Ally Pintucci represents a new kind of celebrity in the tourism industry. These are the folks who appear to live a highly stylized life documented in gauzy, grainy images (depending on the Instagram filter used) to project a highly desirable life—aspirational is the word marketers use. Last month, she wrapped up her successful #Staycation series here in Whistler, hanging out at the new Evolution Whistler boutique hotel, "spa-ing" at Scandinave (where else?), and snowmobiling with Canadian Wilderness Adventures, capturing it all on Instragram and racking up the "likes."
Her most unique social media gig was a recent one-month paid stay at the newly-opened Parc Vancouver hotel and casino. To land the paid job, she had to beat out hundreds of other bloggers from around the province. And, well, let's just say that her coverage was overwhelmingly positive.
Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Yelp, Snapchat and TripAdvisor, and other social media platforms have radically shifted the way tourism destinations and experiences are marketed. While digital billboards, glossy double page magazine spreads and slick television ads still sell the sizzle, the steak is increasingly served up by the visitors themselves, and the influence they exert over their followers.
Consumers now have the opportunity to engage directly with companies by lodging a complaint on Twitter or becoming a "super reviewer" on Yelp or TripAdvisor.
The change is so profound that Canadian marketing guru Terry O'Reilly tweaked the title of his highly popular CBC podcast from The Age of Persuasion to Under the Influence. As O'Reilly put it in a podcast episode from last summer: "A lot has changed in the world of marketing since we started our radio show back in 2005. We began the same year as YouTube. Back then, there was no podcasting, no iPhone, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Snapchat and no Pinterest. Facebook was just one year old. One of the reasons we retooled our show and changed the name was to reflect this upheaval in the marketing world—this shift from persuasion to influence."
Pre-social media, O'Reilly says, "Celebrities from sports or Hollywood were used as pitch-men to sell products. They were the 'influencers' of their day. Today's most successful influencers are regular people who have become massively popular by offering their opinions, tips, recommendations and expertise online. They are bloggers, Instagrammers, YouTube stars and Snapchatters. Influencers attract huge audiences by creating a constant stream of original content. They use their own voice, their own personal channels and their own aesthetic to create that content."
While it's well known by now that the realms of Facebook and Twitter have increasingly become the landing spot for heated political discourse, the dreamy, heavily curated world of Instagram offers a much-needed dose of escapism. Logging on immediately transports you to saturated sunsets, turquoise waters, perfect waves and deep, deep powder. In the early days of Instagram (before it was polluted by bots trying to sell you 10,000 followers for $75), the platform was truly a passion project—a community of photographers both amateur and professional who liked each other's images, came up with wacky hashtags and captions to describe their adventure, and freely exchanged tips with each other, growing the platform organically from within.
Pintucci came to Instagram in its early days. "Exploring has always been a passion of mine. I've lived, worked and travelled to 35 countries all before I was 25. Photography was a way for me to document my travels, and, to be fair, when I started I really sucked. But after spending more and more time on it, I got lost in the therapy of using my camera outdoors."
She would use the platform to share deeply personal stories that she found soon resonated with others. "I always felt like no one understood me—but I quickly realized that most people can empathize with my feelings and experiences because we all go through the same emotions as humans. My community started from there."
Tourism marketers who had been slow to react to previous advancements in digital media have embraced Instagram, and now go directly to the most successful posters to co-create marketing campaigns. Destination Canada—the country's government-owned national marketing arm—even brought California-based photographer and "top travel influencer" Chris Burkard to B.C.'s Monashee Mountain range to shoot heli-skiing and snowboarding photos for his 2.9 million followers.
Last year, Tourism Whistler teamed up with Destination Canada to fund two short videos promoting the region, which aired on the Matador Network and the National Geographic Channel, respectively.
"The creative team at (Whistler marketing firm) Origin Design suggested bringing together two high-profile personalities from Whistler and Seattle, both of whom are influential in their own area," explains Tourism Whistler's VP of marketing Kirsten Homeniuk.
In one of the videos, Whistler photographer and pro mountain biker Mason Mashon showed Seattle watercolour artist and skier Mimi Kvinge around Vancouver and the Sea to Sky corridor. This four-minute clip airs as sponsor content on Matador's home page and actively targets the Seattle market.
Though National Geographic might be known to older generations for its conservatively designed, yellow-bordered monthly magazine that's been in continuous circulation since 1888, its Instagram account boasts 42 million followers, and the brand has a strong, active online presence through its website. In a sense, National Geographic is the prime example of what's known as a multi-platform publisher; it produces an array of books, magazines, television shows, and websites, and has grown incredibly popular on social media.
