Hotels, destinations, and even some airlines have converged on the theme that travelers want to live like locals and have unique experiences, and places and brands have doubled down on this marketing message in recent years.

But it’s challenging to portray local life and experiences through an Instagram photo, Facebook post, Tweet, or Snapchat video, though the latter has considerably helped some travel brands such as Airbnb and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts tell more engaging stories. While most brands say they want their guests and visitors to see a destination for what it really is, their social media teams are struggling to show this and in many cases their Instagram and Facebook feeds, for example, don’t reflect scenes beyond popular tourist areas.

A quick browse through any given travel brand’s Instagram feed — the most photo-centric and one of the world’s most-used and fastest-growing social channels — reveals dozens or hundreds of iconic landscape shots, such as tulip fields in the Netherlands or panoramas of Cape Town, South Africa.

Influencers, those with large and/or niche followings, are often brought in to help travel brands market the places they’ve been missing. Influencer photos bring new voices to a brand’s message and — sometimes — fresh vantage points, too. Still, many influencers pander to mass audiences looking for famous scenes that make travelers want to visit and follow influencers’ accounts. Influencers are less concerned with posting images that, let’s face it, aren’t as interesting to mainstream audiences.

Capturing classic scenes and local life of a destination is a difficult balance to strike on social media. For some brands the stunning aerial shots of mountains, lakes, or cities that get thousands of likes and comments may be critical parts of local life and the economy that can’t be ignored. Plus, those shots usually get travelers interested in visiting in the first place. Albeit, they don’t tell you which restaurant in Casablanca serves the best hummus or what day is best to visit a farmer’s market in Rome. Local life and experiences aren’t always inspiring or safe, either, and emphasizing them too much could deter visitors.

“I’m not sure if people want to see the perfect picture or the perfect setting of a city that you often see on brands’ Instagram feeds,” said Benjamin Bourinat, global director of social media at Kinetic, a New York City-based ad agency. “People want their friends and family to identify with the shots that they take and a lot of people probably can’t relate to the perfect travel photos. They don’t take people into the brand’s universe.”

Do Travelers Like Photos of Locals?

Airbnb, for example, has staked its claim to local experiences with its “Live There” campaign. Its Instagram and Snapchat accounts give viewers windows into how people live in various cities and where they go to work, eat and socialize. TripAdvisor’s Instagram account, on the other hand, is filled with photos of tourist attractions.

Travelers’ use of social media to share photos and videos of their trips has grown exponentially since last year, according to Chute, a social media marketing company. More than 29.5 million travel related photos were shared on Instagram and Twitter in June, July, and August alone compared to 16.2 million for the same period in 2015. That’s an 82 percent increase year-over-year and a 50 percent year-over-year increase for August.

There’s no cookie-cutter definition for what photos of local life should look like and, even with advancements in technology like image recognition software, it’s still tricky to track how many travel brand and user-generated content photos portray local experiences or analyze trends around that. Some 70,000 photos shared on Instagram and Twitter from June to August used #local, for example, which is only 0.2 percent of all photos shared on those platforms during those months, according to Chute (these photos aren’t all travel related photos, either, and there are likely millions of other photos related to travel and local that don’t use this hashtag).

Do Most Travelers Have ‘Local Experiences?’

About 14 percent, the highest percentage, of those 70,000 photos using #local featured food. Local cuisine is an increasingly trending topic in travel brand photos that showcase local cultures, said Tom Jauncey, director of brand partnerships at Beautiful Destinations, a social media agency helping travel brands produce social media content for Instagram and Snapchat with more than 12 million followers itself across multiple Instagram accounts. Jauncey and his team have worked with several travel brands including Starwood’s The Luxury Collection, Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel and the Philippines and Slovenia tourism boards to create content for their Instagram accounts.

The team recently worked with Fairmont Hotels in San Francisco to show travelers what’s happening in that city. The campaign was based on what was trending on social media in the city, which Facebook has made more apparent during the past year. “What we’ve been looking at is actually what’s trending on social because what tends to be trending on social in a city is based on what the local community is saying” said Jauncey.

