Influencer marketing case study: the Italian Talks growth story
Back in February 2013, the Italian Talks blog was telling its “Italian stories by true lovers of Italy” in a quiet corner of the internet…the trouble was, few were listening.
The blog had been started in mid 2012 by Baglioni Hotels and was producing a steady stream of content about Italy and Italian culture.
But in the competitive world of blogging – an estimated 2,000,000 blog posts are published every day – it had acquired a mostly Italian (domestic) audience for posts written mostly by Italian writers. The rationale of developing a worldwide audience for Italian luxury travel brand Baglioni Hotels seemed some way off.
In early 2013 the site had minimal traffic and a low-key presence on social media.
Fast forward 3 years later to Spring 2016 and the prospects have been transformed. As you read this post, Italian Talks has 13,000 followers with a high-income international profile: the ideal audience for the blog’s owner, Baglioni Hotels as the Twitter analytics below confirm.
82% of Italian Talks followers like premium brands with a significant proportion of high net-worth individuals: right on target for a luxury hotel brand focused on unforgettable experiences and some of the world’s most stunning suites.
The rapid follower growth shown below was achieved organically with very few promos. It is a success story built on engagement and outreach. The vision for Baglioni Hotels developed from “our blog about Italy” (2013) to a “global social platform for Italy lovers hosted by us” (2016) and look at the results:
This trend shows that it is possible to grow organically on Twitter. The consistency of the trend is key because regular growth is more sustainable than spikes fuelled by promotions. Throughout this period, the Italian Talks blog has focused on outreach in every activity.
How exactly did Baglioni Hotels manage to grow its audience in such a targetted way within its valuable core market?
The story below reveals all in blow-by-blow detail. There are of course myriad ways to grow an audience on social media and the toughest challenge is to achieve this in just those segments you want to reach.
Identifying the right target audience
Baglioni Hotels wished to target not just on income but also “savvy travellers” seeking authentic Italian experiences, in harmony with the brand’s core values. It was key to address a global audience with a strong affinity for Italy – “Italy lovers”, wherever they happened to be. This emotional component was critical because Baglioni Hotels is one of the few authentic Italian family-owned hospitality brands.
They are uniquely placed to offer their guests a genuine Italian experience, since competitors are either international groups, “faux” Italian brands run by multinationals, or individual hotels without the resources to develop a brand philosophy to straddle varied locations.
The positioning of Baglioni Hotels is articulated by CEO Guido Polito in this recent interview, an extract is shown here:
As the above highlights, the Italian Talks project sprung from a desire to communicate authenticity – by staying with Baglioni Hotels you’ll experience the “unforgettable Italian touch” (the brand’s promise) in a way that will surprise, delight and fascinate you. And to do this in a subtle enough way that it can be conveyed through storytelling.
Storytelling to extend brand reach
The story begins in Milan in 2012. Piergiorgio Capozza and Luca Magni at head office are discussing strategies to “internationalise” the Baglioni Hotels brand. At this stage, the group already had many loyal overseas clients who became repeat guests, but sought a systematic tool to reach those markets. They touched upon “storytelling” – a powerful idea since each Baglioni Hotel has its own unique story based on its team and location. As we all know, storytelling is also a great way to communicate online.
The vision of CEO Mr Guido Polito as shown in the quote above was critical, since he was willing to put significant investment behind the project. With the onset of Italy’s economic slowdown, domestic luxury customers were spending less and the overseas drive became even more critical.
Research shows that blogs have a huge influence on purchase decisions: according to a study by Neilsen Research, “expert content” (which includes blogs) has 83% more influence than user reviews in the final purchase decision.
Such “expert content” is influential not just in the final purchase decision but also in the prior stages of familiarity and affinity building. Check out the original Nielsen study commissioned by inPowered in full here. The Italian Talks strategy built on this, with a special sauce added: massive social media outreach.
Early growth pains
The multilingual Italian Talks blog was launched in mid-2012. While this may seem a late entry to the world of blogging, few brands in Italy were blogging at the time and with such an ambitious global mindset. And the initial signs were promising, with the blog winning plaudits: Italian Talks was nominated for “Best Marketing Strategy” in the Worldwide Hospitality Awards 2012.
