Finding the voice of the sharing economy


There’s no doubt that the sharing economy is big business – really big, and getting bigger all the time. The term has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary and some people are even calling it the Third Industrial Revolution.

Online platforms that allow people to share underused resources – usually saving money for users and generating income for owners – have fast become a global phenomenon. There are now more than 7,500 sharing economy sites worldwide.

However you describe it – the matching economy, the access economy, collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer, on-demand, as-a-service – you can’t ignore it.

Businesses like Airbnb and Zipcar have been runaway successes and are attracting millions in investment. But all businesses should be paying attention to the sharing phenomenon.

Talking the language of sharing
The success of the sharing economy pioneers is based on a particular type of relationship with consumers. This is partly about how they share content. And this requires the right language.

At a recent Growing Your Sharing Economy Business Forum, organised by SEUK, Intel, law firm Osborne Clarke and insurers XL Catlin to mark Global Sharing Week, an illustrious panel discussed how large, traditional businesses can replicate the innovation seen in sharing economy start-ups.

Debbie Wosskow, founder of Love Home Swap and Chair of SEUK, the trade body for the sharing economy, explained that the three most important things for the Love Home Swap business model are peer-to-peer ratings, a community building trust, and content generated from within that community, such as recommendations about a particular bar or pub. Jim Henrys, Chief Strategist and Architect at Intel underlined the importance to sharing economy businesses of the 3Cs: community, content, commerce.

Henrys suggests that the rise of a new middle class in developing countries provides opportunities for on-demand sharing which shouldn’t be overlooked. These consumers are creating demand for services, but they might not have financial resource for outright ownership so this could be really big business for sharing companies. Henrys believes that the Fortune 500 now have the sharing economy firmly on their radar.

Understanding the sharing consumer
The success of businesses like Airbnb suggests that the sharing economy is simply responding to what consumers want. There is clearly growing demand from consumers for brands to share, but research shows that only a minority are perceived as doing this well.

Benita Matofska, founder of Compare and Share, the world’s first comparison marketplace of the sharing economy, sees it as part of the rise of a new type of commerce, where collaboration and ‘corporate shareability’ become the dominant modes. In an interview for Enterprise, a publication aimed at entrepreneurs from business advisory firm Smith & Williamson, she argues that businesses that put people and planet at the heart of their models will win over the hearts of communities. Businesses need to respond to a more conscious consumerism in a values-driven society. Sharing economy models can create social and environmental value as well as having a significant, positive economic impact.

Jim Henrys adds to this: “As we look at the prospect of a world population of 10bn by 2050 (UN forecast), I’d submit there’s going to be growing concern over finite resources, new challenges arising from the migration of people to ‘mega cities’ and an increased burden on healthcare and education. These challenges may require us to make profound changes to the way we live, and the sharing economy could offer innovative, affordable and sustainable new ways to address this.”

New businesses, old idea
It’s worth remembering, however, that not everyone involved in the sharing economy – in fact, probably most consumers – aren’t on a moral crusade to try and change the world. They’re consumers – they’re in it for their own good. Sharing businesses are essentially about creating a marketplace to meet consumers’ needs.

Another contributor to Smith & Williamson’s Enterprise, Patrick Robinson of Airbnb, believes that the sharing economy is a new term for a very old idea – the use of underutilised human and physical resources in an efficient way. “Neighbours have been sharing lawnmowers for decades, and people have been staying in other people’s homes for millennia. But the power of the internet connects supply with demand more efficiently than was ever possible before, and allows stuff to be shared across geographical boundaries,” he says.

The positive impacts of more efficient use of resources – in other words, less waste – and a greater sense of community perhaps need to be balanced against the more self-centred motivations of consumers saving money.

Sharing brands need to tread a fine line between conveying the benefits to consumers of a ‘sharing lifestyle’, the convenience of pay-as-you-use and the more hard-hitting rationale behind making money from stuff you don’t really need or use.

Social acceptance
There’s an argument that says that the ingrained concept of ownership in global capitalism remains a major obstacle to sharing economy brands.

According to research reported in The Independent, the sharing economy will never become widespread because people have a strong psychological desire to own material goods. According to this argument, many ‘sharing economy’ businesses miss the mark because they fail to satisfy our cultural craving to possess objects. In particular, the research highlights the stigma attached to renting, as opposed to ownership, in some cultures.

But the success of the sharing trailblazers surely challenges that snobbery around renting. The problem here may be the term ‘sharing economy’ itself. What most successful so-called sharing sites are doing is making people’s lives easier – enabled by technology – so appealing to essentially selfish motivations.

Airbnb may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that leaves a very large, very vocal and very engaged market that ‘get it’. The world’s 25-34 year old, on-demand consumers – so-called ‘generation share’ – increasingly expect to find anything they need to rent or borrow online. The shift towards pay-as-you-use, some believe, is in fact challenging the very concept of ownership.

So do mainstream businesses get it? And if they do, are they getting their message across to those consumers in the right way? As with any brand, telling the sharing story comes down to finding and understanding a specific audience and talking to them in appropriate language and tone of voice.

Five key elements to help find the right voice
There are some common ground rules that successful ‘sharing’ businesses have established in the way they present themselves. To get you started, here are five principles to guide you towards a voice for the sharing economy consumer.

There are some common ground rules that successful ‘sharing’ businesses have established in the way they present themselves. To get you started, here are five principles to guide you towards a voice for the sharing economy consumer.

Build trust – customers’ willingness to transact online is what makes it easy to match supply and demand for the resources in question – whether it’s garden tools or start-up finance. Trust needs to be earned.

Resonate – talk about your customers’ interests and solve their problems. Useful content is the key.

Talk money – the money in a consumer’s pocket has, and probably always will be, a great motivator. So quantify the benefits.

Clear the conscience – not everyone wants to change the world, but there’s nothing wrong with trying. There’s a place for engaging consumers in the wider context, but don’t preach.

Share for a reason – it’s rarely about sharing just for the sake of it. Understand your audience’s motivations and give them a reason to believe.

If you would like to know more about developing a brand language that resonates with sharing economy businesses or consumers, please get in touch.