'native advertising - allowing brands to create editorial-style features themselves. Everyone is getting into it - some are even talking about brand newsrooms. Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune. I challenge anyone to say they honestly believe that this kind of content won't be biased. This is not to say that editorial isn't, but this is way worse. A slippery slope indeed and ultimately readers will get turned off by it. I have been. (But let's face it, the 'proper' editorial on many of these free sites is poor, so who cares anyway?)

4) Technology. The paywall remains a clunky thing. It's not surprising that people bump into paywalls and don't come back. But the big players using paywalls are already looking at hybrid models and there's heaps more to do. For now these 'leaky paywalls' allow people a certain number of free reads a month. I think this is of limited use. I am amazed no one (?) has tried charging a really small amount to read each article. There was much talk of 'micropayments' many years back - but I've yet to see it. (Except perhaps the guys at Matter charging 99c a read - but I wonder if even that was too high?) Think about how often these days you find a news story via a search engine - not a newspaper's home page. We cherry pick our news from multiple sources just like we download single tracks rather than albums from the App Store. Someone needs to figure out a cheap, frictionless way to charge tiny sums for this casual viewing.

If there was an easy way for you to pay say 1 cent or 1 pence to read a feature with a single click - connected to your Paypal account, would you do it? I would. The friction for paywalls is too great right now. 'Sign up, provide heaps of detail, add your credit card info'... Someone needs to make them work better. Someone needs to find a more subtle way to slowly reel a potential subscriber in. Think of those 100s of millions of page views each month. Just a penny a view would be significant income. The Guardian achieves over 400,000,000 monthly page views. Sure, it's a very rough calculation, but 1p a view is 4 million quid a month.

5) Creativity. There are many many ways to slice up content and sell it. Here's just one idea for the travel sector. How about The Times (which has its content locked behind a paywall) does a short term promotion for people to read just its travel content during January when many are trying to choose a summer holiday?  There are heaps of smart promotional opportunities that could be tied to the pay-for-content model based on different audience sectors and interests.

But why bother?

It's a subtle, but crucial distinction. The publisher is then being paid for their content, by the reader they exist (in theory) to serve. The alternative model in all its guises will slowly but surely turn publishers into little more than the mouthpieces of brand advertising departments, offering up only the most shallow of editorial to pad it out. This week London's Time Out magazine - which went free relatively recently - ditched its LGBT section in another round of cost cutting. As the Guardian's commentary put it - a 'high price to pay for free'.

I guess advertisers weren't that bothered about advertising in that section. How about a few more top ten lists of dream cars or handy tech gadgets to replace it?

Would you be happy to pay small sums of money to read single articles?