He happened to see the wayfarer in the town square. “Where,” the old man inquired, “are you going to, and where do you come from?” Judges 19:17 (The Israel Bible™)
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Nowhere is this principle more apt than in the world of social media and advertising, where would-be travelers choose where to stay and shoppers decide what gadget to buy.
In online transactions like those offered by the commercial service Airbnb, photos play a major role in a renter’s decision where to stay Which homeowner looks trustworthy? Who would provide a comfortable rental that closely resembles the photos they posted?
Profs. Eyal Ert and Aliza Fleischer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s department of environmental economics and management aimed at finding the answer these questions and published their findings in the journal Psychology & Marketing. The article was titled: “What do Airbnb hosts reveal by posting photographs online and how does it affect their perceived trustworthiness.”
“We answer these questions by building a structural equation model of the relation between the characteristics of the photos and the perceived trustworthiness of the hosts. The antecedents of trust in this model were defined based on insights from psychology regarding first impressions. We found that the hosts’ visual characteristics as revealed in their online photographs affect their perceived trustworthiness both directly and indirectly via attractiveness” they wrote. “We also found that image characteristics, which are not related directly to the traits of the host in the picture, play a significant role in trust inference. Interestingly, the hosts’ choices of their personal photos suggest that they may not be aware of these effects.”
Analyzing 320 Airbnb listings in Stockholm, Sweden, they found that two main criteria that determine “visual trustworthiness.” One is the owner’s characteristics (such as gender and facial expression), while the second is the quality of the image itself (is it blurry or clear?). “Our new study quantified the qualities that define the sort of attractiveness that online shoppers identify with trustworthiness,” explained Ert.
While studying hosts’ photos, Ert and Fleischer discovered a “trustworthiness” pecking order: Women are regarded as more trustworthy than men, older hosts over younger ones, smiling faces over neutral expressions and attractive faces over unattractive ones. As for image characteristics, the pair found that high-quality photographs did better than blurry ones, and photos that showed the host interacting with other people (“a multi-person photo”) succeeded more than solo shots of the host. The thinking is that if a host is seen interacting with friends then it may signal their ability to maintain relationships, akin to a stamp of approval for reliability.
“Visual trustworthiness is king in the Airbnb arena. Hosts who are perceived as trustworthy enjoy higher prices and more frequent rentals than do hosts with less-trustworthy photos,” added Fleischer. Notably, race was not a factor in their analysis since 98% of the Swedish hosts were Caucasian.
Given the primacy of profile pictures in online commerce, it is interesting to note that Airbnb hosts are often unaware of these insights. While most smile in their photos (68%), the researchers would have expected to see more photographs of women, at least in those cases where the property is owned by people of both genders.
So the best advice to those who want to “sell” something or someone with a photo is to choose a high-resolution, multi-person shot of an elderly female host who is smiling is more likely to attract Airbnb guests. This is preferable to photos of young hosts, men or poor-quality shots where the host’s face is obstructed.