Written by a Master's student of the Lund University School of Economics and Management
Times are gone when travel experiences only started at the chosen destination. In times of online travel communities like-minded users can already build relationships, share travel experiences, information and tips during their planning process. The Web has turned into a ‘travel square’ (Wang et al., 2002) that allows the stimulation of interaction and exchange, also known as electronic word of mouth (eWOM), to happen on a common platform. Speaking of those, travelers can choose from numerous opportunities such as social networking sites, fan sites, travel forums and blogs or brand-based sites. Focusing on user-generated content in online travel communities, special emphasis is placed on the latter, namely brand communities in the tourism sector. This form of firm-consumer-consumer interaction represents a renewed version of traditionally applied firm-customer engagement methods. Despite its increasing importance for brand equity and customer relationship management, many organizations still lack an understanding of users’ needs and demands when seeking eWOM in online brand communities (King et al., 2004). Various theories highlight among others the importance of social ties, similarity of members or source credibility. But how to bring these elements to life? Taking a look at KLM’s business communities and AIDA’s Weblounge, the article provides you with an understanding of travelers’ needs in online travel communities and thus, helps improving your moderating role to encourage consumer value creation and users’ brand experience.
Travelers’ Empowerment in the Digital Age
If you wonder how we arrived in times where online communities and eWOM seem to be among the most influential information sources in the tourism sector, recall the metaphor of playing bowling versus pinball (Henning-Thurau et al., 2013). Traditionally, we could find ourselves in the midst of a bowling array. Marketing instruments used to be directed towards customers like bowling balls towards pins; communication was pushed in a linear, one-directed way. Back to the present the playing field has changed in times of interactivity and connectivity and with it the rules. The stream isn’t one-directed anymore, but interrupted by various obstacles – customers can now influence the speed and direction of any message. eWOM represents a new form of marketing communication on the playing field: consumer-moderated and mainly independent from marketing efforts. Consequently, users browse in a virtual environment that appears to be more authentic, credible and trustworthy than ever before (Brown et al., 2007).
What has changed the game? People trust user-generated content more than any form of company-generated marketing activities (Buhalis & Law, 2008). This is especially true when it comes to the purchase of high-involvement products such as in the tourism sector. Vacationers prefer eWOM as it helps reducing their efforts in information search and product evaluation, their purchasing risks, but also in establishing social interaction. Community engagement turns out to be an essential motive for users to generate eWOM (King et al., 2004).
Today’s travelers have significantly more power by actively and visibly participating through sharing travel experiences, insider tips and opinions. Community-based empowerment makes travelers appear more educated and independent in their planning process than ever before (Henning-Thurau et al., 2013; Buhalis & Law, 2008). The digital age has turned them into ‘proksumers’ (Sotiriadis, 2013): consumers who simultaneously take over the role of producers (creating knowledge) and brokers (distribution through sharing and recommending). Thus, it is about time to think of travelers as powerful co-marketers-, producers,- and distributors on the virtual travel square.
What Travelers Seek for in Online Brand Communities
Users have endless options to share their travel experiences, ask for tips and insider information. So how to make them decide to become a member of your brand community? You clearly need to address their needs:
#1 Social Need
Travelers want to mingle with peers, benefit from the knowledge of others and participate in discussions. In short, they look for interactive engagement and creative collectivity (King et al., 2004). Online Communities create social ties between its members and simultaneously barriers to outsiders who do not share similar interests (Seraj, 2012). Representing the closeness between sender and receiver, social ties are particular important in the tourism sector characterized by high-involvement products that easily create emotional bonds. As those ties are believed to influence eWOM behavior, saying that they are more likely to result in user-generated content generation and active participation (King et al., 2004), it should be your task to encourage social value. One way of doing so is through reciprocity, shaped by value, speed and frequency of knowledge exchange. Key activities are the constant promotion of communication (e.g by creating contests) as well as the integration of new members who then ideally involve with experienced users more quickly (Casaló et al., 2013). Speaking of new members, users tend to spread the word about communities they enjoy engaging in to encourage friends to join as well (Muniz Jr. & Schau, 2011). By providing an invite-function, you don’t only do them a favor, you also make your online travel community grow.
