Let me start by saying I know very little of the backstory and perhaps don’t really want to know, but as an avid AirBnB supporter I would genuinely like to see them get it together. I am not actually a resident of San Francisco so therefore did not vote on Prop F, but would like to know…did anyone actually think that it was going to pass? I certainly didn’t.
My AirBnB Backstory
Living up here in suburbia, I wasn’t an early adopter of AirBnB, mostly because I had never heard of it until a friend recommended it to me. Since then, two years ago, I love it. I believe it has opened travel opportunities to those of us who cannot stomach paying standard hotel rates, especially in this country. My spot is Santa Barbara and reserving a hotel was far out of reach. It is not “legal” in Santa Barbara, which is silly because when I’m there I spend hundreds on food, drinks, and entertainment since I am not paying $200+ for a hotel, but it is still a secret in most circles. Needless to say I am greatly contributing the local economy, like most all AirBnB users. AirBnB has enabled me to go to Santa Barbara much more often than I ever could before and has allowed me the luxury of visiting other states and cities in CA.
The billboards heard around the Bay
I’m quite confused by this terrible marketing mistake AirBnB made. Again, I’m not sure if this was an internal AirBnB decision or direction from a firm, but it was utterly ridiculous. To this point they have done a stellar job in so many aspects when it comes to social marketing:
AirBnB grew based on the strong “word of mouth” based marketing or micromarketing as I like to call it. Their business boomed based on happy users and hosts. I didn’t join AirBnB because of a billboard or commercial as these things never really affect my decisions; I joined AirBnB based on my good friend’s recommendation and I never looked back. Companies like AirBnB have shown us how powerful micromarketing can be. Because for many communities it is “illegal,” the grassroots effort and support has MADE the company. With this Proposition, the same strategy could have been enough. The AirBnB following in SF was enough to ensure this prop would not pass.
Alongside the strong micromarketing, comes a strong social media marketing strategy. Like many tech based start-ups, AirBnB has great social media and online presence. Even those of us who are not registered voters in SF could take a position and share with our friends. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Whether you consider them AirBnB supporters or anti-Prop F peeps, the support was there from major political leaders including Gavin Newsome. This is huge, because people follow who they consider to be leaders in civics and there are very few leaders in civics…relatively. Perhaps AirBnB should have spent more dollars getting people to actually get out to vote. We know the non-presidential election years have VERY LOW turnouts. The "have a voice" message is one everyone can get behind. Again, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it..but they did…
What they did wrong
Just like those who created the Prop F effort, AirBnB fell victim to the pressure and made a very poor decision that showed their lack of understanding of their target market and population. While it was not a fatal mistake for them, it brought to light the importance of knowing your AUDIENCE. If I put myself in the shoes of a marketing team member at AirBnB, I would never recommend billboards and bus stop ads period, let alone with regard to something that could be seen as so offensive. ESPECIALLY for a company who is widely known for evading taxes for quite some time. I do fault them for this, but I can see how the mistake could be made...after several martinis and hitting my head...but HOW ON EARTH could you justify coming so aggressively out of the gate in a civic matter like this one given your rep with the IRS?
The arrogant tone speaks to a shear and utter misunderstanding of their community. For a company who claims, “people belong anywhere,” the statements made in opposition of Pro-Prop F de-rail their core values and goals. As someone who has worked in government for many years, the signs scream “ignorance” of how the flow of money and government bureaucracy works. Calling out specific agencies like the library system has little to nothing to do with AirBnB’s goals and alienates a potentially large following. Dude I work for the government with these civil servants and agencies you insulted.
What we can learn
To me it seems they had poor advice, if any. They put how little they understood about their local audience on blast turning those who may have already been somewhat supportive while having no effect on those who were already 100% supported them.
The main take home here is that when government is involved, special consideration needs to be taken. Without direction from people with extensive government/civic experience you could be setting yourself up for failure. Whether start-ups like it or not, government and politics play by a different playbook. Most importantly you NEED TO UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE. This was a major mistake that cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. That by the way is my estimate for immediate cost, given each billboard was upwards of $5000 in high traffic areas. That number doesn't include the the potential loss of revenue due to loss of customers and support.
While AirBnB will be fine, others making these kinds of mistakes may not be. The social marketing theme in business is not leaving. I can’t stress enough: do not get into these conversations if you don’t know how to walk the walk and talk the talk. While I am a huge proponent of wanting to see change in how government works, we have to also accept the current situation we are in. Change can be made, but making enemies and costly mistakes are not the answer.