How to start a pet sitting business part three: Marketing

You’ve just started your pet sitting business and want to promote it, but which methods to choose? Learn about internet marketing, paper tools like business cards, paid versus free ads, special events, and most importantly how to focus your time and resources on marketing methods that work best for your business and give you the best return on investment.

There are a number of ways to market your business, some of which you may have already tried. As a new small business owner, you’ll want to conserve your resources and not spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on marketing methods that bring little to no return. Here are my recommendations based on 25+ years of owning and managing a pet sitting business as well as the experiences of the many other business owners with whom I network.

Internet

I’m not an early adopter, so in the 90’s when a client suggested I get email I waved the idea away, saying, “What do I need that for? If someone wants to get a hold of me they can call.” *Insert current self laughing at past self* Well, this isn’t the 90’s, it’s the 2020’s, and no one with a business, however small, should be without a website.

Don’t despair if you’re not a techie, or even hate computers. There are a number of companies that provide a free starter website with an easy-to-use template. GoDaddy, Wix, and Weebly are some of the most popular sites offering this and other services. All you have to do is pick a template and insert text and pictures. The most important information to have on a website includes the services you offer, your prices, your service area, and how you can be contacted. Don’t worry about it looking perfect. As they say, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Just do it, then share with your friends and associates for critique, as they will see things you didn’t notice.

pet sitting website scren shot
GoodDogsPetSitting.com

You can hire a company to design a website for you, but they can be insanely pricey, charging from $3,000-$10,000 and more! WYSIWYG sites (what you see is what you get) are so easy to set up that I see no need to spend this kind of money unless you’re running a million-dollar business and require a high level of professionalism and functionality. You can start free or cheap and always upgrade later as your business grows.

Another great way to promote your business is through Google My Business. Google My Business interfaces with Google searches and maps, so when a potential client searches “pet sitter near me” any website registered in the area will appear high in results. I say high because you’ll never be first, but we’ll get to that. Just go to Google My Business and follow the instructions to set up your page. You can just enter your website address, hours of business, and physical location, or you can do more and post pictures, ads, news, etc. all for free. If you don’t claim your Google My Business listing, you will be missing out on a lot of potential business.

Social media

I’m kind of over social media as a business tool. Instagram is fun but I haven’t found a whole lot of functionality for pet sitters. Facebook is so saturated with ads and has such a weird algorithm that you may see the same posts over and over, yet not see others for months, or ever.

Clients love pics of their pets.

I like posting pictures of clients’ pets on both platforms because it makes the clients happy. They enjoy seeing their babies featured in posts and may share with their friends. It is unlikely that a potential client would find our page while searching for a sitter, but what does happen is that sometimes they find our website and hop over to Facebook to check it out. Because of that, I recommend if you are going to have social media pages, you post regularly, at least 2-3 times a week. If you don’t have the time or desire to post that often, don’t start. There’s nothing worse than finding a page of interest then seeing that it hasn’t had a new post in months or years. Seeing this, a potential client may assume your business is closed.

What does work very well in social media is referrals. In my area, we have several local Facebook pages where folks, especially those new to the area, will post that they are looking for a pet sitter. Sometimes I’ll answer, but it’s even better if someone else does and recommends my business. Same thing on Nextdoor. We get many recommendations from clients, neighbors, and friends on this hyper-local platform.

Search engine optimization

SEO is so complex that I am planning another article and accompanying video on the subject specifically for pet sitters. Until then, here is a link to a good introduction on the subject. Understanding SEO will help you to best target your desired clientele, get more leads, and avoid wasting time with people out of your area or wanting services you don’t offer. Having a great website won’t help you if no one can find it.

Business cards

There is still a place for old fashioned paper marketing tools even in today’s digital world. We can almost do without business cards, but not quite. They are still useful to hand out at client meetings and to display in various locations like your vet’s office, groomer, pet supply shop, or anyplace else pet owners may frequent. Sometimes people ask me on the street if I have a card because they see me walking dogs or they see the sign on my car.

cat sitting on pile of business cards

Keep it simple with your logo (or clip art if you don’t have one yet), business name, phone number, and website address. If it won’t look too cluttered you can add additional info like your specialty or your service area, but realistically most people will go to your website to check it out or call you right away if they have an immediate need for service. You can design business cards easily and cheaply online at a company like Vistaprint, or you can use a local print shop.

Rack cards

Rack cards are another good tool to distribute at the same locations as the business cards. The advantage they give you is higher visibility, especially if there are many other cards on display. These can also be designed online and can contain more information and eye-catching photos to make your business stand out from all the others.

Mailers

I have found mailers to be a good marketing tool when used in a targeted manner. You can use a service like Every Door Direct Mail, but while this is highly useful in a missing pet search (or for other kinds of businesses like dentists, something every person needs), it is not so much for promoting your pet sitting business. This type of mail piece is delivered to every address on a given route, so many residents may not be pet owners or may already have a sitter, and your card will go in the trash.

pet sitting mailer

What has worked for me is targeting residents who recently moved to the area, as they likely have no connections and no pet sitter or dog walker. I go to Realtor.com or any other public MLS site and search recently sold homes in my service area. I send a card that says “Welcome to the neighborhood” and offers a free visit to the “current resident” at each address.

