Leave a comment
Get the GH Bookmarklet

Ask GH

I'm referring to the AirBNB case study discussed in Andrew Chen's classic blog post here . I've noticed some recent negative references about it . I have my opinion, but will wait to add it after I hear from a few others. UPDATE: I added my thoughts to the thread below.

  • MB

    Morgan Brown

    about 6 years ago #

    There's actually two parts of the AirBNB Craigslist hack. The first is the oft-discussed cross posting automation featured by Andrew. While against Craigslist TOS I think this is brilliant in its thinking and execution.

    The second part of the AirBNB craigslist story is where they hired a bunch of people to spam the people listing on the site to check out AirBNB through a bunch of fake email accounts is definitely on the shady side.

    It's a case of that fine line between doing something novel and smart and going too far.

    Here's more detail on part 2:
    http://davegooden.com/2011/05/how-airbnb-became-a-billion-dollar-company/

    Again I think this is where the debate is happening among people who don't know the full story. In my opinion, the issue with AirBNB and Craigslist is the second one, but most people don't know about it, only that the company spammed Craigslist. Then they see the first hack by Andrew and assume that was the issue.

    • CC

      Chris Conrey

      about 6 years ago #

      So on point 1 being against TOS that's undenaible true - whether it is unethical is questionable.

      On Part 2 - that falls much of the same realm, it's 100% against TOS (emailing with commercial interests when clearly checked no) and is obviously against the spirit of the rules. But is it unethical.

      Who is harmed? Craigslist is harmed obviously by losing ads and eyeballs. People listing vacation rentals are questionably harmed but potentially helped. AirBNB only benefits.

      Ethics is somethign that is rarely cut and dry, I'd say this leans towards unethical (both phases) but isn't exactly criminal.

      • MB

        Morgan Brown

        about 6 years ago #

        I don't know if I'd say Part 1 hurts Craigslist users. They get access to more listings in a more user-friendly interface that's easier to book than trading cash with a stranger. To me Craigslist in this instance acts as a platform, like Facebook with Zynga.

        While their TOS didn't allow it, it was a value add to the ecosystem in my opinion, and a risk worth taking.

        Part 2 is just spamming people's email addresses.

        • CC

          Chris Conrey

          about 6 years ago #

          Part 1 is certainly harming Craigslist users - it's a bait and switch - at the time, AirBNB wasn't trusted as it is now so there was no way to know that it was "easier" than trading cash with a stranger.

          It would be like you going to buy something on eBay in the early days and being surprised with a PayPal redirect when you thought you were buying through their site (before PayPal was semi respectable)

          • MB

            Morgan Brown

            about 6 years ago #

            Trusted was the wrong word, what I meant was it was a better experience. More photos, better booking UX, (booking online!), etc.

            More along the lines of what Sean said:

            2) All horizontal “marketplaces” are vulnerable to more focused vertical marketplaces. The focused player can better serve the need. Craigslist must know they are vulnerable and expect that things like that will happen.

  • SE

    Sean Ellis

    about 6 years ago #

    Thanks for the input Morgan and Chris (and for clearing up that there were two parts to AirBNB's exploitation of Craigslist).

    Unethical might be the wrong word. What I really mean is did they cross a line of what most people would consider acceptable behavior?

    Personally I really don't have a problem with the automated posting of listings on Craigslist (besides the part against it being against TOS if that was in fact the case at the time).

    Here are the reasons why I don't think they crossed the line:

    1) In my mind, information is only spam when it is not contextually relevant to the medium and breaks the normal behavior of the medium. The AirBNB information was being posted to an "open" section of Craigslist where that type of information is supposed to be posted.

    2) All horizontal "marketplaces" are vulnerable to more focused vertical marketplaces. The focused player can better serve the need. Craigslist must know they are vulnerable and expect that things like that will happen.

    3) Marketplaces are extremely difficult to get started. The "better way" has to feed off of the "old way" to get started. Craigslist is loaded with scams. AirBNB does a better job protecting short-term rental market participants from these scams (though not a perfect job).

    4) The only one who got hurt was Craigslist. While I'm a fan of Craigslist, I also know that they caused huge pain to local classified businesses. That's the cycle of disruption. They shut down the AirBNB exploit not to help their own customer but to help protect their marketplace. That's normal, but ultimately Craigslist is still being disrupted in the short term rental market because focused players can better serve the need.

    Of course these are just opinions... They are all very debatable because they are really based on what we feel is "crossing the line".

    We had a similar discussion about Rap Leaf here: http://www.growthhackers.com/ask-gh-what-are-peoples-opinion-of-rapleaf/ . I broadened my view from that discussion, so figured this one might be helpful as well.

    • JF

      John Frank

      about 6 years ago #

      I would've supported them if their messages had a clear notice that they were coming from AirBNB, and a way to stop future messages, but they lacked both. They impersonated random women, and sent spam that had no possible method of opting out, to people who had never requested it.

      Everyone is hurt when marketers believe that such selfish and dishonest actions are acceptable.

