How Airbnb Used Storyboarding To Revamp Its Candidate Experience

How Airbnb hires is closely tied to its brand. “Belong Anywhere” is the company tagline, representing its mission to build a trusted community of people and places to stay. So, imagine if a candidate applied to the community-based brand, only to hear nothing back? The contradiction would be a disappointment, and Airbnb would lose hundreds of its hosts or guests. So, Airbnb's Talent Acquisition team wanted to ensure that “Belong Anywhere” resonates throughout the entire recruiting process. 

Jill Riopelle, Head of Recruiting at Airbnb, has shared the story of building a great candidate experience at the company. How they got there may surprise you.

Airbnb Recruiting – Before the Candidate Experience

In late 2011 - early 2012, Airbnb started making waves in Silicon Valley. Jill became inundated with resumes, and her tiny recruiting team was overwhelmed. They struggled to get back to candidates in a timely manner, and failed to efficiently manage the interview and hiring process.

Airbnb’s system was this: If the person’s name was bolded in the Applicant Tracking System, his or her resume hadn’t been viewed. If a name wasn’t bolded, the team wouldn’t look at the name… ever again.

The system was broken, and completely off-brand. The company was trying to build a community based on trust – but even Airbnb employees didn’t trust the candidate experience. The recruiting team failed to get referrals from current employees, because even they refused to subject their friends or colleagues to the system in place. 

“We were in a bad place. But there were no guidelines on how to develop a candidate experience.” - Jill Riopelle

Meanwhile, In Another Airbnb Department

Over the holidays, CEO and founder Brian Chesky read the biography of Walt Disney. During the making of Snow White, Disney used a method called storyboarding to bring characters to life.

“I realized that Disney as a company was actually at a similar stage where we are now when they created Snow White," Chesky says. The company had success with shorter cartoons, but Walt wanted to create a feature-length film with enough depth that people would care about, not just laugh at, the characters. He wanted to tell a complete story. – Fast Company

Airbnb mapped out two storyboards – one for the host and one for the guest. It forced the company to think about the entire experience, end to end, for each. In addition, it made key stages of the experience more clear.

The key principles behind storyboarding are as follows:

1. Define critical moments that are universal

2. Don’t let reality get in the way (No pain points; you must talk about the ideals)

3. Be true to the customer / candidate (Think about what they want)

Storyboarding in Talent Acquisition

Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s Co-founder and Chief Product Officer, knew that the recruiting team was struggling to provide a great candidate experience. So he approached the team with the same exercise. Following the three principles defined above, the team used post-its to storyboard the ten stages of the interview process.

They then asked, at each stage: What do we want them to know? What do we want them to feel? What does rejection look like at each stage? What makes this stage uniquely Airbnb?

Collecting Insights 

The recruiting team didn't rely on assumptions to map out these stages. To truly understand the candidate experience, the they went out and applied for several jobs.

For a great candidate experience, they learned:

The importance of rejection: Rejection is one of the most important pieces of the candidate experience, and the team found that there was nothing unique about Airbnb's rejection emails. In fact, much of Silicon Valley was using the same ATS at that point. The default, automated rejection email was exactly the same. At this phase, Airbnb was rejecting roughly 98% of the applicants that came in. So the rejection experience was key.

Set expectations often: This is a huge component of the candidate experience. Jill learned that TiVo has an automated response that gives candidates an expected wait time, as well as an FAQ to browse with questions.

Use their brand voice: They found that some of their email language was incongruous with their brand. An automated message does not make you feel that you “Belong.”

What makes them different: Because Airbnb had just made tons of new hires, they had recent candidates to ask. They put out red and green post-its and asked people to mark what was bad or good at each stage of the process. On the post-its, new hires would write about how they felt.

They were able to determine the things that made them stand out – for example, people liked getting out of the interview and interacting with the team. Now, the recruiting coordinators offer an extensive tour during interviews.

 Bringing the Storyboard to Life

Before implementing the storyboard experience, Jill’s team had some work to do. A few quick wins:

  • A website FAQ for candidates
  • Candidate feedback surveys
  • Interviewer training
  • A mandatory Airbnb profile
  • Updated templates
  • Personalized candidate communications

 The team also asked – Who are our candidates? Back then, these were the numbers:

12% Hosts

35% Guests

53% ???

Knowing that 53% of applicants were not users of Airbnb guests or hosts meant that recruiter communications were just as important as marketing. This is the first touch point of many potential users, so the candidate experience was directly impacting the company’s bottom line.


Step 1: Applicant Tracking Software

Airbnb chose Greenhouse as a new ATS. The recruiting optimization platform closely mirrors their process, it is a decision-making and recruiter-centric tool, and finally, Jill says that Greenhouse allows them to set up each interview stage within the framework of the candidate journey.

Step 2: Candidate Surveys 

More than anything, candidates that apply to Airbnb provide feedback that they appreciate any response at all. However, candidate surveys are a place to rant and rave about the experience.

If they rant (and have good reason behind it), Jill says that they love to surprise and delight them. They will often send a personal note and a coupon to the site if the team disappointed a candidate.

Step 3: New Hire Survey 

The team asks new hires to share at what point they made the decision to join the company. That way, they know where to invest more energy.

Using this survey, the team congregates once per quarter to discuss what they can do better.

And finally, they collect quotes that reinforce their partnership with the interviewing teams.

Step 4: Build An Awesome Recruiting Team

Airbnb sets the bar high for who they recruit to be recruiters. Recruiting Coordinator is not an entry-level position, because they spend the most time with candidates.

This blog is based on a talk given by Jill Riopelle, Airbnb's Head of Recruiting, at the Greenhouse Summit 2015. If you like this content, be sure to join us at the new Greenhouse Open in May 2016. Simply click the button below for more information!

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Filed Under:

Candidate Experience