#2 Intellectual Need
Travelers don’t only receive solutions and answers to their problems and questions in online travel communities, they also pass along their knowledge to others. Thus, they play a vital role in knowledge co-production. User-generated content can only be of intellectual value, though if high quality is ensured. This doesn’t imply that merely professionals should engage in eWOM, also travel enthusiasts can be an enrichment to your brand community contributing to the desired collective creativity. However, as it is always possible that irrelevant or incorrect content is posted that might harm your brand, you should constantly screen and in those cases, block content in order to ensure quality and thus, intellectual value contribution (Seraj, 2012).
Another aspect challenging the content’s intellectual value is the usage of economic incentives or strategies to put pressure on users in order to make them write reviews right after transaction or travel experiences. Those efforts mostly lead to either positive or negative comments which may distort the overall image of your brand in the tourism sector. Instead, try to set the focus on voluntary contribution (King et al., 2004).
#3 Self-Directed Need
Community members don’t only share their experiences for the sake of peer travelers or favored companies in the tourism sector - contribution is often simply self-directed (Serra Cantallops & Salvi, 2014). It can even be assumed that those users trying to fulfill self-directed needs represent the biggest segment seeking eWOM (King et al., 2004). We all know that doing something good makes us feel good, so it is not surprising that travelers might push their self-enhancement by contributing valuable user-generated content. But this is only half the story: users like to give vent to their joy or anger regarding post travel experiences. Through eWOM they have the opportunity to do so (Henning-Thurau et al., 2004). Regarding travelers’ need for self-enhancement, key academics conclude wise words:
“the relatively anonymous and goal-directed nature of online environments means that for active contributors, reputation is the only resource that can be developed and used to achieve an end” (King et al., 2004, p.173).
Consequently, it is advisable to strengthen members’ self-enhancement in form of a ranking system that identifies top users in terms of content quality and helpfulness. By doing so, you simultaneously enhance participation. Plus, it is believed that ranking systems, or sender reputation in general, stimulate the creation of longer, more balanced as well as valuable eWOM.
Regarding travelers’ need to restore their inner balance, a right level of intervention is required. Authentic, honest and open – these are the key attributes of eWOM which indicate the possible release of positive as well as less unfavorable travel experiences. While tracking user-generated content can help you identifying weaknesses in your portfolio, attempting to apply authoritarian communication might be one step too far as it counteracts the characteristics of eWOM. Trying to steer conversations into a favored direction might result in a less authentic brand experience leading to reduced engagement or even a loss of members.
#4 Cultural Need
Homophily, or simply the love of perceived similarity, plays a vital role for users when deciding to actively participate in online travel communities. Members indicate higher levels of trust, understanding and attraction towards participation when being among peers (Casaló et al., 2013). Homophily has an impact on how users perceive shared information, experience interaction and form their opinions (Brown et al., 2007). Therefore, stimulating similarity should be one of your main tasks when managing online brand communities in the tourism sector – applying user segmentation is a good way to start. On top of that, homophily is more likely to be found in a strong culture, or electronic tribe so to say (Coca, 1998; Kozinets, 1999 in Serai, 2012). Common procedures, protocols as well as community-specific rituals and policies help in creating a context of shared norms and values. Policies might then encompass entry requirements, privacy/security concerns or a given code of conduct (Wang et al., 2002).
#5 The Need for Source Credibility
Source credibility is considered to be a fundamental requirement in travelers’ decision-making process (Aye et al., 2013). Even though, online travel communities are seen among the most credible information sources in the tourism sector, user-generated content cannot be rated as persuasive and believable per se. Open and honest dialogues represent major benefits of eWOM that also has its pitfalls. It becomes increasingly difficult for members to distinguish valuable from incorrect content which makes members want to know more about their peers to better evaluate their posts and comments. Creating user profiles encompassing personal information or simply linking the content to already existing profiles (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn) fosters transparency and thus, the inevitable credibility. If you want to ensure credibility, you will need to make your members perceive a high level of trust and expertise. Both elements go hand in hand with the aforementioned user needs and thus, the cycle closes: if you manage to offer your members these values, credibility comes along all by itself.
Now that you now about users’ needs when seeking eWOM in online travel communities, how to implement these into your own brand community? The second part takes a look at how KLM and AIDA Cruises tackle this issue and provides you with some managerial takeaways.