“Collective sharing, while a still-growing trend, may also have a broader economic impact,” says Rob Atkinson, an economist and president of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. Collective sharing is a cultural trend that involves a group of people participating in a digital environment, by exchanging goods or content for mutual gain (Yu). This trend has been seen recently with the rise of the participatory culture. According to the textbook Net Smart by Howard Rheingold, a participatory culture is a philosophy in which people act as contributors or producers rather than just consumers to an environment, in this case the internet driven digital environment (Rheingold, 18). Visitors to these environments are motivated to participate, generally by allowing them to create and publish content for personal gain or for the environment. This shift in online user behavior may appear insignificant, but on an economic level the impact over the recent years has been colossal.
Notably, Airbnb – a trusted community marketplace for people to list, find, and rent lodging – has created a multi-billion dollar architecture driven by a participatory culture. The concept of architectures of participation is seen where user-generated content is driven by the participation of users; Airbnb is an exemplary illustration of this. Following is an analysis of Airbnb’s user experience and their ability to spread.
User experience can be defined as the quality of usefulness, usability, enjoyability, and persuasiveness of a digital environment (Halvorson and Rach 53). The Airbnb platform strategically targets its user experience for its audience, travelers and hosts. Travelers are people who are interested in renting some space such as an apartment for a night, a castle for a week, or a villa for a month. Hosts are people who have some extra space to rent out, such as a seaside apartment or an air mattress in the corner of their living room.
“Airbnb—has become a household name that has surpassed industry legacy Hilton Hotels in nights booked. As of spring 2014, the platform had 10 million guests and 550,000 properties listed worldwide, along with a $10B valuation” (TechCrunch). Usefulness is a measure or rating of how well something does its function and how valuable it is to its users. As mentioned earlier, Airbnb’s architecture allows users to simply and securely list, find, and rent lodging. Hosts are motivated to participate and list content because they can generate a monetary profit on a property that they may not use all of the time or if at all. Meanwhile, guests get to live in a host’s property as locals in an area that they may not have experienced before.
Members of the Airbnb community, someone that has used the service or has an account, before traveling and booking a hotel room, will compare the rates with the local Airbnb listings for the best deal. From my own personal experience, I was able to book a full apartment comfortably accommodating six in New York City, for the price of a small hotel room accommodating two at most in the same location. Staying at a local apartment not only gave me more for the price, but it allowed me and my family to experience a new cultural connection. We came as guests, but we left as friends. Upon arrival, the hosts of the apartment were kind and welcoming and even offered us advice on navigating the surrounding area. This gave us an edge on the other tourists and saved us a lot of money when it came to navigating the city, sightseeing and eating out.
In some cases the Airbnb hosts even offer up their properties for free. One instance occurred during hurricane Sandy in which 1,400 hosts on Airbnb offered free housing after the storm devastated the Caribbean and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States that left thousands of people without a home or resources. It is because of this tragic event that Airbnb formed a disaster response page and says it will “waive all service fees and provide a simple way for hosts to offer their lodgings for free” (Airbnb Disaster Response).
The Airbnb platform can be accessed online, from a mobile phone or tablet. On different devices and pages the personality, design and functionality remains consistent and responsive (Halvorson and Rach 87). To accommodate for Non-English speaking users, the ability to change the language and currency is seen on the footer element of almost every page. To educate new users, specifically travelers, there is a button at the center of their screen labeled, “How It Works.” The button brings up a full width pop-up, ensuring the user’s focus and attention is attained, containing three simple steps to understanding the platform with a link underneath to learn more about hosting on the platform. Throughout the platform text and graphics encourage users to explore deeper into the site through the use of white space and a healthy balance of content density. On almost every page the text takes less than 15 seconds to read. Furthermore, the layout assists the user in knowing where to focus and what is important. The platforms usefulness, ease of use, along with its personality, create a feeling of enjoyment to users.
The platform evokes users’ emotions to create a user experience from the first moment a user visits the environment. People are immediately greeted by a safe and welcoming feeling. This feeling along with the content and its organization causes users to make judgements within seconds of arriving. According to a study Robins and Holmes conducted (2008) they found that subjects judge the credibility of the content of a website based on its appearance in 3.42 seconds.
To illustrate, at first glance of the Airbnb platform a user sees a woman sleeping peacefully in a comfortable bedroom. Travelers are then “Welcomed Home” with easily readable bold contrasting font, as several remarkable images and videos of people enjoying a travel experience animate the background. Travelers are then asked where they want to go, when, and with how many people to begin a search of listings. At a second glance, hosts are shown where to sign up or login, and are given an option to see what they can earn by being a host. Based off of user testing and market research, the environment has learned to approach the host second because they know that travelers are the majority of their audience and they have learned where each user tends to look first.
