A behind the scenes look at how Airbnb launches products

Airbnb writes their story releasing two chapters every year

👋 Hi, it’s Naiomi and Erik and welcome to Demand our weekly newsletter to help you become a top 1% marketer. In today's article, we are going to cover Airbnb's product launch philosophy and deep dive into their Winter 2023 release. A special thank you to Hannah Hughes, Kim Wohlleb, and Maansi Dommeti for their collaboration, input, and feedback! 🙏

This is the third post in our series how leading tech companies launch products.

Part 1 | PLAN: Start with the end in mind 🧠

  • Foundational go to market frameworks underpinning product launches

  • We’ll cover how launches differ by company stage including investment level 

Part 3 | DEEP DIVE: A behind the scenes look at how Airbnb launches products (☝️ this post)

  • This was originally going to be a set of companies but we decided to separate these into individual posts

Part 4 & Beyond | More Deep Dives across Consumer and B2B 🚀

  • Launch examples from companies such as Stripe, Shopify, Figma, and Canva

Launch Philosophy

Airbnb has evolved from scrappy launches to twice-a-year launches, known as Winter and Summer releases. Brain Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, advocates that each of these releases are “chapters” to build awareness and support the broader company “story”. The narrative dictates what product builds and this all flows downstream to what teams work on, the timing of alphas and betas, and what is packaged in each launch. Who writes this narrative? It’s primarily authored by Product Marketers and the Communications team with input from Design, Eng, Marketing and Creative (what they refer to internally as their ‘Primary team’). As Chesky has pointed out “Ultimately, it’s the story that will connect with customers and it’s the story that should become the North Star for internal teams.”

These bi-annual releases also serve as an organizing mechanism internally – so folks across all functions are working towards two shared timelines. You don’t have five teams going in different directions or a Creative team that is inundated with requests, sometimes last minute, for a wide breadth of campaigns of varying urgency and potential impact. This creates dependencies and a backlog across other teams. As Brian mentions “we want a company where 1,000 people could work but it looked like 10 people did it”. This is the opposite of shipping the org chart, and keeps the user and narrative front and center. 

The Early Days 

It wasn’t always this methodical. In the early days, Airbnb’s “launches” were nothing more than outbound campaigns around conferences to prove there was some latent demand they could serve with their new product. And it didn’t always work.

Those 3 launches included 3 acts:

  • Act 1 | The Air Bed & Breakfast: This was the very first iteration in October 2007, coinciding with a design conference in San Francisco. Co-founders, Brian Chesky, and Joe Gebbia, offered air mattresses in their own apartment to attendees struggling to find hotel rooms. But little media pickup and few bookings.

  • Act 2 | Website Launch: After the initial buzz, things go quiet. Airbnb launched a website later that year but failed to gain adoption. At this point they pivoted to selling presidential themed cereal boxes to raise money.

  • Act 3 | SXSW Unveil: the third launch, at South by Southwest (SXSW) in March 2008 introduced a new era. An improved website and expanded offerings beyond just air mattresses led to an increase in booking and media coverage. This was the beginning of the Airbnb we know today. 

The Messy Middle 

So how did the company transition to twice-a-year launches? Well it wasn’t a straight line. Two of the biggest challenges the company faced from startup to mature growth stage company was 1) overcoming the stigma of staying in someone else’s house and 2) the regulation and impact of short term rentals in neighborhoods and communities. 

In 2014 Airbnb hired Jonathan Mildenhall, a longtime marketing executive from Coca Cola as CMO to help address these challenges. From 2014-2018 the company would transform from challenger brand to one of the most valuable travel brands. Hosts on the platform would balloon from 400,000 to 3.5 million. 

How did they do it? 

A combination of product improvements, policy changes, and marketing efforts.  

Airbnb didn’t have the marketing budget of its public competitors so it leaned into their community to showcase their values and improve perception. 

They did a number of stand alone Tier 0/1 launches. They released products for a handful of years at Airbnb Open, their annual host conference, before it was discontinued. And they did a number of campaigns to improve trust and reputation that it was safe to stay in a stranger's home. This set the groundwork for their biannual releases. 

