Higher Logic Blog

Let Your Community Tell a Story - Like AirBNB

Written by Molly Talbert | June 15, 2016 at 12:30 PM

AirBNB is more than just a company -- it’s a community of hosts and travelers from around the world who meet each other online and, somehow, trust each other enough to meet up in real life. To build trust -- between community member and company, between host and guest -- AirBNB relies on their strong community culture, both on- and off-line.

AirBNB doesn’t get it right all the time and they deal with their fair share of problems and criticisms (more on this later). But somehow, with their community, AirBNB is able to provide reliably good and safe experiences for each customer most of the time.

It’s quite the feat.

Most of AirBNB’s customer action happens offline, in real life, elevating the chances for something to go wrong or for a customer to have a bad experience. Just think about it -- a lot of variables are at play in transactions like the ones AirBNB facilitates everyday. First, there’s AirBNB’s advertising and reputation, which brings people to the site, either to post a listing or to browse potential vacation spots. Next, if you’re looking for a rental, you pursue listings, look at maps, pictures and reviews, and decide where to book. Finally, when a traveler finds a good option, logistics are hashed out with the host and, soon enough, the traveler actually stays in the accommodation they picked.

How do you quality control such variable experiences? AirBNB can’t control how the host talks to the traveler, or how accurate the pictures are in the listing, but somehow, more often than not, it all works out.

It’s not just chance that AirBNB has excelled in customer experience -- they emphasize their community.

Community experience leads members through their journey

As Katie Dill, AirBNB’s Director of Experience Design, detailed in this post, a lot of thought goes into designing a compelling customer experience and journey. And a big part of their success comes from being able to tell -- and facilitate -- their customers’ individual stories (i.e. fulfill what each customer wants from the platform).

Katie explained it well in her post when she said:

“The most successful community-based companies are those with platforms that tell a strong story. It’s this cohesive story that allows individuals within the community to get the most out of their experiences. But what happens when you’re not in control of each of these moments? How do you deliver a great user experience?”

In other words, AirBNB came up against the same quandary many companies have -- you spend so much time creating the perfect journey for each customer, but at some point, you lose some sort of control. How do you ensure your customers’ experiences are still top notch?

Laying the groundwork

Each customer is different, whether they’re a host or a guest. And everyone has a different reason for posting their property on AirBNB or staying in a stranger’s home. How can a company facilitate so many disparate stories?

AirBNB recognizes that every customer’s journey or story is different, but they all have a few key commonalities, most of which revolve around trust -- trust in AirBNB, trust in your guests, trust in your host.

That’s why they take their community and their platform seriously -- community allows them lay the groundwork for trust that will have a ripple effect beyond their online platform.

Here’s how AirBNB structures their entire customer experience to grow trust and help members create their stories:

1. Big picture is key

In order for your community to effectively springboard your members into the final part of their story (what happens after community), their journey needs to be supported by the entire organization. Everyone needs to be on board, know the community objectives and believe in the mission. That’s why the big picture and where you’re headed is important.

Katie described it this way: “Like a jigsaw puzzle without a cover, it’s nearly impossible to put together a cohesive user experience without an endgame in mind.” Or, in storytelling terms, you need to have a thesis -- the subject of your narrative that the entire piece supports -- that defines the company’s motives and actions.
AirBNB’s UX team created a storyboard to remind the entire company of their overall customer journey goals -- it’s the thesis they constantly refer to to gauge progress, look ahead and predict potential problems. But it doesn’t just start and stop with one team -- they share the storyboard with other departments to keep everyone on the same page.

Learn more about creating shared value in the 2016 State of Community Management Report.

2. Know your end game

How do you want your customer to feel by the time they reach the end of their journey? For AirBNB, the big moment of truth happens when a guest walks into the accommodation they booked through the site -- does it fit the pictures and description? Is the AC noisy or the floors dirty?

For your organization, the moment of truth could be certain levels of engagement in your community, or when a member visits your annual conference, or begins using your product after a long deliberation process. Is it everything they imagined, or is there a disconnect between user expectation and actual experience?

That moment of truth -- whatever the moment is for your particular members -- is critical, and can make or break all the work you’ve put into cultivating strong, trusting relationships.

Part of your storyboard or thesis should include this moment of truth -- what do you want it to look like for each member? And what do you do if their expectations don’t meet reality? Keeping your eyes on the prize at the end of the journey helps you predict or spot things that could jeopardize that crucial moment for each member.

It’s possible to design your community to better close the gap between expectations and reality, so that members aren’t disappointed. For AirBNB, that means creating a platform that emphasizes visuals, so prospective guests can visualize their stay, and reviews, so guests can describe their experiences. They also encourage guests and hosts to message each other and establish a relationship before meeting.

Although your community, business and platform probably look very different than AirBNB’s, it doesn’t mean you can’t engineer your community to facilitate your end goal the way they do. What can you emphasize, through content like webinars, events like meetups, or visuals, to make sure your members feel connected and supported?

3. Keep it authentic

Why would you trust a person -- or organization -- if they never show their true colors? Unsurprisingly, authenticity is an important part of building trust -- between members and each other, or members and your organization. If they don’t see what you’re like -- as a community manager or as an organization -- how are they supposed to trust you or predict what will happen?

Authenticity is also important for members -- they need to feel comfortable being themselves (as long as they stay within the code of conduct). So many companies do a great job of letting their users be authentic -- Lyft encourages drivers to make each ride unique, Chubbies generates most of it’s Instagram content from ecstatic wearers and AirBNB encourages all types of accommodations, from a tiny house to a mansion.

By keeping everything authentic -- from your interactions with members, to members’ interactions with each other -- people are more apt to engage with each other and with you. That builds trust and a stronger overall community.

4. Open up

Give members the tools and information they need to succeed. That means listening to their needs, responding accordingly and giving more information to your members.

AirBNB does this by giving hosts dashboards to track their success and pinpoint areas of improvement. Your members probably don’t need this (although fitness communities have found dashboards especially helpful!).

So what do they need?

Watch conversations and listen to members’ feedback or pain points. Are there opportunities for education? Create a webinar series or ask influencers to guest blog on specific topics. Does your product need improvement? Enroll a handful of super users to beta test new features. Did you make a big mistake and there’s no getting around it? Open up and tell the truth as BART did with their angry commuters.

As great as AirBNB’s strategy is, and as much success as they’ve had, AirBNB isn’t perfect at building community. Recently, AirBNB’s community building tactics, both on- and off-line, have come under scrutiny -- for good reason.

A few weeks ago they made a change to their terms and conditions, essentially forcing users to forgo their constitutional right of a trial by jury. How is that community building? Does that reinforce or undermine your sense of trust towards the company?

AirBNB has also taken much flack for fueling gentrification and housing inequality, especially in their San Francisco home town. True, AirBNB is just one part of a slew of issues causing the great San Francisco housing crisis, but they are a factor.

As a company, they’ve proved that they know how to create community on their platform -- they’ve been doing it for years, and it’s fueled their success. How can they connect their platform’s community approach and apply it to the greater world, to make the communities they operate stronger?

There isn’t one trick for building trust. And it’s not something you always have once you’ve got it. AirBNB proves that it takes work to maintain trust and continue building community.

Do you think AirBNB can balance community building and trust?