Airbnb: A case study in building trust

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Joe Gebbia, the founder of Airbnb, gave a TED talk titled, “How Airbnb designs for trust.” Here are some of the lessons and insights he shared:

  • Here’s what we pitched investors: “We want to build a website where people publicly post pictures of their most intimate spaces, their bedrooms, the bathrooms — the kinds of rooms you usually keep closed when people come over. And then, over the Internet, they’re going to invite complete strangers to come sleep in their homes. It’s going to be huge!” (Laughter) We sat back, and we waited for the rocket ship to blast off. It did not. No one in their right minds would invest in a service that allows strangers to sleep in people’s homes. Why? Because we’ve all been taught as kids, strangers equal danger… we were aiming to build Olympic trust between people who had never met. Could design make that happen? Is it possible to design for trust?
  • A TRUST EXPERIMENT: People who are trusted tend to show respect.
  • I want to give you a sense of the flavor of trust that we were aiming to achieve. I’ve got a 30-second experiment that will push you past your comfort zone. If you’re up for it, give me a thumbs-up. OK, I need you to take out your phones. Now that you have your phone out, I’d like you to unlock your phone. Now hand your unlocked phone to the person on your left. That tiny sense of panic you’re feeling right now is exactly how hosts feel the first time they open their home. Because the only thing more personal than your phone is your home. People don’t just see your messages, they see your bedroom, your kitchen, your toilet.
  • Now, how does it feel holding someone’s unlocked phone? Most of us feel really responsible. That’s how most guests feel when they stay in a home. And it’s because of this that our company can even exist.
  • REPUTATION IS A TRUST-BUILDER: So now that you’ve experienced the kind of trust challenge we were facing, I’d love to share a few discoveries we’ve made along the way. What if we changed one small thing about the design of that experiment? What if your neighbor had introduced themselves first, with their name, where they’re from, the name of their kids or their dog? Imagine that they had 150 reviews of people saying, “They’re great at holding unlocked phones!” Now how would you feel about handing your phone over? It turns out, a well-designed reputation system is key for building trust.
  • THE RIGHT DOSE OF TRANSPARENCY BUILDS TRUST. Building the right amount of trust takes the right amount of disclosure. This is what happens when a guest first messages a host. If you share too little, like, “Yo,” acceptance rates go down. And if you share too much, like, “I’m having issues with my mother,” acceptance rates also go down. But there’s a zone that’s just right, like, “Love the artwork in your place. Coming for vacation with my family.” So how do we design for just the right amount of disclosure? We use the size of the box to suggest the right length, and we guide them with prompts to encourage sharing.
  • HIGH REPUTATION TRUMPS HIGH SIMILARITY. We did a joint study with Stanford, where we looked at people’s willingness to trust someone based on how similar they are in age, location and geography. The research showed, not surprisingly, we prefer people who are like us. The more different somebody is, the less we trust them. Now, that’s a natural social bias. But what’s interesting is what happens when you add reputation into the mix, in this case, with reviews. Now, if you’ve got less than three reviews, nothing changes. But if you’ve got more than 10, everything changes. High reputation beats high similarity. The right design can actually help us overcome one of our most deeply rooted biases.
  • OVERCOMING INHERENT MISTRUST OF STRANGERS. We bet our whole company on the hope that, with the right design, people would be willing to overcome the stranger-danger bias. What we didn’t realize is just how many people were ready and waiting to put the bias aside.
  • TRUST IS NOT ALWAYS REWARDED. Obviously, there are times when things don’t work out. Guests have thrown unauthorized parties and trashed homes. Hosts have left guests stranded in the rain. In the early days, I was customer service, and those calls came right to my cell phone. I was at the front lines of trust breaking. And there’s nothing worse than those calls, it hurts to even think about them. And the disappointment in the sound of someone’s voice was and, I would say, still is our single greatest motivator to keep improving.
  • AN INSPIRATIONAL STORY. Thankfully, out of the 123 million nights we’ve ever hosted, less than a fraction of a percent have been problematic. Turns out, people are justified in their trust. And when trust works out right, it can be absolutely magical. We had a guest stay with a host in Uruguay, and he suffered a heart attack. The host rushed him to the hospital. They donated their own blood for his operation. Let me read you his review: “Excellent house for sedentary travelers prone to myocardial infarctions.The area is beautiful and has direct access to the best hospitals. Javier and Alejandra instantly become guardian angels who will save your life without even knowing you. They will rush you to the hospital in their own car while you’re dying and stay in the waiting room while the doctors give you a bypass. They don’t want you to feel lonely, they bring you books to read. And they let you stay at their house extra nights without charging you. Highly recommended!”
  • CONNECTION BEYOND THE TRANSACTION. Of course, not every stay is like that. But this connection beyond the transaction is exactly what the sharing economy is aiming for.  Now, when I heard that term, I have to admit, it tripped me up. How do sharing and transactions go together? So let’s be clear; it is about commerce. But if you just called it the rental economy, it would be incomplete. The sharing economy is commerce with the promise of human connection. People share a part of themselves, and that changes everything.
  • TRAVEL TODAY IS LIKE EATING AT MCDONALDS. You know how most travel today is. I think of it like fast food — it’s efficient and consistent, at the cost of local and authentic. What if travel were like a magnificent buffet of local experiences? What if anywhere you visited, there was a central marketplace of locals offering to get you thoroughly drunk on a pub crawl in neighborhoods you didn’t even know existed. Or learning to cook from the chef of a five-star restaurant?
  • DESIGNING TO BUILD TRUST THROUGH CONNECTION. Today, homes are designed around the idea of privacy and separation. What if homes were designed to be shared from the ground up? What would that look like? What if cities embraced a culture of sharing? I see a future of shared cities that bring us community and connection instead of isolation and separation. In South Korea, in the city of Seoul, they’ve actually even started this. They’ve re-purposed hundreds of government parking spots to be shared by residents. They’re connecting students who need a place to live with empty nesters who have extra rooms. And they’ve started an incubator to help fund the next generation of sharing economy start-ups.
  • THE RESULTS. Tonight, just on our service, 785,000 people in 191 countries will either stay in a stranger’s home or welcome one into theirs. Clearly, it’s not as crazy as we were taught. We didn’t invent anything new. Hospitality has been around forever. There’s been many other websites like ours. So, why did ours eventually take off? Luck and timing aside, I’ve learned that you can take the components of trust, and you can design for that. Design can overcome our most deeply rooted stranger-danger bias. And that’s amazing to me. It blows my mind.

Be a High-Trust Leader: think about how you can apply Airbnb’s lessons to build greater trust within your organization as well as earning the trust of your prospects, clients, and customers.

  • Build, safeguard, and communicate your organization’s positive reputation. Hint: your reputation is not what you say it is, it’s what others say about you and your organization.
  • Seek to make a connection beyond the transaction. Care more about the relationship than the deal.
  • Occasionally, take a risk and extend trust outside your comfort zone. You may be disappointed, but Airbnb’s experience indicates you will much more often be pleasantly surprised!