The viability of a multi-billion dollar tech firm and the future of the sharing economy were on the ballot in San Francisco last November. During the city’s municipal elections, voters were being asked to decide on Proposition F, which would have imposed restrictions on private, short-term housing rentals — the lifeblood of companies like Airbnb.
Prop. F, dubbed the Airbnb initiative, was backed by an unconventional coalition of tenant activists, wealthy property owners and NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) neighbors. Defeating this influential group required our team of consultants to use a blend of conventional tactics, such as grassroots organizing and TV ads, together with a host of tech tools to mobilize the Airbnb community and its allies.
For instance, Airbnb has more than 130,000 users in San Francisco and we needed to communicate with them directly on multiple fronts (through email, mail and by phone). That direct conduit was supplanted with TV ads, Chinese-Language outreach and getting low-propensity youth voters to the polls. Over a five-month campaign, we outworked and outthought the coalition supporting Prop. F.
Now, the race was a dead heat when the proponents of Prop. F launched their campaign last summer. Our initial polling through David Binder Research showed 46 percent voting yes, 44 percent voting no and only 10 percent undecided. A surprising number of voters were familiar with the home-sharing issue, and most had opinions about it, but they didn’t yet know what the proposition entailed.
The majority of San Francisco voters supported the right of people to share their homes, but they also believed that the industry needed regulation. Many of these same voters didn’t know about the regulations that had just gone into effect addressing their same concerns.
Prior to the launch of the Prop. F campaign, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed extensive, common-sense regulations of home sharing in October 2014. Throughout that process, thousands of Airbnb hosts had gotten involved — testifying at public meetings, calling their elected representatives and organizing in their own communities. The greatest asset we had was our Airbnb hosts and they were ready to fight Prop. F.
Meanwhile, there was no question that affordable housing was a major issue in a city were the average cost of a home now exceeds $1.1 million and it’s hard to find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $3,000 a month. It’s clear San Francisco is in the midst of the greatest housing affordability crisis in its history. In every single poll, housing cost usurped everything else as the most important issue facing the city by more than 20 points.
With voters already acutely aware of the housing crisis in the city, Prop. F’s proponents just needed to convince the electorate that Airbnb was responsible for driving up the cost of housing in San Francisco. That was the argument put forward by a strange-bedfellows alliance of tenant activists, who put much of the blame on increased housing costs on both Airbnb and tech workers, wealthy property owners and NIMBY neighbors who didn’t want their neighborhood quality of life tarnished by out-of-town visitors. These groups, usually adversaries in San Francisco politics, were united against home sharing and in favor of Prop. F. In fact, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) became their most prominent leader and spokeswoman.
Against those opponents, we knew that we needed to frame the issue first. It wasn’t about Airbnb. It was about the thousands of middle-class hosts in San Francisco who needed the extra money they made from renting out a spare room in their house to make ends meet. They were putting roofs on their homes, taking care of their sick parents and sending their kids to college with the money they earned from renting out a spare room. Our campaign was buoyed by their stories.
Moreover, the ballot initiative was full of holes. In addition to capping all home sharing at 75 days per year — regardless of whether or not the host was present — it included a slew of other restrictions inserted to build political support. Included in the fine print, for instance, was a ban on short-term rentals in all in-law units, which are common dwelling units in San Francisco homes.
It also provided financial incentives for neighbors to sue each other over short-term rentals and required short-term rental hosts to share data with the city on the number of nights they slept in their own beds. Our polling showed that there was no single line of attack to defeat Prop. F, but that by building doubt with each of these concerns, we could beat it with “death by a thousand cuts.”
Through a campaign team that included Patrick Hannan, who managed the race, senior advisor Chris Lehane, Joe Slade White & Company, our media buyers at Sadler Strategic and our team at 50+1 Strategies as the lead consultants, we established our message frame as “too extreme.”
We utilized the “too extreme” frame to create reservations about the proposition as a whole and to draw attention to the specifics — privacy concerns related to data sharing as well as the possibility of lawsuits and neighbors spying on each other for financial gain. We needed to move some of those “yes” voters to “undecided” or “no” early to establish the lead we would need to win.
Airbnb committed significant resources to the campaign and pledged to spend whatever was necessary to win the election. We made the decision to communicate early, aggressively, to every community and in every avenue available to us. To do that we built an $8 million budget.
We went up on broadcast TV during the last week of August and never went dark for the remainder of the campaign. Joe Slade White & Company, which led our ad campaign, created spots that presented our message in a creative and compelling way. They highlighted a creepy neighbor with binoculars peering through windows and a peaceful woman sleeping in her bed unaware that it was all being tracked. We also included some of our most convincing third-party validators, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), the San Francisco Democratic Party and the San Francisco Chronicle in these ads.
While our polling had us virtually tied in July, we jumped to a 16-point lead in mid September, making it nearly impossible for our opponents to catch up. But we couldn’t take our foot off the gas because we knew our opponents would step up their game in the final six weeks.
We worked with Target Labs to develop a targeting model to best focus our mail and field universes. We sent 16 pieces of mail to a universe of approximately 100,000 households and made sure it mirrored the content of the TV ads. We put up massive campaign billboards around town using the same binocular image of the spying neighbor that voters saw in the TV ads and in their mailboxes. And we ran a robust online campaign led by Social Stream to reach those same voters digitally.
The campaign had all the modern bells and whistles you’d expect of an effort backed by a Sillicon Valley giant. Still, we also ran one of the most aggressive field campaigns San Francisco has ever seen. Over the course of 11 weeks, our staff and volunteers knocked on more than 300,000 doors, made some 300,000 phone calls and had over 120,000 conversations with real voters. We got more than 2,000 small businesses to oppose Prop. F. In fact, our Airbnb hosts took the lead in this campaign, hosting house parties, organizing their friends and neighbors, and leading dozens of earned media events.
Our targeted outreach also included Chinese-American voters, who are one of the largest voting blocs in the city. Local consultant Tom Hsieh led this effort. For almost two months, we ran uncontested in the Chinese community while our opponents failed to communicate. We highlighted the support of popular Chinese community endorsers like Mayor Ed Lee, Assemblymember David Chiu and Board of Equalization Member Fiona Ma.
We ran ads on Chinese TV and Chinese radio, print ads in Chinese newspapers and held multiple earned media events. We built a massive Chinese field operation, targeting voters on the phone and at the door in both Cantonese and Mandarin. We highlighted the issue of property rights, specifically the prohibition on any short term rental of in-law units disproportionately owned and occupied by Chinese-Americans.
We also targeted young voters, who we knew from our polling were our largest group of supporters. Now, in an off-year election, youth voter (18-30 years old) turnout was generally quite low in San Francisco so we knew something had to be done to change that. We ensured that a new program, UpVote, had the resources it needed to be successful. UpVote was a new nonpartisan organization created to register and turn out low propensity young voters. Over the course of four months, UpVote registered more than 5,000 new young voters in San Francisco and identified 10,000 low-propensity voters to turn out in the election.
Finally, we engaged the Airbnb universe to make sure they understood the implications of this election. Airbnb, as we mentioned above, has some 130,000 users in San Francisco. We needed to communicate with them directly. We reminded voters on the Airbnb platform through digital ads to vote no on Prop. F, and we mailed directly to these users with targeted messages. Organizers also reached out to Airbnb hosts and ensured that they were voting, volunteering and spreading the word about Prop. F.
All of our efforts paid off tremendously. Field conversations, in particular, helped increase voter turnout by 44 percent citywide with 65 percent of all voters contacted by the campaign actually turning in their ballot. Similarly, 63 percent of all voters who received a mail piece from the campaign participated in the election.
Chinese-American voters targeted by our grassroots campaign voted at an astronomical rate of 70 percent, or a 25-point increase from total citywide turnout. Newly registered young voters through UpVote outperformed average turnout rates for their age group by more than 23 percent. And 81 percent of Airbnb hosts in our outreach universe participated in the 2015 election — among the highest turnout of any demographic group examined. Not far behind, 70 percent of Airbnb guests contacted by the campaign cast a ballot in the election.
We had built a winning coalition. When all of the votes were counted, Prop. F was decisively defeated by more than 11 points or 22,403 votes. We won 10 out of the 11 supervisorial districts in San Francisco and we only lost that one district by less than 0.1 percent.
Across the country and around the world, communities are navigating the short-term rental issue. Proposition F proved the power of the Airbnb community as a political force and other cities should take note of what we accomplished.
Nicole Derse is the principal & co-founder of 50+1 Strategies.