Real-Time Marketing at Airbnb

Fresh off the heels of a winning year at Cannes, I sat down with Eric Toda, from Airbnb’s Global Social Media and Content & Brand Marketing Team where he talked about marketing at Airbnb and what it took to fuel their wins at the Cannes Lions Festival this year.

What’s the biggest challenge facing marketers today?

The biggest thing hindering brands is their lack of speed and efficiency, which affects their ability to act quickly to stay relevant.

What hinders speed is process, along with stringent, not flexible guidelines from another era of marketing.

Today, campaigns are happening each hour and with every cultural moment. You don’t want to be chasing culture. You want to be leading culture. And we’re seeing a lot of brands fail at that. A lot of brands have tried really hard to find their moment. This is where the world is going. The world is becoming more real-time. Brands need to become more contextually and culturally relevant and to be able to do that requires speed.

What hinders speed is process, along with stringent, not flexible guidelines from another era of marketing. Brand guidelines and tone guidelines that could be directly competitive to the speed are required to be real-time. You need to obsess over the creative and there are certain things you can’t plan for, like hashtags. Most guidelines are not reflective of today’s state. They are more reflective of the 80’s or 90’s when there wasn’t a need to act as fast and there wasn’t a forum for two-way conversations with consumers.

How are you set up to deal with speed?

To deal with speed we really focus on planning ahead and understanding culture as much as possible. For instance, we know that Christmas is coming up on December 25th every year and we can plan for that and we plan for conversations that could be possible during that day. Things like Santa Claus, gift opening, unboxing. We know that these are conversations that peak at that moment. While consumers see us as acting in real-time, the reality is that we’ve been planning it for 6 to 8 months.

The best way to act in real-time is to plan really well and to understand your brand’s point of view before the moment comes. There are times when we need to react within a few minutes. In order to take that kind of fast action successfully, we need to be able to know our point of view, know how we’re going to create around it, and give visibility to our organization so we can get the greenlight to take action, rather than needing to go through a week of revisions and reformats.

That’s one of the ways we are functioning. We want to be the best in the world at operating in real-time. Last week we took home two Cannes Lions for real-time, specifically. So I think that’s a good sign that we’re onto something great. We’re not perfect, but we’re onto something big.

Can you talk about your Cannes Lions winning campaigns?

We had a campaign around the Oscars. To get a disproportionate share of the Oscars conversation, we wanted to be able to respond really quickly. We knew that this could be Leonardo DiCaprio’s first Oscar, so that could be a conversation. We knew some of the movies that could be in contention, so those could be topics of conversation. We knew there were certain sensitivities around the Oscars, so those are topics we wanted to stay away from and have a different point of view. We knew of these and other things that were going to be part of the Oscars conversation. What we tried to do, as best as possible, was to create assets to be conversation pieces that we could use in real-time but we’re not making them up as we go.

So 10% of what we did was in real-time and 90% was really good scenario planning. The combination of those two things creates a great real-time strategy. There’s a lot of variables when it comes to brands playing in any moment. You have to account for a tremendous amount of variables but the more you can plan, be predictive, and build scenarios for a moment, the stronger your real-time strategy will be.

We have the assets baked into the storyline in Opal, so they are easy to find and it’s easy for international teams to go find and ask questions.

We knew there was going to be a baseline conversation around the Oscars. Opal fits in by showing the storyline, where it starts, where it stops, and where those moments of heat we are building for are. We have the assets baked into the storyline in Opal, so they are easy to find and it’s easy for international teams to go find and ask questions. It’s easy for our agencies to drop in new assets they’ve created for the conversation. It’s a really strong content management system for the moment. We know how many pieces of content we have to use before, during and after the Oscars. It really helps us get a good look at the entire scenario, the entire plan. We can say, “Here’s what we’re building up against.” And we can graphically show how much content is going out at one point in time to see where the heat moments are.

We can see the entire feedback loop that went into every single bit of the campaign.

It’s also easy for legal to come in and see what we’re planning to use and make sure there aren’t any copyright issues. We can see the entire feedback loop that went into every single bit of the campaign. So if the FTC or any governing body said they want to investigate us for copyright infringement, we have the entire paper trail. So our legal team can be sure that everything is checked off and safe. Opal is our lifeline. Without Opal we wouldn’t be able to plan the way we do.

What you are your three main areas of focus?

1. Creation – Making sure that the best creative is in market. Bringing a streamlined approach to the strategy and making sure that we have a great editorial calendar that can satisfy all of the targets and demographics that we need to speak to on the consumer and host sides of the business.  Streamlining our editorial approach between a B2C strategy and a B2B strategy at once and managing the air traffic control.

2. Operations – Operationalizing across the entire globe. Bringing the entire organization together, powering it with technology, and powering the strategy through that technology, then feeding back into a continuous loop. Making sure that we are powered by the best technology in the world to help us scale, so when we open up an office in a new country, the technology can go with that new regional organization and fuel the Airbnb organization as a whole.

