May 28, 2013
Case Study

Email Marketing: Airbnb nets 600 bookings with non-promotional email

SUMMARY: Open any inbox in December and chances are you will find a holiday greeting email. Marketers send them year after year, and it can be difficult to know how to create a fresh message — and how to make it earn revenue.

Airbnb, a travel site, turned the tables and provided subscribers with a tool to send greetings to each other. The viral campaign had no promotional copy, but generated more revenue, clicks and opens for the company than almost any other email of the year.
by Adam Sutton, Senior Reporter


Every year, usually in mid-December, scores of marketers wish their subscribers "Happy Holidays" in a dedicated email.

The team at Airbnb wanted to put a new spin on this old standard.

"It really started with an email from one of our founders, Joe Gebbia, putting out the idea that instead of sending one generic card to all of our users, what if we allow them to communicate with each other and wish each other 'Happy Holidays?'" George DiGuido, Head of Email Marketing, Airbnb, said.

Airbnb is an online marketplace to list, discover and book unique accommodations worldwide. Its revenue is based on fees that guests and hosts pay to make reservations.

The holidays are an important time for Airbnb. A holiday greeting could be a good way to remind subscribers of the brand, remind them of their travels in 2012 and encourage them to interact with one another.

"It wasn't something that we thought could generate revenue," DiGuido said.

But it did.


Airbnb created a tool that allowed subscribers to send holiday greetings to hosts they had stayed with or guests they had accommodated in 2012. The campaign did not have a sales-oriented call-to-action, but it was one of the best campaigns of the year in terms of revenue.

Here are the steps the team followed:

Step #1. Create the tool — fast

The idea for the campaign came somewhat at the last minute, DiGuido said.

"The whole thing was really put together in a few days," he said. "It was a partnership between our product teams, our design team, and our engineering team … They spent days and nights working on the creative and functionality."

Airbnb hosted the tool on its website. Its page served as the campaign's landing page.

Here's how the tool worked:
  • Browse templates — visitors could flip through five stylish email templates to use for their greeting.

  • Auto-load recipients — visitors could choose hosts or guests they had connected with during the year from a pre-populated list. The list included images of each user’s profile and the team made it easy to send the message to an individual or a group.

    "If you had hosted 50 different guests over the course of the year, you may not want to write individual messages to each one of them," DiGuido said.

  • Standard or custom — visitors could choose whether to write a message or use a default provided by the team.

Step #2. Create launch email

The team launched the campaign in a single personalized email, sent in batches from Dec. 22 to Dec. 24. The main call-to-action urged subscribers to "send a card to all your hosts."

Here's what else the email had:
  • Large image — the holiday email templates dominated the top of the message.

  • First name greeting — a short message in large text greeted the subscriber by first name and noted now many guests or hosts the subscriber had connected with during the year.

  • Large blue button — a large blue button labeled "send a card to all your hosts" served as the primary call-to-action.

  • Select hosts — below the blue button, the email featured several of the hosts or guests the subscriber engaged in 2012. It included their profile images, names and locations.

  • Small grey buttons — next to each host or guest's name was a small gray button that allowed subscribers to send the person an individual email. These buttons served as the email’s secondary call-to-action.

No promotional content

The email is noteworthy for what it does not include: promotional messaging. It focuses solely on getting the audience to send cards to one another.

"As a company, we pride ourselves on providing a marketplace for people, not just to stay in some place, but to stay in some place to gain an experience, to be immersed in the culture and the community," DiGuido said. "To muddy that with a message that is self-promotion would detract from the pureness of the sentiment behind [the campaign]."

Tool is the landing page

Clicking any of the buttons in the email brought subscribers to the tool on Airbnb's site. The page had the site's standard footer and header, which included a search box.

Although the search tool was not emphasized in any way during the campaign, many people used it after sending a card (see the results below).

Step #3. Create holiday greetings email

As we mentioned, subscribers could select a design for their greetings from a set provided by the team and use a custom or default message.

Several features in the greeting email helped encourage recipients to send their own greeting and propel the campaign:
  • Subject line — the email's personalized subject line mentioned the name of the sender. For example, a subject line from Bob Smith would read, "Happy Holidays from Bob Smith, your Airbnb Host!" This likely contributed a high open rate (see results metrics below).

  • Reply button — a blue button below the main message was the primary call-to-action. It encouraged readers to "reply with your own card." Clicking the button brought them to the tool on Airbnb's site with the original sender's name pre-loaded as the recipient.

  • Individual buttons — as with the campaign's launch email, this image included a sample of hosts or guests the reader engaged during the year. Gray buttons allowed readers to send individual greetings to each person.

  • Create a card — finally, the last call-to-action of the email is a blue button that encouraged readers to "create your own card." The button brought readers to the tool where they could select a custom message and its recipients.


Airbnb sent the email to get the audience to engage with one another and remember the last year of travel. Response rates were strong.

Averaging the launch email sent by the team and the greeting emails sent by subscribers, here are the engagement rates:
  • 52.3% open rate — the team usually sees 27% to 30% on regular marketing emails, DiGuido said.

  • 26.5% clickthrough rate — the team usually sees 8% to 12% on regular marketing emails (some reach 16% to 17%), DiGuido said.

The subscribers who used the tool sent 7.5 messages on average, DiGuido said.

Big jump in revenue

The team was shocked by the number of reservations driven by the campaign. Even without a promotional message, the effort earned over 600 bookings. That's more than the team usually sees for messages dedicated to this goal.

"It was a significant increase, in terms of reservations or conversion percentage, on this particular email versus an email that was really focused on driving reservations," he said.

Many bookings came from subscribers who used the site's search tool after sending a greeting card, DiGuido said.

Timing the campaign

Some reservations appeared to be last-minute plans for New Year's Eve, but most were booked for later dates, DiGuido said.

"Travel isn't something that occurs every day for a user, so it's hitting people at the right time, when they are thinking about traveling. What we found is that the holiday season is one of those times," he concluded.

Creative Samples

  1. Tool landing page

  2. Tool pre-populated list

  3. Campaign launch email

  4. Website search tool

  5. Holiday greetings sent by subscribers



Related Resources

Holiday Marketing: 8 trending tactics and tips for 2012

Holiday Marketing: 6 tactics to help you prep for the season

Viral Holiday Email Card That Broke the Boredom Barrier

Viral Email Nets 100% Response from Brand Champs: 3 Simple Steps

[Video] Email Marketing: Use website content to increase list size

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