The tourism industry is a typical kind of attention-based sector that requires innovative marketing tools. In developed countries, the Tourism Bureaus are responsible for marketing tourist destinations and attractions to overseas markets. Firms operating in the tourism industry use various marketing tools to promote scenic spots, hotels, and airline companies to potential visitors (Sigala, Christou & Gretzel 2012).
Advancements in internet technology have revolutionised the tourism industry with social marketing platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Weibo becoming highly influential tools. National Tourism Bureaus, scenic spots, hotels, and other tourist firms have also adopted social media marketing as a tool for communicating directly with tourists (Goelgner & Ritchie 2009).
Recent developments in internet technology coupled with the popularity of Smartphones have made mobile-based chat services, such as ‘wechat’, perfect marketing tools for players in the tourism industry. Web clients are now reachable within a short time via their mobile phones. Wechat has emerged as a leading innovative communication tool that tourism organisations use to market their products. Within two years after its launch, the platform’s client base has grown to 0.4 billion, which is equivalent to 7% of the global population (Haenlein 2010).
Overall, the speed of wechat’s development exceeds that of other similar applications. Given its popularity, no tourism organisation or company can ignore its existence and maintain its competitiveness and market share. In view of this, players in the tourism industry pay special attention to ‘wechat’ marketing owing to the increased expansion and usage of mobile internet. In a word, tourism, as a service industry, is highly sensitive to marketing methods.
This means that an organisation must exercise caution when choosing a platform for marketing its products. Organisations that adopt a particular marketing strategy without due consideration to its effects or utilise a new promotional tool because it is a “new trend” often do not realise their goals (Torun 2011). The purpose of my research is to analyse the prospects of the wechat marketing tool in the tourism industry.
Overview of the Research
Destination marketing is often challenging because the travellers’ tastes and preferences are unpredictable. Tourism marketing organisations have to develop messages that aptly describe a destination’s uniqueness in order to differentiate it from the others. Moreover, due to the heterogeneous nature of markets, marketers often create specific messages for each market segment. They also utilise multiple communication channels to market their destinations. This makes sense because a particular target segment can only be reached via a particular communication tool or media.
Social media normally convey information created by people using highly accessible and scalable publishing technologies (Ahlqvist, Toni, Back, Halonen & Heinonen 2008). They have revolutionised how people discover, read, and share news, information, and content. They represent a fusion of sociology and technology that transforms a monologue into a dialog. They also represent a democratisation of information, as they transform people from content readers to publishers. Social media have become extremely popular because they facilitate interpersonal interactions in the online world to form relationships for personal reasons and business (Fernando 2007). For businesses, social media generates content that represents the tastes of the consumers. It is, therefore, a consumer-generated media.
Social media marketing describes the process of “gaining website traffic or attention through social media sites” (Trattner & Kappe 2013, p. 129). The main aim of social media marketing is to generate appropriate content (message) that can reach online communities (friends) through sharing. The content that is shared constitutes an electronic word of mouth (eWoM), which describes a message that is spread among users via online platforms, such as IMs (instant messages) and social media (Kietzmann & Canhoto 2013). An electronic word of mouth often contains information about “a brand, an event, a service, or a product” (Seabra, Abrantes & Lages 2007, p. 544).
Messages received from friends or colleagues are more trusted than those that are sent by a tourist destination (Schuvinski, Bruno & Dąbrowski 2013). Thus, social media marketing is built around relationships, as opposed to commercial interests.
Along with the developments in technology, mobile-based social media have become increasingly popular and useful. Mobile-based social media describes the internet applications installed on a mobile device. These applications facilitate enhanced user-interactivity and sharing of content (Park, Lee & Han 2007). Mobile-based social networking has additional benefits over traditional forms of media, including enhanced user accessibility that transcends both time and location.
Kaplan (2012) identifies four forms of mobile-based interactive technologies that enhance user accessibility. The first category comprises of space-timers, which include time- and location-specific technologies. They facilitate the sharing of relevant content based on the user’s location and time. Examples include Foursquare and Facebook Places (Kaplan 2012). These applications have a functionality that allows wechat users to disclose their location when uploading new pictures. Tourist hotels and popular destinations can use this functionality to market their products.
