Influencers are the worst, am I right?

Influencers Are The Worst… Or Are They?

Last week as part of my ongoing series focusing on marketers, influencers and their unprecedented and unusual relationships, I held marketers accountable to their side of the relationship. This week, it’s the influencers’ turn.

There are many thousands of aspiring influencers in the world, but maybe only a few hundred professional, independent travel content creators. To the naked eye, those might seem like the same thing. Are they?

“Influencers” is a catch-all term for a group John Q. Public loves to hate. I find that funny, because John Q. wouldn’t know an influencer from a blogger from a content creator from journalist from a hole in the ground.

 

Surprise! There’s a wide variety of ways to make a living, and they almost all get lumped under the influencer umbrella. Many of us who are considered influencers dislike the term because it boxes us into a category we didn’t sign up for and joins us to a club we might not fully identify with. Technically, the content I create influences my readers and that’s exactly the point. It’s one of the reasons I started blogging in 2006 – to help women use their limited vacation time wisely and safely. I’m an influencer by default, and with that designation comes all sorts of criticism. But is it fair?

Influencers are Hot Garbage

Being designated an “influencer” would be no big deal if not for the headlines. When’s the last time you read about an influencer in a context that wasn’t designed to make you either scoff at their stupidity or seethe at their undeserved success? There are two popular notions recycled on a near weekly basis:

1) Influencer Wants Free Stuff and How Dare They?
2) Influencer Who Travels the World Taking Selfies Makes More Money Than You.

 

Don’t believe me? Here are a few real headlines from the past month:

With coverage like this, I get why folks jump on the influencer hate bandwagon. If the headlines are true, influencers are little more than a pack of good-looking evil geniuses who trick brands into giving them millions of dollars, luxury vacations and free designer duds. Yet the data tells us influencer marketing can be obscenely successful when done right and that marketers are falling all over themselves to work with these folks.

Why is there such a disconnect? How can influencers be the plague of modern civilization and a fresh approach to an evolving media landscape?

 

Are Influencers The Downfall of Society? Discuss.

I wrote about influencer marketing last week to the sound of virtual cheers and fist bumps. Since I’m an Enneagram Type Three, the comment that spoke the loudest was the most negative one, from an anonymous “career journalist” with a super original hot take on influencers (excerpted):

I hope someone someday pulls the mask off the whole travel-influencer concept and reveals so-called influencers for what they are: mercenaries who prey off gullible readers who think they are actually getting straight scoop and reliable information.

I’m a career journalist who’s had the misfortune of traveling with influencers a few times. Invariably, they are bored and shallow, uninterested in authentic experiences, and incurious about delving into the history, natural history, and people of a given place. When I later read their posts, I see, no surprise, poorly researched but gushingly effusive prose, full of blab (because they’ve never been subjected to a real editor or word-count restrictions), often erroneous information (because they’ve never worked with a demanding fact-checker), and, of course, lots of smiling poolside selfies.

Yikes. Where is their integrity? Reader service and decent writing should be your alpha and omega. But influencers seem to be invariably about “show me the money.” In this piece, that may as well be your first and only commandment.

You mentioned a concern that the whole thing “could devolve into fakery.” I believe that has already happened, and it’s the professional “influencers” who are the biggest fakes.

You can read the lengthy treatise on the last post. This ain’t fresh. It’s a common opinion encapsulating many of the reasons people just love to hate influencers. We’re young, we’re dumb, we only take selfies, we don’t know about REAL JOURNALISM or skills or photography or paying dues or word counts. Yada, yada, yada. Maybe I take immediate offense because I do know hundreds of professional, talented influencers who are also journalists? It’s possible that from my perch, I have the privilege of interacting with the cream of the crop and not the bottom of the barrel, but all the same, in the blogosphere or anywhere else, it’s wrong and gross to paint any group with such a broad brush.

The comment is interesting for a lot of reasons, but mainly because our commenter doesn’t seem to heed his own advice. He commands objectivity and research while slinging mud at a massive group of people of differing skills and backgrounds. He expects all influencers to hold themselves to an even higher standard than he does within his IMPORTANT JOURNALISM CAREER? Miss me with that.

