Pictures of hosts, not homes, key for Airbnb renters, study shows

Hebrew University researchers find that trust — based on photos — is a primary factor in how much users were willing to pay

An Airbnb listing in the settlement of Kfar Adumim, accessed on January 12, 2016. (Screen capture: AirBnB)
An Airbnb listing in the settlement of Kfar Adumim, accessed on January 12, 2016. (Screen capture: AirBnB)

If you’ve always been told that you have a face that can be trusted, you might be able to make a killing renting out your place on Airbnb, the online sharing economy rental site.

New research from Hebrew University indicates that it is not location, price, size, or customer reviews of a property that is most important for Airbnb users when they make a decision on renting a place – but whether or not they feel the renter can be “trusted,” based on their profile photo.

“While the effect of product attributes such as apartment size and location is rather obvious, consumers’ responsiveness to seller attributes such as reputation and personal photos has yet to be studied,” said Prof. Aliza Fleischer, the Yekutiel X. Federmann Chair in Hotel Management in the Department of Environmental Economics and Management at the Hebrew University.

“We found that the level of hosts’ trustworthiness, mainly as inferred from their photos, affects listings’ prices and probability of being chosen, even when all listing information is controlled for.”

The research appears in a paper published in the latest edition of trade journal Tourism Management, based on two studies of Airbnb listings in Sweden.

In the first study, researchers collected the revealed data of all Airbnb’s listings in Stockholm, Sweden, including property size and location, pictures of the property, price, and customer reviews. They presented the personal photos of the Airbnb hosts to 600 research participants and evaluated their first impression of the photos.

They performed a hedonic price analysis, where the price of a property is determined by its specific characteristics – the better to isolate the factors that would prompt renters to pay a premium for a property, given more or less equal attributes (location, price range, size, etc.). In addition, the participants were asked to rate the profile pictures of the hosts for trustworthiness and attractiveness.

Being perceived as handsome or beautiful gave hosts a bit of a boost (with a slight advantage for females) with study subjects agreeing to pay a premium to rent a property – but the real boon accrued to individuals whom the renters felt could be “trusted.” The more trustworthy the host was perceived to be based on their photo, the higher the price of the listing and the probability of its being chosen, the study showed – with that factor being much more important than any other, including online reviews, in determining whether or not a customer booked a property, despite the price.

“Unlike Facebook or LinkedIn, the person is not the ‘selling product’ here. On Airbnb the focus is on the property and its attributes, but even so — we found that the profile pictures of the hosts are critical to their business success,” said Dr. Eyal Ert from the Department of Environmental Economics and Management at the Hebrew University, who co-authored the study with Fleischer.

To solidify their findings, the researchers conducted a second study, this one with photos, reviews, and information on real properties, but with made-up profiles, centered on photos of actors and actresses – none famous enough to be easiliy recognizable but good-looking enough to appear in magazine ads, billboards, TV commercials, catalogs, etc. Here, too, it was not attractiveness that was key, but trustworthiness – with those whose faces looked trustworthy seen as better bets to rent from.

AirBnb listings used in the study (Courtesy)
Airbnb listings used in the study (Courtesy)

The question that arises is what determines “trustworthiness” in online photos – a crucial matter, considering that there is no way to even determine whether or not the photo displayed is a real one. The answer is that no one really knows, said the researchers.

“This question has not been systematically explored in the context of the sharing economy. Yet, previous studies have suggested evidence for some factors, such as smiling, that might increase perceived trustworthiness. We suggest that analyzing the process through which visual-based trust is created would comprise an important extension of the current research for future studies.”

While this is the first study to attempt to quantify the factors that go into Airbnb buying decisions – and by extension, the factors that affect decisions for commitment or purchase on other sharing economy sites, like Uber – it was not the first study to examine the role of trustworthiness.

A 2014 study on Airbnb listings in New York City “provides supporting evidence for our assertion by suggesting that personal photos might facilitate racial discrimination. Specifically, the authors find that non-black hosts in New York City charge higher prices than their black counterparts, and suggest that this effect is driven by the use of photos, which reveal the hosts’ race. We assert that the seller’s photo communicates information about her attributes whose perception and effect on the online consumer have yet to be studied.”

In addition, said the researchers, both buyers and sellers were largely unaware of the role of the photo in their buying decision. In a post-experiment questionnaire, only 8% of customers mentioned the hosts’ photo as a factor that influenced their choice.

“Also interesting is the question of hosts’ awareness of the significance of their personal photos. Since this paper is based on consumer perceptions, we cannot really tell whether hosts are aware of the potential economic benefits of a ‘good’ personal photo, but our impression is that hosts are focused on improving the photos of their homes rather than on their personal photos.”

In many ways, the sharing economy has upended traditional business – among other things expanding markets for service providers, increasing choice for service users, and lowering costs by expanding competition via the Internet. And, according to the researchers, the sharing economy has unleashed a new constellation of social interactions that are little understood – as illustrated by the study.

“With the rapid growth of the sharing economy, especially in tourism-related services, there is a need to further investigate the trust mechanism upon which this economy is built,” said the researchers. “Different rules and consumer decision making are at play here, and a fuller examination of these is still needed to shed light on how this economy really operates.”

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