Five years ago nobody in hospitality had heard of influencers and now in 2020, the first question that gets asked by many hotel and resort marketers is how do we work with influencers. And they add that this year they see a much greater share of their time and budget going into influencer marketing.

There are excellent reasons to want to succeed with influencers. Estimates are that around 25% of Internet users have ad blockers in their browsers - meaning they won't see the ads you are buying online. Meantime, ever more of us look for travel info, inspiration, answers on social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, and that's the home court of influencers.

As a New York Times story recently proclaimed, "As social media expands its cultural dominance, the people who can steer the online conversation will have an upper hand."

That means influencers matter. A lot. Especially in 2020.

Words of advice: influencer marketing can easily go very, very wrong. It also can produce dazzling results, on small budgets, but that is when it is done right.

Want to know how to do it wrong? Simple: lack a coherent plan and strategy. I cringe when I see blistering headlines such as this in People Magazine: "Resort Slams Instagram 'Influencers' Seeking Free Stays: 'Try To Actually Work'."

Much more often I hear from hotel marketers - "Oh, we tried influencers. Didn't get any results."

Here's the reality: influencer marketing is a wild west that essentially has been on our radar for under five years. It is easy to get no results. It is also easy to give free accommodations to influencers and get nothing in return.

There are ways to sidestep these disappointing results however and it starts with knowing the outcomes you expect and also knowing who your chief consumers are (and what consumers aren't your market at all).

A lot of influencer marketing is aimed at an under-30 demographic. If that's not your audience does it mean you should close the book on influencer marketing? Nope. Because there are influencers for every market - a growing niche for instance are senior influencers. Just about every audience has its influencers and your success starts with knowing what markets matter to you.

Know that and you can go hunting for influencers that will work for you - which takes us back to the angry emails shot out by resorts such as the one written up in People
Wait to be contacted by influencers and don't be surprised if irritation and frustration are your results.

The better way: seek out the influencers you want to work with. Go hunting on Instagram, also probably Facebook, also YouTube, possibly LinkedIn (especially if business meetings are a key offering), and if other networks surface as good hunting grounds for you, look there too.

Who's putting up Instagram posts about your prime competitors? Are they possible targets for you?

Be careful there, however, because research underlines that a fast way for any influencer to go bad is to lack authenticity. Those who will post about anything for dollars are ones to avoid.

Should you ignore direct requests from influencers? Of course not. Yes, some resorts in prime destinations tell us they get 10 or more direct requests daily from influencers. Vet them as they come in and indeed that is the next step: carefully validate influencers with whom you are considering working. There is a lot of fakery in this world. Proceed with a degree of skeptical caution.

Know Your Purpose

Why do you want to work with influencers? For Los Angeles it's because the city wants to get more tourism from India and it believes that working with select influencers with wide readership in India will help them get there.

That's a good reason. You need similar precision in your thoughts on why you want to work with influencers.

Think Beyond Size

Used to be, the influencers with the most followers were - by that very reason - the most desired by hospitality brands. Not so anymore. There has been a huge shift in favor of what are called micro-influencers who do not have 1 million followers but do have enthusiastic, dedicated followers, maybe 1000 or 2000.

Much in hospitality, especially at the higher end, is ideal material for micro-influencers. Looking to promote a surfing holiday in the Maldives, a yoga retreat in the Himalayas, a traditional med spa in the Alps? Think micro-influencers and what you want to see when vetting them is what's called engagement, which comes down to how much, and how, do people interact with their posts.

Word to the wise: 'likes' do not add up to much. Instagram is in fact selectively removing 'like' counts (at least in some geographies) and that has caused agita in some influencer and marketer circles. But it shouldn't. A like is a cheap and easy metric, which many do as easily as they say hello to many dozens as they enter a crowded room.

When you see people adding personal comments on a post, or even better, asking for more specifics ("how did you jump from surfboard to surfboard in that video?"), you know you are seeing real engagement.

