Why You Shouldn’t Trust Travel Bloggers

Travel blogs are a great way to help plan a trip. From information to inspiration, nearly every destination has many bloggers like ourselves writing about their adventures in amazing places. You may follow your favourite bloggers on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. There is nothing wrong with this (please don’t unfollow us) but take a moment and keep reading so you can properly understand how you are being leveraged.

This week, an Irish hotel owner hit the headlines for publicly “shaming” a blogger who wrote asking for a free stay for an upcoming trip to Dublin in exchange for “exposure” (link). The blogger/YouTuber describes her job as a “social influencer”. In a recent video about the controversy, she explained to her audience how it works. Companies that share her target demographic give her free things in exchange for exposure on her social media. She posts on Instagram or features it in a Youtube video and she’s fulfilled her obligation.

Now there is nothing wrong with advertising, right? Celebrities often appear on our TV screens trying to sell us products they have been paid to promote. The problem with social influencers and bloggers, is they are rarely upfront about why they are giving such recommendations. It makes it very difficult to discern what advice they are being paid to give you, and what advice is from their own experience.

For example, you may be reading a blog post: “The Top 10 Things to Do in Riga.” The blogger is likely going to pick a mix of non promotion related things as well as stuff they have a deal to include (for their benefit not yours). Their fancy restaurant recommendation maybe in exchange for a free meal but the War museum is a genuine tip. Oh, they have recommended a tour that they took, was it free? Did they pay? It’s easy to recommend something when you are not paying the €45 that everyone else has to pay.

The now infamous Fyre Festival is an example of when “social influencers” get it wrong. Organisers paid Instagram influencers thousands of dollars to promote this “luxury” festival in the Bahamas to their followers. The lowest tickets cost $1500, the highest was a $400,000 pass which included a dinner with a performer. It was an amazing social media campaign with hundreds of young people flying over for the “exclusive event”. What met them was nothing short of laughable. They were to stay in disaster relief tents, were served shockingly bad food, the performers cancelled and the festival didn’t go ahead. There is currently a class action lawsuit against the organisers.  

To pull it off, they did what any good marketer does nowadays. They chose the most influential, beautiful people on Instagram with the most followers, and they offered them money to post about their festival. These “famous on instagram” people are doing very little due diligence (if they even know how to) so their influence is basically sold to anyone willing to give them money.

I’m not saying brand/blogger/influencer relationships are all bad. I’ve seen it done right. You just need to realise that even the smallest travel blogs may be in a rush to monetize and the recommendations you are seeing may not be for your benefit.

I briefly worked for a bank in the UK, part of my job was to sell the upgraded, premium bank accounts. No matter what the customers personal situation was, I was to talk it over with them and then recommended the gold account as the best options for them. You see? I pretended I was an expert, by looking over their accounts to give them tailored advice, only to come to the same conclusion every single time.

These bloggers start out with the deal, the place they are obligated to sell and then work that backwards into a post to make it seem like they found the perfect recommendation. It’s fundamentally dishonest. I hated that job at the bank, just as I hate this part of travel blogging.

At what point is a fine tuned sales pitch hidden as a blog post acceptable? Disclosure? Can a review be honest when the product you are reviewing has been given for free?

Small travel blogs like ours get contacted by many companies, I can only imagine what big influencers are getting pitched. What part of the YouTube video you were watching has been paid to be included?

Full disclosure, we have been guilty of this, we are not innocent. When we first started out blogging, you read how bloggers can make a living from their influence. How companies are waking up and working with bloggers more and more. Every single time we delved into it, we didn’t like the content that came from it. It just wasn’t us. We pitched for a free stay in Borneo (https://global-goose.com/treetops-jungle-lodge/).

Treetops Jungle Lodge, Borneo

The stay was fine but I consider it one of our worst pieces of content. I’d have rather paid the $30 per night and felt less dirty about the whole thing. My current wallet is a freebie, I wrote about it here: https://global-goose.com/product-review-bellroy-travel-wallet/ . The wallet is fine, but the content is out of place for our blog. It has a tenuous connection to travel, but because it was offered, it seemed like an easy deal.

We have tended to steer away from this sort of content as much as possible. Companies have been in touch wanting us to get involved with “Travel Blogging Courses” so we can encourage you the reader to pay money so you can travel “just like us”. Some of the courses seem more legitimate than others. We’ve never been on a travel blogging course and we don’t believe you need to pay money to learn how to become a travel blogger.

