How disruptive tech companies disrupt our norms: Airbnb

Walter R
Walter R
Nov 30 · 14 min read

For a technology company to be disruptive, it needs to change norms. Airbnb, Tinder, and Uber have all found success by building new normative behaviors and then firmly positioning themselves at the forefront of this new behavior. Whether it’s sleeping in a stranger’s house, getting in a stranger’s car, or dating by swiping on a stranger’s photo, all of these companies have redefined what was previously considered normal for their massive financial benefit.

These companies want to change norms because when norms change, the behaviors society considers appropriate change along with them. Norms work in a permissive sense by enabling new behaviors to take place. They don’t guarantee these behaviors; they just enable them to become an option. You don’t have to rent a room in a stranger’s house, but that option is now available to you because of Airbnb.

One of the most amazing things about norms is that once they are adopted, it’s hard to imagine life before they existed. Getting into a strangers car or sleeping at a random person’s house is just normal. As norms evolve, they leave future generations astounded when they try to envisage what was or wasn’t considered ‘normal’ in past eras. Very few people during the eighteenth century could have imagined the emergence of a global anti-slavery norm, while few in the nineteenth century could have envisioned a global ban on ivory sales. Future generations will face the same difficulty when trying to imagine people being limited to hotels, taxis, and having to meet people at a bar.

History is full of incredible organizations of people who have worked hard to change norms. Abolishing slavery in 1833 came about, in part, because people were actively working to change what was considered normal. British abolitionists organized several petitions in 1833 alone that collectively garnered 1.3 million signatories. However, one of history’s most successful organizations to actively change norms was the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in the late 1990s.

The ICBL had absolutely no business succeeding. When it set out in 1992, its goal was to ban a widely used weapon: anti-personnel (AP) landmines. This would be like telling Trump and the United States government that it can’t use drones. If this sounds crazy, it’s because conventional wisdom dictates that national security should be completely autonomous from society’s influence. In other words, people don’t generally get to tell the government how to do national defense. Despite this, the ICBL successfully changed norms and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for helping to establish an international convention that bans AP landmines.

Anti-personnel (AP) landmines, as their name suggests, target people. They are designed to injure not kill because a severely injured soldier is a bigger logistic and medical burden than a dead one. The fact that AP landmines were long considered a conventional weapon coupled with their low cost (three to five US dollars apiece) enabled an estimated 110 million mines to be deployed in some sixty-four countries as of 1994. Long after the fighting stopped, undetonated AP landmines would form grim reminders of war. They killed or injured an estimated 26,000 people each year, the majority of them being civilians; rural people were the most affected, as were children who could mistake them for playthings. For years they would hinder recovery by stopping reconstruction and road use, reducing agricultural production, and preventing the return of refugees. But above all else, they perpetuated the fear and anxiety of war.

To ban AP landmines and change norms, the ICBL used four techniques: (1) disseminating information to raise awareness and generate an issue, (2) framing and normative grafting, (3) shaming, and (4) reversing the burden of proof from proponents of the campaign to opponents. These same four techniques are now being used by disruptive tech companies like Airbnb to change norms.

Disseminating information to raise awareness

If people are going to buy a product or support an issue, they need to know it exists. To get the word out in the 1990s, the ICBL used a combination of celebrity endorsements and advertising in print and television. The 1990s, however, was a very different time. Few people had the internet (under five percent in the US) and taking out a full-page New York times ad or getting one of the world’s most famous people, Princess Diana, to tour a minefield in Angola (the ICBL did both) reached a lot of people.

The media environment that Airbnb emerge out of, on the other hand, was diverse, fragmented, and characterized by an abundance of voices and content. Airbnb didn’t have celebrity endorsements or a lot of money. Plus, the norm they were pushing had a perception problem. The public generally perceived sleeping in a stranger’s house as dangerous and changing that perception was going to be difficult.

From day one, Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia struggled to get investors to meet them, and, if they did get a meeting, they were told that the idea was crazy. Investors warned that if someone was murdered in an Airbnb house, they would have blood on their hands. Paul Graham, one of Airbnb’s earliest investors, also admitted to having some initial doubts: “I thought the idea was crazy … Are people really going to do this? I would never do this.” The doubts of investors show just how hard it was going to be for Airbnb to change their norm.