(And isn’t it interesting that so much criticism in the media about influencers – or independent content creators who run their own publications and have often left traditional media to go out on their own – are written by, duh, traditional media. Not for nothing, but it’s a bit of a conflict of interest to criticize direct competitors, don’t you think? We can dish on that another time – I think there’s a lot to chew on there.)

 

There are more tempered criticisms of travel influencers and the dark side of influencer marketing worth examining. Andrew Evans of National Geographic Traveler recently delivered a speech entitled “How to be an Influencer.” 

Per CampusTimes.org: Evans spoke of the necessity of the “basic travel manners” he practiced, like listening, paying attention to the culture, paying for his stay, and asking for permission before photographing anyone.

Digging further into the story, Andrew is quoted as saying, “We’ve downgraded and cheapened what I love most about travel, which is real connections with real people in real places.”

There are some quality insights in the recap of his talk, and he’s not wrong (and I’m paraphrasing) that society has lost its way when everyone is trying to be an influencer and trampling the world’s most beautiful places as a result. There are behaviors all travelers should avoid, especially influencers leading the way. But from my perspective, it’s yet another rehashing of the common idea that all influencers lack basic manners, journalistic skills and an innate desire to learn and connect with destinations. Just because you take gorgeous photos doesn’t mean you haven’t connected with the locals in a meaningful way, does it? Just because you wear a pretty dress doesn’t make you vapid. Just because you take a selfie doesn’t mean you’re a tourist not a traveler. There’s much more nuance to each individual influencer, and unless we’re willing to take that into account, tarring and feathering the whole industry as fake and disingenuous doesn’t add up.

Traveling with a group of self-important Instagrammers who care more about “finding the light” than connecting with the local people serving them food or driving them around is an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Why do you think I don’t do group trips anymore?! There’s an entire segment of travelistas who make an enormous living using the world as wallpaper to sell clothes or blogging courses, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with a fashion focus or courses (hello, I run blogger bootcamps!), there is a whole lot wrong with treating entire countries, cultures and humans like props.

There’s a fine line in simultaneously being an influencer and poo-pooing everyone but yourself, but it happens all the time in our nebulous and still fledgling industry. It’s easy to point at the flaw in everyone else’s business plan in a profession where there are 25 different ways to make a living.

As someone lumped into the influencer world by default, and as someone who hires influencers on behalf of my clients and destinations, I’m here to tell you that this whole “let’s gang up on all the influencers” vibe is tired and shabby and foolish. 

In every profession, there are those who give the good ones a bad name. There are bad lawyers, bad cops, bad publicists, bad pediatricians, bad baristas. The Influencer profession is not the one and only career in the world with icky people doing icky things for personal gain.

 

This is an acknowledgement of bad behavior, not a defense of it, so don’t have a conniption. In my 15 years as a publicist, I have fired influencers, sent misbehaving travel journalists home from press trips and blacklisted more media than you can imagine. I can spot a scheister a mile away and I do not tolerate or support bad behavior from any type of media. (I’ve seen it from every sub-genre. Influencers are hardly the first to act like jackasses.)

So yes, the haters are a little bit right. Some influencers (self-proclaimed and otherwise) are hot garbage, and this is why we can’t have nice things!

If you’re capable of distinguishing between the caricature of the modern influencer and the reality of professional travel content creators (and many, like last week’s commenter, are not), I think you’ll find the majority of travel-focused influencers have big hearts, good intentions and demonstrable skill.

I’m just not here for the hate pile-up. Marketers can do better. Journalists can do better. And influencers, well, we can do better, too. 

How to Avoid Yucky Influencers

The good news is that none of us – consumers, marketers or influencers – are beholden to the bad behavior or undesirable content.

Consumers of content can take a stand. Don’t like fashion and beauty influencers? Think bloggers in pretty dresses are the downfall of civilization? Don’t follow them. They aren’t coming to your house and making you press “like” or use twinkle lights around your bathtub. Take a regular bath without tropical flowers in it if that blows your skirt up. 

