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It’s tough to pin down exactly what a social media “influencer” is today. It could be a blogger with a global audience, an Instagrammer with a regionally focused following or a YouTube comedian who brings a younger group of devotees to the table. But whatever form those influencers take, when they work with suppliers and destinations on marketing campaigns, one thing has to reign supreme in whatever kind of content they are providing: authenticity.

Travel brands and tourism offices have been increasingly working with influencers over the past few years to raise brand awareness. While many readily admit they are still learning how best to execute campaigns with influencers, they all agree that the content influencers introduce to their audiences has to be authentic and fit in with the kind of content the influencers normally provide when they’re operating on their own.

When suppliers say they want “authentic” influencers they are describing people who can get their message across in a way that isn’t forced and matches that influencer’s personal style, making the partnership feel less like a product placement ad.

Consumers understand suppliers’ needs to market and advertise, said David Beebe, vice president of content and creative for Marriott International. However, simply inserting a brand into content, he said, is a much less persuasive way to introduce it than with a message that suggests, “This is an experience I had with this brand.”

The latter “is just much more authentic, and [consumers] appreciate that,” Beebe said. “They’re much more likely to engage with our brand when it becomes something that’s very much more natural.”

That need for authenticity in marketing mirrors a trend among travelers. According to a study completed earlier this year by the marketing agency Upshot, 87.8% of frequent travelers said having “authentic travel experiences” is important to them, while 72.4% said that authentic experiences have become more important in recent years.

“Authenticity is becoming the primary quality defining great travel experiences among frequent travelers,” the study reported.

“That’s the great part about influencers they’re not admen, they’re not pitchmen,” said Sarah Schmidt, director of earned media at the marketing firm BVK. “They’re really supposed to be engaged, to be real representatives and not pitchmen, so their followers can sniff out right away if [the product is] not a good fit for them.”

Moreover, influencers can give their followers an extra nudge to seek out experiences such as the ones they highlight.

“People want to fill their own social media with experiences that are unique and meaningful to them, and I think that is another thing that influencer programs can do for brands,” Schmidt said.

Kristin Addis, an influencer who runs the Be My Travel Muse blog, on a trip to Ireland. “>

What is an influencer?Hecktic Media is a marketing firm that was founded by two travel bloggers, Dalene and Pete Heck. In addition to other services, the company runs social media marketing campaigns, connecting suppliers or destinations with influencers. According to Dalene Heck, influencers come in all shapes and sizes.

Assigning a number to a social media user, such as defining them by their follower count, would be folly.

“It really does vary, and someone influential can be fairly small as well,” she said.

Heck said Hecktic Media does have some parameters, such as only working with bloggers who have been at it for at least two years,
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enough time to build their own brand and audience. But outside of that, qualifying someone as an influencer requires something of a case by case definition.

For example, someone who only posts on social media about Edmonton, Alberta, might not have a huge audience, she said, “but they could be very, very influential to those people who are in the city themselves.”

Pete and Dalene Heck, of Hecktic Media marketing firm, hiking in Poland; their company runs social media marketing campaigns, connecting suppliers or destinations with influencers.

Schmidt agreed that follower count is not the most important thing when selecting influencers to work with.

“The most important part for us is making sure that the authenticity of the influencer matches the brand,” she said, and that the influencer has an engaged audience.

Schmidt also pointed toward a subgroup of influencers who are increasingly the target of marketers looking to link them with suppliers: microinfluencers. They “have a much smaller audience but are really hyperengaged,” Schmidt said.

Microinfluencers tend to crop up in the lifestyle space, she said, touting passions for things such as fashion or food. An example would be a yoga influencer on Instagram. While that person might only have 500 to 1,000 followers, if a company sends them yoga pants they like and recommend, the company could sell 10 or 20 pairs to their followers a good investment for the cost of giving away one pair of pants.

Schmidt said microinfluencers are starting to crop up in the travel space. A good use of one would be, for example, with a food focused hotel or destination. A microinfluencer who is a chef or foodie could be the perfect person to bring onboard to experience that brand and expose his or her followers to it, she said.

Motivating an audience to do something, whether it’s to visit a restaurant or sell yoga pants or something else entirely, is a big piece of what makes an influencer, according to Dave Bouskill and Deb Corbeil.

“Influencer is such a broad term,” Bouskill said. “And a popular term that people have attached to almost anything, when really, in my opinion, an influencer is someone who can motivate someone else to travel or motivate someone else to purchase something you’re promoting, or motivate them to sign up for your newsletter.

“If you can motivate someone to act, then I think that’s where you become a true influencer,” he said. “It’s not about just being a loudspeaker and blasting it out to your millions of followers, but you have to be able to get those people to actually do something.”

Marriott International has worked with YouTube personality Grace Helbig (in hat) on a book direct campaign. “>

Brands, influencers working togetherOnce a brand or a destination has decided to engage in an influencer campaign, it becomes a matter of finding the right influencers to work with.

“We’re getting a lot more interest in working with influencers and how to best go about that,
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” Heck said.

Hecktic Media’s first goal in connecting a brand with an influencer is ascertaining exactly what the brand hopes to get out of the campaign.