Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on First Round Review.
Most new tech companies simply would not work without consumer trust. People wouldn’t get into an Uber, list their home on Airbnb, or even buy shoes on Zappos if they didn’t trust those companies to deliver a high quality, secure service. UrbanSitter sets the bar even higher: It connects families with babysitters on the Internet. There are few things that require more faith.
“In many ways, we’re tackling the service that requires the most trust in someone’s life,” says UrbanSitter CEO Lynn Perkins. “If companies can replicate what we’ve done in other sectors, they’ll knock it out of the park.”
So how did UrbanSitter pull this off? How did they build a product that convinces parents that strangers can safely watch their children? Perkins has become an expert in this area, pointing to a combination of product features, logistics, and customer service efforts that have allowed them to become a reliable solution for hundreds of thousands of households nationwide. In this exclusive interview, she shares how UrbanSitter has approached trust-building and how other companies can do the same to grow fast.
People have short attention spans. Your website has limited real estate. You need to know what you have to instantaneously display to users so they feel like you understand their needs. How can you demonstrate to them that you’re an expert and worthy of them making a transaction?
“The best way to do this is to first identify your ideal user,” says Perkins. “Our ideal user is a parent who has a somewhat urgent need for a sitter. It can be that broad, but you need to know that profile first so you can determine what information to show them.”
She goes on to say, “People might have a variety of needs, but you should try to figure out what those top three scenarios are and answer those first, as fast as you can. That’s what will make people feel like you’re the most relevant product for their search.”
There are several reasons customers go to UrbanSitter’s site: They have to find a sitter right away and time is of the essence; they want a lower-cost childcare solution; they just moved to a new area and they don’t know anyone to watch their child. To answer all of these questions, UrbanSitter immediately shows you available sitters, their average response times, their price ranges and — using Facebook Connect (crucially) — stack ranks the sitters based on your degree of connection, so your friends’ sitters are shown first.
“As you develop trust, you develop brand equity. That should be your goal.”
Facebook Connect has made a huge impact on UrbanSitter’s success. And now with other networks like LinkedIn and Google rolling out similar services that port user information, there’s more ways for startups to leverage social graphs than ever before.
“The way we use people’s social graphs is one of our biggest differentiators,” Perkins says, adding that they plan to roll out the ability to show LinkedIn connections soon. “When it comes to trusting a babysitter, friend and family recommendations carry the most weight. If they have used a sitter and been happy with them, you’re very likely to trust that person. On that second tier might be co-workers, or parents who have children at the same school. Social proof at this scale is hugely influential.”
When a parent joins UrbanSitter, the site also asks a few questions, including which parenting groups they belong to, like a local mom’s group, a specific PTA, even nearby museums that might have significance to their family.
“When people see that other parents from a group they belong to or respect have used a sitter, that’s compelling information,” says Perkins. “And when we launch in a new city, these groups are really important because they’ve already established trust. We’re borrowing brand credibility from them so new users will trust us too.”
When a user searches for a sitter on the site, they are presented with Facebook connections that have also hired the sitter, in addition to the names of groups the sitter may be affiliated with, and even certifications they have. “We’ll add to the search listing that a sitter is CPR trained at a class that was held at DayOne, which is a parenting organization that people in the Bay Area would likely know. In Los Angeles, the Pump Station is similarly credible, and so on.”
“Trust travels in channels, and some channels are more meaningful than others.”
“This doesn’t mean we should clutter sitter profiles with a ton of information. Gaining trust is just as much about maintaining focus,” says Perkins. “Whatever business you’re in, start with the few data points that will signify expertise to the group you’re trying to reach. Then when people click on a profile, you can grow the amount of information you show them from there.”
In UrbanSitter’s case, they started with people’s Facebook connections, and grew to include group affiliations. Then they expanded their efforts to collect testimonials and reviews from influential parenting bloggers who are already trusted by loyal readerships. “When a blogger with a following writes about his or her experience with your product, you absorb the trust of those followers.”
While reviews and average ratings are important to the UrbanSitter product — allowing the company to elevate great sitters and flag poor-performing sitters — they aren’t the only data driving user decisions. Other metrics can be used to better tailor your service and make it clear that you’re anticipating user needs. For example, UrbanSitter also emphasizes sitter response times (something the platform records, requiring no extra work from users).