Influencers don’t prevent anyone from traveling where they want to go wearing whatever they like. Curate your feed to feature people who inspire you. It’s not that hard. Social media is a democracy, so make your choice and be glad no one is writing articles on the daily about how much your entire profession sucks because of a few bad apples.

Marketers, for goodness sake, vet influencers before you hire them. If this first step was happening, we wouldn’t see headlines about influencers gone wild and how “influencer marketing doesn’t work.” You won’t have to babysit if you hire pros and do your due diligence on the front end. You won’t be disappointed if you hire influencers who influence an audience likely to travel versus an audience likely to buy hats. As I said in a recent piece, if you do influencer marketing right, it will work for you.

How to Be a Good Influencer

As a career influencer and OG travel blogger, I’m ready to move on from all this negativity. There are hundreds of us out here who started long before “influencer” was the term du jour. I have a journalism background, and all the ethical and legal education that come with it, but many, many bloggers and creators don’t. I wonder if it even matters in 2019? Self-publishing has smashed the barriers that once guarded the hallowed halls of journalism. You don’t have to know the first thing about AP Style or the difference between advertorial and editorial to call yourself a journalist, blogger, influencer or content creator. 

Today, we’re a hodgepodge of tech bros and nurses and graphic designers and flight attendants and chiropractors and models and publicists with a love of travel and storytelling as our common bond. With such varied backgrounds and the relative youth of the content creation industry, it’s no wonder we don’t always agree on the best approach to the job AND why it’s so easy for the media to pick on us as a group. We’re pockets of people on the same platforms with very different goals and ways of reaching them.

All this recent kerfuffle got me thinking about how we content creators don’t have a professional baseline, something to refer back to as a starting point. We abide by a mostly unspoken code of willy-nilly, self-enforced ethics. Wouldn’t it help us all then, to have a foundation of professionalism to refer to? We have to not only know who we are individually and why we do what we do, but we need to be able to convey our professionalism to brands who want to work with us.

 

What is the Purpose of Your Influence? 

Anyone starting a blog or hoping to become an influencer needs to ask himself or herself, what is your purpose? Is it to make piles of money? To become famous? To build a platform big enough to attract a TV show, book deal, fashion line or modeling contract? To tell your story to someone who might need to hear it? 

If pro content creators are going to continue having a place at the table, and not be overshadowed by the worst of us, the haters and the biased, I think we need to show up in a whole new way.

Travel Content Creator Manifesto

I’m done letting outsiders define what an influencer is and how to treat me based on their limited knowledge of what I do. I spend the majority of my day explaining what I do to marketers who should be able to spot the difference between a pro and a wannabe. I frequently speak at conferences, host blogger training retreats, group trips to the Jane Austen Festival and write about travel content creation and influencer marketing because there’s a chasm that grows wider with every salacious article.

But the bottom line that got me here? I started traveling and writing because I wanted to help other women learn to travel solo safely. My expertise comes from working on both sides of the media fence and knowing what each side needs to get the job done. I want to use that experience to make this industry better for all of us. For too long, we’ve all been running in different directions rather than moving forward together. I hope that by creating this code, we can start to be on the same page as a profession.

If you consider yourself a professional travel content creator, I created this manifesto with you mind. Not because fashion, beauty, automotive, family influencers and everyone else couldn’t also benefit from a baseline, but we are different in our approaches to content creation, and what we require from brands to do our jobs. (Example: A $5,000 trip vs. an eyeshadow palette.)  

My message to brands and destinations is simple. Hold me accountable to this code. 

This is not meant to be a hard-and-fast list of rules, but rather a set of principles we as a group of travel content creators can apply, discuss and update as the industry warrants. It’s a promise to our partners and to each other. By creating a foundation we can all start from, the influencer marketing industry can continue to revolutionize the way people travel without the distraction from those who seek to become influencers without regard to what that influence really means.

