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Micro-Influencers & Consumers: Free Food for a "Like"?

IMC Krems in groundbreaking study using third-party social media data

Consumers using social media respond to interactions between micro-influencers and the hospitality industry when the latter two act in a "collaborative" setting (free food/accomodation vs. mentioning the hospitality business on social media). Interestingly, the results of a study conducted by an international team of researchers, including IMC Krems University of Applied Sciences, indicate that consumers tend to dislike the "collaboration" behaviour of micro-influencers, because they perceive it as unfair or unequal. The researchers' interpretation of the results, recently published in the prestigious Q1 magazine Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Management, helps to extend the application of the so-called equity theory by including the perspective of social media users as a third party. 

[Translate to Englisch:] (c) look_studio_Alina_Dichkova; Extending Equity Theory: How Consumers Respond to the "Collaborative" Behaviour of Micro-Influencers in the Hospitality Industry

Equity theory is a motivational theory suggesting that people seek fairness in social relationships by comparing their own efforts and rewards with those of others. Feeling unfairly treated compared to others leads to dissatisfaction, which may result in behavioural changes to compensate for the perceived imbalance. Based on equity theory, the current study analyses the perceptions and reactions of a third party (consumers using social media) to the exchange between the taking party (social media micro-influencers) and the giving party (restaurants) in "collaboration scenarios" of the hospitality industry. Although practices of paid influencers have been well studied in the existing scientific literature, the collaboration phenomenon with unpaid micro-influencers has yet been a grey area as it is theoretically and empirically unclear how it influences user behaviour. Giancarlo Fedeli from the Institute of Tourism, Wine Business and Marketing at IMC Krems and his colleagues Zhuowei (Joy) Huang from Sun Yat-sen University (China) and Mingming Cheng from Curtin University (Australia) have tackled this so far poorly researched topic – and discovered some interesting facts.

Consumers’ reaction: Do different collaboration scenarios affect their attitude towards micro-influencers?

Based on the results of the first part of the study, the researchers developed a 2x2 experimental design, defining 2 factors as dependent variables, resulting in 4 different collaboration scenarios: The first factor was the response of the givers (restaurant) to the micro-influencers' collaboration request ("accept" or "decline"). The second factor was related to the online comments of the receivers (micro-influencers), i.e. positive or negative comments. Consumers – who were not directly involved, but very much part of the exchange – represented the third party. "For our experiments," Prof Fedeli describes, "our participants – the consumers – watched a short video in which a micro-influencer asked for a free meal at a restaurant in exchange for a picture on the Instagram page. Afterwards, each of the 438 participants was assigned to one of the four collaboration scenarios and asked to complete a questionnaire to analyse cognitive and behavioural outcomes towards the micro-influencer. " The research team identified two main findings: First, participants consistently agreed that the micro-influencer's "collaboration" behaviour was inappropriate and undermined the value of truth-telling or authenticity in their post, regardless of whether the influencer left positive or negative comments on social media.  Second, participants' trust in the influencer, their ethical perceptions of fairness to the restaurant and their post-engagement behaviour were rated significantly higher when the influencer left positive comments than when he/she left negative comments. In general, the results of both parts of the study suggest that – based on the principles of equity theory – consumers tend to perceive micro-influencers’ "collaboration" with hospitality businesses as not equal or unfair. In addition, consumers reported that the micro-influencer is perceived as most unethical when the hospitality company refuses to cooperate and negative comments are posted online.

This study makes several significant contributions to the existing tourism literature by using equity theory to uncover the phenomenon of collaborative interaction effects in hospitality and the ethical issues involved. It extends the application of the theory from the giver-taker balance to include more stakeholders and the impact of social media, highlighting the role of social media users in equity assessment. Future research should replicate the experiment across different hospitality products and social media platforms to explore differences across the tourism sector and online audiences.

Original Publication

Trouble in paradise? Collaboration behavior and ethics of micro-influencers in the hospitality industry. Zhuowei(Joy) Huang, Giancarlo Fedeli, Mingming Cheng. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management 59 (2024) 25–35.