“Story-sharing” is the catchy lingo with many travel brands rather than storytelling, an evolution that grew out of travelers’ tendencies to visualize their own takes on a hotel or destination with their social audiences.

Brands may bring on some of the world’s most recognizable faces to their Instagram or Twitter accounts to tout a city’s neighborhoods or a hotel’s unique selling points. That bears no substance, however, unless a brand’s target audience can identify with these celebrities or influencers and relate to their backgrounds.

NYC & Company CEO Fred Dixon, speaking at Skift Global Forum last month, told attendees that destination marketers need to let go of their brand image and voice in today’s connected world because they can’t control their brand messaging anymore and trying to do so is a disservice to the community. Every brand planning their social media marketing campaigns considers reach versus engagement when deciding if partnering with an influencer or relying mainly on travelers’ photos works best, and there’s no catch-all playbook for which strategy prevails.

“An influencer with a smaller audience can be just as powerful as someone with a bigger audience,” said Susannah Costello, VP of Global Brand at Visit Florida. “We’re in the business to create opportunities for people to share and start conversations and we find that micro influencers often have more passionate audiences than celebrity influencers have.”

“Story-sharing for us is beyond logical, it’s essential.”

By micro influencers, Costello’s referring to a popular chef, YouTube personality or even a mommy blogger who has a dedicated, engaged following but outside of those circles carries little recognition. Visit Florida’s #LoveFL campaign has generated more than 900,000 pieces of content during the past two years, with the hashtag garnering about 49,000 mentions per month, and most of the Instagram photos the organization shares are either user-generated content or photos from travel media or micro influencers rather than from the brand.

This month Visit Florida is re-launching its Influencers Program and built a roster of 21 people who have some tie to or love for Florida. Unlike before, this time the content the influencers produce for the organizations’s Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest platforms, etc, will also get promoted on the influencers’ own social accounts instead of only on Visit Florida’s.

Reach Versus Engagement

Pure Michigan belongs to a similar school of thought regarding using influencers for marketing campaigns. About 99% of photos on the brand’s Instagram account come from travelers’ photos using #PureMichigan and influencers well-known in their own rights, said Chad Wiebesick, Pure Michigan’s social media director. Approaching its tenth year as a brand, Pure Michigan remains concentrated on U.S. markets and its key international markets, namely neighboring Canada. As of October 2015 it claims an Instagram following of 270,000, one of the largest for travel brands.

“We’re not looking at influencers who have high numbers, but those actually building relationships with their audiences,” said Wiebesick. “We have worked with Mario Batali who has ties to Michigan and a national reputation and that’s someone who our audience was able to connect with.”

Snapchat, so far slow to attract most major travel brands, poses another question to marketing teams- do travelers prefer watching video streams of other travelers they don’t know or hearing from focused influencers with personalities that pop and are trusted?

“We’ve recently started using Snapchat but haven’t done anything from a paid perspective yet, in terms of inviting influencers and media to create snap stories for us, but are considering it for the future,” said Wiebesick.

“One example of how we’ve used it so far is we had one of our Michigan staff members who’s a videographer take a ride down our M22, a very scenic route, and he did a snap story of ’22 things to do around the M22.’ We may keep it or kill it and plan to revisit six months out to reevaluate our progress. Engagement exceeded expectations but we didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t do a press release or anything like that because we just weren’t sure how it would work out.”

The term engagement and how brands measure it is open-ended and their strategies for influencing engagement are also contentious. Looking at both the #LoveFL and #PureMichigan hashtags, many of the photos that Visit Florida and Pure Michigan elevate and share on their own accounts receive more than 1,000 likes on average and dozens of comments.

Photos with those hashtags that weren’t elevated received far fewer likes and comments, sometimes only a couple of each even though many are as equally compelling as photos brands chose to share. While this illustrates the uncertainty of how many eyeballs actually explore the hashtags beyond the photos the brands share on a daily basis and how engaging travelers actually are with them, it’s clear the photos brands vet and share get much more traction.

Influencers or Endorsers?

Of course, a photo drawing thousands of likes isn’t the ultimate goal of a brand–making money is.

“The goal is to get customers through the funnel and to a booking from what they see on social media and our marketing team meets on a weekly basis to access our social media strategy and reallocate funding if necessary depending on how our campaigns are going,” said Eric Lent, VP for the Holiday Inn brand in the Americas. “But we don’t benchmark against our competition for that and about 25 to 33% of the content we share is user-generated or influencer content.”

“We don’t view someone like Taylor Swift as an influencer as much as an endorser for what she’s done in New York City but we love Taylor. We look for people who have an expertise in something and are relatable to the everyman and middle America.”

Holiday Inn’s work with influencers ranges from partnering with country music stars Big & Rich to its Journey to Extraordinary campaign where influencers who are frequent Holiday Inn guests share their stories.

Photo Credit: Nearly all of Pure Michigan's Instagram photos are sourced from user-generated content. Pure Michigan / Instagram