A graphic from Holly Clarke's AirBnB presentation at Beat the Buzz, showing a sort of spider diagram. In the centre in a circle is a flag with the AirBnB logo, with four other circles connected to it. From left to right, they read: "Flexible concept that works for all passions"; "Boost brand awareness through PR and social"; "Drives new sign ups" and "Leverage partnerships".

At last Thursday’s ‘Beat the Buzz’ social media conference, veteran of viral advertising Holly Clarke shared the secrets of success from AirBnB’s ‘Night At’ campaigns: a competition to spend the night in a truly unusual location.

Before becoming marketing and social manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at AirBnB, Holly Clarke worked on more than 500 viral advertising campaigns. So it’s fair to say she knows a thing or two about how to get people talking about a company.

At WeRSM’s ‘Beat the Buzz’ social media conference, Clarke shared some inside stories of how AirBnB planned, conceptualised and carried out its ‘Night At’ campaign, a series of contests which saw AirBnB build a floating house, host guests in the Paris Catacombs and hold a sleepover in Waterstones.

Some of the key takeaways from her talk included the importance of finding the right partnerships, the need for brands to be daring and go the extra mile, and the value in producing good creative content.

We’ve rounded up five key lessons that brands can learn from AirBnB’s viral marketing success, which can be applied no matter what your size or budget.

A photograph of a graphic from Holly Clarke's AirBnB presentation at Beat the Buzz, showing a sort of spider diagram. In the centre in a circle is a flag with the AirBnB logo, with four other circles connected to it. From left to right, they read: "Flexible concept that works for all passions"; "Boost brand awareness through PR and social"; "Drives new sign ups" and "Leverage partnerships".

 1. Find partnerships with a unique crossover

When AirBnB partnered with airline KLM to offer lucky contest winners the chance to spend a free night in KLM’s luxury ‘Airplane Apartment’, both companies were able to offer something to the public that neither would have been able to on their own.

“If you’re doing a partnership, it has to have unique crossovers,” said Holly Clarke. She advised brands to think about what their own fans would love, and what the fans of the partner brand would love, then aim to create something which catered to both of those.

A picture of a presentation slide from Beat the Buzz, showing the side of a bright blue aeroplane with the words "Night At KLM Airplane Apartment" superimposed on top in white font.

Thus came the ‘Night at KLM Airplane Apartment’ competition in (Read more...) 2014, which brought exposure and attention to KLM’s luxurious apartment in a grounded MD-11 jet airliner, and gave AirBnB a unique location to associate with their brand.

Clarke talked about how AirBnB knew that its strengths were word of mouth and the amazing places it offered for rent – treehouses being the most popular out of all the colourful types of residence listed on AirBnB. So it set out to play to those strengths.

Later on in the presentation, she expanded on the importance of choosing the right partnerships for your business. “Think about what the partners are going to get out of this as much as you are, and go in with a strong proposal,” she advised.

You should also look for a partner who is strong on social media. This doesn’t have to be another company; you can partner just as easily with the media, or a social influencer like a blogger or Instagram star. Using social media influencers is another of AirBnB’s success tactics – as we’ll see later on.

2. Be ‘scrappy’, take risks, and generally push the boat out

When something is trending on Twitter, brands love to jump on the bandwagon – for better or for worse. But AirBnB took that to a whole new level when #WaterstonesTexan started trending on Twitter.

Texan tourist David Willis set off a storm of tweets and a trending hashtag when he found himself locked inside a Waterstones in Trafalgar Square one October night.

Looking at the reactions on Twitter, Clarke said that she noticed a marked trend in the tone of the tweets responding to Willis’ distress: they were envious. After all, what book lover wouldn’t want to spend the night surrounded by a vast array of reading material?

So rather than just weighing in with a timely pun or a reaction GIF, AirBnB decided to turn the event into an opportunity for its brand. They started #WaterstonesSleepover, a competition which gave 19 guests the chance to win a 12-hour overnight stay inside a Waterstones bookshop.

Clarke told her coworkers: “The first person to get Waterstones on the phone wins today!” Eventually, after wading through a sea of tweets resulting from the crisis, Waterstones replied to AirBnB to say they’d love to partner up. Within twelve hours of David Willis’ ordeal, the competition was launched.

AirBnB’s team had to put noses to the grindstone to get the competition ready in time. “It took some serious hustle to get this done – we were ironing our logo onto pillowcases in the office,” Clarke recalled.

