Thesis: Social Platforms in the Tourist Industry

The following is the official English summary of my thesis. It was completed in September 2010. If you’d like to get in touch regarding the thesis please check out the Get in touch page here.

The development of web 2.0 technologies has caused a fundamental shift in many aspects of communication today. This includes the way tourist information is disseminated. Tourists now research their travels online, they book flights, hotels and experiences, and they review, discuss and share what they find.

However, in some aspects the tourist industry seems yet to have reacted fully to this shift (Hamill, Attard et al. 2009). Some estimates place only 37 % of budget spending online (PhocusWright 2009).

The purpose of this thesis is thus to uncover the challenges facing actors in the tourist industry when initiating the use of social platforms in communicating with tourists. The following hypothesis are set forth:

  1. Actors in the tourist industry are challenged by the new mindset that the social web demands.
  2. Actors in the tourist industry have trouble creating the authenticity that tourist want.
  3. The merging of communications spheres makes it hard for actors to know how to communicate.
  4. The balance of power has changed in the network society, which makes actors afraid of losing control of the communication stream.

A case study has been deemed the most appropriate method of investigation. A methodological triangulation consisting of three data types is used. These data types are: Interviews with four tourist actors, netnographic observations of their online activity (namely on Facebook) and finally analyses of their websites. The actors in question are the attractions and primary cases Den Gamle By in Aarhus and The Tenement Museum in New York. Furthermore two actors who resemble tourist offices are included, the purpose of which is to allow a wider view of the industry as a whole. These are NYCGO in New York and Wonderful Copenhagen in Copenhagen.

The two primary cases have been selected with a maximum variation approach in mind, as Den Gamle By and The Tenement Museum exist on opposite ends of the digital competency scales. While Den Gamle By has only just started using social platforms, The Tenement Museum already has a fairly substantial presence.

The theoretical framework consists of Manuel Castells (Castells 2007) views on how the network society is changing the media landscape, and how this is causing a shift in the relationship of power between producers and consumers. Joshua Meyrowitz (Meyrowitz 1985) is used to show how these changes are creating a new media sphere, which can be viewed as a hybrid of earlier versions. To show how power is divided online Albert-Lászlo Barabási’s power law (Barabási 2003) is used in conjunction with Chris Anderson’s alternative take, namely the theory of the long tail (Anderson 2006). To further exemplify what the shift of power between consumer and producer means Axel Bruns’ produsage-term is used. Finally Gilmore and Pine’s authenticity theory used to show how consumers understand authenticity today, and Bernoff and Li’s groundswell term is used to show, what social platforms can mean for organisations.

The analysis of the collected data has revealed six concrete challenges. These are:

  1. Lack of technological know-how
  2. Fear of lack of content
  3. Appeasing stakeholders
  4. Lack of strategic direction
  5. Ressource issues
  6. Issues with organizational culture

While most literature on the subject of web 2.0 says that technology is less important than the social aspect of the new platforms, every single case at some point or another explicitly states lack of technological know-how as being a major barrier for them. This also ties in with several of the other challenges, as it prevents them from changing websites and so on.

The second challenge is a fear of lack of content, of not having anything to post. While the actors explicitly declare these fears, observations of their actions online show they have overcome them by creating categories of content that are potentially never-ending. Namely they post information about upcoming activities and content relating to historical information, i.e. material from their archives.

Appeasing stakeholders is a reaction to the heightened speed of social media. While management in some instances would prefer to “approve” certain interactions, the expectations of the medium create issues at towards achieving this quickly enough. Furthermore most employees now have direct access to customers via social media channels.

This expanded access to customers leads to problems when no strategic direction is implemented. The intersection between employees and customers has grown. At the same time the analysis shows several instances where problems may have been avoided through a declared strategy. Deciding upon which profiles would be admins of Facebook groups and pages for instance.

One of the reasons for the lack a declared strategy is a perceived lack of resources. I.e. the actors are, according to Wonderful Copenhagen, afraid that social media may become a time sink. Furthermore the cases let on that they do not have the resources to experiment and test new platforms, which leads to the aforementioned challenge regarding the lack of technological know-how.

Finally, when viewed collectively several of the above-mentioned challenges are symptomatic of an organizational culture that has yet to adjust to the use of social platforms. Some of the challenges are perceived by the cases and may be a result of this, while others are extrapolated through data.

The extracted challenges and further analysis show that the hypotheses set forth need adjusting. The actors in question do not have trouble creating the authenticity demanded by tourist, as their basic product is in this case is sound. They have rendered an environment, in which the tourists find the product meets their expectations. Therefore the hypothesis regarding authenticity must be outright rejected.

In regards to the merging of communication spheres the cases show no signs of having trouble understanding what scene they are present on at any given time. There has been no observation of employees’ personal profiles, which may have given a different result. As it stands, though, the organizations here always act as if they are “on stage”. The hypothesis is rejected. An area where an issue seems present is a relatively intense focus on the burgeoning field of location-aware apps, which also represent a merging of spheres. None of the cases seem aware of the potential negative sides to this new technology – instead they focus their attention of the new possibilities they put forth.

Likewise, the actors do not seem to fear any loss of control in regards to the shifting balance of communicational power. A lack of implementation of user-generated content on their websites if caused by a lack of knowledge of how to achieve this. They are aware that if the product is of sufficient quality reviews etc. will reflect this. Furthermore, while Tenement Museum and Den Gamle By are positioned different places on the power law-curve, none of them show signs of being uncomfortable with their positions.

The final hypothesis says, that the actors are challenged by a new mindset. This does indeed seem to be the case, as several of the extracted challenges add up to being influenced specifically by the mindset of the actors. This final hypothesis is therefore confirmed.