By Maria Patterson
RISMEDIA, August 4, 2009-One could easily argue that Realtor.com put real estate on the map in terms of Internet marketing. You’d be hard pressed to find a more pervasive, more consumer-branded Web-based real estate platform out there. But in today’s market, that’s just the starting point. Leads are only as good as the tangible sales they produce. That’s why parent company Move, Inc., is driving home the powerful combination of Realtor.com and Top Producer. Used together, the two systems not only build a bigger pipeline of inquiries but, more importantly, also help Realtors build relationships and convert them. At Realtor.com and Top Producer, it’s all about delivering workable solutions that deliver real results. In this month’s cover story, executives Steve Berkowitz, Move’s new CEO, and Errol Samuelson, president of Realtor.com® and Top Producer®, explain how their companies can help Realtors get more sales.
Maria Patterson: First, congratulations, Steve. I understand you were formerly the CEO of ASK.com and ran MSN at Microsoft. How does your initial experience at Realtor.com compare with these other Internet giants?
Steve Berkowitz: I had a strong working knowledge of Realtor.com, Top Producer and the Move network because I served on Move’s board of directors since June 2008. Realtor.com is unique in that we actually communicate on a one-to-one basis with hundreds of thousands of Realtors. These relationships are hyper-local and consultative-something I haven’t witnessed at other Internet companies. The fact that we help craft the messages, test them for Realtors and help them build their marketing plan with individual and personal instruction is very unique. We’re essentially working with local entrepreneurs and, therefore, can’t offer a one-size-fits-all solution.
MP: How has today’s challenging real estate market impacted consumer usage of Realtor.com?
SB: We’re now averaging between 8 million and 11 million unique visitors on Realtor.com each month (source: ComScore MediaMetrics, April 2009), which is a healthy uptick in consumer activity and, consequently, the most in the history of the industry. Equally important, these consumers are spending a lot of time on Realtor.com-more than the next five sites combined. But further connecting with these consumers requires a change in strategy in today’s market.
MP: How is Realtor.com evolving to meet the changing marketplace?
Errol Samuelson: All levels of the company are intensely involved in problem solving for Realtors to help them survive and prosper in today’s market. In the early years of our business, the first mission was to set the standard for online real estate and transition the Realtor brand (and individual Realtors) from offline to online. Now that Realtor.com is drawing by far the largest online real estate audience, we are working on developing specific strategies to make sure Realtors are getting the full benefit of their website by generating inquiries and building relationships. We’re in a unique position to do that better than anyone because of the large pipeline of consumers we’re able to funnel to our customers.
MP: What specific kinds of help are Realtors looking for today?
ES: Realtors need help converting Internet customers into customers who take action…and who will develop loyalty toward that Realtor. They don’t get to see Internet customers face to face during the early stages when the relationship needs to be nurtured.
MP: How are you meeting the challenging task of generating leads in this marketplace?
SB: We realized that old messages such as, “Find out what your home is worth,” were no longer as effective in today’s market. As an example, we recently ran 32 different messages to see what would cause price-weary customers to jump back in and talk to a Realtor. Back in May, we started running new messages asking consumers if they were interested in a “report showing whether prices had stabilized in their area.” We got an astounding “seven to one” improvement in response from that simple change in messaging and we’re testing even more every day. You can learn more about the ads that were tested at www.AskRDC.com.
MP: So there is some activity. But are Realtors able to convert this into sales?
ES: Taking a consultative approach, we have been talking with Realtors about subtle changes they could make to their Realtor.com programs that would help encourage the “just looking” public to e-mail or call. There are simple tweaks Realtors can make to their listings that will have a considerable impact on customer inquiries, such as changing the property listing headlines, placing direct contact information in a message box and including more photos so the listing rises in the search results. All of these minor changes can translate into more calls and e-mails. We video-taped several training sessions to show step-by-step how you can make these subtle, yet very effective changes to your listings. This really enabled us to reach out and help a wider audience of agents who perhaps didn’t have time for a long phone consultation. The special video program has been so successful in showing agents how to dramatically increase customer inquiries that we have expanded it to provide more valuable training on our other marketing systems. You can see the videos at www.AskRDC.com.
MP: What about other media? Can social media help the effort to generate and convert leads?
SB: We’re embracing the use of a wide variety of social media. We have customers using Realtor.com-generated messaging on social media sites like Facebook, and then managing the experience using Realtor.com and Top Producer tools. These tools even include methods for helping Realtors display their listings to their sphere of influence and customers through social networks.
MP: How are you getting the word out about the effectiveness of social media?
ES: We hold seminars across the nation on how Realtors can and should take advantage of social media in addition to other technology and marketing opportunities. We aptly call these sessions “Survival Guide” training because Realtors want tools they can use today to survive and thrive in a changed market. One method we have deployed is to assist the Realtor in creating a Facebook page for their neighborhood. We will help them get the message out online and with direct mail to establish a neighborhood social media site where the agent can interact with the community they serve. This is great because they are not directly selling but they do let the neighborhood know about trends in the real estate market and they keep themselves in the center of these discussions. We offer these seminars for free whether a Realtor purchases any premium advertising with us or not. You can look up when we will be in your area at www.AskRDC.com.
