In 2014, I was working for a nonprofit on a shoestring budget — at least when it came to marketing and PR. At the time, it was a brand most people hadn’t heard of: Hostelling International USA, often referred to HI USA. My job was to generate publicity and awareness for its 50 hostels nationwide.
Much to everyone’s surprise, this unknown brand ended up partnering with the White House to host the most talked-about influencer event the industry had ever seen. Not only will I share how that happened, I’ll also share 9 important lessons that have shaped my career in influencer marketing ever since then, with tips you can start using right away.
How Influencer Marketing Led Me to the White House
What HI USA lacked in funds, we made up for in staff enthusiasm and passion for our mission. One day, someone from New York sent around a link sharing how Michelle Obama was promoting the Administration’s 100,000 Strong study abroad initiative and happened to mention that she stayed in a hostel her first time overseas.
Jokingly, this staff member suggested we reach out to the White House to see how HI USA could get involved.
I was living in DC and, as cliché as it sounds, I knew someone who knew someone. (That really is how politics work around here.) I got an email for a loose contact who worked in Michelle Obama’s office. I sent a short email introducing myself and HI USA and asking if we could assist with her initiative.
Not only did I get a reply back, I got invited to Michelle Obama’s office.
Lesson #1: The first email doesn’t have to say everything
My note was — at most — 3 sentences. I didn’t drone on about how important or noble HI USA was. I didn’t try to aggrandize my own abilities. It was a sincere note offering to help.
Influencer Marketing Tip: When you’re pitching a prospect, think of it as a two-step process. Your first email should be a high-level introduction and a chance to gauge their interest in working with you. If you get a positive response back, you can follow up with a second email that goes into more detail.
Lesson #2: You never know unless you ask
If I hadn’t sent that email, it would have been the biggest mistake of my life. What happened next opened door after door, and it all came from the courage to hit the send button.
Influencer Marketing Tip: When you’re pitching an aspirational brand, the worst that can happen is they say no or don’t respond at all. But you just might get a reply back that changes everything. So don’t count yourself out before you give yourself a chance!
Heading to the White House as a Brand Representative
On a cool day in April, I arrived at the gates of the White House with my CEO. After a short wait in a museum-like room, we were escorted through the halls and up the stairs of the White House. We arrived at Michelle Obama’s office that bore the same elegance as our waiting room, but with the personal touch of family photos. I used all my restraint to not take out my phone and start filming.
Although the First Lady was not there herself, we soon got talking with her staff, as well as the President’s staff, about 100,000 Strong.
I listened intently and was then surprised by a question directed at me: “How have you been successful at mobilizing millennials to travel?” The woman went on to explain that the White House is not considered cool and that reaching a younger demographic had been a challenge.
I was stunned.
The White House saw us (me) as an expert.
We had the secret sauce for engaging their target audience and they wanted the recipe. This is how the conversation went:
Me: “We’ve found a lot of success in working with bloggers.”
White House Staff: “I love it! How about we host a White House Summit and invite the 100 top influencers to attend? Could you create an invite list?”
Me: “Of course.”
Lesson #3: Don’t underestimate your own expertise
The truth was no, I could not – at least not yet. Sure, I worked with a lot of influencers, but no one major. The big ones wouldn’t return my emails. I didn’t personally know any of them and HI USA wasn’t high-profile enough for them to care.
But I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip away.
Influencer Marketing Tip: Whatever you’re good at, own it. And if someone calls you an expert, don’t correct them. Project confidence in your abilities and work out the logistics after the meeting. If you believe you can learn what is asked of you and execute on time, then say yes.
However, this opportunity did almost slip away.
Persistence Pays Off…Big Time
I followed up with the White House after our meeting. No response. I followed up a few weeks later, no response. I followed up one last time saying, “I don’t want to bother you so please let me know if you have decided to move in a different direction.” I got a quick reply back saying she was just busy, but to please stay in touch.
Over the next 6 months, I kept in touch. Every month or so, I sent polite emails to check in, sometimes getting a reply back, sometimes not.
I also started doing research and compiling an invite list of who I deemed to be the top influencers in travel based on unique monthly visitors and social following.
I was determined to host this event and I wanted to be prepared when the White House was ready to say go.
Then, one day in October, it happened. I got an email with a date for the first ever, Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad & Global Citizenship. A date that was just 7 weeks away.
Lesson #4: If you want something, stay with it
Hosting an event at the White House was too big of an opportunity to pass up and I wasn’t going to let it go until someone formally told me to leave them alone. But if I hadn’t consistently followed up, my contact would have moved in a different direction (which she actually told me on a few occasions!).
Influencer Marketing Tip: Sometimes people are just busy and they appreciate the polite check-ins to stay on their radar.
Lesson #5: Lay the groundwork before you sign the dotted line
If I had waited until I had the green light to start developing an invite list, it never would have been ready in time. And there was no way I could tell the White House to wait.
Influencer Marketing Tip: If a project requires a few extra steps that aren’t typical and you really want the contract, start the process even before the client is ready. That will ensure you are able to execute swiftly and on a moment’s notice.
