Not long ago I wrote a piece on influencer outreach exploring some of the most common hurdles to working with consumer influencers, and the problem of quantifying real impact on consumer purchase decisions (leads, bookings & revenue), as opposed to relying on indirect measures of audience engagement (followers, impressions, re-shares etc).
Although it certainly is possible for digital influencers to play an effective role in earned media strategies, getting it right is tricky and carries a lot of risk.
An example of a travel brand doing it well is G Adventures through their brand ambassador programme, Wanderers in Residence (WiR).
WiR is a partnership with some of the best-known travel bloggers including Gary Arndt, Daniel Noll & Audrey Scott, Jodi Ettenberg, Nellie Huang and, until fairly recently, Matt Kepnes.
The scheme is a classic example of converged media at work, bringing together owned and earned channels to generate a stream of content and exposure that is controlled by the brand, but distributed organically through this tight knit team of brand ambassadors to a wide audience across the web.
I connected with Sacha Mlynek, content marketing specialist at G Adventures, and Nellie Huang of Wild Junket, to get an insight on how the programme works.
MB: What types of roles do brand ambassadors play within G’s overall content strategy?
SM: Their work features prominently in our content strategy. They’re a voice for our brand and a connection to our consumer in one package. They produce a range of assets for use on our own platforms, including written stories, images, video etc, but at the same time they’re also advocating the G Adventures message on their own platforms, to their own audiences.
MB: What are the actual logistics of the programme – what does G provide and what does it get in return?
NH: The basic agreement is that G provides hosted trips plus expenses in return for contributions to their blog, The Looptail. They also offer some perks like free trips for giveaways and they run some paid advertising on my site.
SM: That’s in exchange for the actual content. In terms of the earned-exposure side of things, we’re more relaxed with that. They’re professional social media influencers, they know what works for their audiences and they know what we need. We don’t try to stipulate a pre-agreed volume of activity or anything like that. They are advocates for the brand and look for ways to converse about us in ways over and above a traditional post.
MB: What are the main benefits G sees from nurturing social media influencers as brand ambassadors?
SM: The benefits are huge. It’s a continuous opportunity for an organic connection with users. When you have great writers who produce excellent content and are able to distribute this widely across multiple channels, the chatter and connections you make is real and is very valuable.
MB: Do you know how this activity connects with G’s consumers at different stages of the customer journey? Do you find it’s mostly beneficial at the top of the funnel in terms of inspiring audiences or is it equally effective in driving actual conversions lower down the funnel?
SM: The sales funnel for booking adventure travel is special as it involves inspiration at multiple levels. At the top, we’re connecting with these very broad audiences at an educational level – showing what experiences are out there and what they can do with their vacation time, getting the G brand out there is almost an indirect benefit of that.
Once a customer gets closer to booking a trip we start to reach them on our owned channels, they’re coming to our blog and reading the Wanderers’ trip reports. But we’re still inspiring them with all this real-life content, we’re still challenging them to think about what they’re looking to get out of travel.
MB: Nellie, how does this all benefit your own audience? What feedback do you hear?
NH: My followers are largely in the age group of 25-45, young professionals who have money to spend and are seeking adventure in unusual parts of the world. This overlaps perfectly with G Adventures’ audience, so it’s a natural fit.
Sharing my personal experiences of travelling with G gives my audience a sense that they’re getting an in-depth, first hand review of what it’s like to travel with G, from someone they know and trust. We see plenty of interest whenever we organize giveaways and I get a lot of queries on my blog from travelers who are interested in the trips I’ve covered.
MB: Can you shine any light on how conversion rates are driven or assisted by this activity?
SM: The Wanderers offer content to two readerships — ours and theirs. This affords an opportunity to bring in new viewers that we might not otherwise have access to. We don’t segment traffic generated from their social activity but we obviously have a handle on referrals from their domains. In this case, the assisted conversions ratio exceeds that of most other referrals by a considerable margin.
Analysis & takeaways
For many travel brands the biggest takeaway is probably “well, lucky G Adventures” – not many firms have the budget or internal resources to manage a campaign of this scale. But that’s not to say there aren’t any transferable lessons here for others:
Manage costs (and risk): Influencer engagements don’t need to be open-ended, expensive campaigns involving comped travel, expenses, prizes etc. There are plenty more modest ways of partnering with consumer influencers, from having them promote a one-off contest to commissioning a single contribution to your blog or ebook. The action is irrelevant, it’s the desired outcome that matters.
Align audiences: WiR is a perfect overlap between G’s target market and the bloggers’ own audiences but brands in other segments might find more effective influencers outside the travel arena, for instance with family & parenting blogs, experience/activity-specific authorities, high-end lifestyle publications, and other non-travel verticals where building relationships with influencers can be much easier.
Respect & cherish independence: Typical arrangements, especially short-term deals, see marketers trying to micromanage engagements, from controlling the messaging right down to specifying the timing of each tweet, insisting on hashtags, and so on. This is just the same as paying a shill: influencers worth their salt won’t do it and even if they do, their audiences will quickly see through it and switch off.
It’s much more effective to respect their independence, allowing them free reign to connect with their audiences as they see fit. If it’s a relationship based on mutual respect and trust they’ll already have an interest in serving your needs as well as their audience’s.
Ethics & disclosure: It’s also important, for both ethical and practical reasons, to properly disclose the nature of the relationship in the content that is produced. In the long run audiences will appreciate your honesty and maintain trust in your brand.
Monitor outcomes: If you’re engaging influencers to help drive conversions it’s critical to segment and track your traffic and goals, and use assisted conversion reports to understand how each activity is contributing to the bottom line. See here for more details.
UPDATE some additional thoughts after an interesting follow-up discussion on Outbounding:
Calculating ROI: We didn’t get into any specific numbers on outcomes and ROI reporting as it’s pretty sensitive data but as the reactions in the Outbounding discussion show, there are considerable questions around the returns from work like this, and how they are calculated.
Returns from outreach campaigns have two main components: sales generated by direct clicks from the bloggers’ sites or social media activity (“last touch” conversions) and sales which are closed by one of G’s owned channels but instigated or assisted by the bloggers’ activity (“first touch” and “assisted” conversions).
Although we didn’t get into the details for this interview, I’d suspect the later outweigh the former by a considerable margin. Blogger and other influencer outreach campaigns tend to be most effective at bringing qualified and engaged prospects in at the top of the funnel, and giving the brand multiple opportunities to connect and sell to them as the audience becomes more purchase-intent.
Conversion attribution models that take into account first touch and assisted conversions allow you to put a dollar value to those interactions and calculate with a reasonable degree of accuracy the bottom-line returns from top-funnel outreach and promotion.
For more info this article goes into some more detail on the process of segmenting and understanding multi-channel conversion paths.