The Apple of Brian’s Eye 🍎

Chesky has long been an admirer of Steve Jobs. Not surprisingly, this admiration has shaped how Airbnb builds and introduces products. The underpinnings of this approach is an all encompassing Product Marketer who manages inbound and outbound and narrative of the product. Chesky caused quite a stir in 2023 when he mentioned this at Figma’s Config conference. People misconstrued it as ‘Airbnb eliminated Product Management’. That was more click bait than anything. The role didn’t go away, it evolved. Airbnb moved away from a valley orthodox product management role – think of the PM role at product or engineering-driven cultures at companies such as Google, Meta, Intuit, Adobe, and Microsoft – to a role that is more inclusive of Product Management and Product Marketing. So PM does both inbound of building the product and outbound of shaping the narrative and messaging of the product. They also removed the program management responsibilities away from PM. 

It’s a playbook that is borrowed from Apple, who does not follow the valley orthodox of product management. For most of Apple’s history, they did not have Product Managers, they had Product Marketing Managers who worked in marketing and would collaborate with the Design team and Jobs to align on the features and bring it to market. Because Apple focused on a few blockbuster products, vs a broad portfolio of B2B products, Jobs could be involved in each product decision. For Airbnb, Chesky is widely known as being deeply involved with the details of the product and narrative. Borrowing this structure enables Airbnb to mimic Apple, a hands on, visionary leader and product marketers (AKA product managers) that manage inbound and outbound of the product.

This admiration of Apple from Chesky led down the path of hiring Hiroki Asai, the 16-year Apple veteran who led Head of Marketing Communications to join Airbnb in 2020 to lead the Marketing function. Asai partnered with Chesky to construct these twice-a-year apertures to launch products. Their ability to pull off these Apple-esque unveilings twice a year relied on a few key factors: 

Marketing Foundation Ingredients 🧪 — what enables Airbnb to deliver unique marketing

  • Designer CEO: Brian is a designer by heart and training. Having this type of leader at the top gives the marketing team more latitude to lean into brand experiences and metrics, trust in qualitative feedback, and rationalize with intuition vs solely data. 

  • Driven by Insights: Airbnb works off a shared set of insights across the company. Many companies or marketing teams say they are insights-driven but in practice this falls apart. Further, Airbnb is a big advocate of qualitative feedback. While many companies prioritize quantitative feedback for business strategy, Airbnb looks at both, and especially the qualitative to understand the contours of the data. As Asai notes on the Design Better podcast

“Qualitative feedback helps you understand the feeling of the data. It really helps you understand the sentiment and human experience of where that data is coming from. You can actually feel what the customer is going through”

  • Chapters of a Story: the shared insights and launch chapters are formed from an exercise in which Airbnb mapped the core 8 steps across the guest and host experience. They looked at everything – the product experience, policies, social sentiment, mapped every page of the app, millions of customer service calls, expectations at each stage – to identify where the experience can be improved. This blueprint inspired the roadmap and the story to be told. 

  • In House: all the creative and marketing work  is done in house – creative, PR & comms, advertising, marketing, brand, product design functions are in house, they don’t work with agencies on strategy or creative development. 

  • Summer & Winter Releases: with everyone in house, they are able to create two big apertures for the year, the summer and winter release which all these teams work towards. Instead of dozens of campaigns running at once in different markets, it’s one story supported by an entire team. As Asai notes:

  • Left & Right Brained: they have a balanced approach for marketing, one which speaks to both the left and right brain mind. As Asai puts it:

Writing Two Stories a Year

“We don’t even do an annual roadmap. We have a two year rolling plan and strategy that gets updated every six months with releases.” - Chesky

The twice a year releases are every May and every November. There are some smaller launches or momentum stories between the two big moments.

Let’s jump into how they executed the Winter 2023 release.

Winter Release 2023 Deep Dive

On November 8, 2023 Airbnb unveiled their Winter 2023 released with the focus on 3 main features which were ready at launch: 

  • Guest Favorites: An all-new collection of the 2 million most loved homes on Airbnb, according to guests. Included a new badge on the search results, listing page, and a filter for Guest Favorites

  • Revamped Ratings and Reviews: included review sorting (by review rating, recency) and additional details (length of stay, traveled with kids or pets, group) 

  • New Listings tab: this was a suite of tools for hosts including an improved UI on the listing editor, AI-powered photo tour which organizes the photos in a logical sequence. 

