As the creator, curator and publisher of all of Visit Kansas City’s (also known as Visit KC) CVB, Carolyn Anderson knows a thing or two about influencers. The Social Media Manager has worked with creators from a wide array of verticals in a variety of projects. After her presentation at the destination marketing event eTourism Summit, we spoke with Anderson to get a glimpse into how she sets the influencer strategy at Visit KC and how she decides who would be the best partners.
Sightseer: Diving right in, why do you see influence in marketing as important both for Visit Kansas City and also specifically for your own role?
Anderson: As a CVB, we are very aware of the fact that we obviously have a ton of content, expertise and experience selling our city, if you will. But what is great is to get those kind of perspectives from people that haven't experienced Kansas City before or are experiencing it in a different way than maybe us as individuals haven't considered before because they’re different ages or have different interests, different pursuits. It's a really valuable way to expand the knowledge that we have and get that credibility from a new source.
In the case of our influencer campaign this summer, we worked with four social media bloggers from Chicago. They took the very easy flight from Chicago to Kansas City and spent about two and a half days seeing some of the best food, drink and shopping options that we have here. It was really good to get their first timer or new impression perspective.
How does it help my job? To get more advocates, voices and perspectives that are different from my own is very valuable. I'm still human behind that social media screen. I am experiencing things differently than someone else, and it's really great to get a broader spectrum of experiences shared through influencers.
S: When it comes to finding your influencers, do you only work with travel creators?
A: So one of our key takeaways when presenting at the eTourism presentation was to think outside the travel vertical. It's very tempting to take the content of someone who has traveled the world and knows how to share an experience within a city. But there's also a fresh perspective that can be gained from a broader lifestyle blogger perspective or perhaps one that is lifestyle, but their favorite thing is to travel through eating food. Working with a variety of different bloggers allows their story to resonate with a wider array of potential visitors who may be interested in searching for that information. If I'm traveling, I might type in ‘best Mexican restaurants in Kansas City,’ for example. One of our bloggers created a recipe inspired by their trip, and that unique impact travel has on food is fun and something unique she was able to bring. So extending beyond the travel vertical is a really valuable way to get niche interests and reach more people.
S: There’s a lot of confusion around paying versus just providing a free experience. How do you handle compensation of influencers?
A: We're kind of split on this as an industry. Some people just don't believe in compensation when you provide the travel or provide free meals, tickets and things like that. At a minimum, I definitely believe paying for their experiences when they’re here is a no-brainer. However, beyond that, we have started to do formal contracts and working with our agency of record.
This helps in a couple different ways. First, we are finding influencers that are more in-demand, and for good reason, The quality of their writing and photography tend to be better. Additionally, we are asking a lot of them: their time while they're here plus the work that goes into providing those assets and stories post-visit along with access to their audience.
If you are paying, my advice is start out by giving the highest and best offer. You know what you have to spend, and it probably is not a flexible number, so don't try to make it one. Many times that is a perfectly amount. Even if they do ask for more, and we’re unable to provide it, they still end up typically expressing interest in working with us in some capacity. We have just found that it helps elevate the influencer’s experience and their respect for us as a CVB as well.
S: When it comes to the actual planning of influencer campaigns, what does that look like internally?
A: We do one big influencer campaign a year, in the summer typically to align with high-travel season, and the planning starts about one quarter in advance. This encompasses research to trip finalization to their actual visit. It's not all I work on for that quarter, but these things take time.
S: What are some of the tactics that you utilize when going through those planning stages?
A: We start with the big campaign idea and, regardless of who we end up working with, what we want them to experience and what Kansas City story do we want to tell. Last year, we focused heavily on the sports, family, and outdoor experience that you can have in Kansas City. This year, we wanted to kind of switch up the story and tell a different perspective, like I mentioned earlier. We wanted to have a female voice to showcase a weekends with the ladies with the goal of highlighting dining options, activities and attractions may appeal to people that look like those influencers’ followers.
That's another thing you should keep in mind when you're selecting the influencers and researching the influencers. Their followers are used to a certain type of content from those influencers, so we want to ensure that their experience is authentic to what they would be interested in. That goes into the research and reservations that we make at restaurants and things like that. We want the experience to be one they may do on their own, even though we're hosting their experience in Kansas City.
S: Sometimes influencer programs end up getting lumped in with press trips, which isn’t too shocking. From a quick glance they do sound very similar. But I know that was something you warned against during your eTourism presentation.
A: Press trips are not something I've worked directly on as much as influencer trips, but the experience is quite different. Press trips that I have been a part of have oftentimes been larger groups - like twenty people in shuttle busses. Or, secondly, it's one person and they are flying in on behalf of their publication and are experiencing this city on their own terms, writing the story that they are charged with writing. In that case, we have very little contact with them outside of booking their travel. They’re not obligated to take photos and document their experience while they're here. Compare that to an influencer program, where there's a longer chain of marketing possibilities because they market the city while they're here and then they write the content and share the assets following their visit to extend the efforts of what they were doing.