Ever heard the phrase, “Smile! Your happiness is contagious!” Scientists for decades have studied the phenomenon of contagious emotions and feelings. Similarly, images can create that effect as well. Visitors of the environment from the very beginning are shown portraits of couples and friends smiling and enjoying life. The images act as gateways to users, by bringing back memories and enabling the user’s imagination, in hopes of making them believe they can or will feel a similar experience if they use the environment in the future. The transfer of moods is referred to as emotional contagion (Barsade, 2002), which helps create an association of the brand with a happy traveling experience.
Throughout the platform there are beautiful images of travel destinations and listings; however they weren’t always so appealing. In the early days of the platform travelers booking a listing would often be let down upon arrival because they were not able to get a good understanding of what they rented. This was a large constraint early on, until the platform began paying local photographers to take pictures of the listings at no cost to the hosts. To date the platform has hired over 3,000 photographers on six continents (Airbnb).
The Airbnb platform uses a variety of tactics, such as content strategy, remembering what the user needs, social proof and urgency stimulation, the principal of reciprocation, and a feeling of trust and safety, to persuade users to use and invite their friends to the site. Airbnb has a content strategy filled with emotionally driven terminology. Across the site users see terms such as, “Belong Anywhere, Welcome Home, One Less Stranger, A World of Belonging.” This terminology paired with professional breathtaking images can create a lot of emotion and be very persuasive.
To urge users to book, the platform uses social proof and a simulation of urgency. One of the oldest salesman tricks is to share the number of people a user is competing with to help persuade them to order. On any listing, underneath the red, “Request to Book” button is a section that shows how many people have viewed the listing that week. The number of people that viewed the listing along with an icon of an hour glass, creates a sense of urgency.
In addition, online architectures of participation create an environment of trust and security that persuade users to create content for free. Airbnb’s understanding of this concept has allowed them to develope many different features to their architecture to help build a feeling trust and safety between users. Unlike one of Airbnb’s competitors, Craigslist, they’ve taken various measures to protect, validate and rate users. The most evident are user profiles, where hosts and travelers are required to create an account to use the environment. When creating an account there is a verification process, where Airbnb links your profile with either a government issued ID or a social website such as Facebook, Google or LinkedIn.
Airbnb also uses the persuasive technique of social proof with host’s profile reviews. For example, after a traveler has used the host’s property they have the opportunity to leave a review on the host’s property listing, detailing their experience. Hosts that have a lot of positive profile reviews can give a new traveler a sense of comfort and security knowing that since a lot of other people had a great and safe experience so can they. At the same time, if a host has a lot of negative reviews the guest can assume their experience with that listing may not be the one they are looking for. Once a guest has found a potential listing, they have the ability to message the host and privately communicate. This exchange of communication as well as the structure of the information overall creates a feeling of trust between traveler and host and at their own discretion can decide whether or not to continue with booking the listing.
Furthermore, on a yearly basis Airbnb spends extensive amounts of resources to create a unique and exciting user experience for both hosts and travelers. Airbnb’s environment motivates these situations in exchange of a small monetary cut of the transaction between host and guest. The company and its affiliates attract people to participate in the environment by spreading the word about the environment, improving the user experience and by creating feeling of trust and safety for users. Airbnb attracts people to the digital environment by setting a budget of millions of dollars for their marketing and advertising to reach the markets where hosts and travelers are likely to meet. Such advertisements can be seen on television reaching a very large audience and on banners and billboards in places with high traffic such as airports, trains, etc.
On many occasions Airbnb has caught my attention. I found on my trip to New York City in May of 2015, almost every subway station I stopped at displayed at least one amusing cartoon advertisement for Airbnb. Viewers who see these ads are motivated to view Airbnb’s platform via desktop or mobile device in which they can navigate easily, enjoyably and most importantly in a secure manner.
To further persuade users to share and invite their friends to the platform they act upon the persuasive principal of reciprocation. The principal of reciprocation tells us that if we do something for someone or give them something useful, they will want to return a favor to us or want to do business with us later. Airbnb allows its users to earn up to $100 of travel credit for everyone they invite (Airbnb). The users simply have to spread the word by clicking a familiar social media icon or type a friend’s email.
Just as any other digital environment there may be times when users may not be able to access the platform because of constraints with the technologies involved. For example, in times of disaster users in a certain area may not be able to access the platform because of power or cellular network outages. Another downfall of the platform is that the majority of hosts and guests are strangers to each other until they meet. To make up for this constraint, the platform added a feature for users to connect to their social environments and see which friends use Airbnb and have places for rent (“Airbnb Social Connections”).
In conclusion, Airbnb over the past seven years has been able to build a multi-billion dollar architecture of participation, which has allowed users to mutually benefit by collective sharing. People are motivated daily to share or rent out lodging they own for personal, monetary or no benefit to the environment. The environment focuses on attracting people to contribute by advertising, improving the user experience, by creating a strong feeling of trust and safety for users, and reducing constraints. So the next time you are planning to go to your dream travel destination, be sure to compare Airbnb’s rates to the local hotel rates for the best deal and experience.
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