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The Delicate Balance between Normalization and Personalization

Airbnb is actively becoming more accessible as it scales, but is it still true to its original value prop of a more personal stay?

I became an Airbnb host in March, 2011, when I received my Daily Good email and it contained a compelling bit about a quickly growing service for connecting travelers with host homes in the cities they were visiting.

I was several years into restoring my 135-year-old Victorian house in Old Louisville, KY, which I bought the building from the grandson of the original owner. The building was much too large for myself and my partner, so we decided to list the house and open up some of the rooms.

Airbnb’s core value prop is pretty much the same now as it was 6 years ago. But are the stays themselves becoming more impersonal, something it once promoted against?

We’d stayed in others’ homes via Couchsurfing, as well as shared our own. Airbnb felt not unlike that, but better designed and a little more on the rails. Still personal, but more accessible. More normalized.

Airbnb’s core value prop is pretty much the same now as it was 6 years ago. But are the stays themselves becoming more impersonal, something it once promoted against?

Our first visitors were a couple from Switzerland, in town for the Kentucky Derby. They were super guests, and returned a few years later to stay with us again. We hosted many more people from all over the States and the world, and it added a great deal of flavor to the house, and some extra dollars to work on it with. Those staying have largely been interested in the history of the house and the neighborhood, the character and uniqueness of the building and surrounding area.

Fast forward to today, and Airbnb is more normalized than ever. The web & mobile experiences around it are robust and comprehensive; very well designed and deeply researched and methodically tested. The digital experience is highly accessible and provides the necessary means for connecting people of all kinds at a global scale, distilling it down to the key tools for enabling parties on both sides of the experience to communicate and plan their interactions.

At the same time, this growth has participated in a shift in what some people expect in their built environment, and what hosts are providing; a more transactional experience and a kind of dilution of character within homes and surrounding businesses has emerged.

In a way, this is inevitable. To scale you must reach more people, perform more (and faster) activations and conversions, and accommodate a wider range of customers. Airbnb is clearly doing this. Instant Book and now Business Travel are elevating search results for hosts, and taking the fuss and much of the uncertainty out of decision making for guests. And most of the personal interaction.

Host guidelines contain a lot of information about essentials and consistency, little about the experience within the home itself.

For goal-oriented travelers who want to get there, get settled and get out quickly, these are effective additions. I personally have seen a significant increase in first-time users/guests of the service, and they are more often driven by cost and accessibility, less by what makes the people or place to stay unique or interesting.

Meanwhile, Airbnb is moving their focus on what makes travel compelling outside of the home. This is undoubtedly to extend their influence and participation in markets that are not limited by real estate (see also, co-hosting). And it does continue to serve a common good by putting more people together, especially in spaces and among people that are outside of the common view.

Still, I maintain that the place to stay itself is a significant part of the journey. Sometimes I do choose a resting place for that primary purpose — to sleep and recharge for the next day. But more often I want to “live like a local” (in Airbnb’s parlance), which includes staying in a house with real people within the neighborhood, and hearing how they experience the place they live; it’s a matter of continuity as well as authenticity.

I’m not alone in this opinion, as evidenced by the interactions I continue to have with some guests (and hosts), not to mention the very people who allowed Airbnb to scale to begin with. And so I think Airbnb is due for new kind of segmentation, one in which guests and hosts can voluntarily and directionally assert how they prefer to travel, stay with & host others, and experience the environment inside as well as outside of those spaces. Not merely for usability and desirability research to drive conversions, but for the personalization of their own customer experience.

The Superhost tier badging begins to approach this concern, though its incentives are still largely based on the reliability of hosts (ie, time to respond on the app). But herein lies a mechanism to extend what it means to interact beyond consistency, and create an opportunity for Superguests (a concept in development at Airbnb for some time) to find the people who are still participating in a personal, engaging and ultimately more interesting way of living and being there.

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