Foursquare data show the top trending places in New York City and London during two weeks in July, the height of summer travel, were mostly popular tourist attractions (see charts below). These are places that saw a surge in Foursquare implicit check-ins (when users don’t check-in through Foursquare’s mobile app and instead have location tracking enabled) and Swarm check-ins. The check-ins don’t reflect the most visited places that week though places like Times Square or the British Museum made the lists below and likely were among the most visited attractions in their respective cities. They also don’t differentiate between tourist and local check-ins and check-ins likely include locals commuting to work through Times Square or London’s St. Pancras station, for example.

Of course, tourists still have unique experiences in tourist districts. The data don’t imply that tourists aren’t visiting outlying neighborhoods in either city because Airbnb alone proves they certainly are. But with more cities trying to boost tourism to neighborhoods it’s evident that most travelers orbit tourist districts and it’s a city-by-city situation. Most travelers are too busy with walking tours and souvenir shopping to exclusively visit local neighborhoods.

New York City

Week of 07/04/2016CategoryPlace
1Outdoors & Recreation: PlazasTimes Square
2Arts & Entertainment: StadiumsMadison Square Garden
3Travel & Transport: Train StationsWorld Trade Center Transportation Hub (The Oculus)
4Outdoors & Recreation: ParksCentral Park
5Travel & Transport: Train StationsGrand Central Terminal

 

London

Week of 07/04/2016CategoryPlace
1Outdoors & Recreation: PlazasPiccadilly Circus
2Outdoors & Recreation: ParksWimbledon Park
3MuseumsTate Modern
4Travel & Transport: Train StationsLondon St Pancras International Railway Station
5Travel & Transport: Hotel Roof DecksPergola on the Roof

 

New York City

Week of 07/18/2016CategoryPlace
1Scenic LookoutsEmpire State Building 86th Floor Observation Deck
2Outdoors & Recreation: ParksCentral Park
3Outdoors & Recreation: ParksUnion Square Park
4Outdoors & Recreation: ParksCity Hall Park
5Travel & Transport: HotelsThe Standard, High Line

 

London

Week of 07/18/2016CategoryPlace
1MuseumBritish Museum
2MusuemTate Modern
3Travel & Transport: RoadsOxford Street
4Outdoors & Recreation: ParksKennington Park
5Municipalities: NeighborhoodsCamden Town

Source: Foursquare

Showing Local Doesn’t Always Pay Off

Taking quality photos of destinations requires brands to sometimes stretch their marketing budgets. Add in labor required to meet locals to produce content for multiple platforms and you have a massive undertaking.

And the pay-off isn’t always worth it with every platform.

The Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau launched its Neighborhood Spotlight campaign back in March, in which it features one to two photos a week with a text overlay that reads “Neighborhood Spotlight” along with the name of the neighborhood being featured. The campaign plays out across all of Dallas CVB’s social channels and has averaged 100 to 150 likes on Facebook compared to 600 to 650 likes for non Neighborhood Spotlight photos.

Dallas’ choice to add text overlay to Instagram photos to indicate neighborhoods isn’t a common practice with most travel brands and the campaign’s Instagram performance fell below expectations. “It’s evident that we’ll have to treat Instagram differently for that campaign,” said Frank Librio, the CVB’s vice president of communications and marketing. “We’ll probably remove the branded overlay for Instagram going forward.”

Librio said the campaign’s performance has been stronger on Facebook and Twitter. “We added the overlay because we were worrying viewers wouldn’t understand what neighborhood we were highlighting every month. But we’ve noticed that it also turns people away a little bit.”

Instagram’s poor performance in this scenario isn’t from stunted growth. It’s one of the fastest-growing social platforms and surpassed 500 million global users in June and more than 80 percent of users live outside the U.S. Instagram is projected to increase its number of users by 15.1 percent this year, more than any other global platform, according to eMarketer.

“Instagram has been able to dominate engagement compared to all other social platforms, even more than Facebook,” said Bourinat. “Brands on Instagram can tap into interests to target and retarget people.

