The New York Times attempts to answer this question, looking at the rapidly changing world of bloggers and how they interact with their readers and their sponsors and the conclusions they’ve drawn are quite interesting. And, while the miles & points blogger community is somewhat different from the travel blogger community, there are also some significant overlaps between the groups as well.
Travel bloggers tend to be independent-minded and passionate about their areas of interest. The best of them also tend to be on the cutting edge of the travel world, making them a valuable resource for readers frustrated with out-of-date guidebooks and what is often a morass of user reviews on sites like TripAdvisor. But they also face unique challenges; for one, they have to be not just their own editors in chief, but also their own directors of marketing and Web developers. And, ideally, they need to stay objective despite all the sponsorships.
One underlying theme of the story seems to be about how the travel bloggers manage to fund their trips. Apparently most have not yet discovered the payouts associated with credit card referrals and so they look for other means to pay their way, mostly through sponsored trips. And that raises interesting challenges.
The recent TBEX conference in Toronto, with its rah-rah keynote speeches and panels on “Content Strategy” and “The Intersection of Marketing and Blogging,” made one thing clear: those waters are increasingly murky.
Nowhere was this more evident than the popular speed-dating sessions. Bloggers signed up for eight-minute sessions with 138 sponsors. …
Amid the scrum was Michelle Holmes…who went on about 20 speed dates in all, which led to a handful of follow-up conversations with marketers and a couple of probable sponsored trips. It put her one step closer to her goal: “to be able to balance a work-slash-writing career without selling my soul.”
So apparently the way to success is not necessarily to actually profit from the content produced; it is more about reducing costs by getting other people to pay for the trips. And still to maintain an independent view while doing so. How do you balance pitching a tourism board on the value you can bring to them while also remaining objective and independent? If you only get to see the itinerary that the hosts put together for you is that sufficiently immersive and complete to form opinions on the destination?
This is the part I find most perplexing. If you’re aggressively trying to pitch companies to pay for your travels can you really remain independent in the content produced? And, moreover, can the stories told actually have real value to others? Not surprisingly some of the bloggers interviewed in the piece note that the sponsored trips appear to result in more “junk content” being produced.
One aspect of the story which gives it credibility in my mind is that the author actually talked with a number of the bloggers rather than just guessing at how the market is evolving. The people quoted are names I recognize (some I know in real life; others I’ve interacted with online for some time) which, to me, makes the story more “real.”
When the bloggers are describing their approach to travel more like a marketing organization than as a traveler, is it really what you would want to read and trust as guidance in your personal travel decisions?
Mr. Jenkins believes that there are three phases of “creating buzz” for any travel blogging experience: announcing a campaign (often with a specific Twitter hashtag) before a trip, sending out Twitter messages and Instagram photos during the trip (again, with a consistent hashtag), and only then, after a trip has concluded, putting up blog posts.
At the end of the day I still find myself wondering just what bits of the content I’m reading online can or should be trusted. Is a review based on a sponsored trip the same as one where the traveler is paying out of their own pocket? What happens when the author is focused on the publicity of their stories and delivering a “buzz” to their sponsor so that they can score the next big trip? Is it possible to explain to a reader what they can expect at a destination when the local tourism board won’t be calling ahead to every venue to ensure that the experience is top-notch?
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