“If I’m looking for someone last minute, it’s really good for me to know upfront that someone with a great star rating might take longer than 24 hours to respond,” says Perkins. “On the flipside, if someone else also has a great rating and responds in under an hour, that’s perfect.”
The company strives to provide a mix of quantitative and subjective data to help users determine whether or not to trust a sitter with the job, but they know a lot of decisions are based on numbers. Two of the most important stats are how many ratings a sitter has — giving a better sense of how accurate that score is — and “Repeat Families,” which shows how many families that sitter has worked with more than once.
“If someone has even 5 or more repeat families, that indicates they are a pretty good sitter,” says Perkins. “People are very sensitive about the experiences their children have, so to invite someone back means everything went very smoothly. That way someone might only have a handful of reviews, but if you see that five of them came from repeat families, you’d be pretty confident in their abilities.”
This is also helpful on the sitter side of the platform. If someone has chosen to work for the same family multiple times, it indicates that they were likely paid the agreed upon amount, that the environment felt safe, and that the experience was good overall. Those are the key concerns sitters generally have before accepting a job, she says, and they are easily and quickly answered by providing that information.
Most marketplace companies today rely solely on star ratings, but adding in more data specific to your service builds expertise, Perkins says. In this same vein, Uber estimates how far away cabs are from your current location in addition to showing you the driver’s average star rating. Consignment furniture service Move Loot has a standard system to show quality of goods. This is a big part of understanding what your customers need to know.
UrbanSitter had been available for a while before the site introduced video profiles for sitters — and it was a game changer.
“All of a sudden, video provided a three-dimensional feeling to the site,” says Perkins. “Before video, profiles were flat. You could see the data and read the reviews, but you didn’t really feel like you knew the person.”
“Hearing someone talk for just two minutes about themselves is really powerful.”
She cites one sitter, a young woman named Peri, who used her video profile to sing a song she wrote about why she would make an excellent babysitter. “You understand right away that she’s this warm, creative person who is likely to be good with kids.”
Launching videos had two other positive byproducts. First, people felt even more comfortable booking a sitter last minute when they weren’t able to interview them in real time beforehand. Second, less experienced sitters saw a jump in business.
“Our less experienced and less reviewed sitters weren’t getting a lot of bookings because of the competition,” says Perkins. “But as soon as we added the video option to profiles they started getting far more jobs.” She points to one sitter in particular who saw a spike in bookings after adding a video talking about training to be a pediatrician. Even a short video gives you a good sense of how capable a sitter will be on the job.
In many cases, the company says its sitters speak for themselves. One reason UrbanSitter has gotten so much positive coverage from bloggers is because they hold events in new cities where parents, including mom bloggers, can meet sitters in-person. “For us, putting our best foot forward means showcasing the sitters,” says Perkins. As compelling and comprehensive as an online product can be, it can’t beat the person-to-person connection, so enhancing that wherever possible is always a good strategy.
“Don’t be afraid to try unscalable things that will enhance your brand and build trust, especially in a new market,” she says.
Lynn Perkins has more than 15 years of experience building and growing consumer internet services. Previously, she served as founder and CEO of Xuny, and VP of Business Development at Bridgepath.
Demonstrating remarkable quality has been vital to UrbanSitter’s expansion plan from the beginning. Today, its protocol for launching in new markets is practically turnkey, but it always starts with curating an incredible cohort of sitters on the supply side.
“We knew if we were going to succeed, we needed people to have not just good but great experiences using the service,” says Perkins. To assemble its initial batch of caretakers, UrbanSitter conducted rigorous interviews and made sure only the best of the best were on the platform to start. It’s second step: Introducing these sitters to incredibly connected parents in the area.
“We wanted people with influence to know what it was like to use UrbanSitter,” she says. “What we found was that it actually took a fairly small group of sitters and a small group of highly-connected parents to get the ball rolling.”
Going hyper-local is the most effective way to start. For UrbanSitter, this meant launching first in Brooklyn over Manhattan, then letting word of mouth grow and naturally expand over the entire metro area.
“Wherever your users are concentrated, start with those that are highly-connected.”
Whenever you’ve just entered a market, your mission should be to dazzle people first and promote engagement second, Perkins says. “First you’ll get the ‘Wow’ factor, and if you can repeat that over and over again, you’ll create a brand that sticks with people.” If you focus on this type of curated, highly-monitored experience at the beginning, people will trust that you deliver quality, and that’s the word that will spread.