      I don't think this is meaningfully debatable. There isn't a respectable theory of justice that says it's acceptable for a marketer to fill your inbox with lies if the marketer thinks that those lies might make the marketer rich.

      Nor is there a respectable theory of justice that says "it's hard to start a business and have ethics, so it's okay to forego the ethics", which is the entirety of your third argument.

      The only theory of justice that can justify non-opt-out spam sent from fraudulent IDs is the theory that 'getting rich at all costs is good.'

      • SE

        Sean Ellis

        about 6 years ago #

        Hi John, I think we mostly agree. See Morgan Brown's comment about the two parts of the AirBNB exploitation. I'm referring to part 1 and you are (I believe) referring to part 2.

        BTW, I agree that the 3rd point was my weakest part of the argument. It's not a clear cut case, which is why I posted the question. I could definitely be convinced by a strong counter point. I just kept seeing people referring to it as terrible and wanted to make sure I wasn't missing something. Turns out I was missing something - there were two parts to the exploitation. I only knew about one of them. I agree that part 2 from Morgan Brown's response is completely unacceptable behavior.

    • AC

      Andrew Crookston

      about 6 years ago #

      I have to say, at first I thought it was unethical, and if they purposely broke the TOS imo it was and still is unethical.

      However your point on "information is only spam when it is not contextually relevant to the medium" really struck with me bringing my opinion from "it's a gray zone" to "why not, it's relevant".

      In fact I believe Craigslist could benefit hugely from allowing other apps to post back to CL in an approved "Facebook platform" style. This way they keep filling up their database and people keep coming back to search CL, but allowing those people to complete the deal in a different (safer/more vetted?) medium or platform. People pay cash for stuff they buy off CL all the time, right?

    • KW

      Ken Wohl

      about 6 years ago #

      Sean, #1 brings up a great point. To determine if an online marketing strategy is ethical, you often must define what spam is.

      In the case of AirBNB, their actions were unethical in the eyes of Craigslist because they breached Craigslist's TOS. Craigslist is a private entity with borders and they set the terms. They decide what is considered ethical behavior. It's a dictatorship. There's no question that AirBNB broke the ethics of Craigslist's terms.

      However, when determining if AirBNB's actions were ethical in the greater realm of online marketing, the definition of spam becomes really important.

      In my opinion, spam is content that does not live up to the expectations that it presents.

      For example, any link on a message board can be considered spam in the eye of the user. It's all relative. When a user comes across a link, they have a set of expectations on what will live on the other side. When they click the link and the information lives up to or exceeds the users expectations, they don't consider it spam. It provided the value that the user was expecting.

      However, when a user clicks on a link and the information on the other side does not live up to the user's expectations, the user feels they were taken advantage of or swindled. The information is then considered spam in the eye of the user.

      In the case of AirBNB, I don't see their strategy as being unethical because their content was not spam. They provided value to the users. Their posts, their links, and their content not only lived up to the user's expectations but it far surpassed it. The proof is in their growth.

      AirBNB is not the first company to mass post to Craigslist. They're just one of the first to do it in a way where the user didn't actually consider it spam. Outside of breaching Craigslist's TOS, they only provided value to the Craigslist community by adding valuable content.

      So was AirBNB's growth strategy unethical? To Craigslist, absolutely but to the user, far from it.

      • JF

        John Frank

        about 6 years ago #

        I tend to think it's spam if it's unrequested email that is sent from multiple fake identities, with no method of opting out. And that's what AirBNB did.

        Every sincere marketer thinks they're doing a favor by introducing it to the customer (even if they're engaging in fraud to do so), but our inboxes remain clear because most marketers refuse to spam. Most marketers recognize that while the unrequested communication *might* have value, if they haven't earned permission, they should be quiet. (if only because most marketers work for companies that are big enough to actually pay the CAN-SPAM violations, a penalty that doesn't work as well against a startup that is about to fail, and is run by people who don't respect the public).

        If people like you had their way, our inboxes would be jammed with lies. Every email I opened would be a fake message from some imagined woman, mentioning a product that some marketer thought might "add value" to my existence. And once in a while they'd be right.

        But they'd still be dead fucking wrong for doing it.

        AirBNB was wrong. Their defenders are wrong.

        • MB

          Morgan Brown

          about 6 years ago #

          I think it's pretty clear from a legal stand point that sending unsolicited commercial mail is SPAM, no matter how you slice it. Which is why I think that AirBNB's decision to spam users of listings on Craigslist was a bad idea and wrong, even if it worked.

          • SE

            Sean Ellis

            about 6 years ago #

            I think most of us agree that the automatic reposting was only unethical from the perspective of the TOS. And I also think most of us agree that the spamming of individuals via fake accounts crossed a line. Thanks again Morgan for explaining that there were two parts to AirBNB's exploitation of Craigslist.

  • CC

    Chris Conrey

    about 6 years ago #

    Unethical may be a bit strong but it certainly was against Craigslist's T&Cs

SHARE
10
10