Tech Bound #40: How Airbnb’s user-acquisition strategy evolved over time

8 min read
I was invited to be a judge for the SEMrush Search Awards in Sydney \o/. You can still apply with your SEO campaign until August 31rst.
My good mate Paul Shapiro also invited me to be a speaker at Tech SEO Boostin Boston (November). I published more content around Content Marketing and Growth, lately, but my presentation is going to be teeeeechy as hell ;-).
Oh ya, if you remember episode #36 about scooters, check out this Lime report – very insightful!
Tech Bound Spotify Playlist:

– Case Study

How Airbnb’s user-acquisition strategy evolved over time

Airbnb is without a doubt one of the most successful Tech companies out there with a value (2018) of ~$30bn!
There is a lot to say and write about the company, but I want to highlight how Airbnb’s user-acquisition strategy evolved because what you do when you’re small and scrappy is not what you do when you’ve matured. This is by no means a collection of all user-acquisition tactics, but merely an overview.
The scrappy days
As avid Tech Bound reader, you know how important Product/Market Fit is. Airbnb has a sack full of stories about pivots and doing things that don’t scale #buzzwordbingo. The history reeks of creativity, which makes sense when you realize that the company was started by two design and one computer science graduates.
The first “viral” move Airbnb founder Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia are famous for is a crowdfunding gig: They designed and sold customized cereal, “Obama O’s” and “Cap’n McCain’s”. That got them on the radar of Paul Graham from Y Combinator in 2008.
The first step of user-acquisition is “traction”. After finding Product/Market Fit, Airbnb managed to do something most companies aren’t able to do: find a way to scale traction. In 2010, Airbnb managed to piggyback off of an existing community: Craigslist. An automated script was used to reach out to users who want to rent out their sublets and offer them to cross-post their listing on Airbnb. Shady, but efficient.
“Virality” is an important component of early traction. It’s a cheap way to spread the word, but also an indicator for Product/Market Fit. Airbnb is a product with an inherent ability to go viral. Think of mansions, castles, yachts, and villas.
Growing up
Once you got traction and basics in place, your goal is scale. That’s when all sails are set to grow the company.
Airbnb did a lot to scale, but one thing I want to point out is their referral strategy. It’s probably one of the most efficient out there. Users got $25 for referring their friends to rent through Airbnb and $75 when they became hosts for both, inviter and invitee. That seemed to have worked really well: Airbnb is said to have made millions just from referrals. The second version of the program even produced 300% more sign-ups than the first one. The referral page is still up ( and the program live. The advantage of referral is not just that users bring more users, it also comes with social proof and therefore increased traffic quality. “We take the picture of the referrer and put it right in the center to show some social proof and build some trust.” (Jason Bosinoff, Director of Engineering at Airbnb)
airbnb referral growth
SEO is another core part of Airbnb’s user-acquisition strategy. In fact, SEO is a good channel for every marketplace. One of the best working page formats is guidebooks (or things to do, e.g., which I’ve covered many times in my content, just like the neighborhood guides like This is tons of editorial content Airbnb created by hand. They pay freelancers to go out, shoot nice pictures of the neighborhoods, and write about them. They don’t just rank well, they’re a big help for users. I personally always check them both out when I travel, even when I don’t use Airbnb for lodging
The last intermediate-stage growth tactic I want to zoom in on for now is the way Airbnb leveraged Facebook’s open graph, when it was still, well, open. Airbnb showed connections between hosts and renters on Facebook, whether direct or indirect. Trust is a central element for marketplaces and Airbnb created trust with that tactic very efficiently.
Dominating the market
Once you got scale, your goal is expansion. That is the part in which you either expand to more cities or countries. 
What struck me with Airbnb is how the conquered each market from scratch, calling “launch with all you got”. It has a real fighter spirit but actually stands for more: the willingness to be scrappy and getting your hands dirty. In France, for example, Airbnb ran guerrilla campaigns, threw parties, handed out bike saddle covers, and created listings for people. Talking ‘bout scrappiness.
Another part of the expansion stage is “fine-tuning the machine”. At this point, a brand should be playing on every channel and merge them into one coherent strategy: Email, SEO, paid, social, offline, viral, etc. The strategy part isn’t easy. You need to have your analytics department + fully fledged attribution model built out, understand marginal ROI of your paid campaigns and track users out and insides your site and app.
Key lessons
  1. Bank on business type-specific user-acquisition channels, like referrals and SEO for marketplaces
  2. Don’t shy away from getting scrappy in new markets (or in the beginning)
  3. Start local and with target audience segments and then expand step-by-step