I’ll be linking to this travel content creator code in my email signature so all brands I work with in the future will know where I stand and what they can expect in working with me, a professional travel content creator, a writer, a blogger, a freelance journalist, an influencer. For future client campaigns and ambassador programs, I’ll only be hiring travel influencers, content creators and bloggers who agree to this content code. 

To read my travel content creator code, click here.

Pin Me For Later!

There are many thousands of aspiring influencers in the world, but maybe only a few hundred professional, independent travel content creators. To the naked eye, those might seem like the same thing. Are they? How can you be a better influencer and create content worth sharing?

There are many thousands of aspiring influencers in the world, but maybe only a few hundred professional, independent travel content creators. To the naked eye, those might seem like the same thing. Are they? How can you be a better influencer and create content worth sharing?

 

 

Agree? Have strong thoughts? I’m here for the discussion, but be civil or you get the boot.

 
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  • Avatar
    May 04, 2019

    There are the good and the bad with traditional travel journalists, too. Many do love to hate on self publishers, but there are just as many inaccuracies in content they produce for traditional publications that seems to slip through the cracks of fact checkers and editors.

    I’ve been on a number of press trips that mixed both bloggers and traditional travel journalists. Funny enough, when it comes to free time and I’m off taking public transportation to go get the photos and story I need it’s the traditional travel journalists that are baffled at how I would even know where to find out how to get somewhere on public transportation.

    Don’t sit up on your high horse – or in your chauffeured car or mini bus – and say that I, as a blogger, don’t do research or present factually correct information when you, said professional travel journalist, can’t function beyond the transportation and itinerary provided and curated for you by a tourism board or brand.

    I can’t say how many times I’ve read pieces in traditional publications about the places I’ve called home for years, places like Bordeaux and Venice, that are wrought with bad and incorrect information.

    Just because someone chooses to self publish and gets lumped in to the influencer bucket, it doesn’t mean they are incapable of producing quality content. And just because someone has bylines in big name publications, it doesn’t mean they are actually qualified to be giving advice about the destinations they’re writing about or that the information is better or more correct than that you might find on a blog.

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      TRUTH RIGHT HERE.

      I didn’t even get into how many horrible experience I’ve had with traditional journalists. To lump all influencers into categorical bad behavior, without making space for their journalist compatriots to join, is foolish. Ask any publicist out there – traditional media wrote the book on acting up.

      It all boils down to choice: the brands must choose the right fit and method to distribute their news, and the consumer must choose the medium they find authentic. All I can do is follow my journalistic principles and be me.

      Thank you for commenting, friend!

  • Avatar
    May 04, 2019

    I’m glad you’re leading the discussion on this and I think it’s important as media is changing so fast. Sometimes, and I’m guilty of this, we just don’t want to embrace the new industry. Loved your WITS presentation as well today! #WITS19

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Katelyn! Will you be at the next WITS?

  • Avatar
    May 04, 2019

    I must say it was quite a thought which showed me the other side of the Coin. I follow alot of Travel blogs and I think that I can now differentiate between a genuine travel content creator and a Modern Garbage Influencer.
    The major basis upon which I differentiate is the term Authenticity.Not much can turn followers off like inauthenticity. True lovers of the vertical are going to be able to spot a fake from a mile away, and that’s not something you want to be associated with. When your influencer is authentic, they build trust with their followers. The followers genuinely listen to what they have to say.

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Agree with you, Karan! Authenticity is everything, and not so easy to find in today’s blogosphere.

  • Avatar
    May 04, 2019

    Love this so much and think it speaks so much truth. People are so quick to jump on the bandwagon for shaming or looping everyone into a category when in reality there are people making a real difference in helping make travel accessible for others! #wits19

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      That’s so true, Mary! I can’t imagine where I’d be if not for the female writers and bloggers who went before me and showed me that I could do it, too.

  • Avatar
    May 04, 2019
    Molly

    I loved your sessions at #wits19 today!! It’s such a hard thing to grapple with being labeled an “influencer” as a travel writer. I have a bachelors degree in international studies and a masters degree in journalism so I think I deserve a bit more credit than someone throwing up pictures on Instagram! I get frustrated when people (within the industry and out) don’t get that! Love that you are working to change the perceptions!

