What is Airtable and why isn’t everyone using it yet?
Airtable combines the power of spreadsheets, databases, project management software, “no-code” apps, and collaboration tools into a very powerful and flexible tool. There are few Airtable alternatives, and six years after launch, it should be have reached mainstream adoption by now.
But it hasn’t.
Instead, it remains a product that’s been loved by early adopter types and enterprise clients but hasn’t reached anywhere near the ubiquity that similarly powerful products like Slack, Trello, and Salesforce have enjoyed.
In this article, we’ll explore why Airtable has failed to grow at a more rapid clip – despite being an amazing product. In particular, we’ll look at why Airtable’s somewhat schizophrenic messaging is holding it back and how a concept called “category creation” may be the solution.
But for context, let’s first take a look at what Airtbable is and what Airtable is used for.
What Is Airtable Anyway?
This is the crux of Airtable’s challenge. But here’s the best way I can describe it succinctly.
A traditional spreadsheet, like the kind you’d make in Excel, is a very powerful way of organizing and analyzing data. But there are some limitations. For example, grouping and sorting rows is cumbersome. Records must be text-based, which limits the kind of data you can work with. And there’s no way to view your spreadsheet in more practical ways, like a calendar or a Kanban view. So at a basic level, Airtable solves those shortcomings by giving you a more flexible way of working with spreadsheet data.
If that was all Airtable did, they wouldn’t have such a challenge. But that’s just the beginning.
Airtable also lets you link spreadsheets together, as a relational database allows. It uses this concept called “Blocks” which are like mini-apps that integrate with your spreadsheets. And to top it off, project management software and collaboration tools could also be considered Airtable alternatives because there is so much feature overlap.
What Is Airtable Used For?
To recap, Airtable pulls together functionality from these existing categories:
- Spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets)
- Database (Microsoft Access, Mongo DB)
- No-code Apps (FileMaker, Zudy)
- Project Management (Wrike, Basecamp)
- Task Management (Wunderlist, Todoist)
- Collaboration (Trello, Slack)
What is Airtbale used for exactly? According to their site, everyone from cattle ranchers, to journalists, to stay-at-home moms.
The fact that Airtable can cover so much ground is great for people who already use the software. But for those who have yet to start using Airtable, such a chameleon-like nature poses a huge barrier to understanding what the software is, who it’s for, and how it’s used.
What is this barrier exactly? It has to do with something called a “category-first buying process”. And until Airtable address it, it will continue to face strong headwinds against growth.
We All Think In Categories, Whether We’re Conscious Of It or Not
When we buy software, most of us look for a tool to fulfill a specific need or solve a specific problem. Take video conferencing software for example. If you want to conduct video-based calls with others on your team, you’d probably head to Google and search for something like “best video conferencing software”. Or, you might head to a review site like Capterra or G2Growd to find the highest rated video conferencing options.
And from there, you’ll probably spend some time on the websites for each of the offerings you’re considering. The better job a site can do of convincing you that its video conferencing offering is the best for your needs, the more likely you are to buy.
In other words, you had a problem in mind and you proceeded to look for a solution using that framework.
The process applies to more than just software. Think about business and consumer products you’ve purchased recently – insurance, cars, office chairs, smartphones, daycare, etc. – and chances are you will have used a similar process.
People think of known categories first, and then the look for the most appropriate choice within that category.
But unfortunately, people aren’t sure what framework to use when considering Airtable alternatives. It hasn’t positioned itself to be understood in terms of a specific category.
Why Airtable Is Unnecessarily Confusing
Let’s pick one of these categories above, project management software, and see what the buying experience is like for Airtable.
Using a “category-first” approach, you’re likely to come across Airtable when looking at reviews for project management software. On G2 Crowd, for example, things look promising, as it ranks very highly both in terms of customer satisfaction and market presence.
Airtable’s own description about itself creates the first point of confusion. It reads as such:
“Airtable is the all-in-one collaboration platform designed to combine the flexibility of a spreadsheet interface with features like file attachments, kanban card stacks, revision history, calendars, and reporting.”
It sounds interesting, but there’s no mention of “project management”. Contrast that with Basecamp, which reads,
“Trusted by millions, Basecamp is a web-based project management and collaboration tool. To-dos, files, messages, schedules, milestones and more.
Wrike’s pretty clear, too:
“Wrike is all-in-one project management software that helps remote and co-located teams get more things done together.”
Now, if you were going to narrow down your choices based on the information you have so far, you’d probably eliminate Airtable.
You’d do so simply because “an all-in-one collaboration platform” doesn’t line up with the problem you’re trying to solve (finding the best project management software).
Airtable’s reviews don’t help much either.
You’ll see phrases like “Great data management tool for field research”, “Easiest data relation and visualization on the market”, and “perfect solution for multiple spreadsheets”. Meanwhile, Wrike and Basecamp’s reviews consistently talk about project management.
High review scores don’t matter if the reviews themselves don’t describe the solution you’re looking for.
Understanding Airtable Through Organic Discovery is Equally Challenging
So far, we’ve established that when looking at Airtable on review sites, vague product messaging makes it difficult to see why it would be the ideal solution for a specific application.
But what happens when someone discovers Airtable organically, like through a friend or by stumbling across them in another context? Does Airtable’s own messaging lend itself to easier comprehension?
Airtable’s messaging is pretty inconsistent across different platforms and even on its own website.
