OPINION6 September 2011

Sun, sea and social norms


Crawford Hollingworth looks at how travel companies use concepts from behavioural economics to nudge us towards splashing out on a holiday.


Travel companies have pioneered the use of behavioural economics constructs in how they present information – particularly in how they encourage us to buy now.

Booking.com has an extremely well-designed website that overtly uses quite a few BE concepts. The most apparent of these is loss aversion, with tags like:

“Last chance! Only one room left.”
“Most recent booking for this hotel was 14 minutes ago.”
“This hotel is likely to sell out very soon!”
“There are 11 people looking at this hotel!”

“Travel booking sites try to counteract our tendency for intertia by impressing on us how speedy the booking process is”

The site also lists rooms that have sold out rather than not listing them at all. These messages and others all do the job of raising our anxiety levels as we search the site, making us fret that the hotels are so popular they could sell out before our very eyes, to encourage us to make a booking faster than we had intended.

Another trick is to use social norms not only by including reviews of hotels by other users, but crucially by telling us the nationalities of those users. This appeals to in-group biases, as we are more likely to trust people who we feel to be ‘like us’. As Booking.com is an international site with users from over 40 countries, we find it reassuring to know where a particular reviewer is from, especially if they are from our own country or one we know well.

Booking.com always makes the user feel they are getting a good deal by quoting the standard price, then offering us a cheaper one. The perception that this is a great deal is reinforced by adding many ‘free’ items such as breakfast, wifi and fee-free cancellation.

Lastly, the site tries to counteract our tendency for procrastination and inertia by impressing on us how speedy the booking process is, with tags such as “Book now! It only takes two minutes.” From a personal perspective it really works – you can get yourself into quite a frenzy making that booking before the chance goes (although I suggest you don’t check back on availability the next day).

While we’re on the subject of travel, how often have we all looked at those lists of the top ten places to visit “before you die” in press articles and books?

These lists are rich in BE constructs, even if we’re only using them to make mental notes of places to consider in future. First there’s the ‘top ten’ structure, which is designed to tackle choice paralysis. There are so many places to go and things to do that having someone tell us, “These are the best in each category,” is very helpful. It narrows down our choice and could diminish our anxiety about making a potentially bad decision.

Secondly, these lists often come from authority figures in the travel industry, which sways us further. I don’t know about you, but I find myself automatically checking through the list to see how many places I have already been to – an example of checking how well you fit into the social norm.

Third is the ‘before you die’ compulsion, possibly a sort of loss aversion suggesting that your life will never be complete if you don’t visit these places.

Lastly, they use the power of now and make use of photos (like the one at the top of this article) and reports of first-hand experience to move us towards a hot zone – an emotionally-charged state where we’re more likely to make impulsive decisions.

Most readers of this article will now either have determined to make a list of ten places to visit before they die, or they are desperately scrabbling through piles of saved articles to find the one they put aside earlier. Quick before it is too late!

Crawford Hollingworth is a founder of The Behavioural Architects

1 Comment

13 years ago

Pioneering BE or just the application of age old POS/Retail Marketing techniques to the internet?

Like Report