More than words: decoding the influence of user-generated images on visiting friends and relatives (VFR) tourism
Visual images are fundamental to the promotion of tourism destinations and convey critical aspects of destination image. As such, Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) have capitalised on the art of image making and disseminating place myths to capture the attention of consumers through mass media. However, the growing popularity of online networks has connected billions of active consumers, elevating word of mouth (WOM) into its electronic form, e-WOM, and causing a shift in the balance of power and knowledge — where DMOs are no longer solely responsible for the communication of a destination’s image. Despite the growing number of studies surrounding e-WOM and user-generated content (UGC), few scholars have endeavoured to examine the capacity of user-generated images (UGI) as persuasive visual displays of WOM, and the role of their creators (consumers) as influencers able to spread marketing rhetoric; in particular aspects of destination image, through the visual mode.
Acknowledging the growing popularity of visual platforms and digital devices that allow consumers to articulate themselves creatively, this study introduces image-generated WOM (iWOM), and examines the value of UGI as visual manifestations of WOM, and its relevance to consumers, specifically sojourners (as skilled visual influencers), able to shape viewer perception and stimulate VFR (visiting friends and relatives) tourism — a form of tourism that is a product of existing social relationships. Underpinned by the theories of visual rhetoric and emotional contagion, and building on studies in destination image, WOM and VFR tourism, this iterative sequential mixed-methods research comprises expert interviews, quantitative analysis of dyadic/paired survey data and a rhetorical visual analysis.
Key theoretical contributions of this research include: moving the emphasis of WOM from textual/verbal to visual forms of communication; and establishing the position of UGI as persuasive artefacts that can be used to stimulate VFR tourism, where studies in VFR tourism have neglected research in areas pertaining to online communications. In addition, this study demonstrates the difference in the intervening role of tie strength and relationship type (friend/relative) in viewer consumption of images received. This study contributes to practice by establishing the importance of sojourners as critical online ambassadors able to connect destinations, specifically conurbations with constrained resources that tend to fall outside popular tourism centres, to global VFR markets. Further, the rich contextual findings garnered from the visual analysis provide insights into interactions between sojourners and the destination that have implications for city planners, tourism and hospitality marketers.