Executive Summary

This report looks at travel marketing and customer engagement strategies for Instagram and Snapchat. Social media platforms are quickly diversifying their user content formats and functionality beyond the original peer network engagement usage. Today’s platforms are also used for shopping, product research, communication via messaging, navigation and other functions. And the more time travel consumers spend on these platforms, the more data and information marketers can use to target their customer base.

Pictures and video are also quickly becoming the default format through which social media users communicate; Instagram and Snapchat are the trending leaders in visual content. Both platforms have grown fast — Instagram is now bigger than Twitter by some measures and tiny Snapchat claims more video views than giant Facebook. The traffic is there but these platforms also seemed to have been designed to actively discourage marketing. Their audiences are too desirable for marketers to stay away — and of course they need to monetize—so some of those built-in hurdles are now coming down.

Who Uses Them

Instagram has 500 million monthly users, versus 313 million for Twitter and 1.7 billion for Facebook, according to each company’s own numbers. Snapchat doesn’t report monthly users but claims more than 100 million users a day on their app. The demographics of these two networks, though, are different from the others, and their users have different expectations for how they communicate with each other and with brands.

Most social network usage usually peaks in the 18 to 34 age range. But about half of Facebook users are over 30 years old and they have sizable audiences in the 40+ group. By contrast, a little more than 20% of Instagram users and 14% of Snapchat users are older than 34. And each has a sizable user group under 18. So both have a more exclusively younger audience than Facebook.


Instagram’s user base has been flourishing since it was acquired by Facebook in 2012. The emphasis on photography and beautiful photos (if highly edited) lends itself well to sectors like travel, food, and fashion. Hospitality brands feel they need to be there in a significant way even if their demographics don’t line up exactly.

“We’ve seen 300% year-over-year growth in our Instagram audience,” says Anna Pakman, head of digital for Empire State Development, which includes I Love NY. “It’s so focused on photos and videos that we can do more than provide an article or itinerary; we can really immerse people in a place before they even start planning a trip.”

For travel and tourism, marketing goals for Instagram and Snapchat are different than for other platforms. Brands also need to present themselves and engage with the user in a different way, too. “On Facebook people are used to advertising; on Instagram if you sell too hard you see people move away,” says Pakman. Here’s a look at how a few brands are finding success and the challenges they still encounter on Snapchat and Instagram.


Snapchat has seen exponential growth over the past years, and is now turning its focus toward monetization. Currently on its road-trip to IPO, Snapchat rebranded itself to Snap Inc, a “camera hardware company.” Although they don’t produce any hardware yet, they announced their plans of “reinventing the camera” with their Snap Spectacles. Their current estimated worth is $25 billion.

Just a couple of weeks ago they released their Ad API in beta phase, allowing adversities to bid on ads, and introducing basic targeting features such as age, gender, location, and device.


Source: adage.com

Rejecting multiple acquisition offers from Facebook, Snapchat lacks advanced targeting features which Facebook’s Power Editor provides. Its new API marks the first step towards a more advertiser-friendly platform.

Before the announcement of Snapchat’s ad API, targeting was an issue among some advertisers, as filters and video ads were displayed to all app users, unlike on Instagram which had the fully integrated Facebook Power Editor, allowing for vastly specific targeting. The only targeting Snapchat offered was based on location.

Yet some argue that advertising on snapchat alone, is already a targeted campaign. Targeted toward the “Snapchat Generation,” a generation whose membership is not determined by age, but by online behavior. The 100 million daily users whom some call the “narcissistic generation” already live in a four-dimensional world, with digital being their most valued dimension. They share selfies, pictures of their food, and pretty much everything they do throughout the day. Their lives are perfect, and most importantly, everyone must know so.


Source: Statista

Snapchat currently offers three types of advertisement:

  • Snap Ads

Snap Ads are mobile ads served through Snapchat’s story page, initially ten-second videos, users can swipe up to view the full length video.

  • Sponsored Geofilters

Geofilters are image filters that users can apply to their picture to personalize it. According to Snapchat, a U.S. Nationwide filter reaches 40 to 60 percent of its daily users.

  • Sponsored Lenses

Lenses are alike to geofilters, with interactive functions which usually work with Snapchats facial recognition software. Snapchat states that the average user plays for 20 seconds with each sponsored lens.

Due to the high advertisement cost, the playing field so far has been dominated by larger companies. $750,000 for a one-day ad may be out of some smaller companies’ advertising budget.
While the cost of running ads has fallen thanks to different types of ads, advertisers still need to pay around $50,000 to have a presence on the platform.

