The power of a great travel story is undeniable, but for Alex Beauchamp, Head of Global Content and Social Media at Airbnb, those stories are taken to another level. We sat down with Alex to talk about how the global home-sharing company unites its hosts and guests around the power of storytelling, whether they’re booking a stay in a castle, hosting guests for the first time, or searching for a dose of inspiration.
Starting at a high level, can you talk about how Airbnb looks at the world of content?
Content to us is extraordinarily important because we see ourselves as a community-driven storytelling brand. We’re in a fortunate position that we don’t have to invent or market stories—we simply have to tell them. For us, content is absolutely crucial in talking about our guest experiences, the world of travel and our product, especially in markets that aren’t familiar with home sharing.
Fill in the blank: the best content _______.
The best content naturally tells the story.
That’s a good point because a lot of content is designed to tell us a story but doesn’t always generate natural interest, does it?
Exactly. Every brand right now is a content generator and every brand wants to tell a story. If you really want to do content well, it’s got to be a natural extension of your brand and be something that people naturally want to read about from you and trust you to create. Sometimes, when you try to build something, it gets forced (ie: marketing) and it just doesn’t resonate for the brand or the consumer.
How do you create content that goes about building a lasting relationship among the users of Airbnb?
We have different types of stories that we tell depending on what a user on the guest side of the business would like. People travel with Airbnb to feel like a local and create a sense of belonging to a place, so sharing local guides, ideas and tips from our community and hosts is important. And I think they come to us to inspire wanderlust because we provide very unique ways to see the world whether it’s in a place or property. You can stay in a castle or a tree house or in a small remote beachside town. Our community wants to travel differently and deeply. They’re the kind of travellers that when they take a trip, something inside them changes or transforms. So I think they look to our content for possibility, a sense of “Wow, I didn’t know I could do that.”
Our community has the most incredible stories to tell because of staying in an Airbnb and exploring the world more deeply. We don’t have to create stories, we don’t have to market stories, we just have to tell all the great ones that we hear about—the ones that make you laugh to the ones that change the way you think. So I think people also read our content to have solidarity with or be inspired by other travellers. We just released a story about the Berlin Wall in which two men were guards on opposites sides of the Berlin Wall at the exact same time. When the wall came down, one went to Denmark and one stayed in Germany. The one who went to Denmark had a very difficult time coping with his time as a wall guard, which had stopped him not only from travelling, but also participating in life. A couple of years ago, his daughter, frustrated with her father, took him back to Germany to see how Berlin had changed in positive ways. When they arrived at their Airbnb, they discovered that their host was also a wall guard on the opposite side at the same time. The discussion between the two men changed both their lives for the better.
This is a great example of a very natural story that happened through Airbnb—and is one of thousands that happen every day. I think for us, stories of humanity and the way people connect—especially in a very disconnected, technological world—are really important to share. We want to create a world of less strangers and more friends, and both our brand and our content can enable us to do that.
It sounds like you generate a lot of imagination and wanderlust.
We do! It’s hard not to when you’re talking about travel and people. So we focus a lot on our unique properties, our hosts that run them and our guests that stay in them. But because we are a young business, we also need to grow our brand and drive awareness, which requires a more in-depth content strategy beyond just beautiful homes in faraway lands.
My work as the new Head of Global Content and Social Media is to do that, and I began by asking a lot of questions: How do we create basic content? How do we build a team that can capture stories through copy, photography, video or podcast? What topics are distinctly ours? What content would be trusted? How often and where do we publish? How do we harness the creative genius of our community and leverage user-generated content?
We recognize that that’s something unique with Airbnb—we have a very vocal and creative community that really has a voice and ideas. A community that wants to share their own stories and tips not because they’ll win something or get paid to do it, but because they’re part of a community in which they want to benefit or inspire. That’s part of travel, isn’t it? It really goes back to the old days of storytelling in an online format. So our biggest goal is to create the perfect platform that allows for our community content to shine through alongside the brand’s and be the world’s first community-driven storytelling brand.
What’s the difference between creating content about staying like a local versus creating content that talks about a locale?
There are a lot of travel publications that tell you about the locale—this is the time zone you’re in, this is where you go to convert money, this is where the train station is, this is the bus schedule, these are the five basic things that you as a tourist should check off your list, this is the language they speak. That information is really important, especially if you’ve never traveled before or you want to be prepared. And we do have neighborhood guides which do some of that, although we’re in the process of transforming that content. But that information does help a traveller feel prepared and be at ease, which is part of feeling like a local.
