Revisiting a destination image model in the social media context with the moderator of social distance from a construal level perspective

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Park, Heelye
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Lee, SoJung
Russell, Daniel W.
Olson, Eric D.
Jeong, EunHa
Han, Gang
Committee Member
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Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management
Understanding tourists’ changing behaviors is a critical component of effective marketing practices. Information sources are known as image formation agents (IFAs) for their ability to shape the tourists’ attitudes toward a destination (i.e., destination image). Social media host a diversity of information sources with a powerful effect on destination image. However, the influence of the media may vary by the agent types (i.e., autonomous, induced and organic). The decision to visit a place for pleasure has been viewed as an outcome of the sequential process involving the agents, destination image and visit intention. Attitudes are considered to be void of motivational impetus in predicting behavior intention. Thus, a tourist’ desire to visit may serve as a significant motivational force in transmitting the effect of destination image on visit intention. Moreover, the outcome of the sequential process may be contingent on the tourists’ perceptions of social distance from destination residents, according to construal level theory. Although tourists’ visit decision making has evolved under the SM era, empirical understanding of the process remains limited. To address the identified needs, the purpose of the study is to examine the visit decision making process in the social media environment with the moderator of perceived social distance. This study aims to achieve the following four objectives: 1) examine the sequential relationship of visit decision making involving four variables: image formation agents (i.e., autonomous, induced and organic), destination images (i.e., cognitive and affective), desire, and visit intention, 2) examine the dimensional effects of cognitive image (i.e., attractions and support) on affective image, 3) determine the mediating role of desire between affective image and visit intention, and 4) test the moderating effects of social distance on the relations between the variables. Construal level theory provides a theoretical framework through which to examine the moderating effects. Participants (n = 699) recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) in the U.S. completed an online survey questionnaire with measurement items of the five variables. The structural equation modelling technique evaluated the visit decision-making model following the two-step approach. The latent moderated structural equations method evaluated the interaction model with social distance. Overall, the results showed that the model significantly predicted visit intention through the variables sequentially related. Each agent influenced cognitive image, the dimensions of which differentially influenced affective image. Desire mediated the effect of affective image on visit intention. The moderation analysis revealed four significant interactions, and a follow-up simple slopes analysis revealed the nature of the interactions. Social distance activated category-based bias when destination residents were perceived positively as distant others. Under this high construal level condition, the effects of the induced and organic agents respectively on the support image were strengthened. A similar significant interaction result was found for the effect of affective image on desire. By contrast, social proximity activated availability-based bias when destination residents were perceived as close others. Under this low construal level condition, the effect of affective image on visit intention was strengthened. Hence, the moderation effects of social distance were supported. The current study is one of the first to investigate the effects of social media as image formation agents (IFAs) on destination image in the visit decision-making process. This study also adds to the extant literature on destination image by identifying differences in the tourists’ perceived influence of social media as IFAs on cognitive image. The multi-item IFA scales showed a higher criterion validity. The effects of cognitive image (i.e., attractions and support) on affective image were found to be dimensionally different. This finding enhances a current understanding of the destination images in the context of social media. This study found a mediating effect of desire between affective image and visit intention, highlighting the significance of desire in the decision-making process. The present study identified that a tourist’s perception of residents of a destination as distant (vs. close) others led to a change in mental representation (i.e., availability and representativeness). This finding provides novel theoretical insights to the current discussion of social distance from the construal level theory perspective. The present study has performed novel work in investigating the moderating role of social distance in the attitude-based model of visit decision-making. With regard to practical implications, the current study reveals that each image formation agent (IFAs) exerts a differential impact on cognitive image, depending on its dimensions (i.e., attractions and support). Therefore, destination marketers should consider tailoring advertising efforts to the differences in the effects of how the image of a destination is portrayed through each agent. Affective image is influenced differentially by two dimensions of cognitive image: attractions and support. Destination marketers are therefore advised to consider which of the dimensions of cognitive image should be emphasized most in their advertising campaign. The effect of affective image on visit intention is significantly mediated by the tourist’s desire to visit. In light of this finding, destination marketers should consider ways to turn tourists’ positive feelings toward a destination into motivational beliefs (i.e., desire) about visiting the destination. Social distance from residents of a destination interacts significantly with IFAs and affective image in the visit decision-making process. Hence, destination marketers are advised to appraise the implications of the distance perceptions on the efficacy of their destination marketing efforts. This study acknowledges the use of self-reported responses to the survey questionnaire by adults in the U.S. recruited via MTurk. The respondents were current holders of at least one of the five social media accounts (e.g., Facebook) that are popular and accessible from the U.S. Although the sample is similar to tourist populations of prior studies in representativeness, these characteristics should be taken into consideration when making broader generalizations from our findings about the perceptions of tourism destinations. Future studies may wish to test the validity of the model tested in this study, using different population samples (e.g., MTurk workers vs. non- MTurk workers) and compare the results for any differences of significance. This study draws findings on three image formation agent (IFA) categories from information sources currently available on social media. However, emerging information sources (e.g., online streaming gamers) on the media can be added to the current IFA categories to reflect the evolving nature of the media landscape. A study on the effects of new IFAs can reveal additional insights on the role of social media as IFA.
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