Andrew Zimmern, the Minnesotan famous for eating giraffe beetles, sauteed bumblebees and other insects on TV, has been paid more than $57,000 to promote Minnesota as a tourism destination in the past year, according to a review of state records.
Zimmern’s contract, which ends this month, required two posts per month to reach his more than 1 million Twitter and other social media followers, while also appearing at and promoting a State Fair cooking contest.
For his work as a social media “influencer,” Zimmern is fetching nearly 30% more pay than Minnesota legislators, who earn $45,000.
The Zimmern promotion of Minnesota via the hashtag #onlyinMN is part of a broader effort by Explore Minnesota — the state’s travel and tourism bureau — to use new and widely accepted marketing techniques to draw more visitors, boosting tourism revenue and state coffers, and even persuade newcomers to move here.
“It gives us an opportunity to reach an audience that we just can’t reach on our own,” said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota. “The bottom line is to market today you have to be playing in this space.”
The social media influencer campaign, totaling a little more than $90,000, is a small portion of the agency’s $14 million budget, about three-fourths of which is spent on marketing.
By the standards of some other states, Minnesota’s relationship with Zimmern is relatively small potatoes. Florida paid hip-hop star Pit Bull $1 million to promote the Sunshine State, though the arrangement became mildly scandalous — and classically Floridian — when he posted a video to promote the state that had sexual overtones.
In an e-mail, Zimmern said the relationship is just another way to show his love for Minnesota:
“I love this state and the people who live here. So, as someone who is a storyteller, I would like to think I have helped illuminate and magnify the things I believe make Minnesota such an amazing place to live.”
State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said the marketing is an example of government gone gluttonous.
“We’re using poor people’s tax-extracted money to make rich people richer,” said Drazkowski, who is known around the Capitol as the scourge of government spending.“$57,000 to tweet. Wow. Obviously government is fully engaged in what appears to be recreational spending.”
The Zimmern contract is typical of the new wave of marketing that seeks to use the “authentic” experiences of famous people, broadcast to their social media followers, to sell everything from Maybelline to Coca-Cola — and now Minnesota’s lakes and not so temperate weather.
Jade Broadus, vice president and creative director for TravelMindset.com, a travel marketing firm, said people are increasingly using Instagram as a “visual travel guide.”
“Audiences trust them like they do friends and family,” she said. “It’s basically word-of-mouth marketing on steroids.”
But it’s also the modern-day equivalent of the celebrity spokesperson, like Snoop Dogg hawking Hot Pockets.
Edman said he’s reluctant to engage in any other celebrity contracts because, “You can’t control the brand,” referring to the potential collateral damage of the unpredictable lifestyle choices of celebrities.
More relatable Instagrammers or bloggers with smaller but dedicated followings can wield even more influence because they share the ins and outs of the lives of everyday people, say marketing gurus.
“The girl I’m watching drop off her kids at carpool, she’s relatable to me,” Broadus said. “I know if she can go to Minnesota and visit all the state parks, so can I.”
Explore Minnesota engages many of these lesser-known influencers, who are often unpaid except for a good deal on a room or meals through a local travel bureau.
An advantage of this form of marketing over traditional billboard or magazine advertising: Data, and lots of it.
“We can say they are spending six minutes on your content, from the content they click to the website directly, they went on to book a hotel room, they went on to save that content for later,” Broadus said. “There are so many ways we can track and measure influencer marketing that truly were not there 10 years ago.”
The state’s tourism board has also used smaller influencers than Zimmern to reach a dedicated, albeit small audience.
Last fall, @MNBucketList publisher Jessica Brouillette trekked to Grand Portage State Park on the Canadian border, making photos of rushing waterfalls, tree-lined trails and fiery foliage to share with her 16,000 Instagram followers.
The trip, which included stops at other state hiking trails, was arranged by Explore Minnesota. In exchange for at least 10 posts of each hike on her feeds, sharing five more on Explore Minnesota’s account and writing blog posts about the destinations, Brouillette would be paid up to $3,000.
“It was a blast,” Brouillette said of the trip. “I was like, ‘Am I seriously getting paid to be here?’ Because I would come here anyway.”
Brouillette, who lives in Woodbury, has worked with Explore Minnesota on a number of partnerships over the years, including many that are unpaid. In those cases, the agency invites her to an event, such as the annual governor’s fishing opener, and helps arrange free travel, accommodations, meals and events through local sponsors. After last month’s fishing opener in Albert Lea, Brouillette posted a photo of Gov. Tim Walz alongside a 329-word caption recapping her trip and sharing local history.
The benefit goes both ways. Brouillette often gets a bump in new followers — and an attendant surge in dopamine-spiking “likes.”
The post from Grand Portage has been “liked” at least 576 times, far more than other recent posts on her feed.
“Love the history and it looks beautiful — would love to go there some day!” read one comment, posted by the brand account for a barbecue sauce company called Tennessee Moonshine.
It’s unclear if they ever made the trip.