Power and responsibility

There’s a firestorm over on David Whitley’s industry-leading travel blog Grumpy Traveller, where he savages bloggers involved in the ongoing Visit Jordan social media campaign that’s been running all year (2011).

David’s post is here, but also read the comments – they’re a fascinating glimpse into the travel blogging mindset.

After what I wrote there, Nathan Midgley followed up with this. Then a business journalist writing about the Visit Jordan campaign emailed me for my opinion. I thought I’d lay things out here.

Visit Jordan’s strategy has considerable merit.

Here are some sweeping generalisations for you. Jordan is a difficult destination. It’s hot and dusty, and a bit underdeveloped. It’s in a war zone. Not many people have been there – word of mouth doesn’t yield much info. You have to be tough to get around, and you have to like scrambling over ancient ruins, cuz there isn’t much else. The people are nice enough, but it’s not exactly a Land of Smiles. Women need to watch out. Tread carefully around cultural issues – people are easily offended. And watch your wallet.

Rubbish, isn’t it? But that’s where I think ordinary folk are coming from. They simply don’t know. For years, I’ve been bellyaching about the lack of information out there on Jordan.

So a campaign which delivers a large quantity of first-hand experiences, in text, pictures and video, to an audience already primed & softened up to the delights of travel makes sense. Over a year you could realistically expect mainstream media around the world to run perhaps 30 separate print features on travel to Jordan in total. Maybe 50. That’s a lot of eyeballs, sure, but it’s also a lot of dead ends. Bloggers can deliver hundreds of posts, as well as FB & Twitter coverage, that – I’m guessing – have way more trickle-down impact than MSM. By plugging closely into a SM-savvy market, you could potentially spark the holy grail for every tourist board – Positive Word of Mouth Worldwide – without having to spend millions on Incredible India branding or sumptuous Malaysia Truly Asia ads.

Nayef Al Fayez – former director of the Jordan Tourism Board (i.e. the overseas promotional arm) and now Minister of Tourism – is a smart guy. He travels constantly. He listens to people. He knows how Jordan is seen around the world.

And he knows that whereas half of Jordan’s tourism is package holidays booked through a tour operator, that leaves half which is effectively independent and unmeasurable. For a DMO to be able to talk directly to consumers and be believed has inestimable value.

So, aside from the danger of firehosing the web with Jordan content rather than dripfeeding under controlled conditions, JTB’s strategy is basically sound. The problems come, I’m afraid, from the bloggers.

Much has been made of the fact that blogging shatters the old journalism model, by allowing writers to be their own publishers – Alastair McKenzie, for instance, makes that point here.

That’s power – a lot of it. Blogs which attract tens of thousands of visitors, and bloggers who have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and/or Facebook, are as powerful as publishers. That’s why PRs and DMOs (and advertisers) are wooing them.

But they’re unedited. Unregulated. Untrained. Unqualified. Unaccountable.

That can be positive. They can publish things mainstream media wouldn’t touch – wacky ideas, marginal destinations, tangential encounters. But, let’s face it, they don’t. A handful of notable exceptions aside, travel bloggers just churn out the same old crud. They swan around like wide-eyed first-timers. There’s no insight. There’s no pre-trip research. There’s no post-trip reflection (heaven forbid: publish and move on). There’s no understanding of the economic strategies which brought them to the destination. There’s no sense of perspective. To put it bluntly, there’s no journalism. It’s all just words, words, words. Me, me, me. So we end up with the immortal “Jordan is the Canada of the Middle East“.

As David Whitley so memorably said, the last thing the web needs is more stuff on it.

Because they don’t know any different, bloggers are putty in the hands of the PRs…and it’s a short distance from that to the iambassador marketing programme embraced by Visit Jordan, and queried by Jeremy Head.

JTB’s tactics have let its strategy down. Quantity of material is the driving force, but quality has been underestimated. Quality really matters, if Jordan is to break out of its standard historical/cultural package tourism model and diversify into potentially lucrative niche markets. And, incidentally, those markets go beyond tourism: they have the ability to slowly – but clearly – define Jordan’s uniqueness to the world. This is soft power. It’s absolutely vital to the national interest.

But that won’t come if the country spends money hosting people who can only deliver “Jordan is the Canada of the Middle East”, regardless of how big the audience for that message is.

Bloggers are in a uniquely privileged position. Most of them, though, still view travel as holiday, rather than work, and they view themselves as being in a community rather than as being communicators. That’s not good enough. With power comes responsibility. Responsibility to the destination, sure, but above all to the readership. Show us something new.

Be better.


Disclaimer: In the last 12 months I went twice to Jordan. In the three years before that I was there 7 times. I’ll be there 3 or 4 times in 2012. Sometimes I’m hosted by the tourist board, sometimes I’m not. If you think that means I’m jealous because I wasn’t invited to take part in the 2011 blogger programme (thank heavens), good for you.