Paul Jeszenszky on Design as a Differentiator

This is part of a series of interviews with B2B marketers. In this post we're talking with Paul Jeszenszky, Performance Marketing Lead at Airbnb, about influencer marketing.

Who are you, and what do you do?
Well, I am Paul Jeszenszky, and I lead the Performance Marketing team at Airbnb. 

We manage all of Airbnb’s online marketing, from the paid advertising, search, display, and paid social to SEO, referral programs, and all the engagement work including email, push notifications, and SMS. 

One of the things we’ve talked about in the past is the idea of using design as a growth tool. Design has a lot of forms… it's your brand, it's your product, it's your user experience. How are you getting your growth team to think about design as more than just the aesthetics of what you're delivering?
I think it's a few things, and one of them would be tied to our core values. For those who know Airbnb’s core values, you’d know our most important one is ‘Be a host’ which can take many shapes and forms. 

For a hospitality company, it just makes sense to focus on hospitality. When you think of it from a growth team and online marketing point of view, it changes. ‘Be a host’ then speaks to making it as easy, welcoming, and trustworthy as possible to bring someone who doesn't know who you are and is new to the experience, through that buyer experience. 

When you think about it, there's a couple of things involved… trust is probably the most important. When you're talking about a marketplace like Airbnb, what you're talking about (to some degree) is strangers, strangers meeting strangers, and for those strangers staying with strangers, whether it's an entire home (where you may not stay with them, but it's their space) or you have a private room (where you're staying in someone's home with them.) 

There's this sort of stranger danger, right? Crossing that chasm of stranger danger means that we need to work extra to get people across that chasm, so we don't want to do anything that could risk that. We're not going to do short-term things to try to push you through and make an extra dollar, we're going to do a lot to make sure that you feel welcome and safe.

No doubt, it hurts our short-term conversion rates, but we really win on the long-term retention and the word-of-mouth that results. Most people who know Airbnb probably know of us through word of mouth. They tell their friends, their family, and probably their Instagram followers when they post about the great place they’re staying at. It's that kind of power that takes us further.

"Design is embedded at every point in our company."

So the main friction you’re trying to eliminate from the process using design is the trust gap. In order to do that, you don’t force people to a conversion point. Instead, you do your best to earn trust in the long-term. 
Yeah, exactly. When you think about design inside the company, it's interesting because every team has embedded designers in it. 

Marketing—yeah, of course—there's a whole creative department, but when you look at the product and engineering team, they also have designers who sit with them. Every pod of engineers working on a project also have an assigned product designer and UX person. So design is embedded at every point in the company. 

How does design thinking change the way that the organization is working?
It really changes the overall approach. 

We have a motto on Airbnb’s Guest Growth team, ‘Empathy driven, evidence fueled.’ The empathy is the human portion of it, so we go by gut feel and people's reactions. We don't just look at what they're doing on the site, but we'll follow up with emails, phone calls, and on-site surveys to try to get some qualitative information.

Then, we'll also look at the hard data, the facts on what’s going on. We'll balance the two out, because quite often if you just look at data, you’ll notice a drop-off point, but you probably are not sure why. So at that point, you start assuming things and making changes based on those assumptions. Where that backfires is when it’s something small, that could be fixed with a simple change. Sometimes speaking to a potential guest or host tells you that small thing quickly.

"Beyond data, we use surveys to bring human insights."

How does this come out in your growth strategy? What does it turn into in terms of your team's output?
We start—and we do what a lot of companies do—and look at top-down opportunities. What are the opportunities where we think the biggest opportunities for growth are, against total addressable market, and those kinds of factors. 

From there, we'll start mapping things out and get into the problem solving piece. Then we'll call on our product designers, and from there, our researchers to help us look at the data. A lot of times we’ll do things like launch additional surveys to get more human insight to balance between what we're seeing and what people are telling us. That way we can try to figure out what that right balance is.

As a growth leadership team, we're setting the top-level priorities based on what we think the business objectives and goals are. 

How does that change the way you measure things? You come in with your hypothesis based on empathy and data, do you then measure the success based on those same factors?
We try to. It's always harder to measure the empathy piece. Let me try to think of a good example to get my point across. 

You may hear ‘Hey, I love hamburgers, but they're messy.’ So you think of making a hamburger that is less messy, but hamburgers being messy could be part of what makes people enjoy them. So, you need to think about the plate or maybe the eating situation. The problem might actually be that people don’t like getting themselves messy while eating a hamburger, so you’ve go to think about how to make a hamburger that doesn’t get people messy rather than a less messy burger. 

Yeah, it's like they just want a big napkin or one of those moist towelettes.
Yeah, exactly. It's getting to that deeper nuance between the product and the experience and what that gap really is about.