Let’s take a look at what Airtable says about itself. Depending on where you encounter the company, you’ll find the following statements…
- “Teams use Airtable to organize their work, their way.”
- “Organize anything, with anyone, anywhere.”
- “Create your first database in minutes.”
- “Spreadsheet, meet database”
- “Create, your way”
- “The perfect view for the task at hand”
- “A modern database created for everyone”
- “Project management, editorial calendars, flexible CRM, and inventory management”
Unfortunately, these phrases create more questions than answers…
- What exactly is a “modern database” anyway?
- Does “create” mean that is a software for artists and designers?
- Does “database” mean this is a tool for researchers?
- How do “create a database” and “organize a project” happen in the same piece of software?
- Is Airtable good for solo users, or is it designed more for teams?
- Is this supposed to replace something I use today?
Airtable has presented a variety of messages designed to cover all possible users and uses cases. It’s an open-ended message that hints more at possibility than practical application.
Unfortunately, this way of describing a product will only resonate with one group: early adopters who are willing to invest the time to see what’s possible with a new type of software.
But for the majority of people who encounter Airtable organically, they’ll file the idea under “interesting, but not for now.”
Since Airtable hasn’t described itself in relation to an existing category that people are already familiar with, most people will have a difficult time knowing just want to make of it.
And when people don’t understand what something is for, they are unlikely to buy it.
Airtable Has An Opportunity Few Companies Enjoy: Category Creation
Does this mean that Airtable should take a step back and focus its messaging solely on an existing category? Perhaps it could, but the Airtable alternatives we looked at above operate in very crowded markets already. If it had a narrower range of features that could serve a particular market niche really well, this would probably be its best bet.
But because Airtable offers a novel tool that’s changing the boundaries of traditional software, it has an even better option for its marketing strategy: it can define an entirely new category of software.
What Does It Mean To Create A New Category?
Creating (and owning) a new product category is one of the most challenging things to do in marketing. It requires that you come up with a new way of describing the concept you’ve developed – usually in just two or three words. And it demands thoughtful use and consistent evangelization of that term over a long period of time.
Category creation isn’t about creating a catchy tagline for your company alone. It’s a marketing strategy that involved putting a stake in the ground about how you and your future competitors will define themselves.
Howevever, research shows that companies who build categories are typically the ones who gain the lion’s share of the market and the profits within that space. In other words, if you think that the concept you’re building is going to become something larger than yourself, then investing in category creation and ownership before one of your competitors does can pay huge dividends.
Hubspot is a great example. Instead of trying to compete directly against Eloqua, InfusionSoft, Neolane, Pardot, Silverpop, Act-On, and other marketing automation platforms when they launched in 2008, they defined a new category instead. They called it “Inbound Marketing” software. And instead of just coining a term, Hubspot wove “inbound” into all of its messaging.
10 years later, Hubspot is a $5B company. And if you search for “inbound marketing”, Hubspot still continues to rank at the top. Had Hubspot stayed a “marketing automation” company, they may have only created a business the fraction of that size.
A Glimpse At Putting Category Creation Into Practice
Category creation is a major undertaking. A full outline of what that would look like is outside the scope of this post. But here’s a practical way Airtable could immediately gain the benefits of category creation.
Once Airtable had established a name for its category and a definition for it, the natural next step would be to show people specific examples of what this idea looks in practice. Dropbox did this by showing how it could help someone planning for a trip to Africa. Airtable could do something similar by allowing visitors to identify the problem they were trying to solve and then showing them the product could help.
This wouldn’t even be difficult. By presenting a new concept to a website visitor (by leading with a short description of this new category), Airtable could naturally pique a visitor to ask, “Interesting… what is Airtable used for?”
It could answer that by helping the visitor find use cases that related to the particular problem they might be trying to solve. In the explanations of these use cases, Airtable could reinforce the definition of this new category, helping the user turn an abstract concept into a concrete idea.
The beauty of this approach is simple.
By presenting a new concept first, and by quickly following up with tangible examples, Airtable gets to present itself on its own terms. Instead of trying to fit everything into an existing construct (e.g. project management software), Airtable could reframe the conversation and invite visitors to explore. And it would avoid the problem Airtable presently has of using alternating references to existing products – an approach that only creates confusion.
The result? Wrike, Trello, and Excel wouldn’t be seen as Airtable alternatives. Instead, they’d be viewed as different categories of software and thus inappropriate for direct comparison.
The good news for Airtable is that it already has a section on its site dedicated to showing what Airtable is used for. But it lives in a corner of the website, called the “Airtable Universe” where visitors are unlikely to find it. By pairing its new category definition with a more streamlined University section, the company could dramatically reduce barriers to comprehension.
What’s Next For Airtable?
Will Airtable gain mass adoption, or will it remain a tool only for the early-adopting “power users” who are willing to explore new software concepts?
The answer depends on how this unique B2B brand defines itself. If they undertake the task of defining and owning a new category, they can avoid direct comparisons and have conversations with potential customers on their own terms. In doing so, they will be more successful in opening people’s minds to this idea of “spreadsheet meets database meets collaboration tool”.
However, if they retain their chameleon-like messaging approach, they will likely never reach their true potential. Buyers will look at Airtable through the lens of categories they are already familiar with, and as a result will continue to see plenty of other products as Airtable alternatives. And when they find that Airtable doesn’t neatly fit within those bounds, they’re likely to look somewhere else.