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10 Must-Haves for Your Real Estate Web Site

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By Jonathan Nicholas

RISMEDIA, Jan. 2, 2008-Today’s most successful agents no longer play games with customers to get their business. There is no such thing anymore as too much information. These days, withholding information makes us less valuable to potential clients, not more.

The good news is that you can harness the vast amount of data and information your clients – and potential clients – need and want all in one place. From new buyers to empty nesters, your Web site should be a one-stop resource that answers every possible question a customer might have. How much information should you provide to the consumer? The only answer is “all.” When the time comes to buy or sell, or that person has a question specific to their situation, your phone will start ringing.

The following 10 concepts capitalize on that idea and will do wonders to not only drive traffic to your Web site but to convert that traffic into clients and future referrals. You will see quite a bit of overlap among these 10 items. Integrated well with one another, these tools will make you stand out from the crowded field of agents looking to get new business.

1. Offer an exhaustive search capability.
The days of having an Internet brochure or holding 24-hour Internet open houses are well over. Although exclusively displaying your listings, highlighting how much real estate you’ve sold in the past and posting pictures of your expensive car or family and pets might be interesting to look at, they do little to generate leads, provide timely information or educate a prospective client.

Consumers want access to all listings all the time and have the ability to search in numerous ways. Your Web site should have an IDX (Internet Data Exchange) search that provides numerous criteria to search with, at the minimum, the capacity to search by ZIP code, subdivision name, city, county, school district, street name and street number – or any combination of those. It should also have an automated new listings report so that it’s always up to date.

2. Construct pre-defined searches.
If you live in a metropolitan area that has popular places buyers tend to ask for by name – the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago or a large, well-known subdivision or high-rise, for example – prominently feature a heading on your search page that says, “Search these popular areas now.” Then individually list the areas as buttons or hyperlinks. The customer can then click on the button and go straight to a predefined MLS query and pull a blanket search for every property in that in-demand area. Prospective buyers can then drill down and filter their results by whichever criteria they want because you already offer an exhaustive search capability (see No. 1).

Some agents have made a lucrative specialty of seeking leads for a narrowly tailored pre-defined search such as homes with swimming pools, lake homes, golf-course homes and vacation properties. Some even dedicate a separate Web site to them.

If there aren’t a lot of standout neighborhoods, sections of town or buildings in your listing area, pre-define your searches in other creative ways, such as by:

• Style of home (ranch, split-level, two-story, bungalow, multifamily, etc.)
Build date
• Architectural style
• Homes that only have a first-floor master bedroom

You can also create specialty links that feature these types of properties within certain geographical areas. By offering pre-defined searches, you’re providing the consumer the wherewithal to do the best-defined search possible for their individual needs. As any buyer will tell you, there’s nothing worse than click-click-clicking through scores of properties just to find a few decent listings. Instead, you’re giving prospective clients a fast, efficient, targeted search, which they will appreciate.

3. Employ interactive mapping.
For the buyers from out of town who don’t know the area they’re moving to, interactive mapping is an invaluable tool. While friends, co-workers and other real estate agents might suggest cross streets to begin a buyer’s search, such word-of-mouth informality only goes so far.

However, when armed with those cross streets and the right technology, visitors to your site can now draw a boundary, and the MLS can then hone in on that exact predefined area. To make your information even more robust, add satellite, street or aerial views, topography or a combination of any of the four. Included with these views should be demographic information such as average age, income, education levels and nearby services and attractions.

An interactive mapping search is the easiest kind to conduct for most people. Once the visitor has an area to look at, they can filter the search further by number of bedrooms and bathrooms, price or other criteria, yet another way to deepen your predefined search offerings.

4. Provide compelling and relevant visual content.
Prospective buyers want the most visual content they can get their hands on: multiple still photos, panoramic 360-degree views, virtual tours and video. Most recent reports and association studies have proven beyond a doubt that the more pictures an agent puts into a listing, the more traffic and views that property will generate – which translates to more and better leads. In general, a property with six or more pictures will generate up to six times the traffic of a listing that has just one.

There’s nothing more irritating to a buyer than clicking on a listing and seeing just one photo – a bad one at that – of the home’s backyard. There are no interior shots to give an idea of the home’s condition, floor plan or amenities. The frustrated prospective buyer or her agent will simply say, “Next!” and move on to the next Web site immediately. The ability to look at, say, a virtual tour, allows buyers to eliminate or choose a property quickly. Out of 100 listings, they can quickly identify their top five or 10.

