I love this story – and in my opinion, it’s one of the most under-rated examples of how the awesome power of Craigslist was harnessed to mount a massive marketing push that brought a startup like AirBnB to prominence.
Now I do have to give you a little bit of fair warning.
See, AirBNB used a very technical approach to making this Craigslist marketing push work, and you know how I feel about excessively complicated computer work.
I don’t find “complicated” to be very conducive to the average kitchen table entrepreneur’s mission. However that in no way means you shouldn’t read on, because even if you’re like me (100% techno-tard), but you’ve got some marketing smarts, I have no doubt you’ll cultivate a few ideas.
Let’s start with the essence of AirBnB’s CL campaign – it’s totally people powered. They came up with a perfect incentive for people to promote their site.
Before we get into that however, I just want to tackle something interesting about the travel site’s rapid ascension – it’s a “scandal” that has left some observers to feel that AirBnB’s success was somehow unwarranted.
Some of these critics even went so far as to label AirBnB as a consortium of Blackhat spammers.
Of course some of those critics also happen to be the same dregs we discussed in module 1, who appoint themselves as CL sheriffs and police the site. In fact, here’s an actual quote from one of these Craigslist flagging Gods:
“I don’t understand – why should they allow AirBnB postings in the first place? When someone comes to Craigslist, I think the assumption is that you’ll be doing business on Craigslist and not through a third party site like AirBnB. Why should they allow another company to take advantage of their audience if they don’t want to?”
The reason I’m bringing this up in the case study is because even if some of the allegations you’re about to read are true, I don’t see them as bad at all. In fact, I encourage you to take notes on these allegations, too.
So before we launch into the more technical methods AirBnB employed, let’s look at the allegations that brings on the question…
Bootstrap or Blackhat?
First up is a gentleman by the name of Dave Gooden, whose company also works in the vacation rental industry (can you guess where this is going?). On his site Dave comes right out and calls AirBnB out as blackhats and shameless Craigslist spammers.
Here are a few outtakes from his site:
"I posted a few vacation rentals using Craigslist hidden (anonymous) email address option and I made sure to setup the ads to clearly state that I do NOT want emails from commercial interests[...]The email I received was from a “young lady” telling me about the upside of AirBnB.com (growing site, growing traffic, etc..) and how she really liked my property and wanted me to check out the site."
Dave went to the trouble of posting a few ads on Craigslist offering varying vacation rental spots and sure enough, his experiment paid off...in his words:
"I received five identical emails from two young ladies who are raving fans of AirBnB and spend their days emailing Craigslist advertisers. When you scale a black hat operation like this you could easily reach tens of thousands of highly targeted people per day…and quickly gain 60,000 members on the supply-side, which again, is the hardest and most important part of growing a market place"
I don't know about you - but that sounds like good old guerrilla bootstrapping to me. But of course, you always have those sticklers who can't imagine a world where entrepreneurs re-envision the guidelines in a site's terms of service.
You can draw your own conclusions, but that doesn't change the fact that AirBnB, in employing this method, followed the golden rule of marketing - they went directly to a hungry crowd and engaged them in conversation. Best of all, out side of the paid labor that was certainly involved, they paid nothing for PPC.
Personally, I would rather go with labor myself as you aren't dealing with the variables that go with paid ads.
Now This is Where it Really Gets Interesting
While you can easily find people everywhere including Quora, who think Gooden's theory is completely false, they also acknowledge that AirBnB didn't shy away from skating a few circles around Craigslist's terms of service.
Entrepreneur Andrew Chen says the phenomenal growth the company enjoyed through CL came from a brilliantly engineered integration between the two sites - without using an API.
Like I said, this part is pretty technical, but rather than try and explain it myself (I just admitted to being a techno-tard two seconds ago, so I hardly consider myself qualified), I think I should point you in Andrew Chen's direction for the full details on how AirBnB REALLY made their money with Craigslist.