UrbanSitter uses this same concept of combining quality and influence in its online marketing. They built Facebook’s Like button into sitter profile pages so that customers could post about individual sitters and the great experiences they had using the platform. Prospective users are more likely to respond to individual sitter success stories than general ad copy for the service. And when any of this is connected to people users already know on Facebook, the influence is that much stronger.
“This is a great idea if your brand is less personal than the individuals who provide the service,” says Perkins. “People connect much more directly with other people. You see the sitter’s face and when you click, you’re actually taken directly to their profile. You see they are fantastic, and your assumption is that you’ll find other great sitters on the site too.”
Once you have users’ faith that they will be served well, it’s paramount that you preserve that. You want to equip your service providers with all the tools they need to do a good job. UrbanSitter goes so far as to text its sitters minutes before they’re scheduled to start a job with information like “the five things that will make you the best sitter they ever had” and more.
The company also started building its dedicated user operations team early. This gives them the chance to be proactive about how they intercept and address user issues. If, for example, a sitter declines a job on short notice, the company reaches out immediately with other possible options. They communicate with users over email and even the phone depending on the scale of the user’s need in order to make people feel cared for.
It’s also important to be proactive when it comes to addressing problems that have already popped up. When things don’t go well, you need to take action immediately. Perkins says she once booked a Zipcar, and a half an hour before she picked it up they called to tell her it had been in an accident. They asked her where she was and identified cars that were even closer to her. Those cars might have been more expensive, but they offered them to her for the same price. Having a good plan for damage control in place is a critical part of earning trust.
“When you need to quickly gain consumer trust, I think the best way is to give them control over their experience with your service and on your site,” says Perkins. “If they know what it is they’re looking for, make it easy for them to find it.”
In UrbanSitter’s case, this means presenting users with detailed options, not just pointing them to one sitter and saying, “This one’s for you,” even if that seems like it would make things easier. Instead, they provide different ways for users to filter their search. These even get granular if users want, allowing parents to select a caregiver who speaks French or another language.
Consistent user behavior and data tracking can give you a good sense of where and how to empower your users, Perkins explains. “Being able to understand how people are using your product lets you hone in on what people really want.”
When UrbanSitter first launched, Perkins and her team assumed that if a regular sitter wasn’t available, parents would go back and look at other sitters their friends had hired. But, it turned out that parents were more interested in booking the friends of the sitter they liked. The company realized that users were organically searching for other sitters this way, so they modified the product to surface sitters’ friends who were also working on the site.
“It was a random sign of trust for us that people liked their sitters so much that they preferred to find someone similar to them, even more so than someone else their friends would recommend,” says Perkins. “I think that actually approximates the experience people have in real life when they find a sitter the old-fashioned way. They probably ask that person if they know anyone from school.” Given this, it stands to reason that building mechanisms into your site that approximate real life can help foster trust too.
Perkins points to Goodreads as another site that takes advantage of this online-offline phenomenon. The site uses your social graph to help you recommend books you’ve liked and discover books from friends, just like you would in real life in real time. It generates the same type of buzz and community, which has led an increasing number of people to trust Goodreads for surfacing great books.
“Once you’ve defined your ideal users and developed basic functionality, it’s time to get even more precise about how people decide to use your service,” Perkins says. “You want to list all of the concerns they could possibly have and then the data you’ll use to respond to all of those concerns. That’s how you engender trust on an even deeper level.”
For instance, people might believe your service is good, but still might be wary if they haven’t heard of anyone using it, or if they don’t have any friends who have used it before. In this case, you can use data to your advantage. “It builds a lot of credibility when we can say X number of parents from your child’s school or your mom’s group have used UrbanSitter.” They can start to visualize users just like themselves being satisfied with the service.
Figuring out what these data points are shouldn’t be a guessing game either. Take strategic opportunities to ask people what they care about and what changed their minds.
“Just by looking at data that tracks how people use our site, we know how many of our bookings are people who needed a sitter within 24 hours. We know how many people were just browsing and for how long. But we also ask when we can. Following a full transaction, we ask if they would recommend UrbanSitter to a friend. If they are willing to answer that, we ask them why or why not. If they leave the site without booking, we ask them first why they were there and what they were looking for.”
This type of surveying and monitoring helped Perkins and her team discover that more people were simply browsing than they initially thought. Now, the next version of the site will make browsing and booking even easier.
