Here at Merchant Advance Capital, we have embraced the idea that modern businesses thrive because of their interconnection with communities – communities of customers, communities of fellow businesses, and communities in the online space. This interconnection allows what Diane Hessian calls the “sharing economy” of ideas, principles, stories, information, experiences and mission statements to flourish. We have investigated the notion that businesses in the 21st century are moving ever-more rapidly toward models that strive to satisfy the customer’s needs through direct, social-media-mediated interactions. Furthermore, we believe that reaching out to your customers through mobile-friendly, accessible and aesthetically luxurious visual media presentation can be the foundation of a great relationship between your business and the people who interact with it.
Airbnb may be one of the most successful businesses to embrace the idea of a sharing economy rooted in community principles. Their business model is built around the idea that users, and the communities in which those users live, provide/are the product. Airbnb is, at its core, a facilitator for the experience of being comfortable in a new place. It provides travellers the ability to stay for a given length of time in an apartment or home that has the character of the place in which they find themselves, and more importantly, that carries the cultural imprint of a real human being rather than the homogenized brand identity of a hotel room.
When it comes to the presentation of a product to the online community, perhaps nowhere is an inviting and well-composed website with equally well-composed photographs more important than when trying to showcase accommodations or real estate. As a former user of Airbnb, your blogger has experienced both the highlights and lowlights of this process: very often, hosts will upload photos that are either lacking in quality, too few in number, or frustratingly vague about the actual impression they want to give about the space – cluttering up and disrupting the opening chapter of the story they hope tell about the product, as it were. This is immediately doing their product a huge disservice. Do I really need to see ten shots of your bathroom? Probably not. Is it going to make me worry more if there are no shots of your bathroom and oh God, maybe it’s all horrible and infested with black mould or something? Yes. Yes. Unequivocally yes. Whether your product is a room for rent or a delicious cake, you must do your best to represent it to an online customer base. Poor representation is, in effect, poor participation in the sharing economy, as it creates a disincentive for others to want to respond, reply, comment, reblog, retweet, etc.
Airbnb has done a stellar job of recognizing that, even for the most aesthetically inclined of its users, there were things that it could do to improve the relationship between consumers and providers of its product and facilitate greater and more profitable sharing. Keeping this goal in mind has created a complete shift in their web design – one that puts fewer technological and visual barriers up between buyers and sellers and emphasizes the feeling of belonging above all else. Case in point: the first words you are greeted with at the landing page are “Welcome Home.” Each individual property listing has been retrofitted to put the most important information in the most visually relevant place for a prospective tenant: photos, descriptions of amenities, and reviews from past tenants are all far more prominent.
The vast majority of the corporate language describing Airbnb’s changing face incorporates concepts of inclusion, belonging, and “using technology to bring people together.” Practically, what this means is creating better, clearer avenues for shared information to be exchanged between customers and businesses. Any small business can learn from this sharing-driven design principle – the best thing you can do online is to make information accessible to your customer (ideally in a visually communicative way), give them a way to provide equivalent feedback that matters both to you and to them, and help them feel like they are a part of the community of your business.
There is one last example of a change that proves Airbnb’s commitment to the strengths of the sharing economy. This change, by no coincidence, is also visual in nature. The company has elegantly reworked its logo: from a design standpoint, the stylized “A” shape (which they call the “Bélo”, a “universal symbol of belonging”) is simple, pleasant and attractive. It also serves multiple purposes that all tie into the idea of feedback and transparency between businesses and customers. It can be easily reproduced – and therefore instantly shared. It allows for, and encourages, spontaneous communication: much like the stickers you occasionally see on small businesses’ doors that read “People Love Us On Yelp,” the logo’s adornment of a storefront or dwelling marks it as a participant in the sharing economy and creates a critical call to action for customers, inviting them to inquire and join in. It also encourages hosts or affiliated businesses to express their individuality, inviting customization and modification of the basic shape to suit the aesthetic desires and personalities of the host in question – Airbnb terms this a “shared brand identity,” and, if not explicitly a novel concept, the sincerity and frankness with which their company has redesigned around this mantra makes the idea an impressive one.