Insights into Social Media Strategies by Small Marine Tourism Operators in Auckland
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The development of Social Media from its infancy towards the end of the 20th century, to its mass proliferation in recent years has been rapid. Its function as a communication, marketing and distribution tool has influenced the consumer decision making process, especially for intangible, information intensive service industries, such as tourism. As a result of the low start-up costs and its ease of use, Social Media has facilitated new marketing channels for smaller businesses. The aim of this explorative study is to gain an insight into the usage, perception and barriers of using Social Media as a tool by small marine tourism operators in Auckland, New Zealand; to offer recommendations to improve the use of the tool by these businesses; and to add to existing scholarly knowledge in the area. Semi-structured interviews were used to collect data from twelve marine operators based in Auckland. The exploration of this data was carried out by using a thematic analysis approach. Results indicated that the most popular and most frequently used Social Media channels were the social network Facebook, and the recommendation and review website TripAdvisor. Findings suggest that Social Media use by participants lacked clear goals and strategies, mainly due to barriers such as lack of resources, lack of time, lack of knowledge, and due to, in a minority of cases, prioritisation of lifestyle choice over business growth. The absence of clear goals, accentuated by an absence of monitoring, led to disillusionment, owing to the perceived lack of return on investment of using Social Media. Findings did indicate that participants felt Social Media did positively enhance the business brand, though again due to the lack of monitoring, there was no way to clearly measure how much of an actual influence Social Media had on positive brand image. A theoretical framework of barriers faced by the participants was developed. These barriers include a lack of control, operational issues, and a loss of trust in Social Media. With these barriers in mind, recommendations were suggested to improve the effective use of Social Media for the participants of this study and similar businesses. This included carrying out analysis of existing Social Media activities; the development of a clear strategy with measureable and qualitative goals; suggestions of cost free online tools for monitoring and analysis; and proposals for the most effective content to be uploaded. In conclusion, this study highlighted the difficulties of small businesses to keep up with the rapidly evolving nature of Social Media, the challenges of resource deficient operations of adequately utilising this hugely prevalent mass communication tool, and the need for iii such businesses to develop communications methods, which lead to personalised and rewarding relationships with consumers.