MP: If these sites are purely social, how do they turn that into a transaction?
ES: An NAR survey of home buyers and sellers revealed that 53% of consumers chose to work with an agent they knew or that someone referred to them. Through social networking sites, we help the Realtor get “known” to be an expert on real estate without overtly selling.
MP: We have noticed some large regional and national brokers increasing their participation with Realtor.com. How are you helping brokers in the current market?
SB: Brokers have had to cut back on their advertising budgets, yet the need to promote unsold listings has become more pronounced. Almost every broker today is impacted by the need to measure return on investment. In this marketplace, a broker cannot commit to advertise in print media week after week until a home sells. Having a strong position on the number-one real estate site, where they can maximize the lead capture for the dollars spent, has caused many brokers to engage with us who had not previously used Realtor.com as a key media strategy.
MP: What steps could agents take on Realtor.com to keep their business intact in this tougher market?
ES: A survey we recently conducted through NAR revealed that 70% of home sellers said they would be more likely to list with an agent who offered video tours. Even with our simplest, base-level showcase enhancement products, loading videos is free-and there are close to 500,000 Realtors who have the ability right now to post free videos. This presents Realtors with a real opportunity. Video on the web is still new to most agents, and less than 1% of the Realtors who could post a video have taken advantage of the opportunity. We’re educating Realtors about why they should offer videos and easy ways to produce videos through live and video recorded training. Watch the videos at www.AskRDC.com.
Also, for every e-mail lead we sent, we were sending along six phone calls! After speaking with some of the Realtors we found out that not all of them keep track of how a customer came to be calling them. Also, many don’t even ask. We are experimenting with systems that would let the Realtor know through a different “whisper” before they answered the phone that the call is an inquiry from Realtor.com.
One thing a lot of Realtors in the industry don’t realize is the amount of buyer interest that is generated on a home through promotion on Realtor.com, yet doesn’t get tallied in the e-mail or phone-lead count.
MP: You provide many great ways to generate inquires-but how do you help Realtors convert those leads to closed sales?
SB: Getting an inquiry is only the first step. The customer who wants information needs to get that information “now.” Not in a day, not even in an hour. We also understand that a busy Realtor who is in the middle of a transaction can’t always provide the immediate response consumers now demand. That’s why we provide automated systems through Realtor.com and Top Producer that connect customers and Realtors through their mobile devices-so a Realtor can act before the customer goes elsewhere for the answer.
MP: How do you help Realtors continue to fill the funnel in terms of prospects?
SB: In this market, there are buyers, particularly “move-up buyers,” who are sitting on the sidelines, thinking this is not the time to move. They will buy-but not now. Smart Realtors are keeping in touch with each and every one of them. This can become quite an effort because productive agents are communicating with hundreds of prospects regularly in order to close enough of them to achieve their desired financial goals. This is compounded by the fact that the slower economy requires a greater pool of prospects just to keep closings up to last year’s level.
Top Producer has helped busy Realtors keep their prospect pool alive. When the market turns, they will get the additional benefit of immediate connection to their “stored” prospects they communicate with through Top Producer. Top Producer and Realtor.com provide a complete lead cultivation solution to address the need for conversion. Historically, agents were only able to covert single digit percentages of Internet leads. But our clients tell us that with diligent follow-up and responsiveness it can be 15% or more that close.
ES: It’s really a multi-pronged approach that Realtor.com and Top Producer has automated:
1. Leverage the enormous pipeline of consumers coming to Realtor.com every day.
2. Change your messaging on Realtor.com to fit your market and change as consumers change.
3. Utilize a mechanism wherever you advertise in order to capture consumers’ contact information.
4. Offer information that will get consumers attention and compel them to give you their phone number and e-mail address.
5. Nurture your contacts through an automated system until they’re ready to buy or sell.
Right now, no other company is offering this type of automated solution to capture inquiries and build relationships until a closed sale and beyond. You have the largest source of consumer traffic in Realtor.com helping Realtors generate inquiries and the most advanced lead management system in Top Producer helping to nurture those Realtor.com inquiries until they close-all in one seamless system.
MP: What’s your prediction for when the market will stabilize and how can Realtors get this important market information out to their clients and customers?
SB: We don’t profess that we can always predict the market, but as Realtors, we are closest to the activity and get the first glimpse of changes. We asked consumers through a NAR survey if they thought it would be useful to receive updates on listings, sales and prices through e-mail. Sixty-seven percent responded yes, and when we went to events and polled real estate agents, only 16% said they produced such a report. We offer Realtors the ability to send out regular local market updates with our Market Snapshot system.
ES: The best information on the market is coming from Realtors who are out there solving problems and creating strategies for surviving in today’s market. We share their solutions through our marketing site and help continue the dialogue in real time. We believe that a hands-on approach to tackling the challenges of the current real estate market is the only way to come out the other side successful.
For more information, visit www.realtor.com.
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