Airbnb To Disrupt Gig Economy Branded App Engagement

Former Apple design guru Jony Ive is working with Airbnb to “design new products” prior to its upcoming IPO. Last week’s story was covered extensively across mainstream and tech media. 

What’s the big news? Airbnb plans to redesign its app and website.

There’s a lesson to be learned here: All that matters is the headline. I mean, there’s no story to this story. The rules for web and app design are pretty much established science, driven primarily by the need to seem familiar to users and easy and reliable for doing whatever they want to do. There’s no way Airbnb is going to blow up those rules before its IPO, let alone no compelling reason to do it any other time.

According to a blog post from Airbnb’s CEO, Ive will not only help the company design new products but hire new designers for an internal team. This comes after the company fired 25% of its employees in May.

What exactly are those other products that Ive will design? Maybe there’s something more fundamental going on here, like the potential for designing elements that Airbnb rentals would embrace…think common signage that have been the staple of franchising for decades, only more substantive to experience.

It would be amazing if Airbnb’s shared, say, common controls for heating and cooling, maybe some consistent amenities (SPF for a warming world?) or some cool “incidental” tech for dealing with common traveler woes (a magic de-wrinkler, for instance)? What about a secure lockbox for safeguarding valuables?

In other words, Airbnb could be on the road to operating like a crowdsourced hotel brand.

But we don’t know that, or much of anything else, since the coverage was limited almost exclusively to the headline of Ive working with Airbnb. Journalists didn’t even try and tail to question how it could possible make any sense.

We communicators should take that to heart.

Every announcement we write should have one single, memorable idea that can be expressed in a handful of words. It has to have stand-alone value, which means it must reference doing something tangible that suggests, by the action itself, a bigger idea. Set a goal. Reveal an accomplishment. Announce a partnership, like Airbnb.

Lead with the act, not the meaning. In fact, don’t waste space explaining why it matters…because if you have to explain, nobody will understand or believe it. It certainly won’t help getting it covered by the media. Also, skip all of the technobabble language and evidence-based proof points of functionality.  

David Ogilvy once said:

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

He was right, though in his day it was assumed editors and readers still had patience for the content that followed. Now, I’d say spend your time crafting the best possible headline because everything else is incidental.

Maybe there’s a second lesson, too, which is be very, very wary of the Airbnb IPO.

The two trends of post-pandemic living and the concept of the gig economy collide in Airbnb’s business model. Travel is down and its recovery won’t look like the past. It’s not impossible to imagine Airbnb hosts getting classified as employees, or their physical sites getting held to regulated standards of safety and security (and not just customer expectations)?

Worse, there’s no unique IP behind its offering so any number of competitors could whittle away at Airbnb’s customer base. The only thing is truly owns is its brand and whatever data insights into rooms and customers it has collected.

This is what leads Airbnb to an announcement about marketing and a celebrity advisor.

Again, maybe there’s a lot more going on (I sure hope so), and there’s a slight chance evidence of it will surface in the IPO documents, though it’s far more likely that the company will hammer on the proven excuse of brand value. Investors, like consumers of media, tend to rely on headlines. It’ll also tout wonderful benefits while ignoring or downplaying any direct or indirect negatives, which is how companies like Facebook achieved incredible valuations.

Treating the messy, undetermined future like an externality to the graphics on a management consultancy presentation is another successful trick.

So, write better headlines. And maybe avoid the IPO?

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About Jonathan Salem Baskin

Author, Advisor, Agitator