Airbnb accidentally invited a journalist to their first ever customer focus group: Me

By Dan Raile , written on March 28, 2014

From The News Desk

On Wednesday, Pando’s Carmel DeAmicis described AirBnB’s mixed success in staying ahead of customer service and public relations hitches. Hours later, I was being ushered into the Milan Suite, an office space on the fourth floor of Airbnb’s cavernous Brannan St. headquarters, for a sit-down with Chip Conley, the company’s head of global hospitality. The suite is one of several such spaces on the campus modeled to the exact decor of real Airbnb rentals.

Wine, crackers and cheese were laid out on a perfect replica of someone else’s end table.

This wasn’t a PR scramble or stage-managed press event to show that the company really cares. In fact, nobody at Airbnb had the slightest hint that I was a member of the press. I was there because, several weeks ago, before starting at Pando, I’d been contacted by a member of the Airbnb Community Team and asked to come in and speak with Conley about my experiences as a regular Airbnb user.

I want to be absolutely clear here: I didn’t apply for the focus group -- they invited me, cold -- and at no point did anyone ask me what I did for a living. I wasn’t asked to sign an NDA or any other kind of confidentiality agreement (Pando has a policy against reporters signing NDAs). By an apparent fluke, I was being offered an uncensored peek behind the curtain of a fast growing, $11bn company that finds itself getting over its tech startup honeymoon and trying to hold its own in the grown-up world of hospitality.

Conley, who founded the boutique hotel chain Joie De Vivre and joined Airbnb last September, began by admitting this was his first time leading a focus group. His reason for convening one now, he explained, was that as Airbnb’s customer base grows into the mainstream, they wanted to manage expectations and prepare the uninitiated for their first stay.

This was not ‘A/B testing’. Not an ‘external audit’. It was an old timey focus group, like the time at the mall, at age seven, when I was given a pack of gum and asked to take a week with it, evaluate its flavor, and report back for another pack of gum and $10.

Over the next hour, I, along with two other participants, was asked to rate and comment on a variety of literature aimed at first-time guests. During the reservation process, should Airbnb suggest that you “treat your Host’s place like it was your own”? Should they admonish prospective guests that “Airbnb users aren’t tourists” and advise them to “be curious and get to know the local scene”?

We were told that these suggestions were the results of queries the company had made of Hosts (always capitalized in the company’s literature, which could be confusing for Catholics -- write that down, Chip) about what guests should know and what rules they should be asked to abide by.

My favorite nugget was a description of Airbnb’s system of guest and host reviews as the community’s “natural cleansing process.” All participants agreed that smacked of distasteful euphemism, though none could say for what.

It soon became clear that the company was trying to figure out how to explain its disruptive, sharing economy service to regular Joes and Josephines who heard about Airbnb from a Katie Couric name-drop, or because they saw one of Airbnb’s new traditional-media advertisements.

If you think it strange for a high-level executive at an $11 billion company to personally conduct a three-person, randomly selected focus group, I’m with you. But, while it’s easy to eye roll at a Silicon Valley company trying to connect with the masses, Conley’s first foray into focus groups and his apparently genuine eagerness for our opinions suggest that Airbnb is willing to try new/old ways to improve customer satisfaction. It also seems to be taking its role as a go-between for guests and hosts seriously.

After the focus group was finished, the woman from the Community division assured us that we’d been selected completely randomly. I have no idea if we were just the first group of many, or whether Airbnb’s entire messaging strategy will now be based on my opinion and those of the two other people. I asked Airbnb for comment for this piece (~20 hours ago) but they had not responded as of press time. [Update: A spokesperson for the company responded this afternoon, declining to add further comment.]

All I know is this: if, while making your first Airbnb reservation, you find allusions to the site’s “natural cleansing process” leaving a funny taste in your mouth, it’s not my fault. I tried to warn them.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]