Brand Ambassadors

Research underlines that a growing number of influencers are looking for relationships beyond the quick, transactional endorsements that characterized the first phase of Instagram marketing and they now are looking to become brand ambassadors, which will typically entail a series of posts over many months.

Influencers You Already Know

The word "influencer" is new. But you have worked with influencers for a very long time. Think travel agents. Select journalists. Tour packagers. Meeting planners. The list could go on. In travel, we have forever worked with influencers; we just knew them by other names.

Today there are new kinds of influencers - who specifically raise awareness in social and digital media such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

But the end result is the same: greater success with select target audiences.

See, you already know how to work with influencers. You just did not know you did.

Goals, Goals, Goals

Key to a successful influencer relationship is agreeing on the goals of the program. Don't vaguely say, "Put up a few Instagram posts and that's good."

Be very specific. How many posts? On what media? In what sorts of settings? The more detailed and specific you get, the more likely you are to get what you hope for.

Be very specific too about the property's goals for the campaign. Is it raising awareness in a target market? Increasing bookings in a specific time frame? Selling more of a specific package? Whatever it is, it needs to be concrete, measurable, and there has to be agreement about how to take the measurement.

The Big Question: Does It Work?

Work in the influencer space and what you will see is increasing sophistication - both about how to get results with influencers and how to manage budgets.

In that regard, understand that you see many stories that claim influencers demand X thousands of dollars per post but many in fact will take on an assignment that involves no compensation but does include gratis accommodations, transportation, and meals, often for two. (Many influencers travel with a photographer because their medium tends to be visual.) Don't say no to such accommodations requests. Work with the right influencers and you will be dazzled by the results.

This is the reality: when you understand influencers and how they work you are 90% there to getting real results that will matter for your property. The rest is just doing the hard research, setting the budget, and following up (always follow up and keep following up until you see the results you sought).

The FTC Bombshell: And What You Need to Do

And then the dark cloud came into the sky.

In mid 2019 the Federal Trade Commission issued a document that is a must-read for hotel and travel marketers: Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers. Complaints had grown loud that many influencers were in fact paid for their positive posts and so the FTC decided to issue a rule book. And the rule is simple: if an influencer has received compensation that fact must be disclosed in Instagram posts, Tweets, and the rest.

Many hoteliers breathed easily when they heard that because, often, hotels woo influencers with freebies, not with cash.

Think again.

The FTC said: "If you endorse a product through social media, your endorsement message should make it obvious when you have a relationship ('material connection') with the brand. A 'material connection' to the brand includes a personal, family, or employment relationship or a financial relationship - such as the brand paying you or giving you free or discounted products or services."

The FTC elaborated: "Financial relationships aren't limited to money. Disclose the relationship if you got anything of value to mention a product. If a brand gives you free or discounted products or other perks and then you mention one of its products, make a disclosure even if you weren't asked to mention that product."

A free room definitely counts as compensation.

The FTC warned influencers that disclosures have to be "hard to miss." Burying a disclosure in a blizzard of hashtagged words is a no-no.

The FTC went on: "Simple explanations like 'Thanks to Acme brand for the free product' are often enough if placed in a way that is hard to miss. So are terms like 'advertisement,' 'ad,' and 'sponsored.'"

Getting the message?

Sure, these warnings are aimed at influencers, not hotels and resorts. But don't think that exempts you. What if the FTC initiates an action against an influencer who stayed at your resort - that blackens the resort's name too.

So my advice is to carefully remind influencers who have received compensation that appropriate disclosure is expected. Point them to the FTC document and stress that you expect posts to be labeled properly.

Much the same applies in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and many other nations.

The bottom line is: disclose, disclose, disclose - and hoteliers need to remind influencers they work with about their expectations. Of course the influencers are independent agents who will do as they choose. But our obligation is to set out our expectations and to urge them to comply. That will keep everybody safer.

And we will all be that much more likely to get the results we wanted.

Reprinted from the Hotel Business Review with permission from