The Yelp Elite Party Kiss of Death
In Melbourne, online review platform Yelp holds parties to reward their elite users, freebies where their high performing members get to sample the wares of Melbourne’s restaurants. Yelp’s elite are their best users who are handpicked for the frequency and quality of their online reviews, Yelp’s unpaid labour that earns each elite member some degree of influence.
The parties are replicated by Yelp the world over and for businesses have the same basic premise: that having these influencers in your business will improve the business’s prospects on Yelp. There’s good data to suggest that in other markets, a change in average Yelp scores has a causal effect on the profits of a business, so in theory, it should work well for restaurants.
In Melbourne, it marks a restaurant for death.
Senoritas, Joe’s Cafe, Virginia Plain, Orto Kitchen and Garden all closed post their Yelp parties. Happy Palace changed from offering an “ironic”/racist take on Chinese food to a paint-by-numbers burger bar. I’d hardly say that the Yelp parties are causing the closures and the correlation may have to do with a restauranteur having reached a point where they’re willing to try anything to market their business. The problem is that they’re not changing the status quo nor giving restaurants a boost that ensures their long-term viability. The failure rate is probably close to industry average which would mean the long term impact of this form of influencer marketing on a restaurant is zero.
Influencer marketing for food and travel either does nothing or its impact is so marginal that almost any other form of marketing is vastly superior.
The best travel bloggers money can buy
Over the last four years, I was social media manager at a destination marketing organisation, Tourism Victoria. I was the person that upon whom every travel blogger pitch would eventually land. As a social media manager, every travel blogger that you see is up for sale. About a year in, based on a huge body of research and a few campaign successes, I decided not to support any influencer marketing at all. No more freebies from my pocket, and as much as I could, discouraging it from everyone else in the whole state.
Over that four year period, international arrivals grew by 7.8%, outpacing the Australian national average of 4.3%. Domestically, it was a similar story. It’s unlikely that the decision not to do influencer marketing caused this but it certainly didn’t hurt. It also meant that I could focus on things that had more easily measurable results.
There was an inevitable backlash from bloggers. I particularly like this post from Caz and Craig Makepeace, who after I refused to bankroll their family holiday to Wilsons Promontory complain that:
But why haven’t I, or almost everyone else I’ve spoken to from NSW and other states out of Victoria, been there or heard of it?
For one, Tourism Victoria does a crap job at promoting their state. That’s evidenced by the fact that we only planned on being in Victoria for one month because we thought the state would be boring besides Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road, and possibly Phillip Island.
Tourism Victoria were doing such a crap job that where they were planning on staying in Wilsons Promontory was fully booked when they arrived.
We were super-annoyed that we didn’t plan better and book ahead for accommodation. We just turned up expecting to get a camp site and pitch our tent.
But with Wilsons Prom being popular with Victorians we had no chance of getting a powered tent site.
I’ve paid attention to what other destination marketing organisations are doing. Room 753 in Queensland; where influencers were invited for a customised, all-expenses paid visit to the Gold Coast. They held the world’s biggest Instameet with a reach of 22 million which would be the equivalent of 10% of Instagram if it was reach to unique users. The Human Brochure campaign in ACT which invited hundreds of influencers to experience Canberra and frankly, I thought was a great campaign from a state with a small budget willing to back a big idea. At the other end of the scale is Thailand’s BFF mega famil, where 900 journalists, bloggers and travel industry types got the best international junket that a military dictatorship could buy.
It hasn’t shifted the underlying problems anywhere whether they be dated tourism infrastructure and experience, the underlying wrong perception that a destination is boring school excursion territory or beachside murders during the first military coup that looks to have worn off the teflon. I can’t find any destination that has shown a measurable improvement over the past 5 years as a result of giving away free travel to anybody with an above average social following.
Both ACT and Queensland have lagged behind the other Australian states for tourist arrivals and expenditure. The states that are more heavily invested in influencer marketing are going backwards roughly proportional to what they’re spending on it.
What if they all picked the wrong influencers?
In social media, there are no right influencers, insofar as somebody’s past performance is not predictive of their future performance and the most cost effective strategy is to target a massive number of average- or below average influencers(pdf) rather than cherrypicking from the top. This looks more like traditional mass marketing than influencer marketing.
But we got a lot of Likes
This is the end slide of every case study in social media influence in the travel industry. A number in the millions followed by a measure unique to a social media platform and a giant blue thumbs up. A reach the size of a medium sized nation-state. It’s rare to see a solid measure of effectiveness like sales, arrivals or even something vague but measurable like brand awareness or sentiment. It is straightforward to measure this with independent pre- and post-trip surveys of an influencer’s audience and thanks to Facebook and Twitter, it is cheap to target those audiences with a survey. But virtually nobody does.
Influencer marketing is a grand distraction for the tourism industry but at least it is one that seems mostly confined to industries that don’t traditionally hire people who study maths. There’s a reason that you don’t see many finance bloggers getting a free home loan. It is probably illegal.