It's just sort of a different audience, a different mindset, and ultimately, the destination of that content is different as well. The assets that are procured and provided by the influencers are assets that we can use here at KC. The story itself ends up on the blog or the website of the influencer versus a publication geared towards another specific audience.
S: Speaking of expectations, how do you set those for the influencers? And are there any guidelines they have to follow when working with you?
A: We want to make sure it's worth their time but also worth our investment. And we want to make sure that this is not a flash in the pan, one and done, temporary story that’s gone in 24 hours campaign. We ensure that we get access to assets, which includes photography, video, and their writing. Also, we want to ensure that we're getting the amount that we would like. We outline that in the contract, and they have to sign that contract so that they know that they are obligated to fulfill it in order to get payment.
We also have a code of conduct. We chose the influencer for a reason, and that's because we felt like their style, tone and voice would compliment our destination. If they change that dramatically while they're here, that's going to be quite a shock to what we were expecting to provide to our audiences along with affecting the impression on followers of the destination. So, we outline what we saw on their channels that we liked along with the the tone and direction that we're expecting to see when they’re here.
S: When it comes to measurement, what are you looking at as defining success? Do you also outline any specific goals and metrics that you also outline for the influencer? And how do you go about tracking those metrics?
A: First, we want to make sure that we have content that we can work with well beyond their visit and their time here. And then the goals are typically based on a combination of numbers estimated by our agency of record on the campaigns that they've done in this industry in terms of influencer marketing. But, in addition to that, now we have two years of influencer visits to compare against. We've focused on impressions and engagements, which reflect audience interest in what that influencer is doing in our city. I personally want to ensure that no matter how many impressions we get, the engagement number continues to rise year-over-year with these influencer trips because that, to me, is an extra indicator of interest.
S: You mentioned your most recent campaign was around having a weekend getaway featuring women. The photos and results you got seem really impressive. Can you walk me through that one a bit more?
A: To start, we knew that we wanted to bring them in from Chicago. That is a great fly-in market for us that we've identified. It's a 53-minute flight, so it makes sense for people to come to Kansas City for a weekend when they're coming in from Chicago. We wanted to identify that market. And then, within that market, our agency of record helped us identify prominent influencers, backing up to the point of lifestyle influencers. They're not just travel focused. And we found these four influencers that we felt would balance the story telling between all types of things that you can do in Kansas City; eat, drink, shop, experience the creative scene, things like that.
So, once we started doing the research, I found four influencers that to me had that magic mix of a strong following, but more importantly, strong writing, strong photography and a style that we felt would tell the Kansas City story in a positive and authentic way. I mean, that's another big thing too: these influencers and the influencers I value working with are very authentic and aren't afraid to tell it like it is. And in this case they really liked Kansas City. So, we appreciated that it was a positive experience.
We have a pretty good idea of what an optimal itinerary could involve and what's feasibly and logistically possible in a two and a half day time frame. You don't want it to be so packed to the gills that they're too exhausted by the end of day two to even talk about the dessert that they're eating or the hotel that they're staying at. You want to space it out, remembering that these are people with needs for breaks and needs for rest and relaxation. So we built an itinerary that balanced the best of what we have with moments for them to go out on their own as well. We didn't want to be on their side 100% of the time. We were there most of the time though.
We also made sure to work with members and partners that are flexible and understand that the reservation is for a group of influencers. So, I'm just being sure that the places that we select are going to be helpful because it's not the most typical arrangement when four giant photographers come out and are taking pictures of oysters and all sorts of staged shots that tells a story. That takes some time and effort and patience from the members and partners involved. Plus, now they're going to get some great marketing out of it as well.
Ultimately, this particular campaign ended up in Chicago. Where they're home, they were able to say, hey, we're bringing Kansas City UP to Chicago now that we're headed back. We've just experienced it, so now we want you to see it, too. So we had a speakeasy underground in Chicago to put our money where our mouth is and say, hey, this is what we were saying we've got. Here's our music, here's our great food and why don't you come experience it for yourself.
S: Lastly, looking back at the past year and looking forward to the rest of 2018 and beyone, what are some influencer marketing shifts you’re anticipating? How do you think this form of marketing, which seems to be ever-changing, ever-growing, how to you see that evolving?
A: Looking local will be a really valuable approach for many CVB's and one that I would like to do as well. I think that local influencers are actually going to know their destination inside and out. And who doesn't want to hear from a local -- where their favorite places and things to do are? It's a really authentic voice to share a destination story. So, I think looking to locals for influencers will be a big asset for businesses and industries such as my own.