For the National Geographic Channel spot, outerwear brand North Face sponsored Colorado rock climber Emily Harrington, who scaled several pitches around the corridor along with exploring a network of ice caves in Pemberton and riding the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish. The collaboration combined North Face's widespread brand awareness with National Geographic's massive distribution network.
"Sponsored content that features influencers like Emily, Mason and Mimi resonates with people because there's a story behind it, it's not just an ad," says Homeniuk, adding that Tourism Whistler retains exclusive rights to use the footage in the future.
Destination BC—the provincial government's tourism marketing arm—has been at the forefront of leveraging influencers to assist with their social media channels. As the organization's "influencer marketing specialist," it's Josie Heisig's job to keep up with the ever-evolving trends in social media.
"With the decline in traditional advertising and the increase in the number of people installing ad blocking software, social media is a really powerful tool for us to reach potential visitors to British Columbia," Heisig says. "In tourism marketing, word-of-mouth is extremely important, and people tend to respond better to authentic storytelling—especially in social media."
Destination BC utilizes influencers—and their valuable range of followers—in a number of strategic ways. Unlike travel writers of old, social media influencers tend to know their respective areas of interest and their audience through and through, building a strong regional base of loyal followers.
"There's a wide range of influencers out there. Some seek financial payment while others are happy to post about their experiences or create content in exchange for being hosted at a hotel," Heisig says. Destination BC typically seeks licensed, long-term usage rights to an influencer's photos and videos while on assignment, and most of the individuals it works with are full-time, professional content creators paid for their services.
"The photos and videos they create are sometimes the centrepieces of our marketing campaigns. We often build an online paid advertising strategy around these influencer photos and videos to make sure they are being seen by as many people in our target audiences as possible," adds Heisig. "In this way, working with influencers can be more like hiring a photographer or videographer, rather than a traditional media hosting relationship. In the cases where we're aiming to reach a specific audience online, you could think about working with an influencer as similar to other forms of digital advertising."
This would seem to blur the very lines between "influencer" and "advertiser" that traditional media has always sought to keep separate.
In order to fully comply with federal advertising standards, photos and stories appearing on an influencer's social media page must be clearly labeled as part of a paid partnership. It is worth noting, however, that the sponsored content typically blends in seamlessly with other images in the photographer's feed. It's a fine balancing act when it comes to protecting the integrity of both the influencer and the brand they're working with.
In 2017, negative press surrounding the growing trend of "buying followers" resulted in changes in how Destination BC screens its potential media visitors and content partners. Heisig gives the example of someone who might have 100,000 followers, but doesn't get the engagement that would be expected from such a large following. "The alarm bells go off for us if they aren't getting many likes or comments on their posts," explains Heisig. "We are also looking for people who respond to questions from their fans in a meaningful way. We analyze their audiences to make sure their followers are in our key geographic markets. We are looking for people who have a high level of engagement on their accounts."
These days, most marketers are moving away from attracting the Beyoncés and Kim Kardashians of the social media landscape and honing in on "micro influencers," whose numbers are small but still influential. Heisig points to a recent "big win" after working with Lyndsey Eden, a Victoria-based food and wine blogger. "Not only was her content seen organically by approximately 9,000 British Columbians who have an interest in culinary touring, she also had an engagement rate of 40 per cent on her posts. Typically, for an account of her size, an engagement rate of 2.4 per cent is a healthy objective, so 40 per cent is an incredible result.
"Measuring success on influencer activities is similar to measuring success with other forms of digital advertising: it depends on the objective. Generally, we measure the reach and engagement of every post. We also review how many tourism businesses an influencer links to, and/or how many on-brand images or video clips were created as a result of the trip."
Sometimes overlooked by more mature, traditional tourism marketers, YouTube is hugely popular with the younger demographic. Heisig mentions the recent visit by a popular YouTube influencer named Sam Kolder to Whistler, Vancouver and Victoria.
"So far, already 300,000 people have viewed his video organically. There were also 173,000 engagements on all the #ExploreBC content he published in YouTube and Instagram, which really speaks to how influential he is with our target audience," she says. "We are now building a campaign around targeting the people who have viewed his video with additional B.C. messaging to encourage them to book a trip here."
The big question that many erstwhile Grammers, bloggers, and Tubers have is: "Can I quit my day job and do this all day long?"
Pintucci, for her part, is optimistic.
"I do know people that do this full time. But it's so much work!" she says.
Even when it looks like living the dream.