You may notice when travel blogs give advice on travel insurance they will include a link. It’s usually to World Nomads. We have used them ourselves and they are fine. They are rarely the cheapest and I don’t know enough about travel insurance to recommend them as the best. Yet, others do. This is because they have a very good affiliate program, bloggers can make more commission recommending them than they can others. You are not being recommended this company based on their performance, but based on their commission rates. The bloggers here are wolves in sheeps clothing, because they tend to hide this commission link in a post where they give some legitimately solid travel tips and gain your trust.

Lastly I’ll give an example of where it can go wrong and a sense of what we are dealing with from a bloggers perspective. This post is from 2012, the same year we did our one and only free stay. The blogger tells of her recent experience in a “blog house” a shared accomodation situation in which experienced and successful bloggers lend their time to the newbies. She has had it drilled into her that her blog and her audience are a commodity so she should milk it for everything it’s worth. She arranges a 5 night free stay at a 4* hotel in Spain, only to realise after turning up that she doesn’t have the budget to eat there without getting free meals, town is too far away. She ends up hungry and miserable, regretting that she apparently sold herself short and didn’t push for a meal plan, ultimately using her “blogging influence” to obtain a free meal in the restaurant.

What did the hotel get in return? That post, a post that doesn’t even mention their name, that’s good exposure right? A post in which a blogger wallows in the misfortune of her own making. The sense of entitlement is shocking. This, as I see, is an attempt from the blogger to “get back” at the hotel for not giving her more free meals. She fulfils her obligation as an influencer, in an aggressive way, despite being given a nice meal and a 5 night stay. The audience this is influencing has no interest in this. It’s not for them you see. The deal was only for the benefit of the blogger and the hotel, the readers are the one who get nothing out of it. At least she is honest, it’s a blog post for sale. The insight into her mentality is what I took away from it.

The post above is an old example, I’m afraid it isn’t getting any better. The blog groups I am involved in obsess over monetisation and working with brands. The content, the advice isn’t priority, it’s the deal.

DISCLAIMER: I want to acknowledge that there are some great travel blogs out there, blogs that accept free stays and products in a responsible fashion and blogs that won’t compromise their views based on what they recieve from companies. This post is to show the nasty side of it, the darker inner workings that are happening on a daily basis among the many social media and blog channels we all follow.

 

Lee Carter

Born and raised in Accrington, UK, Lee has ventured far beyond his hometown, traveling throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, North America and New Zealand. He is the co-founder of Global Goose and as well as writing the occasional rant he can be found tweaking the code and taking photos of amazing things around the world. Lee and Kelly have no plans to stop their "Gap Decade" anytime soon.

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14 Comments

  1. Your blog post is definitely thought-provoking. I’ve been offered free things in exchange for reviews or articles on my blog. Some I’ve turned down, and others have worked out. They don’t always fit with travel, but I figure it’s okay to show another side of me besides my travel, since 80% of my time is spent at home living a normal life. I always reveal when I’ve been compensated, however, and I also give an honest review. For example, if the food wasn’t my favorite, I tell my readers that. If the admission is not something I would normally pay for, I tell them that, too…or I find Groupons or other ways my readers can get a cheaper price. The other thing to consider is that I am a grateful kind of person in general. It doesn’t take much to impress me, and I generally like a lot of different experiences. Most of the sponsored posts I write on my blog are either opportunities I sought out because I liked the venue…or I genuinely did like and appreciate the opportunity given me by the sponsored host.

    1. Thanks for the comment Tami, it seems you are thoughtful about recommending things you genuinely enjoy. You also don’t seem to be in it for the money/free stuff, which is what I think motivates the main culprits of what I have described above.

  2. You bring to light some very good points. However, in your message you don’t offer much in the way of light beyond a short “disclaimer” style message at the end. I completely agree that there has been a terrible trend of influencers touting products that they haven’t tried, destinations that they only “like” because they are paid to, and so forth. However, I believe those to be the exception rather than the rule. They are the loud voice in the quiet room filled with hard-working people who want to pass honest messages along and share their experiences to help others grow their own experiences. Money will always be a factor. But just because money, product, or service has been exchanged, doesn’t mean that a positive review needs to be guaranteed.