But it worked – and the event generated some extremely positive press for both companies, especially on Twitter. For Waterstones’ part, they were keen to turn around an incident which could otherwise have been a PR disaster.

Clarke emphasised the importance of brands being ‘scrappy’ and entrepreneurial. If AirBnB had chosen the safe response to #WaterstonesTexan, it would have gone down as just another cheesy corporate reaction to a trending hashtag. Instead, it made a real impact.

“We made something happen … This was an experience that we provided off the back of something,” said Clarke.

3. Use Influencers

In May 2015, AirBnB constructed a floating house and launched it on the Thames. For five days, the house sailed along the river before docking at Putney Pier on the Friday, where competition winners were then able to spend the night.

The advertising stunt, which was cooked up to coincide with new legislation allowing London homeowners to rent out their accommodation for up to 90 days of the year, was a risky move which could easily have gone very wrong.

“We needed to create a house that floated – I was thinking if this sinks, it will be on every news story about ‘AirBnB does something wrong’,” said Clarke.

Over the course of five days, AirBnB generated as much publicity around the house as possible, inviting bloggers, journalists and Instagram stars to visit the house, take pictures and publish articles. They held a number of events along the house’s course, including a house party which prompted the hashtag #FloatingHouseParty – proving that PR and social go hand in hand.

Alongside the competition to win a night in the floating house, AirBnB also ran a contest to see who could take the best picture of it, leading rowers on the Thames to charter a course past the house to take selfies.

All the buzz that the company had worked to generate then gathered momentum, resulting in even more mentions and raising the house’s profile even further.

Fashion photographer Gemma Styles contacted AirBnB to ask if she could use the house as a location for a photoshoot. Best of all, considering the legislation that had prompted AirBnB’s stunt in the first place, the floating house was spotted ‘photobombing’ Mayor’s Question Time at the London Assembly.

In total, the floating house promotion led to 340 press pieces in the UK alone, 73,500 landing page hits for AirBnB, 10,000 new users, and 200 million social impressions. 200 journalists experienced the floating house first-hand, and 38% of entrants to the Night At Floating House competition were first-time AirBnB users.

4. Timing is key

When planning advertising stunts, events, partnerships and competitions, AirBnB is careful to time things right.

For a company whose business is largely based around travel and holidays, this might seem like a given. But timing can also involve things like launching the right event to tie in with Halloween, or Christmas. Last Halloween, AirBnB raised the bar once again by holding a night at Paris Catacombs, the world’s largest grave and the resting place for some 6 million souls.


Organising the event required a little more than a tweet to AirBnB’s prospective partner, as with the Waterstones Sleepover. AirBnB had to liaise with the Paris government, and there was a lot of red tape – the competition was in the works for months. But it allowed AirBnB to form new and positive links with the government, who were keen to promote a French tourist destination.

The competition was extremely popular. “People love horror,” said Clarke. The eventual lucky winner was 27-year-old Brazilian “history nerd” Pedro Arruda, who brought along his mother as his guest for the spooky night 65 feet underground.

5. Pour your budget into creative

In the opening presentation of ‘Beat the Buzz’, creative agency Buzzman advised us to spend more money on production than promotion; if you have good quality content, people will share it.

Holly Clarke echoed Buzzman’s advice as she described the promotion around AirBnB’s most recent ‘Night At’ campaign: a night inside a shark tank in Paris Aquarium.

AirBnB decided to get creative with their social media promotion for this competition, posting three separate videos to Instagram: one of the sharks in the tank up close, one of the ‘room’ within the shark tank where the winners would spend the night, and one of the evening’s ‘host’, free-diver Fred Buyle.

An Instagram post by AirBnB showing a video to the left with a waving diver underwater, and text to the right introducing him as Fred Buyle, the host for the Night at Shark Aquarium.

The videos were “a real pain” to shoot, requiring exactly the right timing and a lot of waiting around for the sharks to do their thing. AirBnB also tried shooting a 360-degree video which was to be posted to Facebook, but scrapped it as they didn’t like the quality. Still, Clarke had no regrets about the wasted time: “I’m just so pleased that we tried it out.”

Just like with the Waterstones Sleepover and floating house, Clarke’s message to brands was to go for the adventurous option. “Think, ‘What’s the absolute best possible scenario for this channel with what I have at the moment?’” she encouraged us.

“Try all of the new things, and push your creative to the limit.”

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