Opinion Leadership in Online Travel Communities and the Purchase of Hotel Products and Services in Kenya
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Opinion leaders are individuals who influence opinions, behaviour, beliefs, and purchase decisions of people in their social circles. Opinion leaders have been studied extensively in a traditional offline context, but little attention has been given to them online especially in high involvement products like hospitality. The main objective of this study was to investigate opinion leaders in an online context and their influence on the purchasing of the hotel product in Kenya. Specific objectives were to discover who opinion leaders in an online travel community are; investigate personal characteristics travel opinion leaders display online; explore their online communication behaviour; and to explore the role of non-opinion leaders and the moderating effect of management responses to reviews in influencing the purchase of hotel products in Kenya. The research was carried out on mainly TripAdvisor within the context of Kenya as a destination. An explanatory sequential design was used with two phases: a quantitative phase followed by the qualitative phase. The quantitative phase used three methods to achieve the objectives: expert identification, sociometry, and an experiment. Purposive, census and random sampling techniques were used. Respondents for expert identification were 563, with 368 from the experiment and 131 from sociometry. The qualitative phase used content analysis of information from TripAdvisor. Instruments used were semi-structured questionnaires and observation checklists. Data analysis involved the use of descriptive statistics where correlation, regression, ANOVA, Seven-degree index and content analysis were used to analyse relationships between variables. Findings endorse the robustness of the Seven-degree index as a tool for measuring opinion leadership in online communities. Destination Kenya travel opinion leaders are mainly male (54.7%) baby boomers (51%) who shun self-disclosure online (66%) and travel mainly for business (39%). Opinion leaders influence other customers during purchase of hotel products even though their effect is relatively small (β=0.265). They are more trusted and are considered more reliable than other travellers due to their expertise in travel and consistency in providing reliable information. Non-opinion leader reviews are only trusted by other customers if their reviews occur in large numbers (β=0.257). Management responses have no intervening effect with opinion leaders (F (1,321) = .192, p = .661). Customers trust opinion leaders more than management; when management responds to opinion leader reviews. Opinion leaders are more likely to use rational and logic words, and score highly in systematic and rational thinking. The study proposes marketers include online opinion leaders in integrated marketing communications as they are a key influential group online. It is important to understand opinion leaders and how they behave online as it will help in designing subliminal marketing campaigns and behavioural targeting that resonate with opinion leaders, which in turn targets other customers of similar characteristics. This would lead to achieving Vision 2030 and SDG goals in Tourism, in areas such as Development of Niche Products, Destination Marketing Programmes, and Marketing Kenya.