But there was a drawback. The Italian Talks concept was supposed to bring global fame, yet initially struggled to go beyond its borders for the following reasons:
- The travel blogging space is crowded. What made this blog special? Italian Talks like any blog needed to develop its own identity and voice.
- The first writers were good but almost exclusively freelancers with a fairly small audience that was mostly a domestic Italian one.
- The marketing and outreach activity was initially too focused on Italy.
So the idea at the beginning was a little too Italy-focused – Italian writers, Italian network, not enough outreach. A new strategy was needed.
That was when the Positive Partnerships team was brought in: to “globalise” the blog and with it build an international audience for Baglioni Hotels.
Worldwide influencer-led marketing
An influencer-led marketing strategy was adopted with a “super blog” approach inspired by Visit Britain and by our friend and collaborator Keith Jenkins, CEO of iAmbassador and the accomplished travel blogger behind Velvet Escape.
Visit Britain had the idea of identifying influential travel bloggers and inviting them to curate the official Visit Britain blog, with minimal interference.
The benefits of this collaborative approach are a more authentic voice and the opportunity to reach a bigger audience, since those same bloggers are likely to share this content among their own network. The blog then becomes a shared, open platform – less “our Italy blog” and more “a social network/blogging platform for Italy lovers hosted by us”.
This distinction is key and all companies need to ask: is it “our blog” or a multi-author shared blog that we facilitate?
The starting point was to find Italy-passionate bloggers willing to guest-write on Italian Talks, with the prestige of having their content published in Italian and English. And not just guest writers, but active contributors who would socialise, create an author profile and visit Baglioni properties to enjoy special privileges on their future trips to Italy.
This plan was implemented via a global network of handpicked Italy-oriented bloggers mostly outside Italy and especially from key strategic markets like the USA, UK and Australia. We formed win-win collaborative partnerships with these influencers (more details on how we did this below).
The vision was updated: more than a blog, Italian Talks morphed into a worldwide platform for Italy lovers.
We chose to focus on Twitter since the travel influencers in our core markets of USA, UK and Australia are very active on that platform. Avoiding the temptation initally to manage other social channels like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc. for Italian Talks had two advantages:
- Focus on one channel and do it well, be consistently active and engaged
- Transfer the Italian Talks audience to the existing Baglioni Hotels’ social channels on other platforms like Facebook (see below to see progress on this strategy – in 2016 we manage all social channels in an integrated way).
Exponential growth on social media through outward orientation
It was at that moment that we saw the numbers starting to climb (as highlighted in the graphic above) both in terms of followers and traffic. Over to Margie who runs the Italian Talks account:
“My aim in managing the Italian Talks social accounts is to offer benefits to our contributors and help promote their content as much as we promote our own. I want to be generous in the true spirit of Italian hospitality and treat our partner bloggers to exclusive benefits: exposure for their sites (and side projects), VIP treatment when they visit Italy (including luxury stays or gourmet experiences at Baglioni properties), a profile on Italian Talks to drive traffic back to them, features in offline publications (e.g. the Baglioni Hotels guest magazine) and many other benefits. Generosity and reciprocity are key.”
This outreach-focused blogging and social media strategy not only led to the exponential growth in followers already shown, but also had qualitative and brand benefits as summarised in the “New Digital Connections” slide below.
The development of a network of influencers for Baglioni Hotels is a priceless asset that can be leveraged across multiple channels over a sustained period. In our case this network is particularly strong across the United States, a market which has been growing for the brand in terms of direct website bookings.
But there was still a missing link in the early growth phase: not enough click-throughs to the Baglioni Hotels website.
Growing click-throughs through “showcase” blogs
Baglioni Hotels to their credit have a long-term vision and didn’t pressure us to start monetising the blog. But we were keen to direct traffic to the BaglioniHotels.com website to showcase their 5 star service and values.
