Written by: Camila Coral
Keywords: Travel, Trust, e-WOM, reviews, traveler, social media, brands.
The travel sector, as the majority of industries in the market, fell dramatically after the recession crisis of 2008. According to a study conducted by Oxford Economics (Oxford Economics & Amadeus, 2010), The global arrivals decreased 4% between 2008 and 2009 and tourism receipts were 5.7% below the previous years' levels (Oxford Economics & Amadeus, 2010). There is a possibility this decrease was due to travelers spending less per journey. To survive, hotels, flights, and touristic destinations had to adapt to be more competent with their offers and services by adjusting their prices and lowering them. The latter resulted not only in an evolution of the sector but also in the formation of smarter travelers.
Travelers had to become expert savers, By skipping intermediaries (Fitzpatrick, 2014) and making the best out of their experiences with the money they had. In need of a helping hand for their choices, however, on Internet and social media they could find not only an aid but, something even better: reviews. By 2016, 65% of travelers, divided into Millennials (18-34 years old), Generation X (35-64 years old) and baby boomers (65+ years old) will book their vacations via online platforms, perceiving the content and official ranking of the touristic destinations and hotels as the most influential source of information. (Tripadvisor, 2015). The present article will talk about the importance of reviews as part of e-WOM for constructing trust in travelers and will give specific tips for brands inside this category who want to communicate better with their customers on review websites and social media.
Electronic Word-Of-mouth and the social traveler:
Let's start with an example with the objective to understand how people interact with brands on the internet before making a purchase. A Millenial (18-35 years old) is planning the vacations for the summer. He has a vague idea of where he wants to go; probably he would search on his mobile for exotic places, with an active cultural experience. (Tripadvisor, 2015; Fitzpatrick, 2014) After searching for some hours, he finds the perfect place, recommended by an experienced traveler on his favorite blog. He would look further more reviews on Facebook groups, he would search for pictures on Instagram until finally he's fully convinced. The traveler’s top priorities, musts and filters for renting accommodation are: good money deals, high-speed wifi, good location, close to restaurants or bus or metro stations (Tripadvisor, 2015). Furthermore he clicks on a banner that pops up when he is buying the tickets. The ad is about a hotel with the conditions he is looking for. He goes to the website, checks the pictures and seems pretty convinced. Additionally, he checks the reviews and the excellent hotel has awful comments referring to terrible attention, slow WiFi and insecure neighborhood. The web page looks nice but the reviews not that much. Do you think this person would make the reservation?
The previous situation describes the steps of the consumer decision journey (Edelman, 2010). The latter has four stages, starting with the consideration of the necessity and the different brands that can cover it. Secondly the evaluation of various options, and lastly, the purchase, where the consumer enjoys the service/product, and if the experience was positive, becomes an advocate. However, as the author explains, the cycle is changing and becoming shorter because consumers start to search for reviews from themoment they consider what to buy, and these can be crucial for the final selling (Edelman, 2010). Therefore, the electronic word-of-mouth (e-WOM) defined as "positive or negative statements made about a product, company, etc. that are made widely available via the Internet" (Thorson and Rodgers, 2006) gains importance and attention on the web marketing strategy for a brand.
Today's social traveler is the one who is seeking for the reviews before considering destinations, hotels or flights. What makes this category unique is that the consumers feel the pressure of have to be smarter, this refers to the ability of obtaining the best prices and benefits at the moment to buy tickets, book a hotel, or even rent a car. On average, travelers spend 2 hours on research and visit more than 26 different websites before they feel they have found the perfect deal for holidays. (Filieri, Alguezaui, and McLeay, 2015). Travelers search for reviews on the internet because they believe it to be more trustworthy compared to traditional advertising, mass media or travel agents. Also, the experiences of others are considered as highly valuable and difficult to find. (Filieri, Alguezaui, and McLeay, 2015; Fitzpatrick, 2014). The search for reviews starts before booking, and these are more likely to influence the choice of a particular destination. (Kladou and Mavragani, 2015; Banerjee and Chua, 2016; Filieri, Alguezaui, and McLeay, 2015).
Therefore, websites such as Tripadvisor’s popularity is no current surprise since people can rate and review their personal experience on a particular destination. The page works as a network having on one side the hotels and on the other the empowered consumers asking or sharing information. Consumer's trust levels increase because they perceive the others as peers, part of a network where they have something in common. The content on these websites have an added value compared to the one on the official internet sites, and this value is built by the community who is willing to share their knowledge with others. (Labrecque et al., 2013). This environment is controlled by the consumer and not by the brands (Hoffman and Fodor, 2010).