A big part of trust is believing that a company has your best interest at heart even though you’re a paying customer. Taking this into account, UrbanSitter has made it a primary goal to make its service a smoother, easier, stress-free version of finding childcare, and to take as much doubt out of the process as possible.
As an example, when parents pay an UrbanSitter, their credit card is simply charged by the company and the appropriate funds are transferred to the sitter. No one has to pull out a wallet or determine how much to pay or to tip. This eliminates a traditionally awkward experience for both parties involved.
“We find that a lot of sitters are uncomfortable asking for a higher rate, and a lot of parents simply don’t know whether to tip — only 20 percent do on a regular basis,” Perkins says. “We’re able to tell them what average rates are and take all the uncertainty out of this part of the evening.”
Cutting down on friction is another way you can prove you’re an expert in your field. You’ve thought of everything even before your customer does, and you basically tell them they don’t have to worry about it because you’ve got their back.
Other successful companies have relied on the same idea. Zappos famously allows customers to order many pairs of shoes and return the ones they don’t want for free, making it simple and easy to buy a pair of shoes without ever having to go to the store and eliminating the hesitation around buying online.
“Any time a customer’s hesitation is relieved by something you do, you win.”
Child clothing and toy company Zulily is another champion in this category. “Let’s say that you bought a couple of items that are clearly for an infant girl — suddenly all of the recommendations you get from them focus on purchasing for the child you’re buying for. They seem to magically know. In this case, you feel closer to the company because they seem to know who you are and show you what you’re looking for.”
The more creative you can get in your friction reduction, the better. Suddenly you don’t just seem user-friendly, you seem thoughtful, Perkins says. This is one of the reasons UrbanSitter pursued co-promotions with companies like Opentable. Knowing that their users include tech savvy parents looking to plan a night out, the company made it that much easier to have a great evening by offering deals on babysitting and a great meal.
Content marketing can go a long way toward solidifying expertise in a particular field, whether you’re in the enterprise or consumer market. UrbanSitter publishes articles that tackle all aspects of the childcare experience. They even interview parents and sitters about what makes sitting better and easier.
“We might write something like the top 10 questions to ask a babysitter in an interview,” says Perkins. “We end up attracting parents to our website through these articles and simultaneously build our brand awareness, while converting them into customers.”
UrbanSitter doesn’t just tap into parenting bloggers, it also advertises and provides content through newsletters and partnerships. The company makes connections with schools and seeks to partner with organizations that already have a lot of credibility so that they can absorb some of that trust.
“This may sound completely unscalable, but it really helps build initial brand awareness,” says Perkins. “Once we hit word-of-mouth scale we can start in with paid search and Facebook ads, SEO and things like that.”
GoPro is a great example of content marketing done right. The company takes advantage of user-generated content to promote its brand of cameras on YouTube. In fact, a recent video of a user swimming through a school of jellyfish received over 2 million views. As a result, GoPro is now one of the top contributing brands on YouTube, and has gotten that many more impressions.
As important as content marketing is, it’s even more critical that you don’t go overboard. “You can very quickly damage the value of your service and your network when you become spammy,” Perkins says. “Because we leverage Facebook so much, and we have all this information about who you’re connected to, we’re very careful to not take advantage of that, and I’d advise other companies to be very careful too.”
“Privacy concerns are a dealbreaker. Balance your need for user information with your desire to use it to benefit your company.”
“The most important thing you can do is turn a user into a referrer, because that means they’ve had the ultimate great experience,” says Perkins. “A huge percentage of people become Uber users because their friends tried it first and they were passengers in the car with them. It’s massively valuable.”
A recent study by Nielsen shows that word of mouth recommendations from family and friends spur the highest levels of action. Capturing this effect online should be one of your highest goals.
To accomplish this, the best thing you can do is build social media capabilities into your product to make word of mouth sharing simple. “You want to make it as easy as possible for people to share their experiences with the brand,” says Perkins. “It makes your brand bigger, and the bigger it gets the easier it becomes to get organic referrals.”
To capture referrals, UrbanSitter instituted a “give-to-get” program. That way, when families recommend other families to use the service, they get free babysitting credits. It’s been a popular away for the company to acquire new customers.
“You want to make it seamless,” says Perkins. “Every time you can convince someone to share because they had such a great experience with your product, the lower the cost of acquiring a new customer becomes. That’s trust. They trust you so much that they’re willing to share their experience with others, and that’s ultimately what will grow your business.”
Image Credit: Jill Clardy