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:
- Beach club owner rips into freeloading Instagram ‘influencers’ – CNN
- This Instagram influencer is facing 20 years in prison for a plot to steal someone’s domain name at gunpoint – CNBC
- No, Your Instagram ‘Influence’ Is Not as Good as Cash, Club Owner Says – The New York Times
- Brands Paid Hefty Prices To Send Micro-Influencers Dancing In The Desert At Coachella – Forbes
- This influencer faked a weekend at Coachella with Photoshop and wigs – Mashable
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.