The second category comprises of the space-locators that only identify one’s location. They allow a user to disclose his/her location so that others can access and learn about it. Examples of such applications include Qype and Yelp (Kaplan 2012). Wechat allows users to access e-banking services and thus, one can purchase items, such as movie tickets, or book a hotel room using his mobile phone. It also allows users to rate a destination’s service and provide feedback or comments. However, there are many security challenges associated with electronic banking and thus, organisations must adopt enhanced safety features to protect their customers against fraud.
The third group of applications is the quick-timers. Quick-timers are only sensitive to time. They facilitate information transfer from traditional social media applications to mobile devices to enhance the immediacy of communication (Kaplan 2012). Examples include Facebook status updates and tweets. Wechat users can post their status at any time and location via twitter and Facebook. The last category of social media applications is the slow-timers. These mobile applications are not sensitive to location or time (Kaplan 2012). They facilitate the transfer of content from traditional media to mobile applications. An example is a Wikipedia entry. Wechat allows users to upload new music or videos via YouTube.
Based on this analysis, it is evident that wechat has both the characteristics of location and time. Thus, a user can post his/her status or location at any time. This explains why wechat has become an important marketing tool in the tourism industry. As aforementioned, National Tourism Bureaus, scenic spots, and hotels will continue to use wechat as an innovative marketing tool because it offers numerous advantages over the other social media.
Objectives of the Study
The focus of the proposed study is to analyse the adoption of the mobile-based application, wechat, in the tourism industry. Its objectives include:
- To analyse the role of wechat marketing in determining the preferences and behaviour of the travellers (target marketing)
- To determine how users perceive the messages posted on social media sites, including wechat
- To determine the reactions of tourists towards destination marketing campaigns that are carried out on wechat
- To analyse the security problems associated with wechat that may potentially hamper its use by travellers
- To determine the advantages of wechat marketing over the other promotional strategies used by destination marketers
In the tourism field, it is important to understand consumer preferences because they determine the clients’ purchase behaviour (Swarbrooke & Horner 1999). Due to the intangible nature of tourism products, consumers rely on different information sources to inform their decisions. Besides information, a tourist’s decision to purchase a particular product is influenced by his/her economic, cultural, and personal factors. Because these factors determine a tourist’s behaviour, it can be concluded that they also influence his/her information search and by extension, social media usage.
The proposed project will profile the demographic characteristics of wechat users and the information they search or post. According to Beckendorff, Moscardo, and Pendergast (2010), demographic factors influence tourists’ information search behaviour. In addition, the opinion of close friends, which normally involves the word of mouth (WOM), has a significant influence on a tourist’s purchase decision. Since social media has emerged as “a new type of WOM”, recommendations by friends has a big influence on a tourist’s purchase behaviour (Murphy, Mascardo, and Beckendorff 2007)
In today’s globalised economy, destination marketers must convey their messages via popular communication media in order to reach a wider audience (Gursoy & McCleary 2004). Usually, marketers can influence the choice of a tourism product through innovative communication strategies. WOM has emerged as an influential information source that allows travellers to choose a destination (Cox, Burgess, Sellitto, & Buultjens, 2009).
Advancements in technology have created an electronic word of mouth (eWOM), which is conveyed via social media platforms. The number of tourists who rely on the internet for information has been on the rise in recent years. Cox et al. (2009) underscore the role of internet information during travel planning. A study by a hospitality research organisation, Plog Research, found that a large percentage (95%) of travellers relies on internet information when selecting a destination and planning for their travel (Pan & Fesenmaier 2006).
Usually, eWOM encompasses consumer-generated media that contain information posted by a tourist’s friend or relative. It is, however, difficult to determine whether the traveller’s tastes and preferences are similar to those of his/her friends or relatives. Murphy, Mascardo, and Beckendorff (2007) write that eWOM originating from other tourists has a greater influence on a traveller’s purchase decision than that generated by relatives or friends.
