Imagine you’re planning a trip to Asheville, NC with some friends. With the goal of making it an epic vacation, you start a quick Google search to get some ideas. The first result that populates is “6 Cool Things to do in Asheville” by Forbes. You quickly scan over the recommended list, which includes the Biltmore Estate, Blue Ridge Parkway, Grove Park Inn, etc. These all sound like great ideas, but why wouldn’t they? Hypothetically, you’ve never been to Asheville before, so any idea is naturally going to be novel. By the tenth article, you realize that you’ve essentially seen the same list of places with only slight variances in rank and order. The frustration sets in.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that these are bad ideas (Sipping wine at the vineyard of a historic tycoon’s castle? Sign me up!), but where does one go to discover those unique, off-the-beaten-path experiences? We don’t want our Instagram feeds to look like we took the basic tour and went home.
This is where social media influencers have most remarkably changed how we travel, particularly on image-focused, social platforms like Instagram and Pinterest that drive the discovery of and visitation to these so-called hidden gems. Images and videos help you visualize what it looks like to visit a place or eat at a restaurant or stay at a hotel, and what you will look and feel like doing the same. In fact, one study found that 40% of people between the ages of 18 and 33 choose vacation spots based on “Instagrammability.”
Have you ever heard of Marfa? What about the “I love you so much” sign in Austin? If it weren’t for the influencers who snapped shots in front of these iconic Instagrammable places, you probably wouldn’t have ever known about them. Because of this recent trend, many tourist destinations are actively leveraging influencers to boost visitation and seeing positive visitation lift as a result. Take Wanaka, New Zealand for example:
Wanaka, a small town in New Zealand, began to actively pursue social media influencers. They achieved a 14% increase in tourism, and thanked Instagram for its role in that accomplishment.
Another example is Trolltunga, a rock formation in Odda, Norway:
Between 2009 and 2014, visitors to Trolltunga increased from 500 to 40,000 in what many consider a wave of social media-fueled tourism. Now six years old, Instagram has more than 500 million active users sharing an average of 80 million photos a day. Clearly, we have an appetite for imagery, and it’s influencing our travel decisions.
It also helps that the algorithms built into social platform feeds are designed to prioritize the content that’s most relevant to you based on what or who you have engaged with in the past. This is where search engines typically fall short.
And it’s not just consumers who are being influenced by the imagery being shared on these social platforms, it’s media companies, too.
If you’re an Oklahoman, chances are you hadn’t heard of Nonesuch prior to August 2018. That’s when Bon Appétit Magazine named Nonesuch, a 22-seat restaurant in OKC, the #1 best new restaurant in the country. All because a writer discovered the restaurant on Instagram:
I stumbled upon Nonesuch while swiping through Instagram during one of those late-night sessions I do after my wife falls asleep. The food on its feed looked beautiful and artistic and progressive, the kind of dishes you might find in Copenhagen or Tokyo or New York—but not necessarily the Great Plains. I Googled it. The results were meager. No big write-ups. No national press. And definitely no press release about it in my in-box. I started to wonder whether my internal restaurant radar was broken. How could something that seemed so compelling have so little buzz? Should I really book an out-of-the-way plane trip to Oklahoma based off a few well-lit Instagram photos? Thankfully, curiosity got the better of me. And six weeks later, as I stepped out into the sticky OKC air after that first dinner at Nonesuch, I was ecstatic and grateful.
Nonesuch has been on a perpetual waitlist ever since.
Beyond organic discovery via the social feed, hashtags and geotags help connect the dots between users and potential places of interest. Basically, an Instagrammer can tag, or associate, his or her post to a specific location or hashtag. When the Instagrammer’s followers see the post, they now have ability to click on the location or the hashtag to find other related content. Additionally, when a user searches for a specific place or hashtag, all the associated posts populate as curated content with the most popular posts featured at the top.
These influencers’ visual storytelling techniques, coupled with the functionality of visual search, are filling a need with generations that seek experiences over things. Audiences want to know what the coffee looks like in a double-decker bus, how the live bands sound in the town square, what’s it’s like to sip wine while perusing first edition books – all things you can do in that afore-mentioned trip to Asheville that you’d never find in a listicle.