Airbnb was also going up against the hotel industry. Hotels, motels, hostels, b&b’s (or any establishment that changes money for a room) are the norm. These places are registered businesses that pay taxes, have employees, and experience in dealing with customers. This is how people have found temporary accommodation for millennia; that is, until Airbnb came along. To emphasize the strength of the hotel industry and the norms surrounding it, we only need to look at the ongoing fight between cities and Airbnb. Berlin banned it, then only recently lifted the ban with strict limitations. Amsterdam wants to ban it, and Paris is regulating it. Now ten EU cities have asked the EU for help to fight it. Cities complain that Airbnb has made it difficult for residents to find homes, and in some cities like Amsterdam and Paris, it has brought too many tourists. These cities have had their norms disrupted to such a degree and in such a short period of time that they are fighting back.

The media environment and the public perception of Airbnb’s new norm meant that they needed to be creative. Airbnb has always had one significant advantage over hotels: it’s usually substantially cheaper. They just had to get the word out. To do this, Airbnb used their now infamous Craigslist hack. Before Airbnb, Craigslist was the place to find non-standard accommodation options, even though anyone using it had to be wary of being scammed. So from as early as 2010, Airbnb offered its users the opportunity to post their property listings on both Craigslist and Airbnb simultaneously. They did this despite there being no official way to do this on Craigslist. This “hack” not only gave Airbnb exposure to Craigslist’s massive user base but showed Craigslist users just how much better Airbnb’s listings were. They were more personal, had more beautiful photos and better descriptions. Airbnb hoped that once people experienced Airbnb, they would continue using the service and forget about Craigslist. This hack also showed people a stark contrast between two services — one as scammy, unprofessional, and potentially unsafe and the other as safe, professional, and actively protecting you from scams. This contrast was a fantastic way to increase the legitimacy of Airbnb’s developing norm.

The Craigslist hack was complemented by more traditional information dissemination methods like targeted advertising on Facebook, Google, and in print. But ultimately, despite not being a widely accepted norm early on, people wanted the service that Airbnb offered. This made word of mouth very powerful. After Airbnb founders Gebbia and Chesky had hosted their first three guests in San Francisco, they started to receive emails from others requesting Airbnb in their cities.

Framing and normative grafting

Framing means promoting select elements or interpretations of an idea to persuade people to think about an idea or product in the way you want them to. Norm grafting is the association of a new norm with a pre-existing similar norm. Norm grafting could, for example, be achieved on Twitter, by mentioning a new norm in likeness or association to another similar, yet successful, norm. The ICBL framed AP landmines as a humanitarian issue when they had always been a military issue, and they grafted the proposed ban on AP landmines to a similar norm that banned chemical weapons. If chemical weapons are banned, which indiscriminately kills civilians, why not ban AP landmines which do the same thing.

Framing and norm grafting, in contrast to disseminating information to raise awareness, requires a comparatively controlled message that maintains a coherent and consistent frame. The main challenge for companies when framing or grafting is to ‘’align’’ or ‘’extend’’ their frame so it ‘’resonates’’ with the experiences of the people they are targeting.

Three Airbnb ads
Three Airbnb ads
Three Airbnb ads

One of Airbnb’s most prominent frames is ‘home.’ People have always associated comfort, safety, and pleasure with going home. Airbnb’s messaging includes the word home in just about every consumer-facing aspect of the product.

Airbnb.com (July 2019)

This “home” frame stands in stark contrast to the messaging used to encourage people to start hosting. For them, there is absolutely no mention of home.

Airbnb.com (July 2019)

This contrast comes from the power of the word ‘home.’ The idea of sharing your home feels almost threatening. No one wants strangers coming into their homes, invading their personal space. Airbnb instead uses “place” and “space.” These are words that you don’t mind having strangers sleep. Then the financial aspects like “extra income” or “how much you could earn” feel clean and simple.

