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Earning consumer trust in the relationship era: 3 lessons from Airbnb, TaskRabbit & Zipcar

We've heard about the "sharing economy" for awhile now, most recently in an op-ed column about Airbnb, the online service that allows people to rent out their homes (or castles or yurts) to travelers. In this economy, consumers are radically changing the way they buy goods and services — and from whom.

As Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, wrote last week, the rise of Airbnb is fundamentally about trust. "Airbnb's real innovation is not online rentals," he argued. "It's 'trust.'"

What does this mean for digital marketers? Plenty. Trust has been a critical issue for brands in the relationship era, and smart companies recognize that their success hinges on their customers' trust and confidence, not just that their profile preferences will be respected but also that their favorite brands will deliver messages that are relevant, unobtrusive and highly personal. They also want to know that their opinions matter.

3 ways to earn customer trust

Airbnb — and other shared services — are at the forefront of this communal culture shift and the digital marketing strategies necessary to thrive. After all, their businesses rely almost exclusively on their customers. If nobody wants to rent her apartment for the weekend, there's no Airbnb.

At its core, marketing in the sharing economy (also known as "collaborative consumption" and the "peer economy") boils down to "transparency," explains Vivek Wagle, the head of brand strategy at Airbnb, who participated in a panel at Responsys Interact 2013 alongside Anne Raimondi of Taskrabbit, Gita Rebbapragada of Zipcar and moderator, Tomio Geron of Forbes. This means involving customers in business initiatives, opening up about company failures and giving consumers a sense of ownership.

Relationship era panel

Here's a closer look at what transparency in the relationship era means to Airbnb and two other leading sharing services, TaskRabbit and Zipcar.

  1. Encourage collaboration. Sharing not only builds trust, but also creates a sense of purpose for consumers. Airbnb research shows that 36 percent of its customers share for philosophical reasons, not financial ones. The message applies to all marketers: If customers have a place to share their thoughts or stand behind certain causes for a company, they are more likely to be engaged and remain loyal to the company in the long run. If they don't have a way to engage, they're likely to head to the nearest competitor.
  2. Show your human side. TaskRabbit likes to tell a story about how a mother hired a woman to sit with her son during his chemotherapy sessions because she was unable to get across the country. This doesn't mean all company stories need to be life changing, but they establish intimacy with consumers. At the same time, so does confessing to failures. "Telling people about the times when you fell short and learned something substantial is very effective," wrote Leah Busque, TaskRabbit founder and CEO, on LinkedIn. "It shows that you’re working hard to do better."
  3. Relinquish some control. Zipcar allows members to drive its cars without ever once having to interact directly with a company gatekeeper. Sure, the customer (and her credit card) is on the hook if something goes wrong. But by stepping back and allowing users to experience driving a Zipcar as though it were their own goes a long way toward gaining customer trust.

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