    1. Hi Kevin, it’s hard to gain a sense of perspective as there are thousands of blogs out there doing similar stuff. I do hope they are the exception, yet in my experience communicating with the travel blogging community online I have seen the debates on this topic and many seem to be a little to mercenary for my liking.

  3. Not sure what rules the EU or the UK have about this but in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission requires bloggers to state what kind of financial interest they have in a company they blog about.

    I’m continually amazed and horrified that many small bloggers (like myself) strictly adhere to the rules while many who make a good living as bloggers don’t.

    Glad you have found a path that works for you. Integrity feels better even if it is less lucrative.

    1. I’m happy that there are laws around this subject, it shows the authorities see the dangers. Enforcing them can be a whole other problem though.

  4. I guess there are all types of bloggers out there like in any field and you too have noted that in your Disclaimer paragraph. There certainly those who are honest to their profession and those who are not. Having said that it does look like a few bloggers are in a tearing hurry to make it ‘big’ .

    1. They unfortunately seem to be following in the footsteps of the more entitled bloggers who made it big using lousy practices. The problem is, it can work.

  5. Yes, this totally blew up in the world. Great exposure for them both! I do believe that you can review things even when you didn’t pay for it. On more than one occasion we were disappointed with the hotel we worked for and we had meetings with the managers to let them know that we will be honest in our review. We always have positives to share, but we also share things that we can pick up on. I actually think it is easier to pay because we don’t evaluate a hotel as critically as when we are working with them on a hosted basis. Just my opinion.

  6. Interesting read. Travel bloggers often get a bad rep and like you, I understand why. But I also have a pretty good filter – I can read something and usually tell if it’s been sponsored! Then I read the piece again to see if I can pick out anything that’s obviously been exaggerated or covered up.

    Also, many reviews do actually give negative comments about a product or hotel, and those are the ones I usually trust more because it gives me a chance to form my own opinion – what’s bad in one person’s eyes isn’t necessarily bad in mine!

  7. I firmly believe (as a travel blogger) that your audience are number one. And if you’re not genuine, honest or authentic with them, they are going to see right through you. I see it as my moral responsibility to promote and recommend products and experiences that I fully 100% believe in. I’ve turned down opportunities many a time, even though I’ve been offered decent payment to promote these things, because they’re simply not good enough for my readers.

    I know who my audience are and what they want – if I started promoting things that didn’t resonate or matter to them – they’d disappear quick. And when I do talk about something I’m in partnership with – I’m gonna talk about it warts and all.

    I love your honesty and just want to say to all the bloggers out there – Practice what you preach 🙂

  8. Thanks for pointing this out! I think a lot of people out there aren’t aware of brand relationships, even with disclosures. While I agree that there are lots of great bloggers out there who are able to do brand partnerships with integrity, the more the public understands the ramifications and parameters of partnerships, the better.

  9. Have you even been on the content creator side of things? If not – and really if you have – you’re making a whole lot of assumptions about how people work.

    First of all, let’s address that fact that comps in exchange for advertising is not new and most certainly didn’t start with travel bloggers. It’s been part of marketing strategy in the industry for years. Press trips are for precisely the purpose of inviting travel writers to a destination to create exposure for the destination. So I guess by your account, we shouldn’t trust what is in any travel guide book, travel section of a newspaper or any magazine either.

    Second, a true professional pitches with purpose. I am a full time travel blogger and my website is not only a business, but my livelihood. When I decide to pitch, I’ve done extensive research on the hotels, activities and anything else. It all fits my brand. These are hotels and activities I would pay for, have read up on to understand what I’m getting so that there are no surprises, and serve to cohesively create a story.

    For me, it’s absolutely not the reverse as you describe by just getting a freebie that I now am forced to fit in to my content.

    While this blogger’s pitch certainly needed some tuning to be more professional, she ultimately did nothing wrong. The hotel owner has done exactly this before starting an internet firestorm with breastfeeding moms and the entire country of Brazil. He marketing strategy is to shock with his utter classless online bullying.

  10. I kind of agree with several others above on how I wish you had offered more than just a minor disclaimer at the bottom. Dont get me wrong, there are bloggers out there who give the “influencer” industry a bad name. So many belong to marketing programs like a Blog house or an online MLM program or are just hyper agressive on their own.
    However, I do wish rather than constantly pointing out the bad you shared a few examples of the good bloggers to your readers. There are many who try not to compromise their readers or the purpose of their blogs. There are many who dont want to promote a course or products that they dont use personally or find beneficial.

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