To complement their home frame, Airbnb has grafted their new norm of sleeping in a stranger’s home with the well-established norm of booking a hotel room. This is how you book on Airbnb (left), and this is how you book a hotel on booking.com (right):

Booking on Airbnb.com (left), and this is how you book a hotel on booking.com (right) (July 2019)

Airbnb has a check-in and check-out date. People can select the number of adults and children. It is exactly like booking a hotel room. Airbnb also boasts in the safety section of their website that they are actually bigger than the top five hotels combined:

“On any given night, 2 million people stay in homes on Airbnb in 81,000 cities all over the world. There are nearly 5 million listings in 191 countries to choose from — that’s more than the top five hotel chains combined.”

Hotels are safe, easy, secure, and trustworthy. By grafting their new norm with hotels, they offer guests all the established benefits of booking a hotel with the added benefit of the home. This association with hotels and professionalism was solidified initially in the summer of 2009 when founders Gebbia and Chesky booked a few dozen Airbnbs in New York to see why the platform wasn’t gaining traction in the city. According to Gebbia, the photos were the problem:

“The photos were really bad. People were using camera phones and taking Craigslist-quality pictures. Surprise! No one was booking because you couldn’t see what you were paying for.”

The pair solved the problem by renting a camera and taking high-quality photos of as many New York City apartments as possible. By month’s end, revenue had doubled in the city. The success in New York led to the development of the Airbnb photography program, which let hosts automatically schedule a professional photographer. By 2012, Airbnb was offering hosts free professional photography services from more than 2,000 freelancers who visited a total of 13,000 listings across six continents. Hotels have always used professional photos, and now Airbnb did too. This was costly, but Airbnb realized the long-term benefits — beautiful images, verified property addresses, and firmly grafting their new norm onto the professionalism of hotels — far outweighed the costs.

This has all given Airbnb a business model that combines hotels and homes, but they own no real estate, pay no rent, cleaners, or receptionists. Airbnb’s development of this new norm — sleeping in a stranger’s “home” — and then placing itself firmly at the forefront of that new behavior has yielded exceptional growth.

Shaming

Shaming is a powerful technique employed by campaigns like the ICBL. It works by publicly drawing attention to the bad things an offender does as a way of punishing them. For the ICBL, the power of shaming increased as the first countries started joining the international treaty banning landmines. As more and more countries “tipped” towards the ban, states that had not yet agreed to the treaty become subject to shaming. To shame the US for not joining the ban, Jodie Williams, the ICBL head organizer, went on the CNN program Crossfire in 1997 and said:

“Clinton just missed an opportunity to be a true world leader on this issue. You cannot be outside the Ottawa Process, which has just negotiated a ban treaty and still call yourself a leader. You’re either in the process or you’re not. You can’t lead from the rear.”

Countries like the US were quickly relegated to an outgroup of rogue nations to hurt their international image. The ICBL used the cascade of state adoption to shame governments that had not yet agreed to the ban, making it intolerable to be left outside the club of responsible international citizens. That’s the thing about shaming; its power increases exponentially as more people decide to use a product or stop doing something. Airbnb, which is often something people do as a group, has benefited enormously from a form of shaming.

Airbnb’s referral programs reward and actively encourages people to invite their friends by giving both parties money. The company also worked hard to ensure that their referral invites felt like gifts (rather than promotions) by including photos of potential properties and using altruistic language. Gifts have considerably more power than a mutually beneficial promotion. Receiving a “gift” referral not only says to a person that this is an activity that you as a friend approve of, but if they don’t engage in said activity, you are wasting my “gift,” and both parties will miss out on money. Referrals disguised as gifts shame those that don’t use them and make this normal activity — sleeping at a stranger’s house — feel like something all your friends are doing, so why aren’t you?

The ease of sharing Airbnb accommodation options with friends (every property listing has a share button for all major networks built into it) means it isn’t hard to imagine the following scenario. You are going on a trip with ten friends, all of which have used Airbnb many times before, and for whatever reason, you have not. They make a group chat on WhatsApp to share prospective accommodation and as they pour over details like does this house have a balcony or a pool or is it close to the beach. You start to feel a little uncomfortable because you’re the only person who doesn’t think Airbnb is normal. Now, if you decide to object to the idea of sleeping in some stranger’s house, what will the group’s response be?