– Point of view

The messenger wars

It’s funny to hear that messengers are supposed to kill Email, since the first messenger, IRC, came out before the internet was a thing.
IRC started in 1988, then came MSN / Yahoo / AOL Messenger, followed by Skype, Hipchat (which became Stride last year), and then Slack. In so far, I doubt messengers in their current form will ever fully replace Email. They can be just as noisy and overwhelming. But there’s something to be said about the growth of Slack.
Atlassian + Slack = ❤️
You might have heard by now that Atlassian ended their messenger Stride and sold the IP to Slack. Atlassian also bought some Slack equity and joined a strategic partnership. Stewart Butterfield, founder, and CEO of Slack, had a couple of things to say about that on Twitter.
As someone who has worked on the core marketing strategy of Stride, I can say a few things about that.
Land & Expand
The two companies are more similar than it might seem from the outside. Both have the same business model, known as “Bottom-up SaaS” or “Land & Expand”. You can use the tool for free, but if you want more users or features like a searchable history you have to pay. That makes adoption easy and frictionless, which often leads to expansion within the team, department, and then the whole company.
Slack spread much faster than Hipchat (8,000 companies in 24h, according to Butterfield). It came with a fresh brand, good user experience, and good positioning. But essential are integrations and Slack had them from the start. Even though Hipchat/Stride integrates well with Atlassian products, Slack managed to integrate with more popular 3rd party apps.
“First to platform” wins
SaaS competition is getting stronger and the B2B and B2C messenger markets are picking up. The barriers to entry for SaaS markets have become really low because it’s easier to start an app by sticking together some pipelines and throwing it on AWS.
Ultimately, the question will be whether an app can become a platform or integrates with another one. Users and companies can only use so many apps, even if each of them is valuable. It’s easier to use one or two platforms that combine apps, whether through hard or soft integration.
That’s why we have the Atlassian Marketplace and that’s why Slack has apps. From that perspective, Zapier made a good choice by choosing to be an app connector.
A good comparison, in my mind, is being a marketplace vs. being a retailer. As a retailer, you rely on great R&D, can only sell to a certain audience, and it’s hard to build network effects. As a marketplace (or platform), you are product-agnostic, you can build very strong network effects, and server many audiences. The same is true for apps vs. platforms.
That’s why it was painful for us to let Stride go, but the grand scheme of things are more important. Direct team communication is not unimportant, but team collaboration is more important. We’ll see how it goes.


Your weekly dose of awesome content

HBR: How GDPR Will Transform Digital Marketing
Grow and Convert: Customer-Content Fit: a Framework for Producing Content That Attracts Customers
Very much agree with the opinion that too many companies just fire out generic content without doing their homework: understanding their (valuable) customers and how to address their level of knowledge.
SEMrush: How to Earn Google Featured Snippets for Mobile: Large-scale Study
To get featured snippets:
  • write paragraphs in the 40 to 60-word range
  • add lists with ~8 items
  • create a deliberate URL structure + site hierarchy
  • rank in the top 5


An excerpt of a book about how Google started. They cover many famous concepts, like PageRank, the random surfer model, and web crawlers.
One sentence that sticks out to me is a famous quote from Larry Page: “We are not really interested in search. We are making an A.I”. We already see the implications in SEO today.

Conversion XL: Google Analytics 101: How To Configure Google Analytics To Get Actionable Data

Kickpoint: Content Consumption: Go Beyond Pageviews

Emaildripcampaigns: Email Drip Campaigns: 350 Strategies, Ideas & Examples

I wasn’t able to go through every example, but there seem to be some interesting ones in there.

The GaryVee Content Model