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By Bill Miles

RISMEDIA, July 19, 2007—The offline strategies that have made niche marketing successful for decades apply equally as well online in today’s search engine economy.  

For as long as there have been real estate agents, niche marketing has been a viable strategy to attract buyers and sellers.  Whether your niche is a neighborhood, families who attend a certain school or church, or first time home buyers, focusing your activities on a well-defined target allows you to establish your expertise, which in turn generates name recognition and business.

New-age terms like Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) sound confusing and intimidating.  These however, really are the same strategies real estate professionals have been employing offline for years, just dressed up with new technical language for the online world. 

Before we draw the parallels between the two mediums, let’s make sure we have some basic terminology down.  Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the method of developing your Web presence (Web site, blog, etc.) in a manner in which search engines can easily understand the content and match it with relevant consumer keyword searches.  For example, to optimize your presence on the search engines, it is a good idea for your site to identify the city and state where you practice real estate near the top of the page.  This will tell the search engines where your business is located, and that location is important to your business.  Knowing this, search engines can direct consumers who place an emphasis on that location and real estate in their search terms (i.e. keywords) to you.  How well your site is optimized for particular keywords or phrases determines the order in which your site appears in the “natural” results of a search engine.  Keep in mind, natural results are those produced by the search engine and not by paid advertising. 

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) on the other hand, is the method of bidding (or paying) for placement of your Web presence on the search engines along side of the natural results based on keywords you determine.  Search engines offer a complex bid management system in which you create an ad, select keywords, set prices and budgets, determine location and measure your results.  When a consumer types in your keywords, the search engine will display your ad next to the natural results, giving the consumer an opportunity to click on your ad and visit your site.  The search engines will then charge you for each visitor they deliver to your Web site from your ad.

The common theme in both SEO and SEM is keyword selection.  With SEO, the search engine determines the match, while with SEM, you determine the keyword match.  Whether you are writing content for your site or blog, or selecting keywords in Google’s® bid management system, those chosen keywords drive your traffic. 

Now that we know the basics, let’s follow a few parallels between old-style and new-style niche marketing in an effort to better understand the opportunity the new “search economy” presents.

Focus on your target market.  In both the offline and online worlds, focus on a target market is rewarded.

Offline, when an agent decides to focus his/her marketing efforts on a particular geographic area, he/she does not pick a state, metro or even a large town.  Typically the agent focuses on a neighborhood or area with less than 500 homes.  This allows the agent to reach the consumer regularly with specifically tailored content.  The agent can even walk the neighborhood to meet residents.  As a result of the focus, the message is relevant, regular and memorable. 

Additionally, the agent is able to make efficient use of their marketing budget because of the targeted focus.

Similarly, focus is the right approach with search engines.  With SEO and SEM, you will need to select keywords or phrases, either through the text of your Web site or in the ad bidding process, that will cause search engines to display your Web site or blog when the relevant keywords are entered by a consumer.  Search engines reward marketers with the most focused and refined keywords, typically delivering the double benefit of better quality traffic AND reduced cost per visitor.  The traffic will be higher quality because the consumer searching “Roseland Homes for Sale” is going to find more value in your Web site and services than someone searching “Houston Homes for Sale” (assuming Roseland is a neighborhood in Houston).  In addition, the key phrase “Roseland Homes for Sale” is significantly less expensive per click than “Houston Homes for Sale” because there are fewer advertisers bidding on the narrower focused phrase. 

When considering how to narrow your focus, think of keyword selection and refinement just as you would when selecting and refining a target market for a postcard campaign.  Ask yourself: Which customers am I uniquely suited to service?  Where does my expertise lie?  Who can I eliminate so my marketing is more efficient?  Those same questions apply to keyword selection.  Don’t buy or target “Los Angeles Real Estate” just like you would not consider sending a postcard to every Los Angeles resident to sell a home in a Santa Monica neighborhood.

Networking vs. Advertising.  In the offline world, real estate professionals pursue two types of marketing strategies: networking and advertising.  Networking entails meeting people, joining groups, reaching out to past clients, working referrals, and becoming well known as an agent for a specific niche.  Advertising on the other hand, involves purchasing space in newspapers, magazines or on signs with the purpose of making the community aware of your real estate expertise for a specific niche.  In the online world, networking runs parallel with efforts to optimize your site for search engines (SEO), while advertising is akin to search engine marketing (SEM), such as paid banner ads. 

If you heavily rely on referrals and networking to drive your business in the offline world, you would likely be successful building Web sites, developing a newsletter and writing blogs about topics relevant to your target market.  While there are technical aspects to SEO, there is no substitute for great content.  So, if you focus your networking in a neighborhood for example, develop a Web site, newsletter or blog where you can feature that content online.  This effort essentially brings your offline networking online.

Overtime you will own this niche online as relevant searches are directed to your unique, keyword rich content, just as word of mouth does offline.  It will create referrals for you as the agent who is an expert on Roseland homes.  Essentially, the search engines will operate like a highly leveraged word of mouth network for you, bringing consumers to your content.

Similarly, if you drive your business primarily through advertisements, you would likely be successful developing and implementing ads online.  This can take the form of paying per click, banner ads, or any number of new ways to advertise online.  Real estate professionals with a strong brand or unique positioning do well in this arena.  Just as it is with offline advertising, these efforts take investment, a long commitment and attention to detail.  You must be willing to test and refine in order to efficiently generate traffic from online ads, just as you do from postcard campaigns or newspaper ads when you measure calls and leads.

As with many areas of business and life, while the names and medium change, the principles stay the same.  While the online lingo and acronyms can be intimidating, keep your wits about you and focus on drawing parallels between what you know and new opportunities.  This will help you succeed in the fast moving search economy. 

About The Author
Bill Miles is EVP of Connecting Neighbors, a division of Reply! Inc.  Contact Bill at bmiles@connectingneighbors.com.

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