How Airbnb and Disney are using superfans and content to ensure the future of digital marketing

It’s been almost 21 years exactly since the very first banner ad appeared on the web and at the IAB Engage conference today (15 October) the industry explored how the sector is coming of age and what brands must do to ensure that digital growth continues.

Keep superfans fans close

Airbnb has come a long way since it was founded in 2008. It now has close to 2 million properties available, with 67,000 of those in the UK. It recently had its biggest night ever when almost 1 million stayed at one of its user-listed sites during the month of August.

One of its biggest challenges is keeping its service personal. Speaking on stage in an interview with Facebook’s Claire Valoti, UK country manager James McClure said Airbnb wants to make sure its 100 millionth customer is as happy as its 10th.

“You have to be there for your superfans,” he explained.

With that in mind, Airbnb is planning to hold its first event for hosts in Paris next month. Described as Airbnb’s version of Salesforce’s Dreamforce, Airbnb plans to invite 6,000 people that list property on its site, which will features guest speakers and announcements as well as a chance for hosts to meet each other and share their experiences.

That gives its biggest fans a chance to feel part of Airbnb and valued by the brand. It also offers Airbnb a chance to learn how and where it can improve. “These guys are our super fans but they also don’t hold back from telling us things we can improve on.”

How data can help unlock brand opportunities

Data was a big topic of the day. Leo Johnson, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers who works in its sustainability and climate change unit, warned that the advertising industry risked following data to the point of destruction by forgetting about creativity and the outside world.

“Consumers have become the digital slurry in the supply chain of big data.”

Leo Johnson, partner, PwC

“This model is not a million miles away from the subprime mortgage markets. That is not a glorious golden future,” he insisted.

However, Disney CMO Anna Hill said data can work as long as brands remember to put the consumer at the heart. The brand has 30 researchers across Europe speaking to 70,000 adults and children every year to understand “what they’re into, their behaviour, trends, media consumption and what they’re buying”.

“We spend an inordinate amount of time on research to refine what we are doing,” she said.

That data is then used to unlock insights into opportunities Disney might not have otherwise thought of. In Japan, for example, Disney realised there was a huge adult market that it is now trying to exploit in other markets through tie-ups with fashion brands such as Jimmy Choo.

However Hill does believe brands can become too reliant on science and reiterated that nothing can replace listening to customers.

“A brand like Disney is ultimately about the kids. You have to get a balance between what the science and data and what your instinct and gut tells you,” she added.

Content is not king – convenience is

Take a look at all the hot new brands – Uber, Spotify, Airbnb, Netflix – and they all have one thing in common, according to psychologist Dr Paul Marsden. That is intermediation.

What has made these brands successful is that they own their relationship with the customer. The same is true of Apple, he explained. iTunes and the App Store don’t own the music or the apps, he pointed out, but they do own the relationship with the audience.

Apple's new music service gives it another direction relationship with customers
Apple’s new music service gives it another direction relationship with customers

“Brands that can help consumers easily book a hotel room or order a taxi or listen to music will win out,” he explained.

Both brands and agencies should be investigating how they can improve that relationship and make their lives easier. “The future of advertising is in business model innovation. It is not about the next great ad format that changes everything or the next way to interrupt people. You have to change the value proposition,” explained Marsden.

Turn brand ambassadors into super fans

In a digital era where consumers are growing increasingly used to getting content for free how do brands make money? That was the question posed by Nicholas Lovell, former investment banker and author of book The Curve.

He used the example of King Arthur flour – a brand that went from the fifth biggest miller in the US to the second through using ‘the curve’. While selling flour still accounts for most of its revenue, it has built up a successful business outside of this.

The brand gives away content for free in the form of YouTube ‘how to’ videos and recipes on its website but then also sells complementary products such as cookery books and rollings pins. At the top end of the market it sells masterclasses.

To embrace digital brands must answer three questions, said Lovell. What will you give away for free? How will you use marketing – and in particular content marketing – to set up a relationship with customers and give you an excuse to talk to them again. And what can you sell for 10 times your average selling price.

He said: “Brands have to love their freeloaders because they are the brand ambassadors. They also have to love their super fans because without them they won’t make money. And they have to love everyone in between because they are on a journey from being a free loader to a super fan.”

  • Hear all about the importance of insight and customer experience at this year’s Festival of Marketing. Taking place on 11 and 12 November there will be 12 stages and hundreds of speakers. Click here for information and to book tickets.

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