They also had a few other key updates, that while not headliners, are critical to the host and guest experience. Notably, these features we’re not ready at announcement but were designated ‘coming soon’ in marketing materials:  

  • Smart lock integration: hosts can share the code guests can obtain directly in the app before they arrive

  • Upgraded pricing tools: including New earnings dashboard, Co-host payouts, calendar price compare, and price visibility

Launch Channels & Assets - Airbnb leaned heavily into owned and earned channels for the launch. Brian was leveraged heavily as a charismatic founder, close to product and enamored by the new features and this helped to build trust and credibility with press and users, as you can see in the launch video below.

They also provide a press release in English and Spanish in the US and media assets with screenshots of the new features. Further, they provide release highlights which are essentially reasons-to-believe (RTBs), such as Guest Favorites have a record of reliability, with Host cancellations and quality-related customer service issues of 1% on average.

Owned Channels 

1/ The home base for their biannual releases is their Release homepage.

2/ Social posts from Brian and the Airbnb company account across standard channels such as Twitter/X:

3/ Community - they hosted a Q&A with Global Head of Hosting - Catherine Powell on Nov 13.

4/ Email - a series of emails announcing the features a week after the launch

Earned Channels 

The two biggest channels were a flurry of posts on social from hosts and press coverage. The release was reposted by a number of influencers on YouTube and TikTok. Likely some that were brought into the mix by Airbnb pre-announcement as part of a ‘beta group’ or ‘most trusted group’ to get early access and promote the launch.

Influencer

Influencer videos across TikTok and YouTube have hundreds to low thousands in views. Most are posted by Airbnb hosts or travel/real estate influencers.

@zoeyberghoff

It's that time... @airbnb 2023 Winter updates have come to the platform to improve the Hosting and overall guest experience! I'm truthfull... See more

@nomaddeals

New changes to Airbnb include guest favorites, review detsils, and more. Follow for more digital nomad travel news ✈️ #digitalnomad #trave... See more

 

Press

Most Tier 1 outlets – NYT, Fox News, WSJ, BBC – did not cover the release. Instead, it was mostly tech and business press and industry outlets in travel and short term rental spaces. 

Tech & Business Outlets

Industry Outlets (travel and short term rentals) 

Paid Channels 

With paid advertising, the important thing is to use the appropriate messaging to get folks interested. Airbnb ran 15 second ad campaigns in the US on Instagram highlighting Guest Favorites: 

Launch Impact 

While there are limited public sources to triangulate the data, overall sentiment trended positive. Airbnb is most likely assessing lagging indicators such as trust and brand perception which are hard to move and require multiple touch points with consumers. In terms of more metrics that we can assess, we’ll cover four areas: sentiment, messaging, reach, and product adoption. 

Sentiment

  • Grade: Green ✅

  • Why: sentiment was generally positive within the host and rental owner community. The influencers and comments highlighted the key value props. 

“I love that there is a listing tab on the app.” - Kristen & Michael, Airbnb Hosts

Messaging

  • Grade: Green ✅

  • Why: message pull through of Guest Favorites, the different between Guest Favorite and Superhost status for hosts, new pricing features, and the utilization of AI to improve the process for hosts but also nod to the street’s expectation of AI improving operations. Press generally repeated Airbnb’s messaging across their coverage.

Reach

  • Grade: Yellow 🟡

  • Why: impressions and views don’t match big product launches from other companies given lack of tier 1 press coverage, no big partnerships or celebrity involvement, and lack of a big uptick in the influencer community. 

  • Brian’s tweet generated almost 100x more impressions than the company account (2.5M vs 29.9k impressions) and much higher engagement (5.4K Likes, 811 reposts) vs Airbnb (74 Likes, 40 reposts).

  • Web Traffic - organic and paid web traffic is not materially impacted. 20.3M vs 20.8 in Nov vs Oct 2023 respectively (-2.5% MoM).

Product Adoption

  • Grade: TBD

  • Why: obviously very difficult to ascertain the usage. We can look at Airbnb’s Q4 earnings which a nod to the release, but didn’t provide specific details on product usage:

  • Guest Favorites: “Since the launch of Guest Favorites, these listings are getting more views and bookings. Hosts of Guest Favorites have said they love the new badge and guests appreciate the ease of finding high-quality listings.”

  • Listings Tab: “Since introducing the Listings tab, we’ve received positive feedback from our Hosts and have seen the AI photo tour driving user engagement, with photo tour adoption increasing by over 70% compared to pre-launch.”

Additional Resources

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