Self-Storage Gets A Marketing Makeover

Self-storage has never been, shall we say, high-tech. Facilities looking to rent their space commonly used offline advertising like Yellow Pages, billboards and word-of-mouth to drum up business. Meanwhile, their customers turned to online search engines and social networks to find storage solutions.

Storage facility owners were left competing with big-budget marketing firms to find and secure customers online. In 2009, a few of the savvier storage facilities recognized there had to be a better way to do business. They turned to SpareFoot for help.

An Online Presence That Can’t Be Missed

SpareFoot originally was a peer-to-peer storage rental service. When co-founders Chuck Gordon and Mario Feghali saw storage facilities struggling to find customers, they thought they could help.

In 2009, Chuck and Mario changed SpareFoot’s business model to focus specifically on a longtime problem in the self-storage industry: connecting people looking for storage with storage operators -- quickly and easily.

Today, SpareFoot is the world’s largest online marketplace for self-storage. It delivers storage operators what they need most -- a powerful online presence across multiple channels, bolstered by advanced technology to help owners manage their business. That online presence also gives customers new search and comparison tools to book storage.

Soon after SpareFoot was founded, engineers discovered they could use Twilio’s communications API to empower customers to send SMS messages; handle voice calls; and automatically provision 800 numbers across the SpareFoot network.

To anyone familiar with the headaches of traditional telephony, it seemed like magic. To SpareFoot, the API meant an increase in its pace of innovation and a way to add value to its product faster and seamlessly. “Twilio was easier to use, more flexible and more capable than any other telecommunications solution on the market,” SpareFoot VP of Technology Joshua Lipton said. After discovering Twilio, SpareFoot started building, and building fast.

One of SpareFoot’s earliest Twilio implementations was sending customers directions to storage facilities via text message after they reserved a storage unit online. SMS alerts drastically increased the percentage of customers who move in after making a reservation -- a key performance metric for storage facilities.

The numbers spoke volumes. SpareFoot saw the power of direct, personalized communication in action and quickly crafted more tools to help customers harness that power. Its next project was “LILY,” a Twilio application that gives all storage facilities a home-turf marketing advantage coupled with sophisticated marketing analytics.

“LILY” overlays local phone numbers for a storage owner’s network of facilities, giving storage owners the ability to track calls through upwards of 125 marketing channels. Owners can zero in on how their facilities’ ad campaigns are performing in local markets. Lipton said the team was surprised by how much better local numbers performed on websites like www.SelfStorage.com when on-page conversion was observed in an A/B test.

Local-number advertising increased SpareFoot’s on-page conversion as well as its number of total bookings through higher inbound phone volume.

Boosting Move-In Rates

With the success of LILY, SpareFoot focused on further improving the percentage of customers who follow up on reservations and move in. SpareFoot did its research, polling high-performing facilities and logging their best practices. After interviewing the outliers, SpareFoot pinpointed the one thing that set the high-performing facilities apart -- response time.

Timing is everything. Move-in rates were directly affected by the time it took for storage facilities to follow up with customers a reservation was made. To help other storage facilities ramp up their move-in rates, SpareFoot created another Twilio-powered app called TenantConnect.

TenantConnect automates customer follow-ups for facilities. It automatically dials the facility, navigates its phone tree and connects with a staff member. Using Twilio’s text-to-speech function, TenantConnect relays key details about a customer’s new reservation and move-in time. The app then offers to connect the staff with the customer to finalize details about the reservation and move-in.

“With TenantConnect, we have automated and standardized a best practice across our network without adding any burden to the facility,” Lipton said. “It’s all powered by the platform. It’s a huge win for our customers and also for us.”

It took SpareFoot just six weeks to develop the initial version of TenantConnect and roll it out to beta customers. “This is something that you couldn’t dream of building before Twilio,” Lipton said. “It would have taken too long and been too expensive, requiring deep knowledge of telephony and costly investments in telecom hardware as well as ongoing fees for maintenance, upgrades and connectivity. With Twilio, whatever type of communication-enabled product capability we conceive, we can quickly prototype, test and deploy. Our selection of Twilio as a technology platform has been reaffirmed over and over.”

Integration & Deploy

SpareFoot knew its programming language strengths and built TenantConnect using the languages its developers were familiar with.

SpareFoot chose PHP’s Zend framework, the most popular framework at the company, to build TenantConnect. This allowed any SpareFoot developer to easily dive in and and make modifications to the product. The team credits the ease of collaboration and familiarity with SpareFoot’s favorite framework for shipping the initial product so fast. The pilot MVP was completed in two weeks. After getting feedback from a select group of clients, the beta version was launched six weeks later.

SpareFoot Developer Jahn Veach likens the TwiML that the SpareFoot team used to build TenantConnect to Lego blocks. TwiML are a handful of verbs that do specific things. “They’re like small pieces that allow you to build something complex in a simple way,” Veach said. Instead of dealing with dozens of functions and protocols to get its app up and running, SpareFoot just stacked TwiML verbs together.

Tenant Connect is able to call facility managers and dynamically talk to them about a booking using information from our bookings database, and is able to respond to their key input and forward a call to a customer who made a booking. It may seem complicated to the outsider, but the whole solution is based on just three verbs: Say, Gather and Dial.

Going forward, the team’s biggest challenge in expanding Tenant Connect is adapting the product to the myriad variations of phone trees and call flows encountered when calling different facilities. As new business pops up, the SpareFoot app needs to be fluid and dynamic. With Twilio as a resource, Veach isn’t worried.

“Twilio has been very helpful in reaching out and listening to the problems we've encountered in the past,” Veach said, “and year after year, Twilio always manages to find the perfect way to expand the API to support these new use cases without breaking existing code.”

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