A recent exposé by Vice on TripAdvisor’s ratings system vulnerabilities to fake reviews and fraud, raises fresh questions on the value for travel brands of relying on online ratings and social media promotions. It also shines a light on a uniquely human characteristic that makes these systems work so well, even if they can be gamed.
For any unfamiliar with the incident of the Shed at Dulwich, it began as a Venus fly trap of sorts.
Before turning to journalism, the owner of the shed had earned his money writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor for legitimate restaurants, and watching how those reviews of experiences he’d never actually had helped boost the performance of those locations.
This..let’s call it creative writing experience..led him to ponder whether he could promote the shed in his back garden to the spot of London’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor. There was one important catch: the shed was not a restaurant, nor did he ever intend it to be.
Through a convoluted series of deceptions which included fake Instagram quality shots of inedible dishes, no shortage of orchestrated fake reviews written by real people to thwart TripAdvisor’s quality checks, and outright media manipulation, Ooba Butler succeeded, albeit briefly, until TripAdvisor caught up with him.
This may be the most creative and amusing instance of fraud in the travel reviews space, but it is hardly the first. In fact, those which take place day-to-day, have led to the creation of a lucrative industry for purchased clicks, comments and likes - all of which raise questions over the misuse of these platforms.
As consumers become more savvy about social media manipulation, can things like influencer marketing, or social media campaigns, have any lasting value?
During a special session entitled ‘When is a follower not a follower?’ at WTM London last November, Michael Ball, co-founder of Traverse shared his views on what travel brands might do to ensure that any so-called influencers they work with have a legitimate following. He highlighted the importance of looking at their follower growth, when it peaks and when it plateaus:
“Ask people for their followers. They should not have anything to hide. Even when they are being featured somewhere, it does not happen that quickly. [If there’s a dramatic change] ask them [why]. It might be [something] perfectly legitimate, such as changing to black and white pictures or from covering beaches to covering cities.
“Don’t worry if the influencers you want to work with are not the biggest. Think about the best fit for you business but first. Think about why are you doing it and who for?..If you only have a certain amount of budget you really need to think about whether it’s new audiences, traffic to the website, newsletter sign-ups, bookings and reach. Don’t pick someone just because a rival brand has worked with them. Have a look who they are following and who they are engaging with, does their content fit with your brand? Are they multi-channel?”
Looking at multi-channel engagement helps fraud-proof your brand, because those who engage in this kind of platform gaming earn very little for their individual content contributions and have no financial incentive to be creative or genuine. Even if they share content on more than one social media site, they may re-purpose posts.
Shea Carter, vice president, social and experiential marketing at MMGY Global company NJF, emphasizes that the goal of brands should always be to partner with influencers who take their jobs seriously, and who focus on authentic engagement. Carter also believes that many travel brands may be led astray by looking at the wrong metrics when evaluating influencers.
“Followers is a vanity metric. If all you’re looking at is followers you’re not really getting the true perspective on whether that person has influence.
“The biggest thing is that you can’t expect to work with influencers and have that be your only marketing tactic. On an integrated campaign, it’s important that we’re telling a whole story, rather than only one piece of the puzzle; that we’re getting the message out in a way that speaks to the audience.”
Carter believes that it’s important for brands to acknowledge to themselves why they use influencers in the first place: as creative contributors to brand messaging. This means that they must not just pick people at random from social media only because they have a vast (possibly bot-fuelled) audience. Instead, she recommends viewing influencers as professional freelancers who take their social media publishing career seriously.
“It’s about content curation and having a real eye and point of view.”
Carter believes that these creatives should be paid, contracted to deliver appropriate curated content, using the influencer’s own developed brand voice. This puts influencers in a different category of creatives from copywriters. It also separates influencer content from earned-advertising through independent journalist coverage.
“This is controversial. We pay them. We treat them like freelancers and we look at them as content creators. We have contracts with our influencers that very clearly outline our expectations, and give them guidance. They don’t relinquish editorial control, but we give them direction. They don’t just want to be sent on a trip, but they want to deliver on the best possible content for the clients to meet their expectations..it’s really important to have those contracts listing the number of posts, and code of conduct.”
In Carter’s experience, the group of people who take their influencer role seriously, as a profession, are more genuine because they get into the experience. They carefully consider the presentation of the product, to cast it in the best light. They often meet up with others who do the same type of creative promotion on their trips, and that builds a sense of community and fun which is infused into their social media output. They also build relationships with their clients which may result in posts written after the contract is done, simply because they did enjoy the product.
Carter does not believe there is an authenticity conflict in using paid professional influencers because she has tapped-in to a reality of social media sharing that perhaps travel brands ignore and that review sites and social media platforms may want to ignore too: most of the audience already knows that “influencers” are “influenced”.
Be it by perks, or pay, few people look at these posts as objective reporting, nor does that matter to the audience. Influencer marketing is a branch of native advertising, and the audience—especially a skeptical younger audience—generally accepts that.
Despite its aims, what the Vice story ultimately proves (and what keeps the paid-clicks and review fraud industry growing) is that the appeal of influencer marketing is aspirational. People want to enjoy the lives of social media storytellers. But popularity is not a measure of aspirational value. If anything, the more popular something is, the less aspirational it becomes.
What helped the Shed at Dulwich ultimately rise to number one was not the fake reviews. It was the creative energy put into the whole of the effort: from the dodgy food images, to the “moods” menu, to the conspiratorial celebrity recommendation by Shaun Williamson. In effect, the Shed proved that creative campaigns work. Whether that power is used for good or evil is a perpetual question for advertisers to ask themselves.
The Shed also confirms something we already know about human nature: humans crave experiences that are exclusive, difficult to acquire, and that put them in a coveted “inner circle”. Cliques are an integral part of how we click.
The greatest ranking booster of the Shed at Dulwich was that you couldn’t get a table. The more Oobah refused to take reservations, the more people who considered themselves influential—people in seats of power in their own social circles—offered anything to get in.
Even after Oobah acquiesced and opened his shed to a select group of patrons, who were served ready-meals, he couldn’t burst the bubble. As he writes:
"Yeah, so about availability," the lady says. "Now that we’ve been once, is that easier?"
"Yeah, is it easier for us to book a table now?" her husband jumps in.
"Yeah, it would be nice to come again.”
No one can admit the emperor is naked.
This is the key take-away for travel brands, because aspiration is integral to the travel business.
Aligning the brand with genuinely engaged boutique influencers, who have a curated audience of “insider” followers, who fit the brand’s targeted market niche, is more likely to build that covetable buzz than a sloppy high-volume spam campaign that reaches millions of people (or bots) with limited interest in anything you have to offer.
Never use a megaphone when a whisper will do more good.
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Image by Brooke Lark