Navigating the fractured landscape of travel influencers

The role of influencers in digital marketing strategy is problematic for many travel brands. Although the huge potential is well recognised, there remain significant barriers to “influencer marketing” becoming a mainstream activity.

Some of the many problems include identifying genuine influencers, working out what consumer behaviour they’re capable of influencing, and how it can all be measured.

This is particularly important in the travel industry where a large segment of our influencers are highly influential among each other – i.e. within the travel bubble – but not necessarily among the wider traveling public or within brands’ target markets.

In fact, an experiment with some new functionality from Followerwonk, a tool for analysing user behaviour on Twitter, suggests there’s much more to influence within the travel industry than we might have assumed.


Followerwonk uses the Twitter API to access various layers of data on Twitter users.  A newly-released metric, called social authority, is a measure of users’ authority on Twitter as determined by their re-tweet rate and various other factors. The number of times a user is re-tweeted is considered more important than their follower count as a signal of engagement, click through rates and therefore authority.

There are obvious limitations to this and it should clearly not be used as a definitive or sole metric of an individual’s “influence” (more on that below). But even with a quick and dirty analysis of the re-tweet data we were able to come up with a number of useful observations and questions.

To begin with we created a database of all Twitter users with certain keywords in their bios:  travel, traveler, travel guide, travel advice, travel blog, traveling, travel magazine, travel blogger.  This gave us a total of 740,000 Twitter users who are in some way interested in travel – but not necessarily directly connected to the travel industry.

740,000 lines of data was too much even for our enormous processing capacity (an Excel spreadsheet and endless coffee) so we refined the list to anyone with more than 1,000 followers and a social authority score of over 50/100.  That still left us with over 4,000 users so we made another arbitrary decision to look at just the top 10% of influencers.

From there we removed all the nude Russian models and horoscope accounts and classified each user into a category (a painstaking, manual process with plenty of room for error). Our categories were:

  • Travel brand
  • Travel publisher/broadcaster
  • DMO/Tourism board
  • Travel blog
  • Travel media professional (including freelancers, travel writers, etc)
  • Social media entity (not connected to a brand or individual, e.g. @earth_pics)
  • Non travel (lifestyle, food, sports, actors, musicians, etc – individuals, brands or blogs who express an interest in travel but aren’t connected to the industry)

This left us with a relatively accurate, structured list of the 400 most influential Twitter users who have an interest or connection to travel. Using this list we were able to make a number of important observations:

Huge influence outside the travel bubble

About half (51%) of the top 10% profiles were not directly connected to the travel industry at all. This is an inevitable outcome of our methodology: searching for people interested but not necessarily working in travel is a very broad net which caught all sorts of disparate users.

But these people are far from irrelevant. These are the celebrities, musicians, authors, politicians, sport stars, brands and lifestyle blogs that many people in our target demographics are actively following. There is clearly huge influence out there that exists beyond our own bubble of travel media pros, bloggers and publishers:

top 10 travel influencers by category - I&I travel media

Some of the people we found that could influence travel consumers without being directly connected to the industry included:

non travel influencers - i&i travel media

Think about all the people in your target markets who don’t consume much/any travel media online. Where do their interests lie? Who are they following and listening to? Could there be opportunity to find influencers outside of the travel bubble?  Does your brand include people like this in your outreach efforts?

Relationships between authority and content type

Another interesting observation was the spread of authority for each category among our top 400 influencers:

spread of influence by category - i&i travel media

The most surprising aspect was that, according to the Followerwonk metrics, travel publishers/broadcasters have the lowest spread of authority.  With one significant exception (@LonelyPlanet), none of the travel publishers had an authority score above 80. Only eight had a score above 70, and there were only 55 publishers represented in the entire 400.

If anything, this lays bare the inherent limitations of using a single metric as a measure of authority. In reality these publishers are among the highest source of authority in our field. But it seems that their behaviour on Twitter doesn’t reflect that authority. There are interesting reasons for this that could inform our own content and social strategies.

The Followerwonk data shows that re-tweets, and therefore social authority, often derive from particular behaviour: statements that are concise, funny, pithy and precision targeted to their audience are re-tweeted the most:

content & approches for successful retweets - i&i travel media

Typically, travel publishers, brands and DMOs don’t specialise in this kind of behaviour. We’re fastidious in our outreach and engagement (lots of @mentions and conversations,) we curate and share plenty of content and do all the other things that Twitter is great for.  But the data shows that this kind of behaviour is not so frequently re-tweeted.

I don’t think anyone would recommend abandoning engagement and relationships for glib sound bites, but could there be a case for adding some more personality, humour and attitude into your brand’s Twitter activity?  The data certainly suggests it could be effective in increasing your re-tweet rates and therefore your wider exposure and reach.

The importance of niches and targeted audiences

The far away winners of our analysis were the social media entities that exist only on Twitter for the sole purpose of sharing viral content. There were only 10 such profiles in the top 10% of users, but they were almost all above the median social authority for the entire group:

top social media entities - i&i travel media

Related to the previous observation, note how few @mentions are made within this user group. All they are doing is broadcasting highly shareable content (“re-tweet bait”) that is laser targeted to their audience:

successful travel tweets - i&i travel media

Some obvious tactics that emerge from this include: trying to emulate this behaviour with your own profile, as well as trying to get some of your content noticed and shared by these power users.

Target your blog outreach

Another example of how niche targeting wins the day is to look at the travel blogs that came up with the highest social authority scores. If you’re connected with the travel blogging world, the first ten may come as some surprise:

top 10 travel bloggers - i&i travel media

Remember, we’re not looking for straight up follower counts here, we’re looking at the user’s authority on Twitter as measured by their re-tweet rate.

In virtually every case the most influential bloggers are those that are highly targeted to a specific theme or destination: hiking, luxury travel, Thailand, London, British Colombia, video blogging, etc.

This could have implications for outreach programs that aim to activate influential travel bloggers in support of your campaigns. Could certain projects be better served by looking further down the long tail of the travel blogosphere and engaging bloggers with a smaller overall presence but higher engagement rates in your specific theme?

Much more to be done

These are just a few observations that came up from our quick analysis. There are clearly limitations to the data and our methodology.  The usefulness of re-tweet rates alone as an authority metric is questionable, and there is much room for error in a “broad net” approach like the one described here.

But looking into the data like this shows just how complex and fragmented the influence landscape can be, particularly when we consider the countless individuals who can influence our target demographics outside of the travel bubble.

It’s within that complexity that the real opportunity lies. Each brand and each campaign will have its own set of objectives and audiences. Data like this shows that there is a rich ecosystem of influencers out there that could become very rewarding for brands that are nimble enough to navigate the fractured and diverse digital landscape.

NB: this experiment was intended more as a demonstration of possibilities than an attempt at serious statistical analysis. Please take all figures provided with a liberal pinch of salt.

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