Instead of wasting time driving to appointments, a buyer can drill down within a matter of a few hours to establish a short list of highly desirable properties. Ideally, the buyer goes online, conducts all the research on his own, calls an agent – hopefully you! – looks at the five houses on his short list and buys one of them. By anyone’s math, that approach is far more efficient than taking five different days driving around after work or on the weekend looking at a laundry list of “sort of right” houses. As an agent, you save money because you’re now more productive and your return on investment is much greater – all because you passively provided an abundance of information to a complete stranger.

One note of caution: When it comes to visual content, leave it to a professional. Using low-quality photography and video will cancel out any advantage putting photos, tours or video into the listing might have otherwise provided.

5. Make your site the local authority on community and lifestyle information.
When buyers are actively searching, they not only imagine themselves living in the house itself but being part of the community in which it’s located. What will my neighbors be like? Where is the grocery store? Are there a lot of children in the neighborhood? How many renters live in the vicinity? Is the neighborhood governed by a homeowner association? On many levels, the decision to buy a house frequently boils down to emotion over logic. To accommodate those considerations, an agent’s Web site must provide information that answers all of those questions.

Weaving this concept back into interactive mapping, perhaps include a panoramic virtual tour of the neighborhood; an interactive map that highlights points of interest such as hospitals, schools, places of worship and shopping. Couple these map points with a neighborhood history and biography that gives buyers a feel for its personality. Is it a younger, more active area with a vibrant night life? Or is it a bedroom community where young families move to raise their kids? Try including testimonials from select neighbors and offering suggestions for the top 10 shops or restaurants.

Right now, few agents – less than 1%- are doing this. By integrating information, photography and mapping, you’ve given this buyer an initial tour of the neighborhood and a feel for its residents and their lifestyles; everything they would do if they were visiting in person. This kind of informational depth is especially valuable to the buyer moving from out of state. The more interest you create, the more psychological ownership buyers will take, which will make earning their business a little easier.

6. Give your site’s visitors an Ivy League real estate education.
The old agent model was to be light on information and detail and heavy on direct response. Today, the opposite is true. To be successful, agents must have comprehensive information about the home buying and selling processes. What is preapproval? Is that the same as prequalifying? What is a home inspection? Is that the same as an appraisal? Inexperienced buyers want an extremely broad A-to-Z overview of what it takes to buy or sell a home. Remove the mystery.

As you educate prospective buyers, you’re building loyalty without even having a relationship. If your Web site can be the first place they think to go to when they want information, chances are pretty good that you’re going to get their business.

A healthy percentage of buyers are first-timers. They are going through an education process that might start 12 months before they are ready to ask for an agent’s assistance. And they’re not just finding areas they like and eliminating homes but also learning the actual process of buying a home from offer to closing. Why not be the one who teaches them? The ability to pull down detailed information that educates them about this sometimes intimidating process can be extremely reassuring and helpful.

There are many convenient delivery methods for your information. PDF reports allow buyers to download the information to their computer and read or print it at their convenience. You can make the home-buying process a “class” where you offer a different “lecture” every week via a pod cast buyers can download and listen to, again at their convenience. Or you can teach the process using a combination of video, audio and PowerPoint slides. You can also very inexpensively use any number of Flash video software to do 15-minute vignettes on buying and selling. The possibilities are limited only by what you can imagine. You can also use the education process as a lead-generation device by offering signups for your weekly or monthly “classes” on buying and selling.

7. Offer nonintrusive lead-generation forms.
Requiring an upfront lead-generation form as an information exchange tool is an outdated tactic. Instead, think of these forms as offering the buyer a chance to raise his hand and ask you for help. You are showering perfect strangers with the gift of robust, abundant information all throughout your site. When prospects have questions, they won’t be afraid to ask you for assistance because you’ve already been helping them. With so much information on your site, you’re giving them reason to interact with you.

Though you’re providing information, you still need to have the ability to interact and know who’s coming to your Web site. Your Web site is a sales tool, so use it that way. Throughout your site, offer – but don’t force – prospective buyers to ask you for more information. Though you’ve likely answered a majority of their questions with the wealth of information you’ve already provided, they may still have questions or requests.

Scatter information request forms throughout your interactive Web site. To make it easier to decide what to ask for; the most common questions and requests often include:

How much is my home worth?
Will you send me more in-depth information on a particular property?
Will you conduct a comparative market analysis (i.e. a home evaluation)?
Will you sign me up for new listings reports via e-mail?
Will you alert me when podcasts or other educational materials become available?
Will you send me a relocation package?
Can you set up a viewing appointment for a particular property?
Can you prequalify me?
I have a home to sell before I buy. Help!

