Case Study: Inside Airbnb’s Growth

Visually engaging display ads, word of mouth pump listings

How did a vacation rental startup convince people to open up their homes to the masses?

By targeting potential travelers with pretty pictures of other people's home.

According to a Google case study released today, a photo- and video-heavy Airbnb display ad campaign more than doubled bookings in less than nine months and increased listings more than eightfold over the same time period.

“The fact that they have these great beautiful pictures for so many of their accommodations was something that they wanted to highlight in their ads as a real selling point,” said Dan Taylor, head of sales for the Google Display Network. “Including that in the display ads, as opposed to just the concept of Airbnb, really went a long way.”

Taylor says the goal of the campaign was to boost bookings and increase awareness for the online marketplace that matches travelers with those willing to rent a spare room, apartment, or home (or even, depending on your budget, a castle). But he added that a halo effect of the campaign was to encourage users to list their own crash pad as a rental option too.

Since the ad campaign’s launch early this year, he said, the number of nights booked increased from about 800,000 to more than 2 million and the number of listings climbed from less than 10,000 to more than 80,000. Christopher Lukezic, director of communications for Airbnb, said the current number of active listings is about 100,000.

In addition to the photos, the campaign included YouTube videos explaining how the site works and reached a global audience by targeting Web users consuming travel content and retargeting those who had previously visited the site. 

Some critics complained this summer that Airbnb owed its growth to slightly less scrupulous methods: by "farming" Craigslist or using automated spam accounts to harvest email addresses and get listers to post their ads on Craigslist. (Airbnb acknowledged that it hired outside contractors in 2009 and early 2010 who were responsible for the tactics, but said that it doesn’t condone the practice as a company.)

But Lukezic said the company's rise is attributable to recent marketing efforts, along with several other factors, such as the design and functionality of the product, community engagement and publicity.

Even despite a PR debacle this summer, when a host was robbed by Airbnb guests, according to Lukezic, user response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Word-of-mouth marketing has been the biggest driver of success for us,” he said.

And, Lukezic added, as the company pursues international growth, display advertising is performing especially well.

“We’ve started to reach a level where display is working really well for us,” he said. “From a marketing perspective, it’s the right thing at the right time."