Social media influencers are increasingly hot commodities in the travel industry for their voices and large audiences. But as influencer marketing grows up, it’s also going through some growing pains and more governments are stepping in to ensure that influencers label the content they were paid to create.

Many travel brands want to work with influencers but aren’t sure how to measure return on investment or justify spending thousands — or even millions — of dollars on untested partnerships that may fail.

More than 60 percent of U.S. travelers use platforms like Facebook and Instagram to get inspired about where to go and what to do when they get there, according to Facebook, and influencers on those platforms play a role in that inspiration. Social media posts by friends and family and word of mouth are also a large part of trip planning and inspiration.

Last month, the Australian government announced a ban on using digital influencers for all government agencies after it found some agencies had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on influencer projects. Some of the influencers who were paid to promote healthy, active lifestyles were also promoting alcohol brands and weight loss pills; offensive comments were also reportedly flagged.

Tourism Australia, the country’s national tourism board, said it’s not affected by the government’s influencer ban. The organization launched a $7.2 million marketing campaign in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore last month that will involve influencers.

Tourism Australia works with a network of more than 200 digital influencers through its Friends of Australia program. Influencer marketing has been key to Australia’s overall marketing strategy in recent years; the world saw a glimpse of that earlier this year when the board ran a commercial during the Super Bowl that featured Hollywood actor and native Australian Chris Hemsworth, who is also one of Tourism Australia’s ambassadors.

In April, Canada’s advertising regulatory body, Ad Standards, released updated guidelines on how to disclose paid influencer content and said it’s cracking down on misleading advertising.

Some 52 percent of social media influencers worldwide said they always label their content if it’s an ad, and 41 percent said they only label content when asked, according to a January 2018 survey from Zine, an influencer marketing technology agency.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is also watching influencer marketing and getting tough on undisclosed ads, although it’s unclear if the agency has fined any travel brands. Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board, was in the hot seat with state politicians in recent years over its $1 million contract with Pitbull to promote the state, which some state legislators argued wasn’t properly disclosed to taxpayers.

The travel industry is the eighth biggest spender on influencer marketing worldwide, according to Development Counsellors International, a travel marketing agency. Many magazines, newspapers, TV networks, and other online publications have a reach equal to greater than that of some of the most popular influencers. But influencers’ spin is generally that they have a niche demographic — and loyal fan bases — that follow their blogs, YouTube channels, and social media accounts that traditional media don’t have.

Some Brands Have Second Thoughts

Influencer marketing is about five years old and isn’t about to disappear, but some travel brands are reevaluating its effectiveness, said Ross Borden, founder and CEO of Matador Network, a California-based media company focusing on travel, food, and lifestyle that’s run 150 influencer programs in the past five years.

A November 2017 survey by Roth Capital Partners found that about 32 percent of U.S. millennials are indifferent about whether they’d be more likely to buy an influencer-endorsed product, and 27 percent said they wouldn’t be more likely. That data could present a challenge to some brands as nearly 60 percent of Instagram users in the United States, for example, are under age 35.

Borden said he started working with 10 influencers five years ago and he and his team currently work with more than 400. “I find this is one of the most misunderstood and difficult spaces for travel marketing and all brands,” he said. “This is probably due to brands doing [influencer marketing] on their own or working with hundreds of influencer agencies that add little value to brands. Just the word ‘influencer’ gets thrown around even more than ‘storytelling,’ and is very misleading and misused.”

Borden said some brands hire influencers to later discover that they’ve hired bloggers who have little to no influence. “The term ‘influencer’ is also applied to people with three million followers on every social channel and they have a legal team and demand contracts,” he said.

For brands that Matador hasn’t worked with, Borden said he often hears that they had “a lot of learnings” on an influencer program. “Brands don’t usually get on an in-depth kick-off call with the talent,” he said. “Some influencers barely look at the itinerary and destination and realize on arrival that it’s totally not for them or they want to skip part of it or are unfamiliar with the customary rules of where they’re visiting.”

Visit California Doubles Down

But many organizations including Visit California, the state’s tourism board, remain bullish about influencers and the impact they have.

Every brand has a different definition for what an influencer is and why they want to work with them. Visit California created its Digital Influencer Advisory Board, one of the first such groups for a tourism board, last year to work with influencers to set guidelines for tracking return on investment and developing long-term partnerships.

With California’s status as one of the entertainment capitals of the world, there’s no shortage of movie and TV stars and other kinds of talent the organization can work with.

“Both influencers and brands benefit from long-term partnerships rather than one-off programs,” said Caroline Beteta, Visit California president and CEO.

Beteta said the board has met twice in the past year and has played a key role in crisis response, such as highlighting that California’s wine country was open for business after last year’s wildfires. “We’ve found influencer marketing is one of the most effective ways to share an ‘open for business’ message…[influencers] also visited Santa Barbara and surrounding communities in the spring following the mudslides, shining an organic spotlight on the affected areas that is invaluable,” she said.

Someone’s follower count on Instagram or Facebook isn’t the most important factor when the tourism board chooses its partners, said Beteta. “Engagement, quality, and how an influencer aligns with the Visit California brand are also considered,” she said.

What Two Influencers Want Brands to Know

The business model of influencer marketing has also caused some head-scratching for many travel marketing teams.

Many brands expect social media personalities to read advertising language from a script and essentially become paid actors. But travelers follow these people because they value their honesty and recommendations, which could get muddled if a brand overreaches.

“I wish destinations would have a bit more trust in the person they chose to carry out their campaigns,” said Erik Conover, content creator at Erik Conover Productions, who has a YouTube channel with more than half a million subscribers and is also popular on other platforms such as Instagram. Conover spoke at the City Nation Place Americas conference in New York City in June. “If you give someone a script, it’s not your words anymore — and your audience will be able to see that.”

For one project, Conover gave a brand (which he didn’t name) two rounds of revisions and said they basically butchered it. “In the end, the content wasn’t something I was proud to share,” he said, “They would have been better off hiring an actor and doing a commercial. You can’t use an influencer as a distribution platform. The main reason it works is because of my name. Some of these influencers are more or less production companies and have developed teams around them.”

Matador Network’s Borden said, however, that many influencers aren’t experienced video professionals.

“We have a 45-person video team now, but the influencer is a star in the content,” he said. “There are very few influencers on the scene right now that I think are great video storytellers that a brand is going to want to put on their channel.”

Travel brands should also have multiple approaches to working with influencers and be flexible, said Jessica Hirsch, founder of Cheat Day Eats, a food and travel blog. Hirsch also spoke at City Nation Place Americas and said her largest platform is Instagram with more than 377,000 followers.

She said sometimes it only takes a small tweak to an itinerary to get the best photo or video content. And it’s easier to get that message across when there’s an established relationship with a brand.

“For example, being able to eat lunch and dinner back-to-back to take advantage of natural light for better photos,” said Hirsch. “I value long-standing partnerships versus one-offs.”

Social media marketing and influencers are established parts of many travel brands’ marketing strategies, but these platforms are still young compared to other traditional media that travelers have turned to for decades. However brands choose to proceed, they should realize that influencers are not media and don’t want to follow the playbook that marketers are used to.

Photo Credit: Erik Conover, a YouTube and social media personality, visited Iceland this year and feels that brands need to step back and let digital influencers create content that will resonate with their audiences. Erik Conover / YouTube