Thus, eWOM covers all information available to a traveller on the internet regarding the products and services of tourist destination (Litvin, Goldsmith & Pan 2007). This implies that eWOM comprises of messages between a destination marketer and users, and among travellers themselves.
Social media differ from traditional channels in the way communication takes place; its content originates from the users, not the destination marketer (Fernando 2007). Moreover, social media facilitate interactivity between users and tourism organisations through customer feedback and product ratings. Social media encompass various platforms, including “blogs, reviews, wikis, and photo sharing sites” (Gretzel, Myunghwa, & Woojin 2008, p. 103). According to Choi, Lehto, and Oleary (2007), social media sites include blogs, which convey personal views, reviews, such as Flickr, and networking sites. The proposed project will focus on wechat, which is based on content generated by users and shared via these networking sites.
Research on the role of social media in tourism seems to follow techno-deterministic approach that predicts extreme social changes with lasting transformations (Schoenbach 2001). One such prediction is the empowerment of tourists in relation to their travel planning via social media. Social media, whether general (such as Facebook) or travel specific, are deemed as channels for democratising the travel experience because they allow travellers to receive positive and negative information relating to a tourism destination (Mendes-Filho & Tan 2009). As already indicated, WOM communication is extremely influential in the tourism industry.
Social media has amplified this influence even more, since, with traditional WOM, a person could only talk to his or her acquaintances; however, eWOM allows a person to communicate with hundreds or even thousands of people about a particular tourism destination. The aim of the project is to explore wechat as a revolutionary marketing tool that allows many travellers to connect and share their experiences.
Nevertheless, the trustworthiness of tourist-generated content is dependent on the reliability of the social intermediary that facilitates the publishing of such content (Burgess, Sellitto, Cox, & Buultjens 2009). Examples of such intermediaries include Trip Advisor, LLC or YouTube, LLC, which serve as social filters or gatekeepers of information. These intermediaries dictate the rules of publishing content on social media. Thus, it can be argued that social intermediaries influence the nature of the content that travellers post online.
Wechat’s business model is not clearly understood partly because it is a new marketing tool. It is, therefore, difficult to quantify its impacts at this stage. We need to keep monitoring its development to understand its effects. Nevertheless, compared to Facebook and Twitter, wechat has more communication value and broader business prospects. Wechat is a mobile-based application that facilitates communication between friends and families (O’Connor, Hopken & Gretzel 2008).
It is akin to a social chat tool. Over the recent past, wechat has developed a new function called “Peng You Quan” (circle of friends) that allows users to post their status at any time and location (Beldona, Nusair & Demicco 2009). Initially, QQ, which preceded wechat, built a customer base of more than 100 million users. This figure has since risen to 400 million. Based on the market penetration trend, the study will predict wechat’s future prospects in this industry.
Recently, wechat incorporated new functions, such as phone refill, movie ticket purchase, hotel and restaurant booking, ‘wei dian’ (a mobile internet store), and business public accounts, among others. Moreover, wechat users can access other types of software that come with the application. An example is the ‘Peng You Quan’ function, which has become popular among both young and old people who consider it a convenient way of bonding with family members (Pike 2004). It is evident that family members and friends like communicating with one another. It is on this premise that tourism industry’s wechat marketing is built.
Wechat, despite being a convenient channel of communication, has some problems. The first problem relates to how people trust the public accounts of the scenic spots, hotels, and airline companies. A study by Xiang and Gretzel (2010) established that social media is highly popular in the tourism industry because of the large number of tourist-related entries generated. Thus, common search engines lead users to eWOM sites, including social media.
This underscores the importance of social media in modern destination marketing. In fact, wechat plays a central role in the travelling reservation service. For example, in the second half of last year, over 10% of the increase in the scenic spot’s ticket reservation at LY.com is directly attributable to wechat. It is worth noting that the tourism industry’s online marketing is at its inflection point. Therefore, tourism cities and scenic spots that use wechat marketing, either for branding or sales promotion, should understand its value to users, which is high quality service delivery.
