We’re covering a slightly sensitive topic today about how influencers have a responsibility to make the industry better once we are allowed to travel again. I’m the first to say that this time has been rough for those involved in the industry, and for bloggers and influencers who have relied on working with tourism boards, products, and more, this means that we’ve had a chance to take a step back and rethink what impact we are having.
I’ll also be the first to say that I make most of my income from partnerships with brands and tourism boards by promoting them on my blog and social media channels. While there are other ways to make a living as a blogger (which is definitely a topic I want to cover in an upcoming episode), this tends to be the way most of us make our living. I’m often hit up by brands looking to work together. Some are a good fit and others are not, but these partnerships are often what pay influencers’ rent at the end of the day over creating their own products or services.
Which, as you can guess, can lead to some shady behavior pretty quickly. If you are desperate for some extra cash to book that next plane ticket or you need to eat, then you can find yourself aligning with some companies that are not really your style and what you believe in. The media has repeatedly called out social media influencers (the Kardashians being the most obvious examples) for not doing their research into the products they promote to others.
This certainly doesn’t help the labels that often come with social media influencers like “inauthentic,” “flaky,” “vapid,” and a lot more negative adjectives. Promoting products is inherently a little bit, well, shallow. But if an influencer is doing it with the ultimate goal of helping their followers, then it can be a little less of a touchy subject.
I have had to turn down partnerships with brands before that would have been advantageous for me to take because of the money, but simply do not work with my audience or that I don’t believe in. While it can be tempting because sometimes it can be a considerable amount of cash, it can also devalue your brand, irk off your audience, and bring about a whole bunch of other consequences that you’re not willing to deal with.
“Okay, okay,” you might be thinking. “I get that we should only take on partnerships that make sense. What does that have to do with Coronavirus?”
I’m glad you asked, because this does seem a little strange to combine these two ideas. If you work in the travel industry, you’ve likely had a lot of time to think. And you’ve had a lot of time at home. And if you’re an influencer, you might have had brands drop you, struggled to find ones who will work with you when the industry is disrupted, or stopped pitching altogether. This break has been rough on our bank accounts, but there have been some opportunities to take a look at the business model and see what needs revising. If you’re interested in some more of my thoughts on this, you can check out my blog post on the subject here. I’ll also be including it in the podcast description.
This time has been good for us to consider which areas we can improve in the industry in general, such as overtourism, sustainability, and more. Overall, I believe that this is leading to a more, well, authentic experience for people. It gives a chance to reassess our values, to think about the long-term consequences of the brands and partners we work with, and more.
Here are some ways I think travel influencers can truly make a positive difference after taking the time to think about the ways that we might be misleading others with perfectly-posed photos and images that are super curated.
Work with brands that you actually believe in
When a brand sends an email to you offering to pay a certain amount, then it can be so easy to accept immediately–no matter what the product might be. It might be especially tempting after months of a reduced or non-existent income. You might need to pay your bills, and that is something that we shouldn’t discount either.
On the other hand, if you do have an opportunity to rethink how you have been approaching social media lately, you might want to consider who you have really been helping. Have you been serving your audience lately? In which ways? Or are you really just serving yourself with a paycheck at the end of the day?
Most of us are not the Kardashians. We need to add value to our audiences and give them a reason to stick around. I have my mission statement directly over my desk these days which is: Inspire, Assist, Entertain, and Serve. Every post on social media or my blog has to follow one or more of these tenets–including sponsored posts. If a brand comes to me with a sponsored post idea that does not do any of these things, I pass.
This shift can make all the difference when it comes to being authentic with your audience and forming the type of lasting relationship online that is going to help the both of you. As tempting as it might be to take that partnership that is offering $1000 for a photo of you wearing that t-shirt, if you would never personally wear it, then that’s a sign you need to turn them down.
While it might not be such a big deal when it comes to clothing, makeup, or smaller items, it can be a big issue when it comes to destination marketing. While I would absolutely love to visit Myanmar one day, I am unlikely to accept a partnership with a tourism board or tour company based there because of the political situation. I might choose to fund the trip with my own dollars so I can make up my own mind on the current events going on there, but ethically I don’t feel comfortable with accepting payment. Which brings me to my next point…
Do the research
If you personally do not have a relationship with a brand (either by using that product or having visited that destination personally), then it’s time to dig in and learn a little. What is the history of the brand? Who have they worked with in the past? Have there been any skeletons in the closet that you want to avoid when working with another company?
All too often, I think influencers forget that by choosing to represent a brand, they are advocating for it–and not just the product directly but the business behind it. Take the time to see their stances on the issues you care about. Do they support certain environmental efforts? Which side politically do they lean? If you are going to put yourself out there in front of potentially thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of people, is this someone you would feel comfortable being associated with?
