Using influencers for strategic advantage

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A campaign that features someone your audience trusts can strengthen your brand.

By Maite Vélez-Couto

Effectively communicating brand messages to current and future guests remains an essential business strategy for any hotel. More and more, companies are turning to influencers to reach a broader audience and help drive sales.

But not every brand or hotel has mastered the complexity of these partnerships nor are they really sure how to best measure their success. Although there are three basic elements to influencer engagement – plan, research and measure – the key is in the nuances.

Not all influencers are created equal
The selection process remains a critical component to ensuring the greatest return on investment.

To start, hoteliers should carefully consider the potential value each individual influencer is likely to add to a campaign. Be wary of those who only tout a large audience and don’t offer much else. Having a significant number of followers will mean little for your property if consumers do not value and act upon the influencer’s advice. Ask for specific examples, with data, demonstrating how they boosted brand awareness or increased sales in the past, especially for similar-size companies.

Another best practice is to consider experts beyond the travel space to expand campaign reach through new audiences. People who promote technology-driven convenience, health and wellness for busy professionals, or weekend adventures for millennials can easily tailor their messaging to tie in with travel. These less-obvious influencers can add substantial value, insight and provide a strategic advantage to hotel brands willing to reach customers more creatively.

In the end, to see real returns in terms of greater mindshare and/or more bookings, take the time and effort to identify the right partners.

Start with trust and transparency
Companies in all industries compensate influencers for the work they do to promote and endorse their brands. And that is because they do not work for free – a common misconception – which raises questions about how to judge their value. Although a number of factors should be considered, trust and transparency come first. Make sure anyone you choose acts in an honest and straightforward way to represent your hotel brand.

Upfront disclosure of the relationship between the parties is as important to set the tone. Trying to dupe the public does not pay. Brands and influencers may see some short-term gains, but they often face serious long-term risks when they forego transparency. Loss of consumer trust, overall credibility, legal issues, fines and, ultimately, sales are major risks. A best practice is a clause necessitating clarity in every influencer contract to reduce the likelihood of a public relations crisis.

There are cautionary tales of influencers acting in a less than obvious way. In some cases, a double standard exists where celebrities have endorsed a product or brand without disclosing their financial incentives to do so. For example, Kim Kardashian vaguely acknowledged a brand that was paying her to endorse a morning sickness medication, but she ignored the rules without consequence. In contrast, Lord & Taylor was cited for promoting sponsored content without a disclaimer. The bottom line is that if you engage customers in an honest way, you build true brand loyalty.

Engagement beyond social media
Social media remains fundamental for influencer reach, but the most successful brands think beyond creation of social content only. A deeper and more meaningful engagement generally comes when a company gives their partners access to a bigger platform. Savvy marketers leverage the influencer’s persona and content with controlled media and advertising, contests and other means to effectively expand their reach.

Also, brand marketers should carefully consider the platform – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or others – through which each influencer is most popular. It seems like common sense, but the specific channel determines the demographic of the audience they reach, so make sure the type of influencer you hire aligns with the type of audience you ideally wish to reach.

Whenever possible, prioritize influencers with a good eye for design or presentation. They should know how to present compelling visual content along with information across multiple social media platforms. Also, look for those with experience as media experts, spokespeople or videographers, which can add a lot of value to a brand campaign. Someone like Johnny Jet, Diane Mizota and Jeana Shandraw are great examples.

Award-winning strategies
As I alluded to earlier, the most successful brands take sufficient time to lay a strong foundation for their influencer campaigns prior to launch. I helped develop the award-winning Hampton by Hilton Seekender campaign. Prior to selecting influencers, we determined the strategy and goals, which is a simple but crucial first step. Then we created a customized ranking system that compared strengths and weaknesses. Also important was to speak directly with each candidate to negotiate and individualize agreements. This careful planning established guidelines and a comfort level with each brand ambassador.

Our Dreams Resorts & Spas #MomsEscape campaign is another prime example where careful preparation and a thoughtful approach to influencer selection made a big difference. A reported 12 percent overall increase in bookings year-over-year for Dreams Resorts & Spas was among the measurable results.

Exclusive offers tailored for their followers and special URL codes enabled close tracking of results. As a bonus, this strategy resulted in greater audience reach with messages that inspired them to take action. Double-digit increases in bookings and new followers engaged via social channels were among the results.

Industry recognition can be an added benefit. Seekender was honored with a Gold Sabre from The Holmes Report, a prestigious public relations industry award, and #MomsEscape received a Gold Adrian from the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International, which showcases the industry’s best marketing programs.

Plan carefully and avoid common pitfalls
In addition to insufficient research, some companies do not adequately prepare influencers to effectively deliver their messages. Not having specific expectations is another common pitfall. Remember to set well-defined goals during initial discussions and, most importantly, in the final contract. If possible, also define the metrics that will be used to monitor and gauge the program’s effectiveness.

Some companies enlist the help of influencers and then leave them to fare on their own, without the appropriate tools needed to drive a specific sales message. Companies can also go too far in the other direction, attempting to micromanage their every thought and action. Not granting them enough editorial freedom to create organic content can be counterproductive as well. The audience they are engaging with on behalf of your hotel brand likely follows them because they feel connected to how they express their opinions and advice.

When best practices in influencer marketing are followed, hotel brands can reap a strong return on investment. Hotels gain a wider audience and endorsements from someone people trust, prompting new customers to act – to inquire about a promotion, share content or book a vacation.               ■

Maite Vélez-Couto, vice president at rbb Communications, brings a broad range of media relations, consumer product marketing and branding experience to the firm. Throughout her career, she has handled integrated communications campaigns for a wide variety of consumer clients. She can be contacted at (305) 783-3140 or maite.velez-couto@rbbcommunications.com.

A modified version of this article was originally published on Hotel Business Review. Printed with permission from www.HotelExecutive.com.
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