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"Don't I Look Cool?" Could Lead to Travel Planning Decisions

New Research Shows Thinking About How People Will React to Social Media Posts Influences Travel Decisions



Do we choose travel spots based on whether or not we’ll be seen as “cool and trendy” by our social media friends?

Does this ego boost actually override other decision factors, such as weather predictions and the size of our bank account?

Are we more interested in telling others we’ve been to a place than actually going to the place itself?

A team of American researchers seems to think so. Their article, "Social Return and Intent to Travel" appears in the 2018 Tourism Management

Traveling to “look cool” isn’t new. What is new is the instant gratification we get when our social media posts and photos are acknowledged. No longer do we have to wait for film to be developed or put together a boring slideshow to share our adventures. Today’s traveler instantly chooses which images we want to share. It's only natural to want to put our best foot forward, so more often than not, we  share images that make us look cool, beautiful, clever, worldly, adventurous, etc

Feeding the Ego with Facebook Likes

Researchers coined the rush social media users get when people “like”, comment or give positive feedback to Instagram, Facebook and other social media posts as “Social Return.” The research looks at how this Social Return impacts a traveler’s decision to choose a destination.

Trying to Belong or Standing Apart?

But first, let’s look at why this particular social media phenomenon exists. This means, delving deep into the psycho-babble to understand. Based on research, there are two reasons why people choose destinations or products based on how people will perceive them. The “Bandwagon Effect” means more people will choose a destination because everyone else is going to the same place. This isn’t so much as touting wealth as it is “keeping up with the Joneses” and being part of the “in-crowd.”

The “Snob Effect” is the complete opposite. It’s about people choosing a destination because they want to appear different and unique. Visiting new places or having unique experiences gives these travelers a feeling of prestige.

Just look at the growing use of “selfies,” which are less concerned with sharing magnificent vistas or sites than they are showing one’s magnificent self in that setting.

Being seen as happy is key. But how that happiness is portrayed could be quite different. While some want to appear wealthy, others want to be seen as clever. Some travelers get gratification from impressing others just within a narrow group of those who share similar interests. For example, coffee lovers want to share their brilliance and ability to find that perfect cup with others who share their passion.

Studying Intent to Travel and Intent to Impress

Surveying US residents, the researchers chose Cuba as a destination to explore. After reviewing research and testing, a Social Return Scale was developed (below.) These questions were combined with more traditional questions related to travel intent, such as whether or not a trip would be authentic, pleasant, uncomfortable, enjoyable, etc.    

Social media posts of travel to Cuba make . . .

… the traveler look cool

… the traveler look more popular

… the traveler stand out

… the traveler look unique

… the traveler look savvy

… me envious of the traveler

Intent to Travel in the Short-Term is Heavily Influenced by Future Opinions of Others

The researchers demonstrated that the more a traveler thought photos of a trip would generate social media likes, comments and shares, the more likely they are to visit. They also said that this desire to travel to pump up one’s ego is stronger when one plans to travel within a year. As the planning time for travel lengthens, the power of this ego boost goes away. 

What Does This Mean When Marketing our Experiences?

Here are some tips we came up with based on this research.

  • Attractions, communities and destinations with high social media activity should monitor what photos and posts are trending to take advantage of the bandwagon effect (and the snob effect), recognizing that what’s trendy today could be gone tomorrow. 
  • Given the short-term effect of this motivator, be flexible and ready to change messaging. Your social media marketing plan should be fluid and adjusted almost weekly. 
  • Consider the characteristics of your guests and whether they are more apt to come to your place of business to jump on the ‘bandwagon’ or to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Due to the photographic quality and subject matter, perhaps the images that appear on Instagram are more exclusive offerings of your experience, appealing to those trying to impress, while Facebook tends to get more into the details. Are the images you’re seeing on both platforms representative of someone who is trying to “keep up” or “set themselves apart?” 
  • Offer value-added exclusive experiences for those who seek selfies and posts in unusual places and doing unusual things.  
  • Involve your employees or community members in identifying “insider” favorite selfie spots, then ask them to share these spots whenever they see guests taking photos. That would make your guest feel special and unique.  
  • Offer a “secret” menu item; something only told to a few. Then let the social media grapevine do its work.  
  • Consider creating iconic names or identifiers for areas that have special appeal for photos. People love to identify a setting, as it makes them feel as if they have landed somewhere. So come up with a creative name for that statue, rock formation, colorful building, etc.  
  • Social media monitoring is often delegated, but all levels of operations and management should routinely look at what photos guests are posting to pick up on what’s trending and to get ideas for creating new experiences (and photo moments) based on what they’re seeing.

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