Marion Payen is the founder and editor-in-chief of Hibiscus and Nomada, a popular online travel blog.

With over 29,000 Instagram followers and 1,500 blog visits per month, she knows a thing or two about influencer marketing.

I recently caught up with Marion (while she was on a jealousy-inducing trip to Guatemala) to find out how she has generated such a large following, how she works with brands, and her thoughts on travel influencers in general.

Here’s what she said.

Econsultancy: Could you start by explaining a bit about your blog and how you got into the industry?

Marion Payen: I initially started my blog because of an interest in creating something more authentic than I was seeing elsewhere. 

I recognised that I could offer more than standard recommendations from huge companies like Lonely Planet. I mean, a brand like that might tell me to go to a specific market – but how will I know if it’ll provide me with anything unique or truly interesting? I’m more inclined to trust someone with a personal point of view rather than a book that’s been written for the masses. 

So, I aimed to build something based on the notion that if you like my lifestyle and the way that I am travelling, then you would like the recommendations I make too.

E: Did you start your blog with any knowledge of influencer marketing? 

MP: In terms of my own background, I started in the hospitality and travel industry in Florida, then I moved to London where I worked in retail – specifically ecommerce and digital marketing. 

This is how I knew I could offer something different from other travel websites, because I already knew many tricks of the trade. 

I had worked with influencers myself through affiliate channels, and had general knowledge of SEO, PPC, coding, etc. – so I knew I could use this to my advantage, especially compared to other bloggers I was seeing at the time.

E: What are the main strategies you have used to build your audience?

MP: I obviously have the main website, but as I didn’t originally have much money to invest, I knew that in order to drive traffic to it I needed to use another organic channel like social media. 

So, I started with Instagram, spending days and days just being really active on it, engaging with the community and making friends with mutual interests. 

Over time my presence grew. From last June to now I have managed to reach 29,000 followers, and that’s just organically, from being super active and building my own community.

Eventually, this audience has also found its way back to my website, so now we’re at about 1,500 visits per month.

E: At what point did you start getting interest from brands?

MP: Quite recently. Before that, it was purely me reaching out to brands through email and social media, saying this is what I do if you are interested. 

Then, about a month ago, it seemed to flip – I started to get emails every day from brands and websites saying that they had found me. As soon as I reached about 25,000 followers on Instagram, it started to happen, and then I also got quite a bit of press coverage from online and print magazines. Combined, this seemed to really ignite interest.

E: Do you only work with a certain type of brand, and how do you decide who to work with?

MP: Absolutely, since the very beginning I’ve made a point of being picky. I’ve seen a lot of other bloggers on Instagram being quite blatant, posting photos of a watch with a mountain in the background.

I would never want to get paid to promote a brand that I don’t believe in, so I only work those that I think are a really good fit for me.

For example, I am now working with a brand that offers travel insurance, because I have used it myself and I know that my audience will find it useful. If I am holding an expensive watch – why would a backpacker be interested in that? I’m not scared of saying no or explaining that it won’t be a good fit, either.

E: What would you say is the best way for a brand to approach an influencer?

MP: A brand can usually get my attention if it is a personalised message, so not just mentioning that they have seen my blog, but pointing out a specific article or photo that they liked. 

I get countless emails saying that someone wants to work with me, so I really need to feel that there is some kind of personal connection. I can also tell if it is an email they have sent to hundreds of other bloggers – I can read between the lines. 

Lastly, I have to feel like it’s not just about them, that it’s about both of us, and that all parties will be able benefit from the deal.

E: How do you see influencer marketing evolving? Do you think it will reach saturation point?

MP: I do think it will reach saturation point. You can tell this, not just from the amount of influencers, but the type and quality of content that they are promoting. You can usually tell that it’s not authentic, that they are staying in a hotel simply because they are being paid to – it doesn’t align with their identity or approach to travel in any way. 

This weekend I was in the south of Mexico, in a hostel that paid for my entire experience, and while the hostel is definitely a place I would stay at (and promote), my article will also include detailed information about the day-trip I went on and every single activity I did. It’s always better to promote a story rather than just a straightforward recommendation. 

I think authentic influencer marketing will evolve in this way, telling the story and entire experience of a place rather than just one aspect.

E: Finally, what’s the best place you’ve been or experience you’ve had thanks to your blog?

MP: The best feedback I’ve had has been from my Iceland trip – I was there for a whole week over New Year. I didn’t even really plan anything, then I slowly realised that it was winter, there would only be four hours of daylight, we’d be freezing. 

Who goes to Iceland in winter? But we embraced it and ended up taking the most incredible photos. The feedback was amazing, with people commenting that they now want to visit during the winter time rather than summer, and asking questions about how we got there, how we travelled and so on. 

People don’t even think to go to a place like Iceland before they see photos and then they get obsessed with it. For us, this is so rewarding – it shows that you can truly inspire.

For more on this topic, check out the following research from Econsultancy: