A month ago, I received a big, hefty magazine in the mail. It included stories such as a guide on where to go in Buenos Aires, a feature on tiny houses, and a deep dive into the history of African-American jockeys. The magazine was part travel, part lifestyle and part interior design; which are all topics I gravitate toward. What's more, the stories were well-written, the photographs were beautiful and the graphic design was on point. There was just one weird thing about it: It was published by Airbnb.
Airbnb Magazine launched in May 2017 in collaboration with Hearst, an industry giant that publishes newsstand titles such as Esquire and Cosmopolitan. According to Airbnb, the magazine was created as a service for travelers and hosts. "People are hungry for local insights from true locals," said an Airbnb spokesperson. In 2014, the company had experimented with a publication called Pineapple, which Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky told the Wall Street Journal was a more "niche" and "bespoke" project that didn't ultimately succeed. Airbnb Magazine, on the other hand, is a much more professional affair, as the partnership with Hearst shows.
At the magazine's launch, Hearst's Chief Content Officer Joanna Coles said in a statement, "By partnering with Airbnb, we are able to serve their global community and provide readers with the most inspiring and most real-life travel stories, experiences and tips."
Marketing speak aside, the union still seems like that of strange bedfellows. Why would a tech startup that facilitates short-term rentals want to delve into the world of print, especially since the magazine industry seems to be in dire straits. Women's Wear Daily, a fashion trade journal, reports that magazines lost at least $417.5 million in revenue in 2017, according to numbers from the Association of Magazine Media. Conde Nast, a Hearst competitor, reportedly lost $120 million in 2017, forcing it to cut budgets, lay off staff and put three magazines up for sale.
Yet, Airbnb isn't the only internet company that has ventured into the magazine industry. Uber launched Vehicle in two select cities -- Washington D.C. and Seattle -- last July. Stories include a how-to on riding the state ferry, interviews with a local Ethiopian community and reviews of local restaurants. Though not meant to be widely distributed, Netflix is also reportedly working on a trade-only magazine designed to spread the gospel of its shows to Hollywood insiders.
Bumble, a dating app focused on women, debuted a magazine in April this year, and, like Airbnb, it partnered with Hearst. In fact, editorial director Clare O'Connor tells Engadget that Bumble was partly inspired by Airbnb's glossy publication. "I'm impressed with what Airbnb has done with its magazine," said O'Connor, who spent over seven years as a staff writer at Forbes.
Just as Airbnb's magazine reflects the company's theme of travel and adventure, Bumble's seeks to reflect its own app in print form. "We've transposed our product mission and values onto the page," said O'Connor. For example, though Bumble is often known as a dating app, it's also used to find female friends or business mentors.
Bumble's magazine is sort of a modern take on a traditional women's lifestyle title. There's the "You First" section, which focuses on mental health and wellness, "You + BFF." which helps women navigate their social lives, "You + Date," which addresses romantic issues, and "You + Biz," which delves into the workplace.
According to O'Connor, it worked closely with the team at Hearst to produce the issue, including pulling in a few writers from Cosmopolitan. Bumble's magazine does feel a lot like a younger, hipper version of Cosmo, except with more than a nod towards the Bumble app. In one spread, for example, there's a fold-out poster of sunflowers that the magazine says would be a good backdrop for your Bumble profile.
"We want to address all parts of our users lives," said O'Connor, referring to the different lifestyle sections in the magazine. It turns out that she means so quite literally: Some of the story ideas are mined from its own users. "We have a rather robust social media network, and spent a long time analyzing what would be a thought-provoking topic," said O'Connor. "We solicited questions that we wanted to answer." Some of those questions include how to survive a ghosting, or how to end a toxic friendship. Those topics ended up as stories in the magazine.
Airbnb Magazine's contents are informed by the company's data points too. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the magazine is, in part, influenced by Airbnb's algorithms. If it finds that a lot of its users are searching for vacation homes in Cancun, that might inform Airbnb's editorial staff to whip up a few stories about what to do and where to eat while in the Mexican tourist hotspot. Airbnb's inaugural issue featured a list of barbecue recommendations from a Savannah barbecue pit master partly because Savannah, Ga. was one of the site's top search terms. Not every story is data-driven, but Airbnb believes this information does give it an advantage.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Airbnb chief executive Chesky said, "No one has billions of demand search data points for nearly every country in the world. That gives us a leg up." One of the perks that these branded magazines have is that the audience is already there. Like Airbnb, companies can use their existing users to help create and distribute the publication (issues are often seeded out to members for free). Traditional magazines aren't quite so lucky.
It's worth noting here that branded publications aren't a new phenomenon. Airplanes have had their own magazines in seat pockets for years, for example. What's notable are the newer, younger companies embracing the format. Though not pure internet startups, luggage company Away has its own Here magazine, Dollar Shave Club publishes Mel, and Casper (the mattress company) launched Woolly in partnership with McSweeney's. These aren't just marketing catalogs either; the magazines are staffed with bonafide editorial teams, with real journalists behind the stories.
On the magazine side, these partnerships are a way to keep the money flowing. In a 2017 New York Times story, Airbnb Magazine was cited as an example of how magazine giants like Hearst could maintain their revenue streams. Hearst has worked on other branded publications such as the aforementioned Bumble, and the Pioneer Woman Magazine which is in partnership with the Food Network. Conde Nast has partnered with Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow's brand, to publish a quarter print title as well.
"Sentimentality is probably the biggest enemy for the magazine business," said David Carey, Hearst Magazines chairman, to the Times at the time. "You have to embrace the future."
Which, ironically, relies on internet companies stepping into the printed past. Yet, despite print's lagging sales, there remains a certain cachet that comes with publishing one's own magazine. Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business, told AdWeek that these publications serve as a way to solidify brand identity, while also bringing in ad dollars and attracting new subscribers.
In short, these magazines act as glorified marketing vehicles. Most of them are handed out for free. Airbnb sends its magazines to all of its hosts, Bumble is available for free via its app, and Uber distributes Vehicle at Greenlight Hubs (Uber's training centers) in both Seattle and Washington D.C.. Airbnb, the most established of the trio, also sells its magazine the traditional way. You can subscribe for $18 a year (that's six issues) or fork out $5.99 per issue if you're at a newsstand.
Plus, there's a lasting belief that despite their slowing sales, magazines are still desirable. "No doubt the business has changed forever, but I think there is a unique experience with magazines that can't be replaced," said Beth Egan, associate professor in the Newhouse School's advertising department, in an interview with AdWeek.
O'Connor believes so too, especially for Bumble's target audience. "Young women in their 20s and 30s still love them," she said. "Just because publishing houses are struggling, magazines are still loved. People take Instagrams of these really beautifully produced print publications. I think the demand is still there."
Chesky expressed a similar sentiment. "There's a possibility that [a print travel publication] can be saved," he said in an interview with the New York Times. "It isn't ephemeral, as opposed to content on a feed that expires."
Even though these magazines are more than just catalogs, I can't help but feel a little conflicted. As beautiful and glossy as the pages are, and as much as I like the stories, the experience still feels a tiny bit wrong. In a way, these branded publications are replacing traditional magazines, many of which have shuttered. Do I really want to support a magazine that serves as a marketing vehicle for a company, especially if it's one that I'm unsure about? I don't use the Bumble app and wasn't sure if it was "right" for me to read the magazine, for example.
It gets even murkier with Airbnb. I'm not entirely a fan of the company's business model, which relies on owners renting out their own homes. Not only does this sometimes go against local laws, it could also reduce the housing supply and raise rents for actual residents. There are also potential issues with privacy -- hosts are allowed to place cameras in their rentals -- and Airbnbs typically don't have the same safety regulations as hotels. (Airbnb, for its part, has said that it has rigorous security and privacy rules in place, and has worked with local authorities to stay within the law.)
As I flip through the latest issue of Airbnb Magazine, I find a beautiful series of photographs of designer homes. I pause to admire each photo, read each caption and marvel at how these profiled home owners decorated their living room with a Tuareg mat and a paper lantern. For a brief few moments, I put aside my criticisms of Airbnb and simply enjoyed what I was reading. And this, perhaps, was the point.