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Airbnb harnesses housing crisis angst in Vancouver ads

The social media advertising strategy borrows from grass roots advocacy movements: marketing expert

Condos in Vancouver. Vancouver city council is set to focus on Airbnb’s impact on the city’s rental market this fall.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Condos in Vancouver. Vancouver city council is set to focus on Airbnb’s impact on the city’s rental market this fall.

Does Airbnb’s latest social media campaign have you nodding in agreement — or burning with anger?

“Sharing economy” companies like Airbnb and Uber have become adept at taking advantage of the controversy around their business models by mixing grass roots advocacy with social media-focused advertising, says a Simon Fraser University professor who specializes in marketing.

Vancouver residents active on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram have likely noticed Airbnb’s most recent advertising push: a video featuring several middle-aged Vancouver homeowners talking about how using the short-term rental platform helps them stretch their pension or send money to their university-aged children.

“You’re putting the politician in a pretty tough spot: defend a big rich hotel like the Marriott or the Fairmont, or defend middle-class people who want to rent out a bedroom,” said Lindsay Meredith, a professor with SFU’s Beedie School of Business.

It’s become common for corporations to try to show how they espouse environmental or social equity values, and Airbnb and Uber are no different: Meredith pointed out another Airbnb ad highlighting its contribution to cleaning up garbage in Rio during this summer’s Olympic Games, while one of the lines in the Vancouver video states, “when Airbnb guests stay in Vancouver’s neighbourhoods, they spend more at local businesses.”

But Airbnb and Uber have added another element: mobilizing supporters, and trying to win over the haters (or at least “neutralize” them), through social media. If they can harness enough public support, politicians will listen, Meredith said.

Harnessing conflict as a marketing tool can go both ways: Twitter and Facebook users have commented on the ads, criticizing the short term rental site’s perceived role in renter displacement, low rental supply and pointing out that it’s illegal in Vancouver to rent a home for less than 30 days.

A selection of reactions on Twitter to Airbnb's latest ad featuring Vancouver Airbnb users

A selection of reactions on Twitter to Airbnb's latest ad featuring Vancouver Airbnb users

According to the City of Vancouver, 75 per cent of Airbnb listings in Vancouver are entire houses or apartments while 25 per cent are offering rooms in a house or apartment.

In addition to advertising on Facebook and Twitter, Airbnb and Uber also urge their supporters to attend city council meetings. Between last Friday and Monday, Metro received seven unsolicited letters from Airbnb users advocating for acceptance of short-term rentals.

Meredith noted the role of news media in the phenomenon: seeing activity on social media prompts reporters to write about the campaign.

Advocacy groups who want to rebut Airbnb can use the same tactics, Meredith said.

“You create the Internet critical mass…that will create the media interest,” he said. “That will drive more interest back to their organization, get more people attentive to it — including politicians — and proceed to make it an adversarial stakeholder issue that deserves consideration.”

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