Snapchat and Video’s Role in Portraying Local

Raw footage from Snapchat and polished videos on YouTube and other video platforms have proven effective at highlighting behind-the-scenes experiences and non-traditional points of view. Snapchat stands out as the opportunity travel marketers are most excited and apprehensive about even if their brands haven’t created a Snapchat channel.

eMarketer projects Snapchat will have 217 million global users by the end of 2017, a 44.6 percent increase from the 150 million users currently using the app. Data separates Facebook and Instagram from Snapchat, said Jauncey. “We saw a lot of brands kind of sitting on the fence wondering ‘should I get on Snapchat or should I not.’ Now I think Instagram Stories has been really exciting for them because they have a following on Instagram and they’ve been able to immediately tell these authentic stories.”

For instance, Snapchat doesn’t allow users to upload content unlike Instagram Stories, launched earlier this summer as Instagram’s video rival to Snapchat. “Snapchat allows you to tell that raw, really in-the-moment story and Instagram allows you to make it a bit more professional if you want to,” said Jauncey.

While most travel brands are still avoiding Snapchat more have joined the video sharing platform in the past six months including American Airlines, Visit Philly, National Geographic Travel, and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Snapchat acquired mobile search app Vurb last month for more than $110 million to help build its data and geo-location capabilities. Snapchat has been lacking in data analytics for travel brands, a major reason why most haven’t hopped on.

It also takes a lot of time to produce Snapchat videos and most travel brands with channels post a story, or series of back-to-back videos, about once or twice a week at most compared to multiple Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts per day. That’s a slow production calendar for travelers keen on learning about destinations through Snapchat.

Future of ‘Live Like a Local’ on Social

Many brands rely on user-generated content to bring neighborhood scenes to followers but that’s not always effective, said Andy Yang, CEO of 500px, a user-generated photography site with more than 80 million photos including travel photos. “It’s really difficult for brands to get original photos from social media. I’m from Toronto and a lot of photos that travelers in Toronto share will be of the CN Tower. The challenge is always how do you portray a unique point of view that’s achievable with the common traveler?”

Yang said 60 to 70 percent of photos uploaded on 500px are landscape travel shots of aerial views or mountain lakes, for example, though that’s the brand’s cornerstone. “But we’re seeing this influx of more lifestyle and still life and a Renaissance of lifestyle photographers,” said Yang.

Demonstrating originality has gained more traction than showing locals, said Yang. “You need to have a sense of connective-ness in your brand’s photos. In today’s world of hyper connective-ness there are still so many surprises out there. While we’re still seeing some brands buy stock images we’ve noticed a rebellion against stock photography by many brands.”

Beautiful Destinations is also working with NYC & Company, New York City’s destination marketing organization, to reinvigorate the latter’s “See Your City” campaign first launched in 2014. See Your City is aimed at showing New Yorkers places they can visit in their own city and tourists some of the lesser known highlights. Jauncey said this iteration of the campaign is focused on compelling shots of Manhattan and Coney Island, for instance, that attracted a lot of engagement in the past.

But there isn’t a rigid recipe for the content and the photographers are asking locals at tourist sites how they’d like to see those places differently. “I think brands get carried away with thinking that they have to put people into it and have to follow rules but it ends up missing the creative spark for inspiration. Focus on creating quality content, it’s a happy medium between the iconic photos and the more local photos,” said Jauncey. See a video below that Beautiful Destinations created for The Luxury Collection in Dubai that helps illustrate this point.

Brands should look at Facebook’s 360-degree technology because, like virtual reality, it puts travelers in control of what they see, said Jauncey. “A 360-degree photo on Facebook may look touristy when you first click or tap into it but then you turn around and see the local element of Paris, for example. You’re seeing the things behind the iconic photo that you weren’t able to see before.”

New technology gives travelers means to see bird’s-eye views or street festivals and will drive visitation to quieter neighborhoods whether locals want it or not. Travel brands feature photos of both tourist attractions and local haunts on social media, but which side do most travelers really care about? And which side leads to more bookings and in turn more money?

Brands must answer both questions when creating content meant to whet customers’ social media appetites.

Photo Credit: Travel brands are having trouble showing how to live like a local on social media. Pictured is a family playing on a street in Havana, Cuba, a common activity among locals throughout the city. Dan Peltier / Skift