For decades, attracting travel writers to your destination meant countless hours of PR cajoling and coordination, followed by month after month of waiting for the story to hit the pages of a glossy print journal. While that system hasn't gone extinct, it's hardly the norm for travel writing anymore.
Increasingly, brands want storytelling that is more immediate, more experiential and guaranteed to be shared far and wide across social media. They'll often seek out a travel blogger—someone who's a proven influencer in online circles and who's no stranger to sharing strategically on every social platform.
"Access to fans on social media that are at the ready to follow their trip from start to finish is just one thing the blogger has over the writer," said Maja Derviskadic, social media manager at Hawkins International PR in New York, adding that "real-time coverage by bloggers often drives the bottom line quicker with more transparency in terms of tracking impact."
The firm recently worked with the hotel Le Guanahani in St. Barts on a rebranding campaign and hired family travel blogger Brianne Manz, creator of Stroller in the City, to document a trip there for her followers.
"[We worked] with Manz to solidify concrete deliverables in exchange for the trip, including two photo-essay blog posts and 15 social media posts across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook," said Derviskadic.
Stroller in the City has 27,000 Instagram devotees, over 8,700 Facebook fans and 19,000 Twitter followers, and it's safe to assume that the majority of her audience falls in a demographic the resort wanted to reach: moms who travel with kids. In recruiting a familiar, family-friendly travel blogger, the brand wasn't just hiring someone to tell its story; it was getting in front of a large, customized audience. What brand wouldn't want that?
"Anything digital or blog related is easily shared [and delivers] what destinations are looking for: engagement," said Roland Alonzi, senior account supervisor at The Dalton Agency in Jacksonville, Fla. "In the past, the circulation of the magazine is what mattered. Now it's about clicks, shares and likes. Putting a dollar amount to that can be tricky, but when a destination sees an audience building, its Instagram growing, that has a very real value."
How travel content is evolving
The ability to build an audience is just one aspect of what attracts brands to bloggers. Also attractive is the blogger's approach to content. Typically, a blogger doesn't write a comprehensive essay about a destination—the way a traditional journalist might—but instead works at the dizzying speed of the internet, posting updates, pictures, check-ins and other social media-friendly content to create a kind of digital bread-crumb trail that leads to a destination. Selfies, hashtags, Vine videos—this isn't the stuff of lofty travel writing, but it's the way of the digital and mobile world, where the appetite for bite-sized bits of content to consume while scrolling is insatiable.
You could say photo-centric, news feed content creation is driving many types of journalism, but it's perhaps most crucial to travel journalism, where experience is the selling point.
"When brands approach us to do custom content, they're looking to tap into an engaged, well-traveled audience and also [provide] an unexpected, immersive and experiential element," said Kate Appleton, branded content director at AFAR Media. Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and other social media channels are designed for sharing personal experiences. Moreover, these platforms enable destinations to tap into a variety of voices and appeal to foreigners, a valuable proposition.
"We did a campaign earlier this year for Jordan called 'See Jordan Through the Eyes of a Local,'" Appleton said. "We had someone who lives and works [in Jordan] share her experiences, which helped humanize the destination that people may be intimidated [by], and made it personable, fun and authentic."
Great travel bloggers are exactly that—personable, fun and authentic. Plus, they often have a niche angle that their readers have come to know and appreciate. For instance, Carol Cain, creator of Girl Gone Travel, grew her blog out of her local experiences as a native New Yorker and continues to deliver content curated for visitors who want to go off the beaten path for an innately local experience.
"Through the years, I've looked to tell a story that the glossy magazines may not be interested in because it's not so pretty and may require going into dodgy areas—which is often where the good food and real experiences are," said Cain.
Corinne McDermott, founder of HaveBabyWillTravel.com, blogs for families traveling with babies and children.
"[The site] is entirely built upon original travel content that is specifically created for new and expecting parents who are looking to travel with their kids in tow," said McDermott. "We feature destinations and travel brands that are baby- and family-friendly and offer tips, information, advice, gear recommendations as well as firsthand stories of travel experiences with babies, toddlers and young children."
How bloggers are gaining influence
The successful travel blogger shares a distinct, opinionated and ultimately relatable way of seeing the world and builds an audience through that specialized lens. It's important to note that a more traditional travel journalist can do the same thing if she wants to build up her own brand. In fact, that could be her smartest move as she adapts to an increasingly digital, social landscape.
"Studies show that traditional print media is oversupported by advertising spend today compared to the amount of audience attention it gets, despite how much that advertising spend has already dropped," said Chris Christensen, an independent travel journalist and creator of the blog and podcast Amateur Traveler. "Traditional outlets pay [writers] less because they have less, [and] many PR firms have told me that they started working with bloggers because there just were not that many staff journalists to work with anymore."
Travel bloggers are increasingly in demand, but more than that, the lines between them and traditional travel writers are blurring.
"More and more professional journalists are becoming bloggers and independent publishers as a means to take control of their own career destiny," Bret Love, editor of the multi-author travel blog Green Global Travel said. "There are hundreds of travel bloggers (myself included) who are members of the Society of American Travel Writers and/or the North American Travel Journalists Association. Many of them have won awards from these organizations for their writing ability."
But while print journalism may be fading, the ink hasn't dried out, and a destination brand may hire a blogger to fill up news feeds with pithy, personal snippets about experiences and pitch a travel magazine whose journalists can provide rich, detailed and objective prose.
"There has to be a healthy balance of the two," said Kashem Miah, director of social media and content marketing at Shutterstock. "You can't only sustain yourself by reading the travel section of The New York Times a couple times a week, and you also won't be able to fully appreciate a place for all of its allure by scrolling through an Instagram page."