Bad Romance: Why Airbnb and Hearst’s new magazine has issues

A travel magazine is a straightforward enough concept, and one that has been tried and tested endlessly since the birth of the print magazine. So when Airbnb announced back in 2014 that it was launching Pineapple magazine, it made a great deal of sense and got a suitable number of travel and magazine buffs excited.

Pineapple was described by Airbnb as being ‘a crossroad of travel and anthropology; a document of community, belonging and shared space’. Designed as a quarterly issue showcasing Airbnb community stories, it was pitched as a ‘coffee table magazine’ for host properties with a steep £9 price tag.

Airbnb’s targets were modest, with an intent to distribute 18,000 issues to hosts and offer up a limited number of issues for sale.

It’s still unclear what happened to Pineapple after its first issue, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the extent to which it was ever more than a one-and-done trial. Perhaps it was the reported budget-slashing shortly after the first issue was published, or the departure the following spring of its editor-in-chief. Either way, Airbnb’s first venture into print publishing faded quietly away, until late last year.

At the company’s Airbnb open event in November 2016, CEO Brian Chesky announced that they would be partnering with Hearst, publishers of well-known titles like Cosmopolitan, Elle, Esquire, Good Housekeeping and other mass-market consumer magazines.

Joanna Coles, the chief content officer at Hearst, set out her vision for the magazine clearly at the event, telling delegates that “what it does, unlike any other magazine out there, is that it taps into the expertise of you guys…everything in it is sourced from hosts and regular travellers.”

“So what is my ambition for this magazine? The Airbnb Magazine. Well, it’s to be on every coffee table, to be on every nightstand, it’s to accompany you on every flight you take. And it’s to connect you, to inspire you, to transform you…. Why a magazine? Well, a good magazine is a journey in itself, it’s a voyage of discovery. You turn the page, and you find something magical you weren’t expecting and it transforms you.”

Airbnb’s decision to partner with Hearst was unquestionably a wise decision in the light of Pineapple’s failure. Hearst has both the editorial expertise and distribution experience to make Airbnbmag into something bigger than a straightforward content marketing exercise.

Yet over the past week, the more that has come out about this partnership, the less confident I am that Airbnbmag will be a success.

Modest goals

The first point that stands out from reports is that both companies are aiming low; after the magazine’s launch on May 23rd, it has pencilled in just one more issue for September. The Wall Street Journal reports that “if readers and advertisers like what they see, the magazine will have a more robust publishing schedule in 2018”.

In some cases, aiming for a short run depending on reader response can reap rewards. A case in point is The New European; the anti-Brexit pop-up weekly print newspaper from Archant which was only ever scheduled for an initial 4 week run. Ten months later, it’s growing strong, and has been hailed as an industry success story for boldness and innovation.

However, the differences between The New European and Airbnbmag are stark. The former was launched in nine days and centred on an emotive event. Being quick off the mark provided a focal point for a community to rally around. Airbnbmag by contrast has been over 18 months in development, and although it claims to have a strong community, that community is bound by its technology, not a shared passion or viewpoint.

Airbnbmag needs a more long-term outlook, and will take longer to establish itself, particularly with such an infrequent publishing schedule. If Airbnb and Hearst are holding the guillotine up based on the performance of its first two issues, the fate of the magazine is already etched on a gravestone.

On a positive note, the advantages of a partnership with Hearst shine through when it comes to distribution, and it is evident that this is where their input has been beneficial. Airbnbmag is launching with a guaranteed circulation of 350,000: 50,000 of those will be sold at airports, bookstores and supermarkets, 200,000 will be distributed (for free) to Airbnb hosts, and 100,000 will be sent to Hearst subscribers (presumably for free) who have previously used Airbnb.

A divided kingdom

A far more serious issue at the heart of Airbnbmag is the vast gulf between the two companies’ views on the purpose of the magazine. Compare these two statements from Chesky and Coles on how important revenue on the magazine is to them:

“From my point of view it’s successful if more people experience Airbnb and talk about it.”
– Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky

“I want to make money.”
– Hearst chief content officer Joanna Coles

Everything else aside, these two statements are a real problem. Any relationship, whether that be personal or commercial, is highly unlikely to succeed unless both partners can agree on shared goals. In this case, the aims are so wildly different that it should be ringing all sorts of alarm bells, particularly as both parties are so open about it.

Chesky is taking the classic content marketing approach. As long as the magazine involves more people in the Airbnb world and is filled with warm, fuzzy stories about people having a great time (and, of course, getting plenty of Instagram-worthy snaps), then his site will see an uplift in revenue.

By contrast, Coles’ approach is much more commercial. Hearst won’t see any of the brand benefits from the magazine that Airbnb will enjoy; in fact, it’s highly likely no one outside the media bubble will have a clue about Hearst’s involvement. So it’s understandable that they want to see some sort of monetary return from this partnership.

Fast forward to September, when both sides are looking to the future of Airbnbmag. If it’s been a wild success, all will be well and they can go forward together with Airbnb basking in the glow of a successful brand magazine, and Hearst reaping the revenue from it.

What is more likely is that the magazine will get off to a slow start; after all, it takes time to get people into the habit of reading a new magazine. 

Airbnb might then look to redistribute their budgets elsewhere after a couple of issues having gained enough from a marketing boost, and Hearst will be left with the remains of what could have been a great product, and most likely a hefty loss from the experiment.

By contrast, the Jamie Oliver Group have managed to work successfully with Hearst over the past year with Jamie Magazine as the brand was so well established. Hearst provided the expertise to boost distribution and enhance the magazine, but there’s a group of people in the Jamie Oliver Group committed to making sure that the magazine happens, no matter what.

And while trading on the Airbnb brand would make sense if the company itself were known for providing the local info, it’s their hosts who tend to be praised for same, deflating the appeal somewhat. And the travel recommendation ecosystem isn’t exactly an unoccupied niche; only this week The Telegraph was boasting of their success in that market.

So, what lessons can we draw out of this? I may be carving Airbnbmag’s gravestone prematurely, but either way, the golden rule is that partnerships absolutely must have the same aims and goals in order to have a chance at success. Airbnb need to look at the magazine as more than a PR exercise, and Hearst should give it time and patience to get off the ground.

Or, just maybe we’re past the stage of launching vapid travel magazines in an age where far more agile online companies and bloggers can provide in-depth, up-to-date local knowledge on that particular city you want to visit, without you having to wait for issue #3 of Airbnbmag to materialise.

Will Airbnbmag succeed?
Yes
No

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By | 2017-05-17T00:01:00+00:00 May 17th, 2017|Analysis|Comments Off on Bad Romance: Why Airbnb and Hearst’s new magazine has issues

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