"With short-term thinking, there's never enough time to focus on design."

For companies that aren't doing this, what strategies can marketing teams employ to get your team thinking in that model?
The first thing to do—for this to be successful—is to look at it with the view of long-term versus short-term business. 

If you're a small team trying to get to market/product fit, or you're trying to drive revenue, you feel like every next dollar is really important… every next booking, every next client, every next whatever, user, sign-up, etc. There's this pressure to do anything you can to drive further and to get more. 

As you get to that next level, you keep having this pressure from investors and the Board of Directors, so it's kind of pushed into your DNA to think short-term. However, sometimes you’ve got to push-back and say, ‘Hey, we believe we've got this thing dialed in’ or ‘We're doing the right thing now’ as you get into that initial market/product fit, and thinking about the long-term strategy.

For us to really sustain and to grow, we need to think about our customer value in a longer-term window, and strategize with that state-of-mind. Once you make that mental shift, then design thinking has a lot of room. If all you ever care about is the short-term revenue, and you're always just hustling on that pressure, then there's never going to be enough time to focus on design and research. 

The counter side of that is that even if you take the time, you still need to call an audible from time-to-time. You could nerd out on design and research forever when you have really passionate people who—like all of us—want to dig really deep. There's always a correct balance for a company's long-term vs. short-term goals, but I tend to lean towards the long-term thinking.

"The best, most successful companies have a long-term focus."

How do you go about getting executive buy-in for that? Like you said, you have design leads in the company, but the Board is also pushing down on revenue.
It's hard to bring it in if it's not already existing. I'm sure it's possible, but I haven't seen it in my career yet.

Some people who do similar work to what I do would disagree with the longer-term thinking. It's a little bit of a religious debate. If you look at a lot of the best, most successful companies, they have that longer-term view, and they bring design in at every stage. 

So, you've got to take some risks. There's always tough choices, but if you really believe in what you're doing, you need to fight to carve out the space and be given room to do that. Then, when you do that, it gives permission to the rest of the organization.

That idea is deeply ingrained at Airbnb, because two of our three co-founders come from that world, and the third co-founder believes in it. We have it from the very top, so it's just ingrained in our DNA, which—I think—is a huge competitive factor. 

When you think about it:

  • Do people really have that much loyalty between one hotel and another hotel? 
  • Do they have that much loyalty between one online booking site and another online booking site? 

Some do. Some of it might be based on loyalty points or something similar, but even that amount of loyalty, you're not likely going to pay $200 extra per night. If you're driving value and experience, then it's a whole different viewpoint. 

In Airbnb, we don't sell on price point, we sell on value. So, you're really looking for what's the combination of things you want from the experience? You might be willing to pay a bit more if it's more dialed into what you really want.

In today's world, you can't get away from being non-authentic. If people feel a disconnect between what you’re promising and what you’re delivering, they’ll pass that information along, and that information travels fast. If you're not thinking through how to bring that promise and delivery together, it will show, and you’ll hear about it from your audience. 

If you bring it all together, it's actually creating an honesty that reinforces itself. It's like the improvements in the hamburger experience where the problem wasn’t the messy hamburger, it was the lack of napkins. 

Is there something tactical that people can do to get their promise and delivery more tightly aligned? 
A good question to ask is how do we make sure that when our audience hears about us over here, that when they come through the experience, the brand promise stays true? That question is answered by answering these questions:

  • What's the core truth that we're trying to deliver?
  • What are users telling us?
  • What do we want to educate people on or share out to the world? 

Take the time to answer those questions, and you’ll be in a position to bring your brand promise and delivery together effectively. 

Now, as we’re wrapping up, I’m curious to know what some of your favorite resources are…

Must-follow on Twitter:
I'm not very active on Twitter anymore, but would probably be YC's Hacker News. I am however, very active on Instagram, and a must-follow on there would be Pumpkin the Raccoon… makes me smile everyday.

Favorite blog:
My favourite blog for business is Ben Evans from A16Z, as he puts the right amount of thought, opinion, curation, and length into his posts. Also Connie Chan from A16Z… her insights on business in China are especially valuable.

I’m also a fan of — they’ve got great info for beginner and intermediate online marketers. Some good material there for small businesses too.

Favourite book:
For business, my favourite book would be Jim Collins ‘Good to Great’. Outside of business, my favorite book would be William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’. 

What is your favorite ‘90s dance song?
This is a tough one for me because I’m not sure if you know this or not, but I was a house music DJ for ten years, so I love the question but it’s so hard. 

Hmm, I'll go with ‘Snap - The Power’.

Awesome. Well, thanks so much for the time today Paul.
Anytime, thanks Marko.