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      YASSSS. I’m so with you, Molly. Yes, I’ve been labeled as an influencer, but sometimes I just want to shout, I HAVE A DEGREE!!!! I got a nasty comment on a post today about being an influencer and it just reminded me, I can’t please everyone. And at this point, the folks who choose to hate on influencers are choosing to do so out of ignorance or jealousy. And it’s not our job to fix them! So power to the influencers with real world experience – I’m cheering you on!

  • Avatar
    May 04, 2019

    I really loved your talk at WITS today. You’re so experienced and grounded. It was really helpful to hear your views on the influencer controversy. Thank you!

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      June 22, 2019

      Thank you so much, Tricia! I hope you had a great time at WITS!

  • Avatar
    May 04, 2019

    So glad that you got this up before your keynote on the topic at #WITS19— it’s really the perfect follow-up reading.

    Zooming out a bit, it’s just sort of astounding to me that this post is necessary— which it clearly is. Obviously it’s a young industry, but you’d think some tenets of general professionalism would translate without having to be explicitly listed out. That said, I really appreciate you sharing this post and the linked manifesto. For someone who’s relatively new to the space, it’s reassuring and motivating to have that code of conduct as a *baseline* set of expectations to set and reaffirm for myself.

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      I share your astonishment. The fact that I am compelled to write about influencer marketing again and again can be really discouraging. It feels like swimming upstream! But I know there are so many intentional, smart bloggers and influencers (like you!) out there who want to do this thing well. And that makes it worthwhile!

      See you soon!

  • Avatar
    May 04, 2019

    This really resonates with me as a former newspaper columnist turned content creator. I feel like I work with integrity now but will be adopting this code for myself in all future endeavors between myself and brands. I AM a professional and applying this will help me to maintain that not only for others to see, but as a personal creed so that my own standards will not slide down a slippery slope in the future.

    I have really enjoyed speaking with you during #WITS19 and love what you are doing in this space. Let’s take this word back and make it work for us, not against us. I am here for that!

    I look forward to the blogger boot camp, I am already claiming that I will see you there!

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Hey Charlotte! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. We need more intentional, professional influencers speaking into this space – good on you for being a leader and making it happen. Hope to see you soon!

  • Avatar
    May 04, 2019

    I was talking about this at dinner with some other attendees today. The area we are working in doesn’t have groups like industry expertise organizations where we could earn learning credits towards a certification. Also perhaps a membership type of organization where you have a membership fee and monthly meetups to stay on top of the latest news trends in the business. These could help us identify us as leaders of knowledgeable and experts in the field. We could have badges on our sites to identify us as being a part of that certified organization.

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Hi Pamela! There are a ton of groups but they tend to be scattered and run by volunteers. I think it has a lot to do with blogger/influencer priorities… some started because they love travel or fashion, some started because they heard it was an easy way to make money. There are so many motivations! I’m a part of SATW and the PTBA, but neither have the gravitas one might hope for from a professional org. It’ll take time, but we’re moving in the right direction!

      Thank you for the comment!

  • Avatar
    May 05, 2019

    “uninterested in authentic experiences, and incurious about delving into the history, natural history, and people of a given place”!!! When I read this I was furious. This is why I travel and why I became a content creator. I live for authentic experiences, history, and the people and culture of the places I visit. But then I read your post. Thank you. It’s true that not all “Influencers” are created equal. I read your Manifesto, and I loved it! This is the code that I live by for myself and it’s so wonderful to see someone put it into words and share it with the word! Start a movement girl. Make a template we can all share and pledge to. Grateful to have gotten to hear you speak at #wits19, and to have discovered you through the Wanderful community. Now subscribed and a huge fan.

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Lauren! I’m working on making the code widely available. Other professions have standards – why shouldn’t we?

      Hope to cross paths again soon!

  • Avatar
    May 05, 2019

    Honestly LOVING the code of conduct (and especially you using it in your email footer; genius!) I already filled out my #WITS19 feedback survey and said I would love to hear you speak more in depth about the code and how you educate brands on what you do and how you conduct your business.