With the consumer having the power given by the e-WOM, brands are exposed on the internet more than on other media channels. Nowadays, being on the web is not a decision but an obligation for brands. On one positive side, brands in the travel sector can aim more efficiently to the public they want because of the precise segmentation. However, the other not so positive perspective is that brands cannot control reviews in the same way they control advertising. One questioned "reputation strategy" used for some brands is the fake reviews. (Filieri, Alguezaui, and McLeay, 2015). Brands create fake profiles to write good reviews about their services and bad reviews to discredit the competence. This reputation strategy diminishes the trust of the consumer and affects the whole sector. On 2014, New York Times documented a ‘fake reviews’ case when the Italian Competition Authorities presented a lawsuit against Tripadvisor arguing that this company was "not doing enough to prevent false reviews on its site." (Scott, 2016). According to the Italian Competition Authorities, the tourism sector was being affected by fake bad reviews and was losing money, which is alarming for a country such as Italy where tourism is one of their biggest economic activities.
In spite of consumer’s trust diminishing due to ‘fake reviews’ cases, travelers still rely on reviews rather than on traditional advertising. (Armelini and Villanueva Galobart, 2011). That is why brands in the travel category need a balance between their traditional strategies online and the space they open for reviews even if it is on their official website, specialized travel sites or online communities. Which aspects are significant when creating channels that stimulate reviews?. Here is a selection of some of these aspects that can help brands convert the reviews of consumers into a compelling sales argument.
1. Avoid fake reviews: as explained before, fake reviews can weaken the consumer trust, also, if the users find out a brand is using this strategy, this can lead to a boycott affecting the reputation of the brand on a higher level. (Filieri, Alguezaui, and McLeay, 2015)
2. Offer an excellent service and create advocates: Good reviews are the result of great service, but is important to persuade customers to be defenders of the brand, this can be done by community initiatives, e-mail promotions, and discounts on future experiences. (Edelman, 2010) The important element here is to find out what matters to the consumer and what could encourage him to write about his experience.
3. Create an interactive platform: A welcoming space for users where they can share their opinions and reviews in an easy way. (Kietzmann et al., 2011). The platform should be a space where users can interact with the brand; this means that the brand needs to have a team of employees in charge of the platform as a guaranty of good service.
4. Manage the online reputation: The online reputation of a brand is a matter of trust (Kietzmann et al., 2011), and the negative reviews can diminish that trust, inducing consumers to look for different options. Companies need to take bad reviews as an indication that is something wrong with the service; it needs to be followed and solved and not ignored. According to Tripadvisor's trends for the travel sector, brands are willing to invest 59% more than in 2015 in managing online reputation (Tripadvisor, 2015).
5. Include positive reviews as part of the website content: Reviews, as well as photos, are highly appreciated for tourists who are looking for travel inspiration (Charron, 2014). Therefore, if the brand has positive reviews, these should be highlighted in some way on the official web page. Also, the brand can encourage users to share their experience with their stories and photos, and then the internet navigation in the site would be more enjoyable and credible.
The Travel category has changed thanks to the Internet and the influence of electronic word-of-mouth dramatically. On one side we can observe the brands trying to captivate travelers, offering new experiences or exotic destinations. Even if it is for business or pleasure, the category has become more versatile and professional, presenting more personalized options that aim to accommodate any traveler. On the other side, the consumers are smarter than before, eager to find the perfect destination and live the best experience with the money they have. Today's travelers are not passive at all, they take their time when making a decision, they search, ask and research before acting, and most important, they do not trust only on advertising, this changes completely the traditional consumers decisions journey.
The tools for the social travelers can be found on internet, where they can find blogs, social media or specialized websites full of reviews. There they can share with other consumers their experiences, ask questions and evaluate their decisions until they can find their perfect destination. The relevance of e-WOM draws consumer’s to rely and trust more on these sites, something traditional advertising lacks of.
This trust is created because of the origin of the content since brands don’t create it, but members of a community, peers, who are willing to share their experiences and knowledge.
Brands cannot see e-WOM as a threat but more as an opportunity. It is understandable that brands fear what they cannot control. With advertising they were able to influence consumers and now consumer-produced e-WOM generates a higher influence than advertising did before. However, brands can take advantage of the reviews, understanding that only a good service inspire customers to become advocates of the brand. Besides, it is crucial for brands to monitor what is going on with them on the web. Delve into and research their online reputation and invest on strategies that help them maintain a good image online, this also means that the bad reviews are opportunities to improve their service and cannot be ignored. Brands should not use fake reviews as part of their online strategy; these fake reviews can diminish consumer trust. The website of a brand in the travel category is one of the most critical points; it is the place where the prospect customer can be convinced or deceived. Therefore, the website should have a combination of promotional content but also a section for reviews, stories, pictures and content created by satisfied users willing to share their real experiences and knowledge with others.
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