The second problem with wechat is that tourism information cannot be updated daily. Moreover, most travellers do not start a trip immediately after seeing the recommendations or sales promotion on wechat. They have to plan for their travel, which they schedule on weekends, vacations, or holidays. In this regard, extending the advertising effects of wechat is quite a challenge. Besides these problems, wechat has caused serious security problems, which have elicited widespread concern in the society. The function of positioning or location allows criminals to know where a particular user is located and steal from him or her.
This happened recently in Chaoyang District in Beijing, where the victims lost money and other valuables. In this view, wechat’s security features should be enhanced to prevent any leakage of personal information.
It is no doubt wechat is a popular social network application. However, its usefulness depends on how well the customers use it. In the era of tourism data, client information has become useful to companies that use it as a means of production or even as a profit-making tool. However, the security of personal information faces many challenges. In this regard, in the context of the tourism industry’s wechat marketing, we need to address three main issues:
- how to enhance people’s trust in wechat’s business public accounts;
- how to extend the advertising effects of wechat marketing; and
- how to enhance the users’ safety.
It is often said that smartphones will replace PC, television, newspapers, and other media channels as a tool of choice when studying, working, and connecting with friends because mobile internet is incredibly fast and convenient. However, in recent years, due to privacy concerns, the number of Facebook and Twitter users has gone down. Wechat is a private communication mobile application, which is similar to whatsapp.
It offers a semi-closed circle of friends because a user can choose who or which group can access his/her status. He or she can also choose not to view another person’s message. Its functions resemble those of Facebook and Instagram except for its business public accounts, which have features similar to those found on Twitter and Weibo. Given its multiple functions, wechat can satisfy the diverse needs of different groups. The main research questions of the proposed study include:
- As the first mobile internet-based social networking software that combines all innovative functions, will wechat be able to upgrade tourism industry’s marketing into an upper level by surpassing other media channels like PC, television and newspapers.
- Will wechat gain bigger achievements than any other social networking software, which only focus on one function?
A research approach influences a study’s design and gives the researcher an opportunity to consider how each of the various approaches may contribute to or limit his study (Creswell 2003). A research design refers to the deductive/inductive and qualitative/quantitative approaches.
Marcoulides (1998) defines the deductive approach as a testing of theories. The researcher begins with a set of theories in mind and forms the hypothesis on their basis. After that, the researcher tests the hypotheses. The inductive approach, on the other hand, is grounded on the empirical data collected and creates concepts and theories based on this data (Marcoulides 1998). This project will follow the deductive approach, which appears more appropriate to the purpose of this study.
The quantitative tools for data analysis generally borrow from the physical sciences in that they are structured in a way that guarantees (as far as possible) objectivity, generalisability, and reliability (Creswell 2003). Here the researcher is objective and the research results are numerical. Qualitative tools, on the other hand, are based on content analysis, among other things, and are presented in non-numerical format. Even though they allow the researcher to gain deeper insights into the topic that he or she is investigating, they are not suited for all types of studies. In addition to that, the quantitative tools are objective and straightforward, so they are ideal for testing the validity of certain hypotheses. The study will use both qualitative and quantitative research methods in order to gain deeper insights into the behaviour of wechat customers.
Ahlqvist, T Back, A Halonen, M & Heinonen, S 2008, ‘Social media road maps exploring the futures triggered by social media’, Emerald, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 445-487.
Beckendorff, P Moscardo, G & Pendergast, D 2010, Tourism and generation Y, Cabi, Oxford.
Beldona, S Nusair, K & Demicco, F 2009, ‘Online Travel Purchas Behavior of generational Cohorts: A Longitudinal Study’, Journal of Hospitality Marketing & Management, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 406-420.
Burgess, S Sellitto, C Cox, C & Buultijens, J 2009, ‘Trust perceptions of online travel information by different content creators: Some social and legal implications’, Information Systems Frontiers, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 221-235.
Choi, S Lehto, X & Oleary J 2007, ‘What Does the Consumer Want from a DMO Website? A Study of US and Canadian Tourists Perspectives’, International Journal of Tourism Research, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 59-72.
