The Airbnb Effect: Use Rewards To Turn Your Company Into A Movement

Offer people $10 and a challenge and you might be surprised by what they’re willing to do.

The Airbnb Effect: Use Rewards To Turn Your Company Into A Movement
[Top Illustration: Dimitris_k via Shutterstock]

Movement-making strategies for business are all about creating multiple lines of long-term connection with customers and employees.


Movements coalesce around a shared goal, incite action based on long-term aspiration rather than short-term inspiration, and sustain loyalty through a mix of rewards. Action and loyalty are what all businesses strive for. But unlike commonly used tactics such as freebies and discounts, movement-making tactics change the social norms surrounding your product. They establish a “new normal” that creates demand ahead of your next launch.

As a leader in the “sharing economy” movement, Airbnb and its community have a commonly held desire to shift the social norms about where we stay overnight when traveling, and the utility of spare guest rooms and tree houses. The company’s 2014 New Year’s Eve campaign, #OneLessStranger, seems more whimsical than goal-oriented, but it’s packed with movement-making rewards.

The term “reward” often trigger thoughts of points or coupons, but movement-making strategies employ a mix of rewards to provide what participants can’t get on their own. Through analyzing and designing many networks, I’ve seen rewards regularly fall into three categories: monetary, reputational, and experiential.

The most commonly used reward is monetary: discounts, sales, coupons, membership or loyalty cards, and so on. These types of rewards work well for getting people in the door or for a single purchase and can often generate buzz, but in the case of Airbnb’s 2014 holiday $10 offer, the reward is more than monetary.

Airbnb’s #OneLessStranger campaign was created to address a common business challenge: how do you reach new customers and lower the barrier to participation? Airbnb’s team met this traditional challenge with non-traditional tactics. Let’s break down their campaign and its movement-making rewards.


The #OneLessStranger campaign hooks existing hosts with a $10 offer for introducing themselves to someone they don’t yet know and offering a “random act of hospitality.” While $10 isn’t a lot of money, it is still a clear and specific monetary reward. A known amount of cash has long outperformed percentage-off deals in traditional campaigns. No big surprises here. (You might be thinking, “Sanity check, $10 for introducing yourself to a stranger? That’s it?” And you’re not wrong to pause there. It does seem like a shockingly low bar for participation. But stay with me.)


Most traditional campaigns would request proof before crediting the $10, such as the email and phone numbers of the new people that hosts met, but the Airbnb team’s implicit trust in having a shared purpose with their customers means they don’t need to ask. If the reward mix is right, the information will reach the company eventually. This low bar for participation and initial reward also frees Airbnb from fretting over the abandonment that traditional multi-step sign-up campaigns see.

Now, let’s look at the social component of the campaign. With the use of a social hashtag, #OneLessStranger, Airbnb made the participants’ association with the campaign transparent, gaining visibility and all the feel-good and playful vibes that come with that transparency. Use of the hashtag positively impacts the sharer’s reputation, the second of three reward types used by movement makers. By telling the world you walked up to a stranger and said, “Hello, my name is Charlie, what’s your name?” you proved some very flattering things about yourself. Don’t most of us want to be seen as friendly, welcoming, and brave?

In this bravery, Airbnb planted seeds for the third and most effective reward type of all, the experience.

Airbnb’s potential new customers were able to “sample” the typical experience of a renter upon arrival: shaking hands, possibly exchanging keys or codes, finding common ground for a bit of small talk. And, if things go as Airbnb hopes, people who aren’t even Airbnb employees have helped new customers over the scariest barrier to using the Airbnb platform: fear of face-to-face connection. Participants touched by the #OneLessStranger campaign take the risk, survive it and often walk away elated and more importantly, empowered. By encouraging an action that implicitly rewarded participants with a unique experience, Airbnb set the stage for a lasting behavior change. Airbnb gave them an experience they were unable to have on their own, and participants became part of the movement.

What motivates each of us long-term is often different, so clearly understanding what drives your community is critical. You may not get the rewards mix right every time, but starting with your shared purpose, offering an aspirational identity and then following up with rewards that can’t be had elsewhere will elevate your campaign above all the others.

About the author

Charlie Brown is the founder and CEO of Context Partners, a new type of design firm that helps organizations build networked business models. Previously, Charlie was executive director of Ashoka Change Makers, where he built an online community of 100,000 social innovators from 125 countries.