Airbnb: A case study in trust and mistrust

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Wroclaw, Poland- April 10Th, 2017:  Woman Is Installing Airbnb A

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… 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 LESSON. People who are trusted tend to show respect.

[When trusted to stay in your home,] people don’t just see your messages, they see your bedroom, your kitchen, your toilet…Now, how does it feel [when trusted to stay in someone else’s home]? 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. What if [the homeowner] 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…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.

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. The sharing economy is commerce with the promise of human connection. People share a part of themselves, and that changes everything…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?

AIRBNB AND BROKEN TRUST.  The lessons above don’t mean that Airbnb is not without significant challenges with bad behavior by both homeowners and guests. There are websites dedicated to documenting problems (e.g., The challenge for Airbnb and other companies operating in the sharing (trust) economy is to design processes and ways of verification that preserve trust in those who deserve it. I’m afraid there will always be scoundrels and people who lack the character values of honesty and integrity. The key to success will be to provide a reliable means of evaluating trustworthiness of both the homeowner and guest before committing to the transaction, and remedying the (hopefully relatively few) cases where trust was violated. We believe the questions associated with the 5C’s of Trust are a good place to start. Considering the vast number of people who have had wonderful and meaningful experiences as Airbnb hosts and guests, I hope they can figure this out.

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!
  • If you are planning to participate in the sharing (trust) economy, you must have a method to effectively evaluate trustworthiness. Try the questions associated with each of the 5C’s of Trust.
  • When trust is broken, be proactive in doing what is necessary to have it restored. Others are watching.