Written by a Master's Student of the Lund University School of Economics and Management
Connecting Travelers Online - The Way KLM and AIDA Cruises do it
With its online travel communities Flying Blue Club Africa and Flying Blue Club China, the Dutch airline KLM offers its business travelers a digital meeting place to connect and network with fellow travelers. On the platform #1 social needs are addressed as customers can share experiences, either travel- or business-related, maintain valuable contacts as well as learn from others’ insights into the Chinese/African business world. The stimulated knowledge exchange fosters the required reciprocity and social ties. By starting discussions, the airline attempts to promote communication and the integration of members. This form of active moderation needs to be considered critically, though as users might feel disrupted in their freedom of posting travel experiences or opinions and thus, possibly perceive the brand community as an implicit advertising tool. The airline places strong emphasis on stimulating #2 intellectual needs. KLM considers its online travel communities as rich sources of expertise which allow the exchange of invaluable experiences and knowledge (KLM, 2015). Several steps are taken to ensure high-quality: the continuous monitoring of user-generated content as well as the airline’s effort to thoroughly check travelers’ subscription first in order to keep the brand communities’ nature of exclusivity and expertise.
A possible drawback might be KLM’s strong focus on member incentives such as offering exclusive service including network-oriented events. Even though, this is a clear benefit that might make travelers join KLM’s brand communities instead of other platforms, the airline accepts the risk that users primarily subscribe for premium offers instead of the willingness to create valuable eWOM. Alternatively, KLM could think about implementing a ranking-system as a possible incentive for community members posting valuable and helpful content. By doing so users’ #3 self-directed needs could be fulfilled without focusing too much on economic incentives endangering intellectual content. KLM’s brand communities show best practices in the tourism sector when it comes to addressing #4 cultural needs. By a clearly identified target group, namely business travelers being interested or active in the Chinese and African market, similarity among members is ensured. KLM is selective when it comes to new members without being too exclusive (e.g. easy subscription possible). The online travel communities live up specific norms and values that make behavioral expectations clear and thus, create some form of electronic tribe. Lastly, KLM offers its users the convenience to sign up with their LinkedIn profile. This allows transparency of personal information, stimulates trust and #5 source credibility which make users less concerned when communicating with fellow travelers.
With AIDA Weblounge the cruise line stimulates #1 social needs by providing a platform for its travelers to share blog posts, videos and pictures related to their travels with AIDA cruises. Enabling users to comment on each other’s posts, to find travel buddies for upcoming trips or simply having established a Q&R section – reciprocity is fostered by various functions that are supposed to strengthen members’ social ties. AIDA cruises finds indirect ways to stimulate eWOM, e.g. by advertised photo contests. It seems that members enjoy full empowerment within the online travel community by creating content, starting discussions or answering questions. Thus, the company takes over a quite passive role. However, scanning other travel forums reveal that AIDA Cruises apparently deletes undesirable user-generated content (Holidaycheck, 2015). As knowing by now, this can annoy many travelers and distort the brand’s image in the tourism sector.
Users can post any kind of content that is somehow related to cruise travels with AIDA. Thus, it is questionable to which extent #2 intellectual needs are specifically addressed. This might be highly subjective. By having the possibility of becoming ‘Fan of the Week’, travelers’ #3 self-directed needs are taken into consideration by the company. However, as the title is not connected with user-generated content, meaning that the voted fan has posted the most useful/creative /inspirational post of the week, AIDA Cruises misses out the opportunity to promote intellectual value and high quality content. Instead, travelers’ can simply send in a request stating why they should become fan of the week.
By only targeting users who have experiences with AIDA cruise travels or are interested in those, similarity is fostered. Moreover, users can create a network by adding members to their friend list who indicate similar hobbies or favored travel destinations, for instance. Combining the created homophily with a set focus on common norms and values in form of a published netiquette, AIDA Cruises attempts to address members’ #4 cultural needs by building a strong culture.
The ‘about me’ section assigned to each traveler creates transparency and thus, fosters trust and #5 source credibility among members. However, users neither need to subscribe with any existing profile nor do they have to indicate real names. Even though, AIDA Cruises highlights its data privacy protection as well as security explicitly and detailed on its website, users might get discouraged from a potential membership when seeing that posted content as well as a full list of all users is publicly visible. This can be referred to the finding that even though, online travel communities should be inviting, they should be exclusive to a certain extent as well.
While user-generated content is difficult to manage in the tourism sector, brand communities offer some opportunities of stimulating positive eWOM - but only when keeping travelers’ needs in mind:
The overall aim should always be (1) to provide travelers a platform to interact and exchange without placing your brand too much into focus. Show customers that you care about their needs, but don’t give the impression that you just do so as part of your marketing activities. This encompasses (2) an appropriate level of moderation; neither too passive (discussions might lose focus and quality) nor too active (avoid authoritarian communication). (3) Be exclusive to ensure high-quality content as well as similarity among members and their travel interests, but simultaneously inviting in order to stimulate collective creativity. Users have numerous options to share their travel experiences and gain insights, so what benefits do their have when joining your online travel community? (4) Be explicit about those. One should definitely be the knowledge exchange and networking among like-minded travelers and this can only be ensured (5) by applying a clear segmentation. Then users feel trusted and understood and thus, are eager to share their expertise and opinions. Speaking of those, (6) allow favorable as well as critical words to transform an authentic brand image but also to learn from criticism. Lastly and probably most important – the need of online credibility. (7) By constantly checking user-generated content, evaluating users’ subscription as well as fostering transparency, travelers perceive the image of becoming part of a trustworthy and professional online brand community and are more willing to become an active part of it.
Many aspects related to online travel communities and eWOM still leave room for further research. It could be useful to identify how travelers seek eWOM in brand communities at different stages of their decision-making process. How do they actually make use of retrieved information for their final decision? Does negative eWOM have a stronger impact than positive one? Further research wouldn’t only result in a deeper understanding of consumer behavior but would also help you developing suitable marketing strategies. But remember: travelers aren’t simply customers, but your co-marketers-, producers,- and distributors in brand communities. Start caring about their needs when seeking eWOM, only then they can help creating strong brand equity by the means of honest and open eWOM.
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