Consumers hear constantly that we are becoming more self-involved, lonelier, more isolated by technology; retreating into our smartphones for many of our daily interactions, shopping from our sofas, and communicating via keyboards. But as the accessibility of digital technology grows, it has enabled another social construct to become better understood. The “sharing economy”, the system of mutually sharing assets and services rather than on a transactional basis, has taken off on an unprecedented level thanks to the ease of digital communication. Services like Airbnb and Uber, while still being at base level transactional, enable users to leverage their own resources to offer a service. But the UK’s leading house sitting site prides itself on being, what it describes as, a true example of the sharing economy. TrustedHousesitters connects pet lovers with those looking for pet care, allowing them to travel and rest reassured that their pets are being looked after by someone who really cares, for free. Jess Stephens, CMO of TrustedHousesitters and chair at the upcoming Figaro Digital Marketing Conference, chatted to us about what the shared economy holds for marketers, and how they can prepare themselves for the rising momentum of this disruptive force.
An Economy Of Trust
“We believe we’re one of the truest expressions of the sharing economy,” explains Stephens. “Airbnb and Uber are different to us, because money changes hands between those using the service. This is a true sharing economy in that one user is taking advantage of something that someone else isn’t using, like their home, and time with a pet, and the other user benefits from getting their home and pet looked after.” This mutual understanding results in the formation of a highly engaged community, who all share a similar set of values and motivations. This, of course, is vital for a service where an issue as sensitive as pet welfare is concerned. “It’s a trust economy- the more reviews you get the better references you receive within the community,” explains Stephens. “Then the more likely you’ll be to get an amazing sit in Barbados or New York. So it’s a trust economy that exists within our network.”
Open All Hours
With trust forming the core of the business, it’s vital that TrustedHousesitters are going to the lengths necessary to make the whole experience smooth, stress free and enjoyable. Maintaining transparency and accessibility is one key area that remains a focus for Stephens and her team. “Our reason for existing is to keep pets happier at home, so it’s super important that everyone understands that and is singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to pet care,” says Stephens. To that end, the brand provides a number of services intended to reassure, inform and maintain that intimate degree of trust required for facilitating these consumer interactions. “We are the facilitator, but of course we have to be trustworthy as a brand as well. We have a 24/7 membership service team, and a 24/7 vet line, so if there’s ever any issue, whether that’s a membership query or any issue with the pet, they can phone up and have that first line of support.”
Spreading The Word
It’s arguable that the consumer/brand relationship that exists within a shared economy is a very different beast to that which exists with an everyday retailer. For a subject that users feel so passionately about, having a relationship with the brand which is based on a shared understanding and passion is vital for the long-term sustainability of TrustedHousesitters. “Brands exist because the consumer connects deeply with its message. If you can create a feeling of trust, whatever kind of brand you are – you’re onto a winner. For us it’s of triple importance, not only is it in our name, but we also need the network to work in a trusting way- and it tends to be the kind of members we recruit,” says Stephens. This is where TrustedHousesitters’ close-knit community comes into play again. The niche offering of the service results in a great deal of traffic from recommendations, where users encourage like-minded individuals to come on board. “People tend to come to our website because they’ve heard through word of mouth that it’s a great solution, and they continue to use the site because they find someone they trust to look after their pets. So it really is about the experience at the heart of the brand.”
Mapping User Intent
But it’s not just word of mouth that is bringing users to the site. TrustedHousesitters has been working on a detailed search strategy to better understand the routes used by users accessing the site, and the kind of content they might be looking for once they get there. “Both sides pay the £89 per year membership, but we need to figure out at a search level whether they are a sitter, looking to go on a travel experience and spend time with a pet, or whether they are a pet owner that needs a pet care solution. We can largely work that out based on just the key terms,” explains Stephens. The next step is tailoring the customer experience depending on the individual’s relationship with the brand, and this is where TrustedHousesitters’ mapping of user intent comes into play. “If it’s the first visit and they’re not using a brand term, what kind of experience do they get that’s more educational, instead of just trying to sell to them? If it’s their fifth visit and they’re using a brand term, how much closer can we get to that goal of them joining? To think about personalisation within that group as well, recognising that it’s someone’s fourth search, but on their 3rd search they only looked at cats in France, we want to make sure that our inventory maps that searcher individually, not just the search term they came through on.”
Personalisation, then, is one strategy which is vital both to TrustedHousesitters, and to the concept of the sharing economy as a whole. It’s through careful education of each user to the brand’s values and mission that TrustedHousesitters successfully identifies and wins leads with the same passion for both travel and pets. Approaching the subject with this sensitivity rather than a sell is vital to reassure consumers and nurture that sense of trust. “We want to explain and educate through the customer experience journey, because we appreciate that not everyone’s going to just get it on the first visit,” explains Stephens. “They might need a bit of an explanation, and they might be looking for that social proof, which we provide in the form of our Trustpilot reviews. We’re the highest rated pet site on Trustpilot, and we have 99.7 per cent 5-star reviews. You don’t often get to work for a brand where your members will actually tell you: ‘this has changed my life’. Bringing in that social proof means that rather than segments and targeting, it’s reflecting the customer experience, understanding what this is, and how it’s changed their life.” The personal touch defines TrustedHousesitters, and their communications benefit from this shared understanding. “It’s completely personal. We’re not selling toasters. People who sell toasters have to find a way to make them personal,” says Stephens. “We have to find a way to make the personal trusted. It’s absolutely crucial that people feel like this is the right solution for them.”
So what can brands outside of the sharing economy learn from the success of TrustedHousesitters? Do business like this hold a secret formula which will wipe out the competition? “If you really are at risk of being knocked out by a shared economy player, you’re not being innovative enough anyway.” Says Stephens. “I would actually turn the question on its head and ask ‘what benefits can traditional brands get from working with a brand like us?’” The brand’s position within the market is one that lends itself to partnerships within other industries. “The biggest thing we do in terms of changing the market isn’t reducing kennel usage, but enabling more pet lovers to travel. The sitters, who can retreat somewhere exotic or local to care for pets, and the owners, who might have avoided travelling without their pets previously, take the trips they’ve always wanted, reassured that their pets are being looked after.” Rather than fearing the momentum of start-ups, Stephens suggests that partnerships can be the source of mutual gain for both start-ups and traditional brands, and add value that will drive consumers to convert. “If you’re a traditional brand like a hotel company, by pairing up with something ancillary, like a pet care solution, you will be enabling more people to travel, and benefitting from that partnership.” The sharing economy therefore offers an opportunity for brands to enhance the overall customer experience, and show that they care about problems facing pet owners when going away. Brands should not fear the sharing economy – embracing it will allow them to display their human side and in turn build trust with their customers.
It’s not too late to grab a ticket to the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference this Thursday 20 July! Head over here to find out more about our speakers, read the agenda, and get your ticket!