From the success of social networking sites to the explosion in user-generated content, we have seen a dramatic shift in how consumers interact with the internet and with each other. Social media have transformed the way people communicate, search for information, make decisions, socialise, learn, and share experiences. This also applies to consumer behaviour in travel and tourism.
Growing numbers of travellers search and consume travel information created by other travellers for their travel planning and then share their experiences when they return from their trips. Given the experiential nature of tourism, the information created by other travellers is even more important and influential in the search and decision-making process than when considering other types of purchases.
Over the past four years we have conducted a series of studies involving travellers with Internet access from around the world. We consistently find high levels of social media use for travel planning.
Online travel reviews, such as the hotel reviews posted on TripAdvisor, are particularly popular sources of information and those who use them indicate that these traveller opinions greatly influence their accommodation choices. Activity choices and restaurant decisions are also increasingly affected by the opinions of review writers while decisions on where to travel are typically made before reviews are consulted.
Other social media types such videos and podcasts are generally less influential, although gender and age differences come into play when looking at the influence of specific social media categories.
Do travellers blindly trust the opinions of strangers?
Our research indicates that trust levels are very high and that a considerable number of people even prefer the opinions of unknown others over opinions of friends and relatives. However, many consumers are also aware of marketers posting reviews or paying professional review writers. They have therefore developed rather sophisticated strategies for evaluating whether they should take a posting into account or not.
In general, if comments are too negative or too positive, travellers become suspicious. They are looking for balance and details and take subtle cues such as spelling and tone of writing into account. Experimental studies we conducted have also shown that individuals are pretty good at detecting false reviews, and this ability increases with the length of the review.
So like in the offline world, liars will only be able to influence travellers if they are brief. We also find personality differences, with individuals who exhibit neurotic tendencies being less trusting of social media and thus less influenced by them.
Do tourism marketers have to worry?
Our studies find that a majority of travellers think that social media contents are more up-to-date, more fun to read, more interesting, more relevant, more comprehensive, more specific and more helpful in making decisions than information provided by tourism marketers. However, that does not mean that marketers do no longer provide an important function. The travellers we surveyed actually trust social media content more if it is provided on official destination marketing websites.
This is a counter-intuitive finding but makes sense if you consider that destination marketers probably subject social media contents to a basic editorial process, or would at least comment on a posting if it provided false information.
In general, our research shows that tourism marketers can no longer ignore social media and have to carefully think about how to take advantage of social media marketing in order to exercise influence on travellers.
Social media are here to stay but their specific forms will evolve. Twitter and location-based social media applications like Foursquare and Gowalla are still in their infancy and Facebook continuously adds functions and changes its policies. It is important to monitor their impact on travel planning and behaviours at destinations, so that those who try to encourage and/or manage tourism to particular places can adjust their strategies.
Written by Associate Professor Ulrike Gretzel
The Institute for Innovation in Business and Social Research (IIBSoR)
Faculty of Commerce