Due to the high entry cost, many companies started creating organic advertisement through normal profiles. Just like regular channels, they create an organic following and then advertise within their own channel. One of the major limitations of organic accounts is getting analytical insights into the success of running the account. Snapchat doesn’t provide users with counts or audience insights, for that people “should switch to ads.” A further peculiar term set by Snapchat for filters is that they are not allowed to include URLs, hashtags, or social media handles.


Source: Snapchat

Some of the major partners of Snapchat are McDonald’s, Unilever, and Gatorade, who are all part of the beta access to Snap’s new Ad API. One of the first travel companies to experiment with Snapchat was Marriott back in 2014. W Hotels, Starwood, and Hilton later followed their footsteps. However, Snapchat is not yet widely adopted throughout the travel industry.

Until they see how Snapchat grows, some brands are finding ways to use it without bothering to build their own audience, which has its challenges, observes Tom Jauncy, head of brand partnerships for the digital marketing firm Beautiful Destinations. They buy branded filters (which users add to their photos) or they work with influencers who already have a following there, he says.


Instagram is still the leader among the “visual networks” with 300 million daily users compared to just 100 million on Snapchat. Instagram also has a more diversified audience in terms of age distribution. While on Snapchat users over 35 only make up 14 percent, on Instagram they represent 51 percent of the total user base.

Ever since Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, advertising on the platform has made vast improvements, becoming more advertiser-friendly. Ads can now be targeted to specific audiences and various types of advertisement are available. Facebook’s Power Editor is also fully integrated into Instagram, allowing advertisers to filter their audience based upon specific attributes such as, are they connected to Wi-Fi, what languages do they speak, and which device they are currently using.

Instagram has also been adopting some features from Snapchat, making the two apps more alike and offering its user base the 24-hour ticking-bomb content.


Source: Statista

Instagram also offers three types of advertising:

  • Photo Ads
  • Video Ads
  • Carousel Ads

Instagram’s ads are rather self-explanatory compared to those of Snapchat. One of the great advantages Instagram has is the backbone of digital experience Facebook provides. Through the Power Editor, advertisers can advertise with all the targeting tools they are familiar with from Facebook. Instagram also allows brands to drive users outside of the app, channelling traffic to their website or mobile app, a feature that Snapchat lacks.

Organic profiles on the platform are also very common. With the advantage of being able to quantify results, data such as likes, followers, and comments are more accessible on Instagram than on Snapchat, when using organic profiles.


Source: Instagram

Instagram is widely used for advertising, throughout all customer facing industries. This year’s revenue is estimated to hit $3.2 billion. Instagram’s use is also wide spread in the travel industry, from restaurants and DMOs, to independent hotels and hotel chains, having an Instagram profile is nearly the norm.

What Works: Getting Visitors to Come Back

One recurring use of social media that seems to work particularly well on Instagram and Snapchat is customer retention, keeping in touch with the aim of reminding them how much fun they had the first time, so that they’ll want to return.

I Love Travel, a Toronto company that organizes large group trips for high school and college students, has been successful using Snapchat this way.

The company focuses on beach getaways and cultural trips for high schoolers and spring break, ski, and river rafting trips for college students. The trips involve a few hundred students from across the U.S. and Canada; usually small groups of friends go together. The company’s goal is to get their audience on a first trip in high school and keep them coming back all through college. Their marketing relies heavily on photos and videos that create a fear of missing out (FOMO) on the coolest, most awesome vacation ever.

The company includes its Snapchat handle in all the material it sends out before a trip and invites everyone to follow it. “About two to three weeks before the trip we start ramping up engagement,” says Derek Champoux, marketing and communications manager. They also send a staffer on the trip just to do social media, “so we have live coverage of the entire trip” via Snapchat (they also post high school trip photos to Facebook so parents can see them). Then they continue posting “memories” for three to four weeks afterward to remind people what an awesome time they had, and get them to sign up for the following year. “We’ll say who wants to go on another great trip. Forty to 50 percent will say they’re interested and 30 to 40 people will actually sign up.”

But here’s the catch: without an ability to link back to a website, “it’s all manual. We copy down the names of people who are interested and have a travel planner call them and say, ‘I saw on Snapchat that you’re interested in another trip,’” Champoux explains. “We’re small enough that that personal touch works. If the audience gets bigger we’d have to find a way to allow them to sign up online.”

Part of the marketer challenge here, therefore, is information capture and user traceability in light of Snapchat’s ephemeral format.