The dilemma was to maintain the editorial integrity of the blog and not be overtly promotional – we didn’t want to alienate the contributors that had been so carefully nurtured. A subtle approach was key. So we introduced the idea of the “concierge tip” presented below each post.
A recommendation in the spirit of the Baglioni Hotels concierge relating to their nearest property which fits naturally into the context of the post it is connected to. For example:
It makes perfect sense in an article about a lesser-known district of Rome (“Strolling on the Aventine…”) to highlight the signature experiences that the Bagloni Hotel Regina concierge is able to organise for guests.
And similarly for visitors to Tuscany:
In the above post about a hidden gem Tuscan village (“Discovering Delightful Arezzo”) the concierge tip offers a very natural fit and a reason to click through to the Baglioni Hotels website. But it is low-key and contextual to the main post while also aiming to provide added-value travel ideas to readers.
We also began going a step further and developing content more directly referencing the hotels and offering a view behind the scenes through the eyes of a partner blogger.
It is clearly better to have an external voice talking about your assets than to do it yourself. So again we stayed true to the idea of arms-length promotion, giving our growing network of expert bloggers freedom to write in their own style. We hardly ever feel the need to edit our contributors’ content on Italian Talks.
The above Shopping with Cosimo post required us to arrange a tour with a blogger who accompanied the Head Chef of Baglioni Hotel Luna on a market shopping trip in Venice, helping him select the fresh local ingredients the Canova restaurant prides itself on. The experience was fully immersive as the chef then cooked a wonderful fresh lunch using local ingredients for the blogger, who also had a chance to participate behind the scenes and take a tour of the kitchen.
So the promotion of the hotel and its fabulous restaurant was indirect and contextual. The blog post was able to share this passionate chef’s philosophy through a unique exclusive experience which highlighted the great attention to detail practised as a matter of routine at Baglioni Hotel Luna.
The post above has been popular in terms of long-term traffic. This shows that brands should not be afraid to promote their own qualities. The key is to find a sufficiently engaging topic while giving complete freedom to a well-chosen external talent to execute. People love an emotional experience with a touch of exclusivity.
In a similar vein, the following post about the Baglioni Hotel London was contributed by a leading blogger and Instagrammer, Chiara Cecilia Santamaria, who had proposed and organised an event at the hotel:
The Book Art project post offers a great example of partnering with influencers in a way that maximises offline and online synergies. Our partner was an adept networker who brought many influential people to the event through her own proactive efforts. And she helped us follow up afterwards across all social media to ensure that we were able to shed light on the hotel as a fantastic venue, as well as on her own creative project.
Make no mistake: implementing these partnerships is hard work. But the strategy of driving click-throughs from the Italian Talks network to the Baglioni Hotels website has been successful as the following slide illustrates:
The pay-off for thinking big and creating an outward-focused blogging platform rather than a self-absorbed corporate blog is definitely there with a lot of hard work and persistence.
Thinking beyond your brand: content marketing = the new SEO
Baglioni Hotels has a bigger and much more ambitious vision than it strictly “needs” to have with Italian Talks. They think beyond merely publishing content centred around their own destinations and hotels.
It was important from the outset to develop a blog celebrating the whole of Italy, making an effort to source content about lesser-known destinations even where there is no Baglioni Hotel nearby. This helps the blog to to gain authority on social media and visibility across search engines as trusted source of tourism information for Italy.
In fact, it could be argued that blogging and social outreach as a tool of content marketing is the new SEO. At Positive Partnerships we have developed our “smiley-faced approach to SEO” based on the Baglioni Hotels model:
This approach is applicable to other hotel and travel brands. But it takes long-term commitment from the brand owner to make it happen. In this case the long-term perspective and global ambition of Baglioni Hotels has been impressive.
