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Spreading the word: A social-psychological exploration of word-of-mouth traveller information in the digital age

Bartle, Caroline


Caroline Bartle
Senior Research Fellow in Local Sustain Transport


The use of ‘formal’ travel information pertaining to costs, routes, journey times, or real-time transport disruptions, and its role in travel behaviour (for example, choice of mode, route or departure time) has been widely studied, but little is known about the part played by 'informal' information, shared through word-of-mouth amongst friends, family, colleagues and other social networks, in relation to everyday travel. Furthermore, considerable investment has been made over recent decades in the development of sophisticated 'advanced traveller information systems', delivering formal, top-down information through media such as online journey planners, but less attention has been paid to parallel developments in the diffusion of bottom-up, user-generated information through 'electronic word-of-mouth' on the internet (acknowledged in the field of marketing as a growing source of influence on consumer behaviour). This thesis examines the role of word-of-mouth information diffusion within everyday travel behaviour and its emerging applications in the field of online traveller information, within a framework of social-psychological theories of behaviour and decision theory. The exploration of social-psychological factors underlying the social transfer of traveller information led to an expansion of existing theory, whilst the research also generated practical recommendations for the wider incorporation of ‘social design features’ into certain forms of traveller information system.

The research was undertaken in two empirical phases, both employing a qualitative methodology. In Phase 1 (exploratory), interviews and focus groups were used to: generate an account of the use of word-of-mouth travel information; explore participants‟ perceptions of the influence of this form of information on their own and others' travel behaviour; and identify social-psychological mechanisms underlying the influence process. 'Local knowledge' obtained through word-of-mouth was found to be highly valued, and was deemed trustworthy primarily because it was based on the informant's direct experience (an instrumental-reasoned explanation). However, perceived trustworthiness could be improved by social-psychological factors such as social proximity, group-identification and accepted norms of behaviour. Word-of-mouth was found to play a complementary role to formal information in the decision process, and was reported to have had a direct influence on trip details (e.g. route or departure time), but was less likely to affect modal choice. More general interactions about travel (for example, appraising the experience of using a particular transport mode in general conversation), whilst not necessarily perceived as travel information per se, appeared to be influencing beliefs and attitudes, and shaping the psychological context in which travel choices might later be made.

Phase 2 (applications) was a qualitative case-study of an innovative, web-based traveller information system, entitled Cycology, through which 23 participants shared cycle routes and other information with one another over a period of six weeks. This allowed both a validation of the earlier findings within an applied context, and an exploration of some findings in greater depth - in particular, the ways in which social norms and social identities around travel are established or reinforced in peer-groups through word-of-mouth interactions, and help to explain interpersonal influences on travel behaviour. Interactions on the website were found to: influence participants‟ behaviour in the form of using cycle routes suggested by others; strengthen pro-cycling attitudes; and enhance the experience of the cycle commute. A key finding was the role which Cycology played in building a sense of ‘community’ (group identification), linked to high levels of trust and pro-social behaviour amongst group members, which both reinforced positive views of cycling as a commuter mode, and increased people‟s propensity to act on information from others within the group. Together with the Phase 1 findings, this led to the proposed incorporation of additional 'social factors' into established models of information use. Practical recommendations from the research concerned ways in which developments in social media might be combined more widely with online, map-based traveller information, particularly route-planning tools, with the potential to enhance the perceived reliability (and influence) of such systems, and, consequently, their effectiveness as a transport policy tool.


Bartle, C. (2011). Spreading the word: A social-psychological exploration of word-of-mouth traveller information in the digital age. (Thesis). University of the West of England

Thesis Type Thesis
Publication Date Dec 1, 2011
Keywords social-psychological, word-of-mouth, traveller information, digital age