3. Management – I oversee about 50 people on the platform that I want to make sure are supported, growing, and feel empowered to make decisions with the information they have at their fingertips. I make sure that other organizations that touch social, like consumer care, legal, and comms work seamlessly together and provide transparency. Opal helps us in a great way here. That transparency helps with partnership. If I’m providing that transparency with the org through the technology my team is using, social becomes inherently important to the organization in and of itself.

Can you talk about the importance of transparency?

My team is putting out so much content on a weekly basis. Whether it’s planned, real-time, or editorial, everything happens really fast. I used to get questions like, “What are you guys doing? Why can’t I see this before it goes out? Can you print everything out and walk me through the entire thing?”

More and more people are coming to this meeting and saying, “This is great.” “This is super transparent.” “I love this.” “I want to be a part of this.” “Here’s what I would change here.”

Now we have an open meeting where we walk through Opal, which contains everything we’re doing over the next six weeks across the entire globe. My marketing director, CMO, and CEO are all there. They can see it all and let us know if we have enough or too much. They can provide feedback on each piece of creative and we’ll implement that directly in Opal. More and more people are coming to this meeting and saying, “This is great.” “This is super transparent.” “I love this.” “I want to be a part of this.” “Here’s what I would change here.”

It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it before. In past jobs, I’ve never seen anything more collaborative than what we’re doing now with Opal. It makes me feel great to provide that level of visibility to the entire organization. They know what’s coming, they know they have opportunity to provide feedback, they feel like they’ve contributed, and they know how much work my team is doing.

Can you describe your marketing technology stack and how Opal fits in?

I have listening, planning and collaboration, organic publishing, paid media, and a slew of agencies to dive into results and feed everything back to the beginning of the loop. Opal is the air traffic control, collaboration and planning part of my tech stack. It’s where we start executing so you can see the creative part of the process. You can see everything that’s going into play. Other regions can see what we’re doing and borrow materials. When we’re ready to go, we press ‘Approve’ and get it all into our publishing tool to publish and report on. Once those pieces of content are out, they go to our paid media partner which ties into Opal so we can see what’s live and needs paid media, so we can give it a boost if needed. Then we have our agency partners let us know what’s resonating in a particular market. We feed that back into the loop so we can take that feedback and make sure we’re optimizing towards it when we create more content.

There are more than 100 people around the world across legal, consumer services, comms, and general marketing at Airbnb. Then within countries, you have regional directors and country managers who have a vested interest in what’s going on. We need to give them transparency into everything my team is doing, not just today but also what’s happening in the future, and give them a way to provide thoughtful feedback. We have a campaign every single day. Being able to streamline that approach has really allowed us to move fast.

On any given day, my legal team can check Opal and see what we’re working on to ensure we’re looking good. That builds trust. It’s our system of record. They know where the creation is happening. They know where the conversation is happening. They know that they can check in on anything at any point in time. It’s a greater level of insurance that we are doing what exactly we promised and are aligned on.

Our IT department works closely with our team on security and engineering to make sure that the technologies we use are compliant, they’re not a security risk, and they’ll work at scale. For example, will this plug in and work where we’re going years from now?

What does Opal make possible for you and your team?

Opal is the easiest, simplest way to provide transparency. With transparency comes the natural instinct to provide feedback. When you are able to provide feedback, you are able to be more creative and actually implement that creative. Opal allows for transparency and everything that comes with it. So that’s collaboration, creativity, and execution all in one place, as opposed to a suite of software. And just that notion of transparency alone unlocks so many things.

It unlocks efficiency in communication, making sure that were in lock step with legal and our agency partners and having all of the conversations in one place. There’s no way we could do what we do now without the approval flow. The approval flow happens so quickly and with some of us working remotely, I can’t imagine getting it done in email or text messaging with everybody getting 100 emails in an hour. It’s so much more efficient with the approval flow and the collaboration happening in the same place – where you can see the revisions and see what time things are going out.

You can really play air traffic control, make sure you’re not crossing streams, or double hitting an audience with the same assets. We have good spacing. We have good time between the posts. We use Opal for paid media to make sure that we’re placing ads at the right time. Opal is important for what it has done for my organization and I look forward to continuing our partnership.

What’s it like working with the Opal team?

Working with the Opal team has been nothing short of amazing. One of the things I care about most is the people supporting my team. When things go wrong, that’s when I need the person-to-person connection. When things go right, I don’t need anything.

Everything moves so fast in digital so when things go wrong, I need the best people who really understand my business. People who aren’t trying to upsell me or sell me anything at all. All they care about is the relationship and finding solutions. The human connection for Opal is massive. They are dedicated to my success and my team’s success as much as my team is.

What’s next?

I’m expanding my team into greater China and making sure we have the right tools in place to be successful. We’re not just making sure we are advancing our footprint as a business, but also making sure we are viewed as a creative powerhouse, where there is low to medium awareness. I need to have visibility into everything they are doing but still allow them to be super autonomous because that’s where creativity comes from. Getting that operation down will be the blueprint for potential expansions into other parts of the world. Opal is definitely a piece of this.

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