The digital havoc continues; next target the CMO

Airbnb leverages Craiglist customers to acquire more of its own using marketing techniques that no traditional CMO would ever imagine

We all know that the road from the world of print and broadcast to a new place where digital, social and mobile reign, is littered with once prominent agencies and individuals who got left behind. Those of us who are still around have managed, in one way or another, to transform ourselves. We’ve learned new skills. Hired different kinds of talent. Changed how we work. Re-structured our work spaces. And learned to live in beta, knowing that whatever we have working today probably won’t be good enough six months or a year from now.

Inside ad agencies, we continue to see disruption. People, roles and skills change constantly. Planners become digital strategists. PR people master social media. Creative teams scramble to understand APIs and HTML5. And account folks, at the minimum, learn the timing, resources and costs of creating digital content. The changes have spawned an entire re-education industry. The 4As runs transformation sessions. BDW fills up workshops. Hyper Island charges a fortune for its digital therapy. Google and Facebook spend a small fortune educating agencies on how to best use their platforms.

But I’m guessing this is still just the beginning. The emergence of new social networks, platforms for collaboration, and the importance of reaching and acquiring users without relying on paid media and traditional advertising will call for us to learn even more. Throwing up a Facebook page, tweeting about our new product, or targeting influential bloggers won’t be good enough.

If you need evidence, check out the argument put forth in this enlightening post by Andrew Chen, a Silicon Valley blogger, entrepreneur and angel investor.

Chen suggests that the future head of marketing will have to be what’s called a growth hacker. The term is new, but gaining traction in Silicon Valley where most new companies are all about generating users for a digital product or service. His argument is that marketers now need the technical chops to integrate platforms, leverage their existing communities, and invent new ways to generate reach and visibility, using tactics and techniques foreign to most traditional marketers.

The case study he describes shows how Airbnb wrote a script to scrape Craigslist and interact with its forms thus leveraging Craigslist’s  huge user base despite the ad platform having no API.  (Note this is mostly over my head, so you’re better off getting the explanation from Chen.) After reverse engineering Airbnb’s “Post to Craigslist,” Chen writes:

No traditional marketer would have figured this out

Let’s be honest, a traditional marketer would not even be close to imagining the integration above – there’s too many technical details needed for it to happen. As a result, it could only have come out of the mind of an engineer tasked with the problem of acquiring more users from Craigslist. Who knows how much value Airbnb is getting from this integration, but in my book, it’s damn impressive. It taps into a low-competition, huge-volume marketing channel, and builds a marketing function deeply into the product. Best of all, it’s a win-win for everyone involved – both the people renting out their places by tapping into pre-built demand, and for renters, who see much nicer listings with better photos and descriptions.

While Chen is referring specifically to the need of startups, looking for users on its way to being the next Instagram, one could argue that all brands will be making, and all agencies marketing, digital products — apps, experiences, communities, digital services.

What will this mean for the future account manager? Or strategist? Or creative team? Your guess is as good as mine. But I can virtually guarantee you that one thing is certain. Whatever we’ve managed to learn in the last few years won’t be enough to get us through the next few.

Related:  What next CMO of Best Buy needs to do immediately

Shout out to my student Maurice Rahmey for turning me onto Andrew Chen’s post.


Interesting, but... does airbnb do anything for craigslist? I went to airbnb's site and there is no mention of craigslist. All I can say that airbnb is lucky they're scraping Craig and not Larry Ellison. And this my issue, at least as well as I can understand this stuff: craigslist spends years building a truly great service and airbnb cruises in a leeches off of it. Great marketing? I don't know. Thievery? For sure, although we all know Craig Newmark and he's just not going to care.


Am I way off base, am I missing something? To me, this is just like Google wanting everyone on the planet to post content for nothing so Google can monetize it. Does Google share its algorithm? Hell know! Hypocrites.

edwardboches moderator

 @JeffShattuck I think the point of Chen's post, less than hacking into Craig's list, is that in the future, understanding APIs, knowing how to grow user bases outside of any kind of direct marketing and or paid outreach, learning the relationships between platforms in what should or could be a mutually beneficial way will be important.  And that it would require a different way of thinking and a sense of technological potential. Ten years ago, marketers had to learn to be found and discoverable on the web. Those who were late suffered. Five years ago marketers had to learn to concept of owned content and distributing beyond their website.  Those who held onto the if we build it they will come mindset suffered. Three years ago marketers had to learn that being social meant transparency and that the user wasn't just a listener but a talker, too. One year ago, they started to learn about collaborative consumption and the potential of crowdsourcing.  Nike now has APIs for its products.  There are new ways in which connections are made. Individuals are raising $8 million in Kickstarter to make products that are pioneering the Internet of things.  We have reached a point where marketing is far more complex and technologically dependent than it ever was. I think the real purpose of the post is just to remind us that we better get smarter about what it is, how it works, and ways to use it.  Not as an afterthought, but as a means of inventing ourselves. As Rushkoff says, "Program or be programmed." Applies to marketers, too.


 @edwardboches I don't disagree with any of what you're saying. I just find it a little crummy of airbnb not to acknowledge its use of craigslist in a more public way. Seems dishonest. In fact, I'd go further and say that the hacking culture is bad for our overall society. Maybe it's because I'm a musician and music has been brought to its knees by freeloaders, but there seems to be a growing sense in the world that nothing really belongs to anyone. I mean, take airbnb: did it ever occur to them to ask craigslist for permission to take data or did they just feel entitled to it? I'm not denying that they made something better but that's not the point. IP matters! (By the way, just noticed my shining typo in my earlier comment. Argh...)