Cox, C Burgess, S Sellitto, C & Buultjens, J 2009, ‘The Role of User-Generated Content in Tourists’ Travel Planning Behavior’, Journal of Hospitality Marketing & Management, vol. 18, no. 8, pp. 743-764.
Creswell J, 2003, Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, Sage, London.
Fernando, A 2007, ‘Social media change the rules: Say farewell to top-down and hello to consumer-led communication’, Communication World, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 9-10.
Goeldner, C & Ritchie, P 2009, Tourism: Principles, Practices, Philosophies, John Wiley & Sons, New York.
Gretzel, U Myunghwa, K & Woojin, L 2008, ‘Differences in Consumer-Generated Media Adoption and Use: A Cross-National Perspective’, Journal of Hospitality Marketing & Management, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 99-120.
Gursoy, D & McCleary, K 2004, ‘An Integrative Model of Tourists’ Information Search Behavior’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 353-373.
Haenlein, M 2010, ‘Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media’, Business Horizons, vol. 53, no. 1, p. 61-67.
Kaplan, A 2012, ‘If you love something, let it go mobile: Mobile marketing and mobile social media 4×4’, Business Horizons, vol. 55, no. 2, 129-139.
Kietzmann, J & Canhoto, A 2013, ‘Bittersweet! Understanding and Managing Electronic Word of Mouth’, Journal of Public Affairs, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 146–159.
Litvin, S Goldsmith, R & Pan, B 2007, ‘Electronic word-of mouth in hospitality and tourism management’, Tourism management, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 458-468.
Marcoulides, G 1998 Modern Methods for Business Research, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New York.
Mendes-Filho, L & Tan, F 2009, User generated content and consumer empowerment in the travel industry. Paper presented at the Pacific Asia Conference on Information Systems, Hyderabad, New Delhi, India.
Murphy, L Mascardo, G & Beckendorff, P 2007, ‘Exploring word-of-mouth influences on travel decisions: friends and relatives vs. other travelers’, International Journal of Consumer Studies, vol. 31, no. 5, pp. 517-527.
O’Connor, P Hopken, W & Gretzel, U 2008, Information and Communication Technologies in Tourism 2008: Proceedings of the International Conference in Innsbruck, Springer, Wien.
Pan, B & Fesenmaier, D 2006, ‘Online information search: Vacation planning process’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 809-832.
Park, D Lee, J & Han, I 2007, ‘The effect of On-Line Consumer Reviews on Consumer Purchasing Intention: The Moderating Role of Involvement’, International Journal of Electronic Commerce, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 125-148.
Pike, S 2004, Destination Marketing Organizations, Elsevier, Amsterdam.
Schivinski, A Bruno, S & Dąbrowski, D 2013, ‘The Impact of Brand Communication on Brand Equity Dimensions and Brand Purchase Intention Through Facebook’, Working Paper Series A, Gdansk University of Technology, Faculty of Management and Economics, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 2–23.
Schoenbach, K 2001, ‘Myths of media and audiences,’ European Journal of Communication, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 361-367.
Seabra, C Abrantes, J & Lages, L 2007, ‘The impact of using non-media information sources on the future use of mass media information sources: The mediating role of expectations fulfillment’, Tourism Management, vol. 28, no. 6, pp. 541-554.
Sigala, M Christou, E & Gretzel, U 2012, Social Media in Travel, Tourism and Hospitality: Theory, Practice and Cases, London, Ashgate Publishing, ltd.
Swarbrooke, J & Horner, S 1999, Consumer Behaviour in Tourism, Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford.
Trattner, C & Kappe, F 2013, ‘Social Stream Marketing on Facebook: A Case Study’, International Journal of Social and Humanistic Computing, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 127-134.
Turun, D 2011, How social networking ( Facebook and Twitter) can be used for tourism marketing, GRIN Verlag, Munich.
Xiang, Z & Gretezel, U 2010, ‘Role of social in online travel infoemation search’, Tourism Management, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 170-188.