Hosting the First Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad & Global Citizenship at the White House
From then on, things moved fast. Invitations were sent a few days later. I had to find a venue for HI USA to host a luncheon, as well as prepare welcome bags, talking points, and press materials, while fielding a million questions and organizing comp stays at our DC hostel.
It was the most stressful 7 weeks of my life, all leading up to the most memorable day of my professional life.
It was the grandest influencer activation I dare to say anyone had ever been a part of. Brands like Marriott and Turkish Airlines were falling over themselves to be involved. The Travel Channel brought a cohort of staff, plus TV personalities.
And then there was the briefing, filled with remarks and announcements from top Administration officials. Everyone was proud and honored to be there, and the people who had previously ignored my emails were now thanking me for the biggest thrill of their life.
During this event, we launched #StudyAbroadBecause, which soon became adopted by the State Department.
I bragged for 3 years about how it earned 4 million impressions in one day. I bragged until that number was no longer impressive, which as it turned out, didn’t take much.
Finding the *Right* Influencer-Brand Partnerships is Critical
A few years later, my White House contact left her post. She reconnected with me with a lofty idea to reunite our exclusive group of influencers, encouraging them to continue the #StudyAbroadBecause conversation. Only this time, it would be at HI USA’s hostel in New York City instead of the White House.
About half of the original White House bloggers were thrilled with this news. The other half were totally uninterested; the altruistic purpose of the event wasn’t strong enough without the lure of the White House.
But our sponsors were expecting 100 top influencers.
Lesson #6: Always be ready to pivot
In light of the venue change, we couldn’t promise “the top bloggers,” so we tweaked the language. We pivoted from “blogger” to “influencer,” broadening our scope to include social media influencers, as well as referring to them as just “top influencers.”
This slight shift allowed us to stop using follower size as a deciding factor and, rather, focus on influencers who aligned strongly with the mission of the Summit.
We also renamed the event the Study Abroad & Global Citizenship Influencer Summit.
Influencer Marketing Tip: If part of your campaign isn’t working, don’t look at it as a setback. Look at it as an opportunity to refine your strategy and create a bigger impact – just do it quickly!
As it turned out, something no one expected to happen, happened. This event at our humble hostel on the Upper West Side dwarfed the White House’s total impressions for #StudyAbroadBecause, earning over 40 million impressions.
Lesson #7: Mission-aligned always wins
In retrospect, I realized that many people at the White House were only there for the White House; they weren’t all passionate about study abroad.
But the influencers who gave up their time to attend an event at the hostel were there because study abroad mattered to them personally. And they were happy to use their voice — and their channels — to share the benefits of study abroad with their followers.
So, of course, I spent the next few years bragging about our 40 million impressions. Then, we decided we were ready to host another Summit in 2019. To add a new dimension to the event, we added an exhibit floor and hosted a Tweet Up.
Because of that one-hour Tweet Up, #StudyAbroadBecause broke all records and earned over 480 million impressions.
Lesson #8: Influencer marketing is most effective with an organized strategy
The third Summit had the lowest attendance but the highest reach. How is that possible?
We created a strategy that would get influencers excited to rapid-post on Twitter. We were all in a room together having a shared experience, announcing updates with stats and trending achievements, with prizes for top influencers.
It was a powerful experience, and quality overpowered quantity.
Influencer Marketing Tip: Ask your clients what promotions or marketing activities are already in their pipeline. If you can build off an existing strategy and get creative in the process, you’ll super-charge your impact and help your client meet their objectives.
Reaping the Long-Term Rewards of Influencer Marketing
Although we didn’t realize it at the time, that 2019 event will most likely be the last Study Abroad & Global Citizenship Influencer Summit to ever take place.
Like many, 2020 took away my long-time position within the travel industry. But it didn’t rob me of the community I built. In fact, they grew stronger.
My experience to this point led me to launch Travel Influencer Expert, where I help brands and influencers alike tap into the full power of collaborations. And my personal network has been a key ingredient for my success.
Want to tap into Netanya’s expertise? Register for her workshop at WITS Online!
Lesson #9: Invest in managing your relationships
Over the years, I took many strides to maintain the ties I had with the Summit’s community of influencers. They are the first I looked to for activations with HI USA, if I needed a speaker, or a friend to bounce advice off of.
I made sure to attend influencer events, compliment work well done, and just to check in and say hi.
And now these influencers have become my advocates, inviting me to speak, becoming an affiliate for my Brand Collaboration guide, or seeking my advice.
Influencer Marketing Tip: If you make the effort to keep in touch with your best clients, those relationships can last throughout your career and support you in unexpected ways. Brands work with dozens of influencers, contractors, and agencies each year, so make the effort to stay on their radar.
The 480 million impressions from the last Summit were great, but the relationships were the best thing (for me) to come out of this whole experience. And it all started with a 3-sentence blind inquiry I sent to the White House.
What brand or opportunity would be your game changer? Is there an email you’re scared to send? I hope this article has provided some inspiration and given you the courage to give it a try!
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