One startup’s early-stage success in building a user base made up of moms reveals important lessons about this sought-after, yet often misunderstood, audience.

By Lorraine Sanders (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

It’s not difficult to figure out that moms are a coveted audience for many startups. Not only are they likely to consider new technology to make their hectic lives easier, they wield an estimated $2.4 trillion in purchasing power.

The hard part? Figuring out how to reach them.

Since its start during the late summer months of 2011, UrbanSitter has grown from an online resource connecting San Francisco moms to occasional babysitters vetted through Facebook contacts to a paid service available to tens of thousands of users in over 14 cities. Fueled in part by a $6M Series A round of funding, led by Canaan Partners, the site and accompanying mobile app are reporting 35% average monthly growth in sitter bookings and have expanded offerings to include caregiver videos, pay-as-you-go and premium subscription payment plans, as well as assistance for finding last-minute child care and full- or part-time nannies.

Built on Facebook Connect, UrbanSitter leverages members’ existing connections to help in the search for childcare. Parents can view reviews and recommendations for sitters from those in their networks, search for child caregivers available at specific times or with certain skills and qualifications and pay online or using the mobile app.

As moms and co-founders Lynn Perkins, who is CEO, and Andrea Barrett, who oversees product, discovered during their first year, many tried-and-true strategies for user acquisition may not be as effective at reaching parents.

“You have to be scrappy, much more creative and much more grassroots,” says Barrett, who previously worked at Intel and travel startup TripIt.

For example, while a hit on TechCrunch did little to grow user base, sponsoring a bouncy house at a popular Christmas tree lot successfully generated buzz for the brand. Along with looking in the right places to connect with moms, Barrett notes the importance of remembering that women with children are frequently distracted, multitasking and likely to be using mobile devices from home. At the same time, while many companies assume moms want a wide variety of choices in order to make the best decisions for their families, Barrett and her team found that moms actually responded better to fewer options and a simpler, streamlined experience that didn’t threaten to overwhelm.

For more lessons learned, check out our Q&A with Barrett below.

What is one of the most common misconceptions about moms that entrepreneurs should know?

That “moms” can be treated as a single group. Geographic location, parenting philosophy and career choice are just some of the factors that can dramatically change a mom’s perspective on your product or service. It’s important to understand and appreciate the differences between moms. Identify the specific types you’re targeting and make them the focus of your product, design and marketing.

In the first year of building your company and reaching out to parents as one of your key audiences, was there anything you discovered that surprised you about moms as a group?

Their passion. Moms know what they want and will become fierce, vocal supporters of products they love. By the same token, they have a low tolerance for mediocrity. Be prepared to step up your game.

In building your user base, what strategies really worked well for UrbanSitter?

1. Embracing local. It’s allowed us to focus our marketing budget and personally connect to sitters and parents in each area.

2. Event marketing. While we are an online service, talking to parents and sitters in person at a variety of events (sponsorships and UrbanSitter hosted events) helps us establish trust with our audience.

3. Repeat messaging. Parents don’t necessarily have an immediate babysitting need when they first hear about us, so our internal email marketing program and partner email marketing campaigns have been effective ways to stay top of mind for these moms.

Is there anything you tried that did not work well?

Display advertising, in particular, has been tricky since we’re a young company. We’ve scaled back on this for now, but we expect to see our success with display improve as our service matures and we expand to new markets.

lorraine-neetis-bach-nyc-11-11About the blogger: Lorraine Sanders is a San Francisco-based journalist, long-time blogger, media consultant and author of the San Francisco Chronicle Style Bytes column. She writes regularly about fashion, technology, retail ecommerce and innovative startups for the newspaper, and others. She is founder of the blogs Digital Style Digest and SF Indie Fashion and an inhabitant of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Connect with her on Twitter @digitalstyledig or @lorrainesanders.

Photo credit: GSCSNJ via Flickr