What Works: Luring Locals Into Spontaneous Visits

Fashion brands are having great success with Instagram’s paid promotions, triggering instant purchases through their ads. Travel brands don’t expect people to book a ten-day vacation without shopping around, but food establishments and activities providers could have better luck with it. People will spontaneously make a restaurant dinner reservation or pop into your bar after work – possibly even book a weekend or day trip.

highsocietyAt its premier Chicago property, Virgin Hotels wanted to highlight its affordable in-room minibars. So it turned to Instagram and boosted minibar sales by 300 percent. “We did 30-second videos showing people how to make cocktails using ingredients in their rooms; each would cost $8 to $10 in ingredients, which is less than you’d spend in any hotel or restaurant,” explains Doug Carrillo, vice president of sales and marketing. “We did nine cocktails over three months, and promoted them on our website as well.” Though he declined to provide numbers he says, “We did see a six-figure sales increase.” The lesson he took from this success: “Video is something we want to invest in, especially on Instagram.”

In New York City, Vildana Kurtovic, the marketing manager for the Conrad New York, has also noticed that Instagramers like their cocktails and uses it to attract locals who aren’t hotel guests to its rooftop bar. “If I post a special cocktail we’re doing, say for Labor Day or the America’s Cup, people will tag their friends and say, ‘let’s go try that,’” she says. “If I post one of our regular cocktails on Instagram, she adds, she’ll notice an uptake in visitors to the bar as well as in sales of that drink.

The Fontainebleau in Miami has seen similar local engagement around its food. “A few months ago I posted a photo of a signature dish and someone commented, ‘I love that dish,’” says Anna Lanzas, the hotel’s social media director. “So I commented back, ‘you should make a reservation with us to come enjoy it.’” The woman replied that in fact she would for her upcoming birthday, and she did. “So we alerted the kitchen and they brought her a little cake.”

Marketers Want More Metrics

One of the biggest complaints about Snapchat and Instagram is their lack of metrics, compared to Facebook and Twitter. Instagram is starting to provide some data – more for its paid posts. But a campaign that Beautiful Destinations did with I Love NY shows both that it’s possible to use Instagram to drive customer behavior, and it’s challenging to track that behavior.

I Love NY wanted to draw attention to lesser-known corners of the state. So it did a 12-week paid promotion where each week it focused on a different region like the Hudson Valley or the Finger Lakes. “We made sure the account was filled with beautiful photos and had a call to action to ‘learn more,’” says Jauncy. “We know that 14,000 people engaged with the campaign (by liking or commenting on the photos), and we focused on 7,000 of them who post daily.” By searching for related hashtags and keywords, his agency was able to find 1,000 people among that group who traveled to those destinations and posted their own photos of them. “So we were able to track social advertising leading people to visit a destination and post their own content about it,” he says. “It demonstrated that Instagram isn’t just ‘nice to have’ but that people do travel off of it.”

The Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau had a similar experience on Snapchat. The Tourism bureau decided it wanted to launch a Snapchat account and opted to do it in connection with its annual LGBT pride event. For 6 weeks last spring it invited members or the Dallas community to post “Big Pride” Snapchat videos where they talk about what it means to them to be LGBT in Dallas. They chose the best ones and invited those people in to make longer, more polished videos, which they posted on several platforms.

Ultimately, the campaign brought the agency 600 Snapchat followers, a start they were happy with. But beyond that they were unaware of who they had reached. “There was a festival as part of the event and we had a booth,” says Frank Librio, vice president of communications. “I was surprised at the number of out-of-town visitors who were aware of our brand and visited our booth. I can’t tie that back to Snapchat but I would hope that some of those folks found out about us that way.”

The Need For Ever More Content

Along with these successes, Snapchat and Instagram still present challenges to marketers. A significant one is the large amount of original content they require.

“With the other platforms you can be curators as well as creators,” says Bill Karz, vice president of marketing for the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. “On Instagram and Snapchat we have to be constant creators.” Lanzas at Fontainebleau concurs, “We created ten videos for all of last year. Now we post two to three videos a week on Instagram.”

One way brands are expanding their library of original content is with Instagram or Snapchat takeovers, where they post photos or videos from an influencer or photographer they like, to their page for a week, highlighting a different point of view on their brand. They also encourage Instagram users to post their own photos related to the brand with a given hash tag, thereby creating an army of brand ambassadors.

Different Paths to Virality

Virality is also harder to achieve than on other platforms where people can share content they like with their own audience. Whereas a Facebook post can be shared for years, Snapchat images disappear after 24 hours.

Champoux from I Love Travel notes, “We do a group photo on every trip. We share that on Facebook because our followers can share it and it links back to us. With Snapchat, they have to reframe it as their photo to reshare it and we get lost.”

Instagram posts have a longer shelf life but also are not re-shareable. Users can bring photos to their friends’ attention by tagging them in the comments. So brands will do things like host a contest that asks participants to do just that as a way to extend their reach and pick up new followers.