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Thank you, Meghan! Looking forward to seeing you in August!

  • Avatar
    May 05, 2019
    Andrea

    Love the work that you’re doing and the multi-faceted perspective you bring to the industry. Keep it up! #WITS19

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Thanks so much, Andrea!

  • Avatar
    May 05, 2019
    Rachael

    I think you explained all of this extremely well! You have an amazing background and history in this field. I love your work and blog! #wits19

  • Avatar
    May 06, 2019
    Kat

    This is SO good! I loved your talk at #wits19 too! I haven’t started working with brands yet and honestly a lot of it is because I’m still figuring out how to approach the “I’m not just an influencer-here’s what I can offer,” conversation. It certainly doesn’t help when journalists, brands, and many others mock and try to discredit us even when we provide so much value to readers, subscribers, followers, etc.!Thank you for this! Definitely checking out your guidelines!

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Influencer-dom is a minefield, isn’t it? The best we can do is approach our online influence with intentionality – at the end of the day, if we’re each bringing our authentic selves to the table, what more can we do?

      Thank you for your comment!

  • Avatar
    May 07, 2019

    I really enjoyed reading this. I just started getting into social media and following travel bloggers. This definitely made me stop and think about who I follow. I don’t really care what is popular right now, I want to experience the thrill of exploring and learn about anyone and any place I can. I will just have to be careful and learn how to spot the people who truly feel the same. Thank you!

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Thank you for sharing your perspective! What makes you LOVE a blogger? And what are red flags for you that would make you unfollow someone?

  • Avatar
    May 11, 2019

    We started blogging about our travels and sustainability around a year ago. We have tried to be so careful about sharing rich content and constantly reminding ourselves what our purpose is. We definitely agree that influencing should be about helping others and spreading a message, not a popularity contest.

    • Avatar
      June 22, 2019

      Perfectly put! Thank you for your thoughtful comment AND for contributing intentionally to the blogosphere!

  • Avatar
    August 27, 2019
    Bear

    My two cents is the problem all lies in the word influencer. It has no damn gravitas or weight. It sounds like a word some YouTubers came up with to make their videos where they answer banal questions, do “challenges,” and act random sound like an actual job with regular hours and a paycheck.

    Why not call yourself a journalists, writer, critic. I mean journalists have influence or used to.

  • Avatar
    September 12, 2019

    Great piece, and a great line: “There is a whole lot wrong with treating entire countries, cultures and humans like props.” I enjoyed your take on this at #TBEX today Angie. It’s refreshing to see someone call the bluff on the fakers, and frame it from a content value perspective with marketing strategy in mind. It’s the entire package of offerings that count – blog post article and links, social media posts, stories, videos, earned media publicity, photos and more. Creativity and professionalism is what will shake out of this. I’m not new to the travel writing industry industry, but my blog http://www.CarryOnQueen.com is. I’ve been around for years at http://www.FiveMinuteMarketing.com and see exactly how all this works strategically for clients when done well. The industry is ripe for maturing. Your suggestions are the ONLY way that this is going to go eventually. The gig is up for the one platform only Instagram influencer.

  • Avatar
    October 12, 2019
    Ava

    I don’t like any type of influencer. It just seems to go against my personal DNA. I feel like so many experiences have been taken from me and I am talking about the certified influencers. A lot of their opinions on quality and the experience they had and I or people I know have had with the same things are completely different. Often the Travel, restaurant or clothing line (3 of many examples) are going to give them the best experience so they can relay it as positive and “amazing” or whatever. It’s rarely like that for the average person. I bought a supercar based on a “well respected” influencer who was nothing but professional themselves and talked a friend into buying the same super too only to find we both had a very bad experience with that manufacturer and then we both found others who had it too. I find these people to be frauds and treated better since the result of their work is a positive video on social media.

  • Avatar
    August 12, 2020
    JB

    oh boy another shitty blog with ugly fonts and reaction gifs

    you suck

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