Your neighbourhood as told by Airbnb
A brand is a perception, rarely based on reality... at least at first (I'll share my research on this in a future post if you don't believe this to be true). It is shaped by every single experience a person has with the brand (whether your brand is the city, an institution, or a product). But more and more, the brand story has to hold true, or it will be called out or even worse... ignored. And without getting too deep into why I'm interested in neighbourhoods as brands, let's take a look at one way those perceptions are being formed for tourists right now through the platform economy - in particular through Airbnb.
I did a relatively quick and dirty analysis of 3 neighbourhoods in Kingston, Ontario. The neighbourhoods were chosen based on their contrasting characteristics. Skeleton Park (McBurney), Williamsville, and Portsmouth are all seemingly similar in demographics yet variegated in tapestry and stage of growth. Portsmouth is one of Kingston’s oldest neighbourhoods with strong coalition influences from government, historical associations, and affluent residents. Williamsville is adjacent to the ‘other downtown’, suffers from a transient population, but is in the process of renewal, including a strong appetite for a branded identity. Lastly, Skeleton Park is considered well-branded through media imagery, growth coalition actors, and residents, most likely based on its’ proximity to the city core and business improvement district (BIA).
The Airbnb listing analysis tells a very different story than the local residents may tell - and if challenged may not hold true at all. The 'brand' of each neighbourhood, according to Airbnb, is as follows:
McBurney/Skeleton Park > targeted at Hipsters by promoting it's proximity to downtown and its natural environment, it is a walkable neighbourhood, a place to work, and its character is a combination of its history and eclecticism.
Williamsville > targeted at Students by promoting it's proximity to downtown and Queen's, lots of restaurants. It, too, is eclectic but is currently going through a revitalization that others aren't.
Portsmouth > targeted at Seniors by promoting its natural environment, quiet and residential feel, with a culture deeply steeped in history... and wait for it... restaurants!
Now, any Kingston local would probably agree with almost everything above until that very last word. Portsmouth is a 'quaint little village' as one listing boosted, but as far as restaurants go? It has a Sushi restaurant, a Subway, a Tim Horton's, and the Ports - more of a pub than a grub. And the brand dissonance doesn't end there.
Although McBurney is home to many Queen's students and professors, it came last for proximity to Queen's.
Williamsville won the groceries and markets category - even though there isn't even one real grocery store in the area.
This one is a biggy. Williamsville beat out McBurney on the proximity to downtown category. A quick Google Maps test will solve this one... from the heart of the McBurney neighbourhood to the heart of downtown is 8 min or 700m, from the heart of Williamsville to the start of downtown is 12 min or 1 km, but to the heart of downtown for an apples to apples comparison? 18 min or 1.5 km, and Google actually recommends a bus over walking for this one.
As mentioned above, Portsmouth won the restaurant category, yet within an 8 min walk, Skeleton Park'ers have over 40 restaurants from every genre available to them.
Lastly, Portsmouth won on walkability - which is true if the only thing you are trying to walk to is the waterfront trail - which is beautiful by the way, but if you want to walk to downtown or to an actual restaurant district - you may find yourself in the wrong place if you follow this as brand truth.
A simple Airbnb listing can't brand a neighbourhood, but can it form part of brand perception? It already is.
I scanned approximately 10 Airbnb listings for each neighbourhood. I next removed non-descriptive words such as 'the' and 'key', and focused on neighbourhood references as opposed to physical characteristics of the rental itself (number of bathrooms, for instance - although that would also add a layer of analysis I'm sure). Once the content was stripped to these parameters, I applied a word density count to each neighbourhood word list. Next, I conducted a thematic analysis, grouping each set of words into themes that could be applied to all three neighbourhoods. The three broad themes were amenities, transportation, descriptors and target audience. I used a percentage analysis to even it out a bit (percentage of overall comments said).