Snapchat’s Unique Challenges

Snapchat, the younger of the two platforms, seems to have more and bigger challenges. For one, “Brands are hard to find,” says Brittany Lauro, social media manager at Discover Newport (RI). Indeed, its search function requires users to know a brand’s exact handle to find and follow it, making it tough to find brands you know are there. Once you follow a brand, its stories pop up in your home screen feed, but there’s no profile page you can visit. “I use Snapchat to talk to friends, not to follow brands,” she says.

snapchatThe primary way to advertise on Snapchat is by creating branded filters that will pop up for users at a specific location. Even brands that like them say they have their drawbacks. “If there are filters for the same space, they can compete and cannibalize each other and that will drive up their price as well. We don’t want to have a Discover LA filter where a hotel might want to have their own so we have to think carefully about where we use them,” Karz says.

Indeed, Jamie Santucci says her media firm, Threefold, tried to buy a Snapchat filter for a Provincetown, Cape Cod hotel to use during the town’s big gay pride parade. “We bought a filter for the hotel’s pool party and wanted it to be the exclusive filter available at the hotel and couldn’t do it.” She explains, “If a town is having an event, they will buy out all the filters for their town, making it hard for small businesses to create something unique.”

Marketing professor Lanz sees all of Snapchat’s shortcomings: “Advertising is pricey and has such a short shelf-life, companies really have to wonder if it’s worth the cost and how they can even measure it to know.” But she also says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be a second iteration of Snapchat — that they even call something else — that addresses the advertising and demographic challenges.

Snapchat’s recent rebrand to Snap Inc., as well as their push into hardware with their roll out of Snapchat Spectacles, the one-size-fits-all sunglass-style eyewear with built-in camera, highlights the fact that these social media platforms continue to evolve and will likely expand their ad product offering.

Instagram’s Unique Challenge

For Instagram, the largest continuing complaint is the inability to put URL links in photo captions in free posts.

“We use Instagram as a hype tool. It’s very hard to funnel sales leads because of the lack of a link,” says Champoux. “You can pay for Instagram ads that will go to your website, but we’ve found they have our lowest conversion rates. On Facebook we get decent returns even though it’s not as strong for our demographic.”

Lauro says she has posted ads with a “learn more” button that links back to Visit Newport’s website. “We do get a small amount of traffic back, but most of our traffic is from Facebook and Twitter.” Putting on the hat of an Instagram user, she observes, “People go on to Instagram to be on Instagram. I’ll see an ad and like it if it engages me, but I’ve never hit the ‘learn more’ button.”


Kurtovic at the Conrad has had more success, she notes, “You pay per click, so it’s easy to see how it performs relative to how much you spend. If I spend $100 on a promotion and get even one booking, that’s powerful, and we’ve probably had two or three from paid post.” But, she adds, “On Facebook, it might be the same in terms of bookings but more people will view the ad and click through and then maybe they’ll book something later. So overall you get more out of Facebook still.”

Interestingly, Karz and others said they don’t see Instagram supplanting other social media so much as it will other highly visual marketing vehicles like magazine ads or billboards. Moreover, while brands feel they have to pay for any reach at all on Facebook, organic success is still possible on Instagram. He explains, “You’re saving the money you are not spending on traditional advertising and you have an opportunity to engage with people that you don’t have with an ad or billboard.”

The Fear of Missing Out

Instagram and Snapchat are too big and too loved by their users for us to wonder whether they will stick around and be relevant. The questions are how they will grow their influence and to which audiences, and how travel brands can make the best use of them.

If Facebook is the McDonald’s of social media — accessible to everyone everywhere — and Twitter is the Dunkin’ Donuts — where you stop in throughout the day for small bites of information — then Instagram is perhaps the Chipotle or Panera, still targeting the mass market but offering a more refined experience. And where does Snapchat fit in? It’s tempting to say it’s the Señor Frogs, the place where the party is happening that you don’t want your parents to know about.

But that could change, and might be changing already. Mamie Peers, senior director of digital, social, and ecommerce at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas posts Snapchat videos that highlight the details of individual rooms and other parts of the hotel. “An event planner saw one and commented, ‘who needs a walk-through when we have your Snapchat videos,’” she recalls. Peers responded and scheduled a walk-through anyway when the planner was next in town. Her conclusion: “There is a huge audience on Snapchat. Why would we miss that opportunity to engage with the meeting planner who is ready to meet us by not being on it?”

So perhaps just like their followers, marketers are also flocking to these new platforms, at least in part, by that fear of missing out.

Endnotes and Further Reading