Measurable PR and capturing offline-online synergies
Some companies invest heavily online with a closed-loop approach: online activity is managed separately to their offline activity and operations. This approach can miss out on significant synergies. In the Italian Talks case we were keen to break the online/offline silo and deepen the relationships nurtured with Italy-loving influencers in several ways:
- Talk to each other every day via email, telephone, WhatsApp and not only via social media
- Meet in person where possible both in Italy and elsewhere, becoming a network facilitator (i.e. introducing them to others with common interests even where we didn’t stand to gain directly)
- Arrange exclusive benefits for them at Baglioni properties to coincide with their visits to Italy
A lot of travel brands try to do outreach reactively, responding to ad-hoc proposals from influencers in a piecemeal way; or worse, only contact them when they want to promote something.
By developing a long-term relationship based on an editorial partnership through their own blog, a brand like Baglioni Hotels earns the right to request favours at certain times because we are also taking every opportunity to grant favours and benefits to influencers via the ever-growing Italian Talks network, consistently every day. This quid-pro-quo barter relationship has more substance and durability than one based just on money.
It’s even better when online influencers can be brought together in groups to share a priceless exclusive experience, such as in the case of the “La Grande Bellezza Experience” which we organised in Rome in 2014 in honour of the Oscar-winning Italian film set in the same city:
Arranging this experience was a great opportunity to host several Italy-loving bloggers in Rome who all happened to be visiting the city at the same time, giving them personal experience of the value-added film location package of the same name that Baglioni Hotels had developed in honour of the Oscar-winning movie.
Collaborative blogs to maximise outreach and influence
While many travel brands organise press or blogger trips around their offering, the advantages in leveraging a structure like Italian Talks are significant:
- A long-term partnership was already in place with these bloggers so there was trust on both sides, with guaranteed coverage on their blogs as well as ours
- Italian Talks provided an ideal distribution channel to publish our own content as and when needed
- Maximise social media exposure before, during and after the event due to the ongoing nature of the relationship
- Dealing with bloggers rather than journalists makes it possible to tap into a more authentic, conversational voice
- Extra synergies and interaction on social media due to the fact that bloggers are hosted together at the same time, similar to iAmbassador’s Blogville concept
Finally, there is a more intangible benefit to this idea of long-term partnership leading to more receptive and mutually beneficial interactions: a sense of joint goals rather than merely “what’s in it for me”.
This idea was extended in 2015 in a similar vein by offering a classic 5 star Italian aperitivo experience at a different hotel (Baglioni Hotel Luna in Venice) and then implemented a variation of this outreach-oriented approach to maximise social media distribution.
It is also helpful to take a strategic, outward-oriented approach in selecting topics to feature on your blog.
For example, by selecting a suitable topic and finding expert content curators who are already influential in your market, you automatically guarantee social shares, distribution and traffic for your content, because each contributor will feel personally motivated (and hopefully proud) to share the content hosted by you.
This approach has been applied in several collaborative posts for example in our “Top 20 Photos of Rome from Italy Bloggers” post:
The contributors to the above post were of course all bloggers who have a love affair with Italy, ideal for our target market. By putting this post together as a collaborative effort we were able to leverage their networks in promoting the post while helping them where we could through our own connections.
This type of content is also evergreen and can be shared across multiple platforms, notably Instagram where Baglioni Hotels had launched a parallel social media contest using the hashtag #WhyILoveRome – in perfect harmony with the above blog post.
A similar exercise was undertaken when we discovered a great network of Italy-obsessed Facebook groups and constructed a post entitled “15 Awesome Facebook Groups for Italy Lovers” – this helped us reach out to a new audience, promoting their own content first in order to make them aware of our own. And as a by-product helping to raise awareness of the Baglioni Hotels brand among this prime Italy-loving audience in the USA.
Similarly, as we noticed that our client had great success with wine-oriented experiences at their hotels including an exclusive tour and tasting at Tuscan winery Rocca di Frassinello, a group of wine bloggers was contacted asking them to share a photo on the theme of their favourite Italian wine:
The above blog was promoted by contacting the contributors to the post requesting that they share it; which in most cases they were happy to do, as they were themselves included in the post, along with their peer group.
The work involved in these collaborative blog posts is significant. We need to conduct significant research to identify the key influencers within each niche, and then contact the bloggers in a personalised way – usually via email or social media. Sometimes we even jump on Skype to fine-tune the details.
