Spreading the word

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

Project details

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

Sponsor: Economic and Social Research Council and Department for Transport

Research student: Caroline Bartle

Supervisory team: Dr Erel Avineri and Dr Kiron Chatterjee

Start date: January 2007

Finish date: June 2011

Project briefing sheet: Download the briefing sheet document (PDF)

Project summary

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.

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 examined 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.

Research methodology

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; to explore participants' perceptions of the influence of this form of information on their own and others' travel behaviour; and to identify social-psychological mechanisms underlying the influence process.

Phase 2 (applications) was a qualitative case-study of an innovative, web-based traveller information system, entitled Cycology, through which commuter cyclists 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.

The research led to the proposed incorporation of additional 'social factors' into established theory regarding 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, potentially enhancing the perceived reliability (and influence) of such systems.