ISTANBUL, Turkey — Laurence Norah, 37, was a software engineer in the UK with a well-paid job for eight years. But the nine-to-five routine was not something he wanted to do for his entire life. So in 2009, he quit and used his savings to travel by road across Australia in a Toyota Land Cruiser.
Over the next year, he traversed the Australian wilderness, camping near the majestic Mitchell Falls, climbing the peaks at Morton National Park and living an outdoor life over an expanse of 60,000 kilometres.
He travelled to other countries – taking photos of places such as the ancient Freiburg Minster cathedral in Germany's southwest, and writing blog posts on topics such as tips for finding odd jobs while travelling in New Zealand.
"Around the same time I won a photography competition in The Times UK. So, I thought, maybe my photos are okay and I can turn this into a profession," he told TRT World.
Along the way, his Facebook and Instagram accounts and his blog, Finding the Universe, amassed a following of hundreds of thousands of people. He became a social media “influencer" – meaning he built enough of a following to allow him to earn income from governments and companies seeking to promote various destinations and products.
Norah was among dozens of bloggers, photographers and Instagram sensations who assembled in Istanbul for a two-day travel summit, organised last week to help them network with interested businesses.
Some of them, like Norah, are also travel writers, while others shot to fame for their lifestyle photography. There are those, too, whose claim to fame comes from chronicling their time spent living in a van.
In almost all cases, it’s a bohemian lifestyle that makes them stand out. Mostly young, carefree couples who want to explore the world and are dissatisfied with conventional jobs.
Duygu Sar and Bilgehan Celik, both in their 30s, lived in a small RV for four months, travelling across Turkey after they decided to move out of their parents' homes three years ago.
"Initially, we had no idea this would turn into a business. We only wanted to travel," says Sar.
After convincing a trailer-van company to lend them an RV, they hit the road, taking pictures and writing about the places they visited in their blog, Away From Home, or Biz evde Yoguz in Turkish. They have taken an old Roma saying as their slogan, “Whoever stays at home dies an early death.”
"Now, we have almost a million visitors coming to our website every month."
They also have over 80,000 followers on Instagram. All the people reading, liking and sharing their content give them a way to “monetise” their audience.
Brands, even big ones, are using these influencers to reach out to targeted customers, especially those who spend more time on their social media apps than on traditional websites.
Tünaydın, Resmi tatil olunca insanın şöyle ağırdan alası, yavaşlayası geliyor. Biz de dedik şöyle yayıla yayıla bir keyif kahvaltısı yapalım. Ama onun da en kritik noktasını elime yüzüme bulaştırdım. Neyse canım, hayattaki en büyük hayal kırıklığımız bu olsun. 🍳 😊Hepimizin işi rast gitsin, yumurtalarımız ekmek bandırmadık olsun. 😀 Şimdi günübirlik İstanbul'a döndük. Yarın yine yollardayız. #evdeoturanerkenölür #bizevdeyokuz #karavan #camping #outdoors #caravan
Murad and Nataly Osmann, a Russian couple, have amassed over five million followers on Instagram between them, pulling in traffic with their popular hashtag #FollowMeTo.
The niche traveller
Yet having a large social media following is not always what makes these influencers valuable. Sometimes, it’s the kind of audience that matters the most.
Anton and his wife Rachel Diaz have been travelling and blogging about food in the Philippines since 2005, mentioning restaurants and places in their writing.
"It's hard for traditional marketers. There’s no newspaper that can transcend all the millennials," Anton says.
What on the surface appears to be fun and perhaps a bit of luxury – taking pictures of exotic dishes with fancy names – is a thought-out business for social media influencers like Anton.
His response to reach out to different categories of audience sums it up:
"For Gen X we do blog posts and email lists. They love to read it on email. For millennials, it’s Instagram and Facebook. We do Pinterest for women, particularly for women who like cataloguing. For the centennials, the Gen Z, it’s really more video like YouTube."
How these influencers describe the daily reality of their work is a far cry from the aesthetic pictures one sees on their blogs and Facebook posts.
"It does feel a bit strange that I left the corporate world and I come back to make presentations at a conference," says Laurence, who wears his hair in a long braid.
"At least it’s not a computer conference."
Travel influencers need money to fund their trips. Laurence and his wife Jessica, who also runs a blog of her own, have been to 20 countries in the last two years, with the visits funded in part by sponsors.
A marketing trap
The idea of being too dependent on sponsors is something these influencers say they abhor.
Laurence and Jessica say they have reduced the number of sponsors to focus on long-term relationship with companies such as Vanguard, which manufactures camera accessories.
Sometimes they give online photography courses and write guest posts to help make ends meet.
Duygu Sar of Away From Home says the couple only market things which they actually use during their trips.
We owe our success to things being real, we don’t want to overload ourselves with sponsors from head to toe.
She wouldn’t mind working with a company that makes luggage or especially designed suits for mountain climbers. "But I wouldn’t wear those clothes in Istanbul or eat a yoghurt of a certain company. That wouldn’t be native [authentic]."
The long laborious vacation
Unlike what many people might think, many social media influencers lead tough lives. What goes on behind the scenes is hard work, which requires waking up before dawn for many days just to wait for a perfect sunrise that could be photographed.
Sar and Celik were in Cuba recently where they wanted to recommend a hotel to their followers.
"I literally visited twenty places in Havana so that we could find a place to recommend because that is why people read what we write," Sar says.
Sometimes just carrying $10,000 worth of camera equipment can be tiring. "A city, which a normal tourist takes one day to explore, takes us three days to travel because we are shooting."
There is no such thing as overnight success for travel influencers, especially when the social media scene is constantly shifting and evolving.
For instance, Vine, a video sharing app that was particularly popular two years ago, is now Vine Camera and barely in use anymore.
"A lot of work goes into what we do," Norah says. "You need to teach yourself photography, learn how to be good at Instagram."
That’s apparent if the content he had posted over the years is seen in chronological order. Lawrence’s earliest YouTube videos are noisy and blurry compared to the polished work he does now.
When the road ends
There are no breaks for these famous travellers – at least not on social media. Their popularity largely depends on the content they produce.
Any break in the blog posts or Instagram pictures, and they start losing viewers.
"I have taken a break for a few months and some momentum is surely lost," Jessica says. "But you can easily overcome that by scheduling something ahead of time."
That means creating content that can be posted when they are not travelling.
It's also for this reason that many travel influencers consider their blogs to be key investments, more so than their social media accounts.
Not everyone is positive about the quality of advice offered by this new breed of travel "experts":
So many 'influencers' on social media giving poor, uneducated advice on things like health and fitness and not considering the consequences.
— Dean Sherwood (@DeanSherwood) April 21, 2017
But keeping up with the competition can be tough, especially when young people can build a social media following in the blink of an eye.
"Do you think chocolate ice cream replaces vanilla ice cream? We all have different flavours," says Sar, stressing that newcomers will struggle to build following on social media because the market is already saturated.
But like every journey, globetrotting lives must come to an end someday.
"I think we have no reason to settle down until we have kids of school age," Sar says, explaining how she disagrees with her boyfriend who wants to teach the children on the road.
Even after having children, they plan to keep doing what they love most.
"If one day we can’t do social media very often, we will have our blog to focus on."