Whether you want to call it the sharing economy or the rise of collaborative consumption or our new peer-to-peer mode of exchanging goods, one of the more pressing questions in this, the era of Airbnb, is: What do we call an “Airbnb” exactly? A company? A platform? A movement?
“User-generated brand” is the seemingly oxymoronic term that researchers from a trio of British universities have settled on, at least in this study published in the journal Contemporary Management Research. They’ve looked at how both Airbnb and Couchsurfing present themselves to the world via text, video, social media and more.
The two sample companies are a bit different: Airbnb is a for-fee service for renting out a spare room, while Couchsurfing is based on the idea of free exchange. But both will give you a place to lay your head for the night. And both, the researchers found, are tapping into the same ideas for getting us to “take upon a variety of roles, including that of producers, distributor, marketer, and user of product.”
- What You’re Doing Totally Isn’t Weird. Letting someone you’ve never met book your spare room online is something rather new, no doubt. But both Airbnb and Couchsurfing have an interest in convincing you that that doesn’t make it odd. Both companies, the researchers find, attack that idea by featuring representations of happy people “of both genders, from various ethnic backgrounds, and age groups” engaging in the renting-out activities. And they look good while doing it — the study credits Airbnb’s “high definition photographs, professionally shot.” Conclude the researchers, “such an approach is useful for the brand narrative, as it provides a visual representation of ‘normal,’ ‘typical’ people putting a room in their homes for rent and allows a process of identification with and between members.” Which brings us to…
- There Are No Strangers Anymore. There are simply people you personally haven’t yet engaged with offline. Couchsurfing, for example, uses Facebook Connect as its login platform. Thanks to technology — APIs, social feeds — it’s trivial to connect people’s ongoing digital social lives to these new economic activities. That blurs the line between commerce and our personal selves, and it also encourages a sense of trust. How crazy can a person be when you can see from their tweets that they’re capable of holding a conversation? Not for nothing does Couchsurfing’s tag line urge users to “connect with travelers all around the world,” not their futons.
- Somebody in [Insert City Here] Loves Me. More than finding just a place to stay, the researchers conclude, you’re tapping into a vast store of local knowledge. “Taking part in the brand experience,” they find, “provides a privileged access to a city and its people.” That’s why these brands circulate chatty videos of Chicagoans and Londoners and Tokyoites talking about their “me-too” stories. Not only are they relatable, but they demonstrate that they know their hometown as well as you know yours— and are eager to tell you about it. Try getting that sort of genuinely insider take from the Hilton.
Brands beyond Airbnb and Couchsurfing are seeing the value of the “user-generated” mantle. The ride share company Lyft, for one, has been hosting “community meetings” that bring together drivers and riders alike over food and drink. And fact that this study comes in mainstream management journal suggests that there’s a very good chance that in the same way we now have organic foods at Walmart, someone is hard at work figure out what peer-to-peer soda pop might look like.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.