They will most likely shame you. Not directly. But with things like: “it’s perfectly safe, my wife and I have used it many times,” “don’t be so old” or “don’t be ridiculous, it’s cheaper, and you get a truly local experience.” If this doesn’t silence your objection and you continue to object, the most likely outcome will be: “If you want to book something else, go ahead, but we are gonna share the cost of this villa.” Now, most people would never object to this extent and would end up just staying with Airbnb and doing the same thing in the next WhatsApp group to somebody else. This exact scenario could just as easily play out with any other disruptive technology like Uber or PayPal.

Reversing the burden of proof from proponents to opponents.

If you want to change a norm, you have the burden of proof, at least in the beginning, to show why the old way wasn’t working. The ICBL was careful not to simply condemn the military utility of AP landmines and risk being portrayed as a utopian advocacy group seeking world disarmament. Instead, they used empirically grounded research to determine if the AP landmine’s military utility outweighed its steep humanitarian cost. Their report, written by a retired member of the British Army, examined the military utility of AP landmines employed in conflicts since 1940. It found no cases in which the use of anti-personnel mines played a major role in determining the outcome of a conflict. Once the ICBL got these results out to the public, they had effectively shifted the burden of proof from landmine opponents to landmine proponents, who now must prove that AP land mines are not only marginally useful but irreplaceable.

Before Airbnb, sleeping in a stranger’s house was generally perceived as dangerous. Early investors told them so, and Craigslist, with its reputation for scams, was the dominant service for room rentals. With all of this, the burden of proof was firmly on Airbnb to show that it was actually safe. Three things did wonders in convincing both homeowners and renters to use Airbnb: social connections, insurance, and the aforementioned professional photographs.

Seeing your friends do something is one of the most powerful ways to get you to do it, too. In the summer of 2011, Airbnb introduced social connections. This worked by leveraging a users’ network via Facebook. When enabled, listings showed people in your network who have stayed with the host or are friends with the host. It also lets you search for places to stay based on things you have in common with potential hosts, like the university you graduated from. This sends a firm message; if Airbnb is safe enough for your friends, it’s probably safe enough for you.

However, reversing the burden of proof wasn’t entirely smooth for Airbnb. In June 2011, an Airbnb user’s home was ransacked. This was reported as “The Moment of Truth for Airbnb.” Renting your home to a stranger and having it trashed is a massive violation of trust and could have severely damaged Airbnb’s growth if not handled correctly. In response, Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky wrote a blog post saying:

“With a single booking, one person’s malicious actions victimized our host and undermined what had been — for 2 million nights — a case study demonstrating that people are fundamentally good.”

Airbnb promised to double their customer support staff, add a 24-hour customer hotline, create a dedicated Trust & Safety department, let people contact the CEO directly, enhance user profile verification, and introduce insurance.

At first, Airbnb guaranteed to cover loss or damage due to vandalism or theft for up to $50,000. Then in May of 2012, Airbnb partnered with Lloyds of London to expand its guarantee even further, covering every booking with a $1,000,000 guarantee. Insurance did wonders for Airbnb because their business model requires two parties to take a risk: travelers (the demand) and hosts (the supply). Insurance takes away any financial risk for the host and says to both parties that Airbnb believes that their product is inherently safe and that they’re willing to put up a million to guarantee it. Today, Airbnb has firmly shifted the burden of proof — that Airbnb is dangerous — to its critics. In other words, sleeping in a stranger’s house is generally considered safe — it’s now on any existing critics to prove, in this new context, that Airbnb is not only risky but dangerous or even life-threatening.

The norm

Airbnb is a truly disruptive technology company, one that has changed norms and reaped the benefits. It is one of the largest sources of accommodation in the world, yet it has no property, pays no reception staff, cleans no rooms, or changes any bedding. This would have been absolutely unthinkable to people only a decade ago. It is norms like this, ones that would be inconceivable to previous generations, that are the hallmarks of disruptive technology companies.

This norm will surely outlive Airbnb. If Airbnb disappeared tomorrow, I am certain that people would continue to rent rooms from strangers using whatever service replaced it.

The Startup

Walter R

Written by

Walter R

PhD in Media. Part-time media researcher.

The Startup

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