When a user is ready to make those kinds of requests, you will often be the first person they think of. Why? Because you’ve spent months planting seeds with them through your Web site’s content instead of wasting time cold-calling a pile of low-quality leads. Offering several ways for visitors to transition from passively looking at your site to actively seeking your expertise for even the smallest question can quickly turn into new business. They’ve now come to you instead of you going to them.

8. Use objective data and third-party testimonials.
Real estate ranks in the bottom five of all industries for trustworthiness – right alongside attorneys and used-car salesmen. We’re also a very egotistical industry. Avoid the temptation of having 10 pages on your Web site devoted to telling visitors how fabulous you are, how many homes you’ve sold and the number of dollars you’ve generated. When you build yourself up like that, many prospective buyers will think, “That agent’s too busy for me. I’m not going to call.”

Over hyping yourself drives as much business away as it might bring in. Remember: It’s not about you, it’s about the property. Instead, illustrate your value with objective data and testimonials from happy clients.

It’s good to talk about the value of a Realtor® – how using one can save or make money for buyers and sellers. The approach you choose, however, will make all the difference. Instead of saying, “I sold $2 million worth of real estate last year,” it’s much more compelling to say:

• “On average, buyers who worked with me in 2006 saved $6,472.”
• “I worked with 26 sellers in the past year and, on average, got them 98 percent of their asking price.”
• “Last year, I worked with 32 buyers. Of those, I averaged a savings of 12 percent off the listing price.”

You’re showing customers in a powerful, concrete, provable way that you have real value and that your services can often pay for themselves. No one can argue with that.

In addition to using data, put genuine, heartfelt third-party testimonials on your site. Every time you have a happy client at the closing table, put them on camera. Visit the family of first-time buyers on their moving day. Make an emotional connection with future buyers and sellers. Allow them to imagine themselves sitting at the same closing table or loading the moving truck. In a relationship business like ours, there’s nothing more powerful.

9. Learn and implement Internet syndication.
Your Web site should feed, or propagate, your listing information to numerous other sites on the Internet such as Yahoo!, Trulia, Google Base, Craig’s List, Oodle and Live Deal. With live feeds, every time you put a listing on your site, it automatically syndicates to these other sites. Such movement will amplify each listing’s impact, increasing the number and quality of your leads substantially. For those agents who are less technologically inclined, syndication is easy to set up through a good Internet developer. With many vendors, syndication comes as part of a whole Web site package.

Now that you’re syndicating your listings, you can accurately quantify and qualify where your traffic is coming from. This is especially helpful for those agents who have a limited marketing budget. With metrics in place, you can spend more money on sites that get more traffic and cut back on others that don’t.

10. Build a robust administrative/back-page area for your site.
No lead-generation Web site would be complete without an exhaustive backsite that:

Houses all incoming leads
Has a contact management capability where you can search by last name, ZIP code, price range and MLS number
Has listing management functions for all of your individual listings including adding and deleting photos and banners, changing descriptions and price, managing virtual tours, etc.
Has a lead follow-up system that allows you to create campaigns, track online viewing habits and develops a profile for each visitor
Can automatically send select clients information about events in a neighborhood, such as a new restaurant opening
Can send automated e-mails asking how a client’s search is going or offering more educational information such as, “10 things you need to do before writing an offer”
Houses your monthly newsletter

Look at everything on your back-page area with an eye toward touching base, educating, assisting with searches and providing neighborhood and lifestyle information for each of your clients.

Jonathan D. Nicholas, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Ob?o, is a real estate professional with more than 23 years of experience. Most recently, Nicholas served as regional director for RE/MAX of Indiana. In his time there, he helped bridge the generational gap between baby boomers and the Gen Y generation by moving the organization forward in technological savvy, skills and early adoption. His success has put him in the position of a much-sought-after speaker, industry strategist and futurist for his trade. Nicholas provides insight to many organizations by giving more than 100 presentations a year. He is also a frequent contributor to the national and local media and industry publications. Nicholas currently serves as the president-elect of the CRB Council, the brokerage management council for the National Association of REALTORS®.

He also serves both the Indiana and National Association of Realtors® on various committees ranging from public policy to business issues. He is a licensed and certified real estate continuing education instructor in Indiana who is actively involved in training at both the agent and brokerage management level. In his spare time, Nicholas provides information on developing trends through his industry blog.

For more information, visit www.obeo.com.

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