For destination marketing specifically, you don’t have to have a degree in geopolitics, but you should be doing some reading on foreign relations, be aware of the history of that place, and then make up your own mind. Is this a place you would want to go regardless of if you were getting paid?
Captions are for honesty
While a photo can say 1000 words, it doesn’t hurt to have captions. Captions can be ideal for explaining your thoughts about a certain product or destination honestly even if your picture is gorgeous. Of course, your captions will have to be approved by your sponsors, but if you are working with the right people, they should give you the flexibility to communicate with your audience in a way that feels real to them.
I try to be incredibly transparent in my captions, sharing stories about my eating disorder, anxiety, and depression as well as the good moments. Even when working with a brand, I’ll be open with my audience in why I chose to work with them in the first place. That way, they aren’t surprised when they see the sponsored tag. Again, this is why it is so important to work with brands where you actually believe in the mission of the company. If you can’t share in the caption why you were excited to work with them other than money, then it’s going to come across as inauthentic.
Captions can be an amazing tool, and you should feel free to use them in order to communicate with your followers. Tell a true story and tell it right. Your followers are going to be grateful that you took the time to acknowledge them.
Share the bad too
This point mostly relates to destination marketing, since many campaigns are often geared toward how a certain destination offers an ideal scenario: perfect weather, perfect skiing, perfect food, etc. However, unless you are on a super curated trip (which a lot of press trips are), there are going to be things about a place that might not be your favorite.
I loved going to Egypt for the ancient sites and history, but I did feel uncomfortable much of the time as a woman there. Much of that was my own fault–I should have done more research before we went–but that is something I still think about today when other women ask me if it is safe to go there. I went to Egypt on my own dime, but I wouldn’t have been comfortable with myself if I had touted it as the best place for solo female travelers. That decision needs to be made personally, and I don’t want to directly influence someone one way or another.
This is why when you set up a campaign that involves traveling to a new destination, make sure that there is a clause in your contract that mentions you want the opportunity to share your opinions honestly with your followers. No exceptions. Word gets out that you aren’t honest when you tout a location on social media but you’re quietly sharing how much you hated it with other bloggers or friends.
When you have that provision in place in your contract, you have the opportunity to share things that your audience should be aware of if they choose to go. It doesn’t have to be nitpicky things, but if there are some fundamental values that you disagree with, then those should be addressed.
Rethink the perfect photos
Social media is weird, guys. If you have been part of the internet age as a millennial, you remember that it has always been about curation. If your life didn’t look ideal online, then you were setting yourself up for social suicide in the “real world.” It seemed to only get worse for a while in there with Instagram–the idea of a perfect life seemed to be what sold the best, and influencers were quick to jump on that as a trend.
Things have changed quite a lot in the social media world over the past few years, and I believe Coronavirus has contributed to some of this. None of us are living our ideal lives right now. And if you’re like me, you’re spending the majority of your time in your pajamas with your hair piled up on your head and a pizza box on the counter. Not really what you might want to be sharing with the world.
There have been a lot of negative consequences with people sharing these curated lives: teenage depression, and increase in plastic surgery in young people, increased depression and anxiety, and more. But I do think people are craving more authenticity in their influencers–as well as demanding it, as well. I currently stand at about 14,000 followers on Instagram. This never would have happened in the past–I am certainly not a model, have refused to pose in a bikini thus far, and my photoshop skills are all but nil. But I do try to make people feel good or provide one of the tenets in my mission statement. While looking at those perfect photos is lovely at first glance, we are all aware that a lot of work goes into making them look perfect. As more of us search for deeper meaning after this pandemic, I think many are going to be looking to share their time online with those who represent their values.
What does this mean when it comes to working with brands? It means remembering that overall goal. If a company is pushing you to do something that you don’t feel comfortable with, then you need to be able to point to your contract and stand up for yourself. They need you more than you need them, and this is your business. If you feel like your pretty photos, filters, and other tools are covering up your message, then you might want to rethink the brands you’re working with and why you chose to work with them in the first place.
To sum up this episode, there’s a lot of new information to consider as an influencer during and after Coronavirus. Much of this depends on what qualities you want to be associated with, and how you plan on presenting yourself. You can do this by choosing brands that you legitimately believe in and that you feel will serve your audience. You do research into each company or destination that comes to you with a pitch (or that you choose to pitch) so they align with your values. You are honest with your followers by using captions and sharing your misadventures as well as ideal trips and products. Finally, you post photos that accurately reflect who you are–not what would make the brand happy.
I really believe that we have an opportunity to be more authentic in the travel industry going forward, and I hope this episode has given you the confidence you need to approach future sponsorships and social media strategies authentically.
I’ll be back next week with an interview with an awesome travel creative. Until then, let’s all make the effort to be a little more “real” on our feeds.
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