Caveat: send the cards at least 30 days from the date of sale. That gives the new homeowners time to move in and start receiving mail. If you send your cards too soon, they may be returned as “vacant” by the post office. Also be sure to design your cards within the postcard size parameters set by the post office so you can pay the cheaper rate. Larger cards will have to be stamped with regular first-class postage. Ask me how I know…

I’m sure there are other ways of obtaining mailing lists, but I haven’t tried them. I see no reason to pay for something I can do myself for free. My targeted mailers haven’t brought a ton of calls, but they have resulted in several good, long time clients for very little cost.

Referrals

Most business owners will tell you that referrals are the best kind of business. The potential client starts out with a level of trust, even if they have never met you before. How to get referrals? First, provide great service. Go the extra mile for the clients you have. Be there when they need you, follow their instructions, communicate well. Remember that we are not selling pet care but peace of mind. If your clients feel this way, they will be jumping to refer you to others.

You may also get referrals from friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. make sure everyone knows about your business and what you offer, and encourage them to spread the word. if they have your card and have looked at your website, chances are when someone asks them about pet care they will respond with your name.

Develop relationships

Other pet businesses are a great way to get referrals, but don’t expect them from folks you don’t know. When I started my first business in the 90’s I went to literally every vet, groomer, and other pet business in town with my business cards. They were polite, but likely tossed my cards into a drawer as soon as I left, never to be seen again. Many people drop off cards at businesses, and the staff have no way of knowing if your service is of any quality.

vet hospital staff with fruit gift basket
We sent a fruit basket to our vet hospital.

Take the time to develop relationships. Patronize the businesses. Take your pets to the vet or groomer. Shop at the pet supply store. Get your hair done at the salon, or whatever other business you want to get to know. Over the years we have developed a good reputation with many such business owners and staff, and they often refer clients. Send them business, and be sure the person you send mentions your name. Always thank anyone who gives you a referral, at least with a verbal thank-you or card, and even better with a gift card or other token of appreciation.

Special events

Some pet sitters enjoy setting up a booth at special events, but I have not found them to be very productive. These events may be a local fair, farmer’s market, or pet-specific fair like the big Bay Area Pet Fair in NorCal. These events often require an entry fee and setting up can be quite a bit of work. You must set up a table or booth with a table cloth, preferably branded to your business, a branded backdrop or other signage, and items on the table to both attract the attention of passers-by and encourage them to take home your information.

pet sitter event booth
Lil’ Rascals Pet Care in Napa, CA

While these events can be very successful for businesses selling food, toiletries, or gift items, I haven’t found them to be so much for selling services. The people visiting the fair may not be pet owners, they may live out of your area, or they may not have a need for services at that time. That said, it may work for you in your area. A good way to try it out is to partner with an established business of a different kind and share a booth. That way you can split the costs and set-up labor. If you have the opportunity to do an event which is free or cheap, like $50, go for it, just look at it as an opportunity for community awareness rather than an immediate gain in revenue.

Paid ads

There are many kinds of paid advertising, none of which I recommend! Newspaper ads are an old standard, and many people do still read print newspapers. These ads can be quite pricey, hundreds of dollars for just one insertion, and rarely if ever generate a call. In marketing, you want to get your message out consistently over time, so for a newspaper ad to be successful you would have to run it every day/week/month for six months to a year, a significant investment with no guaranteed return.

newspaper ads

Newspapers and other periodicals also have online versions with paid ads like banners and in-content insertions. Again, I have not had any success with these to make them worth the cost of insertion. These ads may bring a good return to online shopping sites, local brick-and-mortars, or other kinds of businesses, but not so much for a small service type business like pet sitting.

Many sitters have mentioned being invited to place an ad in a publication for a golf and country club, yacht club, or other local group, for a price. I have not seen such ads generate any good leads, and there are other ways you can reach these same potential clients more effectively and cheaply. If it’s free, go for it, but I wouldn’t pay for such ad placement.

Google Ad Words

Google Ad Words may work for the large corporations like Rover, but are not a great choice for the small, local pet sitting business. As mentioned earlier, in a search for “pet sitter near me” Rover will always come up first. Do you know why? Because they spend over half a million dollars a month for this placement. Needless to say, we will never be able to compete with that, so shouldn’t try, at least not with paid methods.

In my opinion, there is no reason to pay for search engine placement. If your website is well designed and optimized for SEO, you will come up high in results, for free! Stay tuned for the next article in this series, SEO for Pet Sitters.

In conclusion, we only have so much time, energy, and money. We want to focus our efforts on methods which will generate the best return on investment, whether that investment be time, money, or both. It can take some time to build up a small local business, so don’t despair if it takes many months or even years to get to where you want to be. If you attract and keep the right kind of clientele, you will build the business of your dreams with steady income and little drama.

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