That being said, there are things that a local is going to know about their neighborhood that a writer from outside that place isn’t going to know. Creating content about staying like a local is content that’s created in partnership with locals like our hosts. I think that makes all the difference. When you stay with a friend in their home, they tell you about their favorite coffee shop or point out something to notice that a guidebook never could. Those personal connections and insights make you feel like you belong there. Our hosts naturally do this by either writing up detailed guides on their online profiles or in notebooks that they leave in their listing for guests. Our local content is going to be leveraging that. We also work with local writers, photographers, and our local offices to create local information. Our community has so much information that again, all we have to do is capture it and create a place to share it.
What role does Airbnb play in involving locals for the content?
The word that we like to use is curation. We have really active host groups on the back end of our system. We have thousands and thousands and thousands of active members writing and sharing information from “how do I design a guest bedroom?” to “I’m a first-time host” to “I’m an artist; I’m looking for another artist to collaborate with.” We’re beginning to tap into this host community for content on things like #AirbnbHostTips, in which we get our hosts to share their learnings on social media. We are also starting a content series called “Wanderlust Weekend”. We know that a lot of our guests like to take two days to vacation and we want to be able to create content to support that. So we work with local influencers who are passionate about their city and get them to write about their favorite things, whether it’s cafes, design studios, shops or parks. We as a brand get really wonderful content and our community gets useful content from a local they can trust.
Right now, we are hand-picking a lot of content and we have a full-time Social Media Host that’s re-tweeting and regramming a lot of user-generated content, but we want to create a system where it’s more democratized and more people can share on a regular basis back to their community.
Which channels are most successful for Airbnb? What are the metrics that drive your evaluation of different channels?
This is something that we’re currently looking at and re-evaluating. All our social and blog platforms currently do not satisfy our needs as a storytelling or community-driven brand. They do, however, work well as an amplification and engagement platform. Compared to brand averages on social, we perform far above. Instagram is huge for us and what’s really fantastic about our Instagram is it’s all user-generated. We see people taking Airbnb photos every single day on Instagram and when we find one we like that we think tells a great story, we ask permission and once we have it, we share on our Instagram account with credit back to the creator.
If I was to measure one metric of success for us in terms of content, I’d say it’s engagement. That metric tells me if what we are putting out there is relevant, inspirational or useful to our audience. If they’re not engaging with it (liking it, clicking, sharing, favoriting) then we’re not going to keep producing the same content and will switch gears.
It sounds like Airbnb is putting more and more resources towards telling stories. What advice do you have for smaller brands that have limited resources? What is the most important thing they can do with storytelling?
Whether you’re a big or a small brand, it’s really about thinking about humanity and your audience. Having started my own online businesses as a one-woman show years ago, I completely understand that if you don’t have copywriters, an art department and a video team, you think you’re never going to be able to tell great stories. But you can. Every piece of content you put out has the opportunity to be a story. So whether you’re updating your audience on a product, or a sale, or on feedback or inspiration, that can all be a story. From a Facebook post with one image to a 140-character tweet, if it’s important to your brand and more importantly, your audience, stories can be told in simple and truthful ways and will resonate just as much, if not more, than a million-dollar ad.
A lot of small businesses think they have to always share everything or they have to make really clear marketing calls to action and try to motivate users that way. And I think that creates a short-term relationship with users because some are just going to like you for a sale or they are going to follow you because they think you’re going to give them something. And if you don’t keep giving them something, they’re going to lose interest. But if you think about human nature, if you can laugh with somebody, make them feel something, they’re going to connect with you. You actually see a lot of really small businesses online, and they have very personal blogs. But sometimes small businesses get caught up and think they’ve got to just focus on sales and marketing and lose that humanity.
It sounds like your advice goes back to what you said at the beginning about natural storytelling.
When you’re trying to force it, that’s when it becomes marketing and advertising and people are starting to get really smart to that kind of content and selecting to turn it off. Advertising that isn’t forced and makes sense for the brand or is useful and/or entertaining usually wins. The key is making people feel something. I think if you’re going to have a long-term relationship with the brand, whether it’s a small brand or a large one, you want to feel something, whether it’s empowered or like you belong with that community.
The design of Airbnb’s content is unique and stands out. Can you talk about how the art team thinks about storytelling and how that’s incorporated into your content?
One of our co-founders and CEO, Brian Chesky, was reading a Walt Disney biography and he came across this part in the book where it was written that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was created frame-by-frame. That really inspired him to think about how every moment counts. So we have this section in our office that’s called “Snow White” and we have the guest experience and host experience created frame-by-frame. We actually had a Pixar artist work with us to create each visual frame. So even our business foundation is told in a story frame-by-frame. So our art department inherently thinks this way when designing anything. For example, when they create things for events or for new hires, whether it’s a little booklet or a packet of information, they really think through the experience of a reader picking up the book, to what happens when they open it, to what they do with it after, like sitting it on a desk. When you’re working here, it’s important to think about the story and the experience you’re creating for every project, every product, every person.