One of the pioneers in the “sharing economy” is undoubtedly Airbnb, the online marketplace where people can rent out everything from rooms to whole houses to private individuals for days or weeks. The service allows people who would like to earn extra cash to transform their property into a mini-hotel or bed-and-breakfast whenever they want.
For vacationers, the service offers a chance to have a more intimate visit to a faraway place, because you rent from an individual, not a hotel chain. For this and many other reasons, potential renters spend a lot of time studying photos of the rental and its surroundings, as well as considering the price. And it turns out, photos of the owners are far more important in this sharing economy than you might otherwise expect.
“This kind of market brings strangers together, potentially in close proximity, so the people who provide the housing actually become a part of the service they are offering,” says Professor Asle Fagerstrøm. Fagerstrøm is head of the behaviour lab at the Westerdals Oslo School of Arts, Communication and Technology.
Unlike traditional booking services for hotels or holiday homes, an Airbnb host can post a picture of him or herself on the website.
“We wanted to find out what impact the host's portrait has on people’s decision to book the property or not,” Fagerstrøm said.
Fagerstrøm investigated this question with doctoral candidate Sanchit Pawar from Westerdals Oslo ACT, along with Icelandic and British colleagues. The team measured the effect of a host's different facial expressions by recording how many people were interested in seeing more of the property on offer and possibly booking it.
A picture of the owner proves to be more important than many realize, the researchers found. That has been the experience of Svanhild Blakstad from Bærum, who has leased a vacation home for her family in Croatia for the past few summers.
“The quality of the house, its standard and location are decisive, but we undoubtedly get a better impression of the place if the host looks friendly,” she said.
A nice picture of the host turned out to be the most important factor after price, and more important than customer feedback, according to the study, which has been published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
Many people steered clear of properties that didn’t have photos of the host.
“It was surprising that there was such a huge negative effect when the ad did not have an image of the host, but only a silhouette,” Fagerstrøm said.
He thinks that images of the host help establish a personal relationship between the seller — the host— and the buyer — the renter.
“Personal characteristics are important, and if they aren’t included in the ad, the rental relationship loses an important dimension. Potential renters perceive this as a negative,” he said.
Even lowering the price of the rental and top ratings from other customers aren’t enough to compensate for the lack of a good photo, the researchers found.
The researchers didn’t study the effect of the attractiveness of the host or hostess. But they did look at the effect of what it means when the owner smiles — or not.
The researchers found that a picture with a smiling host was almost as important as price in deciding whether or not someone would be willing to book a rental.
People who smile are perceived as more social, honest and polite. We tend to trust people who smile more than those who don’t, because we believe they are more welcoming and willing to cooperate, Fagerstrøm said.
A previous study of Airbnb has shown that people are actually willing to pay more for homes that were being offered by hosts who looked trustworthy.
“So it was no surprise that the smiling hosts got the highest response rate from renters,” he said.
But the researchers were surprised to find that neutral face images had about the same effect.
“We thought that neutral faces would have a more negative effect than smiling, but there were only negligible differences,” says Fagerstrøm. He thinks this may have something to do with the team’s research method.