Content Strategy at Airbnb

Building our practice.

Behind the Scenes — Marissa Phillips

Content strategy is a design practice, and at Airbnb, a company founded by designers, content strategists play an integral role in shaping our core product experiences. Although our first content strategist, Vero Maldonado, was hired in 2014, it took us a few years to reach critical mass. I was brought on last fall to manage the team, formalize our practice, and make sure we were set up for long-term success. Building out a content strategy team was basically my dream job. I’d also just spent a year living abroad in London, and I was eager for a challenge that combined two of my loves: travel and writing. Over the past several months of settling into my new role, I’ve had the chance to reflect on how far the team has come, what makes our blend of content strategy unique, and the opportunities we’re most excited about.

The first thing I realized was that I’d inherited a pretty amazing team, and they had already earned a solid place for themselves within the larger design organization at Airbnb, which also includes experience design, research, and designOps. We work very closely with our design partners, and although we sometimes need to explain content strategy or our approach, we rarely have to make the case for staffing a project with a content strategist. In fact, we’ve continued to grow, and today we’re a team of nearly 20, including managers, a content writer for our help center, and a content strategist who writes for our product experiences in China.

Shaping our role

We do our best work when we can get involved early on in the product development process. We sit by our designers to map out entire flows, agree on a hierarchy of information, and weigh different approaches to the design or content, and we use insights from research and data science to inform our recommendations. We look to product managers to help us understand the problems we’re solving and the information we need to convey to people using our products. We collaborate with engineers, bring in our legal team to review content from a policy lens, and work with language managers on our localization team to make sure our ideas translate well. We’re responsible for all the words on a given screen, but in many ways, our role is to help our teams balance business goals and constraints with the needs of our global community of hosts and guests.

As content strategists, we think about our work as part of a system: our terms have to be the same across all our products, and the language we write for an on-boarding screen has to mirror the actual interface, the confirmation email, the marketing page, the instructions in the help center, and so on. Even though many different teams work on our website and app, it’s all just Airbnb to the people using it. And the way we communicate across these surfaces influences how people feel about our company and even how they interact with one another when they meet in person.

For instance, when a host lists their space on Airbnb, we’re there every step of the way with helpful tips about writing a description of their home, prices for similar listings in their neighborhood, ideas around the kind of hospitality our guests look for, and so much more. And after a guest has booked their first Airbnb, we’ll send an email letting them know what to expect and what’s unique about traveling with us. We’ll encourage them to reach out to their host with questions, and we’ll gently remind them that they’re staying in someone’s home.

Our voice is the extension of our brand and personality within the product, and it’s the foundation of everything we write.

Through our communication in the product, we put people at ease with clear expectations and set the tone for the experiences they have with one another in the real world, ideally creating a welcoming environment on both sides. Our guests should see the world at their fingertips and have confidence in choosing Airbnb for their next trip. Meanwhile, our hosts should feel secure opening their homes to travelers and empowered to develop their own style of hosting, whether it’s their main source of income or just a fun way to meet people.

Crafting our voice

Although we write for different audiences at various stages of trip-planning, traveling, and hosting, we always use the same voice, and our team recently held a series of workshops to explore that voice. We’d identified voice principles that worked well for us in the past, but some of the newer folks on the team were having trouble applying them. Our business had expanded, and we realized our voice needed to adapt a bit as well.

Our voice is the extension of our brand and personality within the product, and it’s the foundation of everything we write. It informs the decisions we make every day, from our overall approach down to every word we use. We debated countless words that could describe our voice, asking ourselves whether they sounded like us and whether they could be applied to every situation we write for, whether it’s a moment of excitement or frustration.

In the end, we decided our voice is straightforward, inclusive, thoughtful, and spirited.

Then we second-guessed ourselves and asked questions like, Why would we come across as spirited in an error message? Do we really need to include straightforward or is it implied? Should we sound inclusive if we’re suspending someone’s account? How can we be thoughtful if we’re writing for a bot? As with any product name, label, or headline that sticks around for a long time, there are always other words to try or approaches to take. We can endlessly question and critique, but we have to make a decision at some point.

In our work, we explore options, look at the research, and gather feedback. Then we narrow down our recommendations and make sure our partners and stakeholders are in agreement. We applied that same process to defining our voice. And we landed on principles that, from an aspirational standpoint, further our mission, and on a practical level, help us make strategic and tactical decisions. That means we’ll use inclusive language to write about sensitive topics, like discrimination on our platform. Or we might push to include rationale for a policy change, because it’s a more straightforward approach. When we’re writing for stressful situations, we’ll be thoughtful in how we anticipate and meet people’s needs. And we’ll find ways to make our messaging more spirited, reminding ourselves that people often come to our site thinking about getting away and wanting to be inspired.

Looking ahead

In addition to refining our voice, we’re expanding the definition and scope of content strategy. Since our content isn’t always limited to the in-product experience—we also write marketing pages, FAQs, best practices for customer support agents, and some editorial content—we’re creating new roles on the team and taking on different types of projects. We want to shape messaging from end-to-end: we can introduce Airbnb to someone who’s never used it before, guide every action they take in our app, offer tips as they’re traveling or hosting, and provide clear solutions if they need help. That means we can have a broad definition of content and come up with more creative solutions for producing it. It also means I get to build a really diverse team of people who have backgrounds in product, support, editorial, brand, or marketing; and eventually, we may not just rely on translators, but also have more content strategists writing in other languages. We’ll likely keep adapting our roles and practice as we grow.

Ultimately, we see ourselves as the voice of Airbnb within our products, and in keeping with our company’s mission and values, we try to be great hosts, guiding people through our experiences with clear, friendly instructions and reassuring them if anything goes wrong. We want to inspire our guests, empower our hosts, and make sure everyone feels a sense of belonging in our community. That’s a huge responsibility, but also an exciting opportunity, and in many ways, we’re just getting started.

Marissa Phillips is the Head of Content Strategy at Airbnb

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