The honeymoon is over for the poster child of the sharing economy. This weekend Airbnb launched its first global TV advertising campaign.
Its troubles could be just beginning.
To date it has grown to 350,000 properties on the back of its sharing, community-minded story. Essentially, its extraordinary growth has come through word of mouth as one devotee has explained and reassured another. “Yes, it really does work. No, you aren’t robbed. Really.”
This has been reinforced by the demonstration that despite all that is wrong with the world people are still, at heart, honest. So honest you can trust them with your home.
Airbnb’s success is not just a lovely human story. It is a story of how technology has triumphed to bring people closer. It is a story of efficient use of scarce resources. It shows that everyone can be an entrepreneur. It is about sharing cultures as much as it is homes, and reaching out across the planet to do so.
And this network effect has passed the story on from one like-minded individual to another, to 190 countries.
The only problem is that advertising to like-minded people is also indiscriminate. It will not just appeal to those like-minded pioneers who understand, and celebrate “the code”. Advertising will also attract those who don’t share those values, but seek to exploit them.
The first TV advertising for ebay a decade ago triggered any number of unintended consequences.
Among other things, it opened a new audience to scammers keen to prey on those good natured enough to send money in the expectation that goods would arrive. It gave new ideas to those wanting to twist the good intentions of ebay’s feedback system.
Ultimately, advertising forced ebay to stop behaving like a laissez-faire community host and to start behaving like a responsible corporate citizen that looked after those who trade under its roof.
For Airbnb the triumph of a global advertising campaign will mean they too need to be ready to deal responsibly with all the issues that will come with it.
Let’s hope they are. It is too lovely a story to ruin.