In his 2005 bestseller, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki describes the country fair tradition of guessing the weight of an ox. With astonishing statistical frequency, the collective judgment of the crowd – in other words, the average of all guesses – is almost always more accurate than any individual’s guess. He then goes on to argue that this same dynamic – where the collective wisdom of many people routinely trumps the ‘expert’ view – has a multitude of modern applications, from bookmaking odds and Google searches to why the audience is almost always right on Who Wants to be Millionaire. In the era of ‘Big Data’, the idea that the crowd opinion matters has spread to every facet of our daily lives. We are all just the digital agglomeration of Tesco points and Facebook ‘likes’, detailed and dissected to the nth degree by people who want to sell us the latest films and phones and face creams.
The destination market is no different. We like to believe that we make personal, independent decisions about where we go and what we do, but the truth is that we increasingly consult the crowd. And not just any crowd. The online anonymous crowd. And the ‘Google’ of tourism and leisure is TripAdvisor.
According to TripBarometer, a TripAdvisor survey conducted in winter 2012/2013, 92% of people referred to online sources when planning and researching their latest trip and travel review websites like TripAdvisor are – by many orders of magnitude –the most popular online source of information. Now the largest travel community in the world, TripAdvisor was set up in 2000 and has grown to more than 200 million unique monthly visitors. This anonymous crowd is perceived to offer more relevant, accurate and objective information than individual websites, advertising or quality ratings. People trust it. So they use it.
The elusive (and valuable) quality of ‘trustworthiness’ has shifted from the individual expert to the amateur masses. Out of all the possible opportunities for researching a destination – be it a hotel, airline, restaurant or visitor attraction – travel review websites are rapidly becoming the most trusted source of information.
We used to hear clients talk about their TripAdvisor comments as if reading them was a matter of choice. Not anymore. Now it is just a question of how and how quickly they react.
‘Feedback is good’ – especially when it leads to action
The people at Visitlondon.com, the official London city guide, are well aware of the importance of TripAdvisor to consumer decisions. So much so that Visitlondon.com has now incorporated TripAdvisor ratings and reviews into its own website.
Martine Ainsworth-Wells, Marketing Director for Visit London from 2004 to 2011 who now runs her own consultancy, Ainsworth & Wells, found that the move to add live TripAdvisor feedback to the accommodation section of the website was a timesaving mechanism for consumers, avoiding an unnecessary step that they were bound to take anyway. “We knew that consumers would go to TripAdvisor,” she says. “So we just made it easier for them.”
Incorporating TripAdvisor feedback was an important step in understanding and accepting this new form of consumer behaviour. More importantly, the organisation urged its constituents and stakeholders to take it all as constructively as possible. To organisations that are accustomed to being inward looking, the sheer volume of independent customer feedback can be of enormous value. It keeps them informed of customer preferences, their likes, dislikes and frustrations, what works and what doesn’t and where they need to focus.
“We would encourage our partners, hotels, attractions, museums to take note of the feedback,” says Ainsworth-Wells. “Feedback is good. It should point you in the right direction. It can show you things that you’re not achieving that you may have thought you were.”
Kevin Moore, Director of the National Football Museum in Manchester, puts a lot of stock in TripAdvisor, routinely checking what people say about his destination and encouraging staff to respond promptly and professionally to TripAdvisor comments. He tells of a recent experience where TripAdvisor had a direct impact on a key operational decision.
“We thought we had the signage right inside the building. We thought long and hard about it,” Moore explains. TripAdvisor comments said otherwise. Wayfinding difficulties were a common complaint. “Instead of insisting that we got it right, we started to question ourselves. What are these people saying? Why are people saying this? We need to look at this because clearly we’ve got a problem.”
It is precisely these types of small, but meaningful adjustments that can often spring out of direct, candid and independent customer feedback. Ignoring it is no longer an option.
“It’s become a badge,” says Moore. “You want to get a good TripAdvisor rating.”
The Vin Diesel Problem
The growing volume and aggregation of online travel reviews may ultimately replace the quality rating systems, according to Ben Moxon of Arkenford, a market modeling and research company.
“Nowadays, people are more likely to look at TripAdvisor comments than the star rating. This shows the power of TripAdvisor as a review system. The result is that destinations, especially accommodation providers, are often more hung up with reviews than they are with their official ratings,” Moxon says.
But ‘Big Data’ can lead to big problems if it is not used judiciously – a fact recently highlighted by a fierce debate I had with friends over Vin Diesel. A friend of mine noted that Vin Diesel has 40 million ‘likes’ on Facebook (yes, I checked, it’s 41,663,788 million to be precise). How is that possible, he asked? The Vin Diesel ‘likes’ conundrum became the hot topic of the evening, digressing into passionate dissertations about sampling bias and the irrationality of crowds.
Individual reviews may offer relevant information from independent sources, but undoubtedly there is also a strong bias. Perhaps if the sample size is large enough, then the individual biases will cancel each other out and the average will tend towards the truth, just like guessing the weight of an ox. But averages can also lie.
The number one attraction in London at the moment is HintHunt, according to TripAdvisor’s rating system. That is clearly not the first thing that springs to people’s minds when they think of London. The British Museum, Tate Gallery, London Eye, maybe, but Hint-who? This is where sample size matters. The size and breadth of sample sizes can vary wildly on TripAdvisor. HintHunt has an average five-star rating from 181 reviews. That is no doubt an impressive achievement, but how do you compare it to War Horse at fourth place with 4.5 stars from 2,467 reviews?
Smaller, niche experiences and attractions will be reviewed by a self-selecting sample of people that specifically seek them out. They will naturally attract more favourable reviews than, say, the British Museum or Tate Modern, who attract a much larger and broader spectrum of people. Does the near-uniform 5-star rating of these smaller attractions mean that they are better than the British Museum? Only in the way that Facebook data could lead you to believe that Vin Diesel is a better actor than Robert De Niro.
Moxon believes that segmentation provides a possible solution to this problem. His ArkLeisure model segments UK consumers based on the values that underpin their decisions. “Habituals,” for example, are highly traditional consumers that are very resistant to change. By contrast, there are “Style Hounds” who are fashion conscious and sensitive to the latest trends. It is possible, Moxon argues, to segment both consumers and reviewers so that reviews by people with similar values to the consumer are prioritised or weighted accordingly.
Even without such segmentation, however, there is still much that destinations can gain from reading and reacting to the reviews they get. Appropriate responses and reactions to negative reviews, in particular, can be a huge marketing opportunity, not least because the people reading the reviews are all potential customers. Social media and web-based review services – TripAdvisor chief among them – give destinations the opportunity to engage directly and on a very personal level with individual visitors and non-visitors. The best destinations will exploit that opportunity; the rest will ignore it at their peril.
Indeed, that was the ultimate lesson that I took from the Vin Diesel debate. Because I checked his Facebook page and it became immediately apparent why he is ‘liked’ by 40 million people. When people ask him questions, he does something that very few actors do: he answers.