This kind of “hustle” is time-consuming but forces you to make your blogging outward-oriented rather than self-obsessed. It means that traffic and lead generation is automatically built into your blogging strategy. It’s a very different approach to many brand or company blogs.
Advanced strategies and the road ahead
The next stage with Italian Talks in 2016 is to integrate it more closely with the existing Baglioni Hotels social channels, and to use the growing Italian Talks audience to help the brand develop awareness in new growth markets.
This challenge has been made seamless because we now support the management of all the brand’s social media channels. By having control of YouTube, Linked In, Facebook, Instagram and other channels we can apply the same outward-oriented, fun and conversational approach to the corporate brand and develop the group’s positioning as the go-to luxury tourism expert on Italy and the number one purveyor of authentic Italian hospitality.
At the same time, different mechanisms are adopted to migrate the Italian Talks audience (recall at the start of this case study the Twitter Analytics slide which shows how closely targeted it is to the overall brand audience) in a natural way towards the Baglioni Hotels brand.
Since these are ongoing plans we cannot reveal too many details of these strategies, but here are some clues:
- Further immersive blogger experiences and visits (where Italian Talks writers stay together at one property while showcasing its assets and live posting).
- Application of the Italian Talks outreach model to Instagram (see below).
- More content to support global brand or product initiatives (like a new advertising campaign on YouTube) similar to the earlier Roman penthouse campaign
- Cross-cultural guest blogs from new and more challenging markets e.g. China
- Development of multiple voices, creation of directory-style content, aesthetic redesign and email list building
- Repositioning of Italian Talks to accommodate new hotels outside Italy e.g. the exciting Baglioni Resort Maldives due to open in 2017
Below is a little snippet from our Instagram outreach campaign designed to further develop the Baglioni Hotels Instagram account which is already experiencing rapid growth. By connecting with a world-famous Instagram influencer, we have begun to develop partnerships with other superb Instagrammers around Italy.
This allows us to build a content library of amazing photography around each of the hotels, such as those contributed by expert photographer Johann Depietri, a resident of Venice:
Not only does this provide some great interaction and reach on social media – the Instagrammer shares these images with his or her audience as well as interacting with us – but he offers a different perspective on Baglioni’s unique hotels, picking up on aspects that will appeal to a social media savvy audience.
Working with him and other Instagram influencers we aim to provide them with ongoing benefits “in kind” in exchange for collaboration. In the case above we have already hosted this influencer in a second city (Rome) as he gets to know our brand better there are fantastic synergies going forward.
We hope to work on blog posts and other initiatives with Johann and other Instagrammers, thereby consolidating our audiences across different social networks like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Linked In and Instagram.
The above Instagram outreach campaign is being extended on a significant scale throughout Italy using this fantastic influencer network which Baglioni Hotels has had the vision to develop.
Key Success Factors
- Long-term vision of the Polito family and the executive team at Baglioni Hotels
- Ability of an Italian company to “think global” – this thinking pervades all their activity
- Flexibility and not being afraid to rapidly change strategy based on the data as shown repeatedly above
- Consistent long-term investment and a quid-pro-quo approach based on durable partnerships
- Taking off the corporate blinkers to see that effective content marketing taps into wider benefits e.g.SEO
- Having an outward (network) focus rather than inward (corporate) approach in all online content and activity
- Integrating different social networks, combining offline and online
By nurturing a unique asset like Italian Talks, many new possibilities have emerged. Instead of relying on external press and blogs, Baglioni Hotels has taken the initiative and has full control of its content marketing. We believe that Baglioni Hotels offer an amazing role model to many ambitious luxury and travel brands.
The above is a historic view over the last 3 years and we are not suggesting that an identical strategy would work for everyone going forward, since the environment changes so rapidly and Italian Talks was based on the Baglioni Hotels “authenticity” which not all brands can leverage. But the key learning from Baglioni Hotels remains: adopt an outward-oriented strategy that reaches out, and do it consistently with a long-term vision.
Disclosure: Positive Partnerships has collaborated with Baglioni Hotels on Italian Talks and their international social media strategy.