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New generations mandate new strategies

By Eugene L. Meyer

RISMEDIA, April 4, 2007-Do you speak boomer? If that's your only generational language, you are in big trouble. Gen X and Gen Y consumers don't speak your language, and, 120 million strong, they now constitute the largest demographic in the real estate market.

Simply put: As consumers become increasingly computer savvy, brokers are finding they are no longer in charge. Those brokers who don't keep up are in danger of becoming, well, endangered. But it's not just a matter of disseminating information; the medium is the message.

The Perfect Storm

"People don't go to the Yellow Pages anymore," says Steve White, a Columbus, Ohio search engine optimization consultant. "The first place they go is the Internet."

For sure, Gen X and Gen Y buyers and sellers are bringing a lot more knowledge to the table, but they also expect instant communication that makes even e-mail look so, well…ast century. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge to brokers, running to keep up with the under-43 crowd who feel empowered by text messaging, podcasts, iPods, iTunes and PDAs (personal digital assistants), such as Treos and Blackberries.

"They are techno-literate and techno-fused," says Dallas-based consultant John Ansbach. "Gen X grew up as computers grew up. Gen Y is techno-fused. They don't know how to do anything without computers. The latch-key effect for both is a profound sense of: I can do it on my own, given the right tools. Gen X and Y-ers believe in their heart of hearts if they had enough coffee and access to the Internet, they could learn to fly the space shuttle."

Of course, Anspach maintains, this is "not reality. A real estate transaction is a complicated financial process that does require significant expertise. Consumers don't get this message, and certainly not from the media that has further told these consumers Realtors are anti-competitive and greedy and, by the way, you may not even need them."

These forces have combined "to create a perfect storm for brokers. You can fight it, or you can change, adapt and be successful with the right strategies," says Ansbach

How to Adapt

Coldwell Banker has gotten the message. "Our development cycle has us rolling out a major enhancement every couple of months," says Charlie Young, senior vice president of marketing for Coldwell Banker. "We've deployed ‘widget technology,' a way of distributing content to people instead of them coming to your site. You put in your criteria, and it will e-mail whenever a new home meeting that description comes on the market."

The company is also using RSS (real simple syndication) to get information on users' Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL home pages. "So, for example, on your ‘My Yahoo' page, you can have Coldwell Banker listings shown," Young says.

Coldwell Banker is investing, too, in video streaming, distributing content through YouTube and Google and Yahoo videos. It currently has 12 to 15 different ones. The custom content is being produced by Scripps Network's HGTV. "If you go to You Tube and search real estate, you'll find that video," he says. To bring browsers to its videos, the company tags them with key words such as real estate, open house and agent.

"We're going mobile," Young adds. "We're developing the ability to deliver listings, photos and other content to PDAs and mobile phones. With i-Pods we'll push audio content. It will be more educational."

Columbus, Ohio-based Real Living, the nation's fourth largest real estate firm according to RISMedia's 18th Annual Power Broker Survey, has been aggressively courting the computer-savvy. In January, it announced that it is podcasting 46 videos, each three to five minutes long, providing viewers with a better sense of the communities in which they are house-shopping. "Now consumers can view the community videos on any of our real estate listings in those communities or via iTunes," says Kaira Sturdivant Rouda, Real Living's chief operating officer.

Explains Harley E. Rouda, Jr., CEO and managing partner, "The biggest industry change the last five years has been a shift from agents holding the MLS close to their chest and telling buyers, ‘If you work with me, I'll let you see my pictures,' to consumers inundated with so much information, so much data. We've moved from controller of the information to interpreter of the information."

For example, he says, "If you are interested in properties in a certain geographic area and price range, we can push to your iPod virtual tours and videos of that property as they come on line." This year, Rouda says the firm is adding agent videos. "The consumer wants to establish relationships on line. Often, they want to get to know the agent without the agent knowing who they area. We attach that video to the [agent's] personal web site.

"The good news for us is we have a long history of embracing technological change, so our agents are far more up to speed than most in the industry. The idea is to provide a potpourri of tools and resources so they can conduct their business with their clients in the most professional manner. We push a lot of training through ‘webinars.' You actually have a teacher doing it on screen, walking through the presentation. The agents can ask questions live and get answers."

To drive customers to the sites, Real Living teaches agents "basic meta-tags they need to include in their web site that localizes it a little bit more," Rouda says. "Then, instead of competing at the top of the food chain with brokers and larger franchises, we help them take advantage of key words in local searches." In search engine lingo, they call it "the long tail of search" that reaches down to the local level.

The Search is Critical

In the end, says Steve White, "It all comes back to search and how well you're targeting your different demographics. For 45-year olds, you need different key words than for 25-year olds. But you can't just trick searchers into coming to your Web site. You site has to be relevant."

The 150 agents who work for Greenwood King, a Houston brokerage, are just beginning to get the message. The firm recently asked Ansbach to address these generational issues, and it was a wake-up call, according to Lorraine Abercrombie, the firm's marketing director.

"The agents were almost set on fire when they left. They said this is exactly what we need to hear," she says. "They realize now they may need to make some changes in what they're doing. John was talking about text messaging. The next day, we had a text messaging class. They clearly got the message that this is one of the tools you need to have to operate in this industry right now. It was a light bulb that came on. And then you realize there are some people who really want a phone call. You have to realize who you are dealing with and what's appropriate for their generation."

Ansbach, who delivers his message to real estate groups around the country, tells agents not to fight the savvy consumer but to adapt. "We have a nasty habit of telling consumers, ‘You can't do this yourselves, you need an agent to take you through by the hand.' That's a mistake.

"The reality for brokers is: Don't fight this do-it-yourself approach. Play with them, acknowledge their independence, and field a group of agents who say, ‘You can do this. We can help. We are going to be guides, counselors, and together we're going to create an outstanding experience that's just for you.' This is a very powerful approach and successful for brokers who are willing to adapt to the new consumers."

"Know your generation" might be the new mantra. Anspach divides them into Gen Y, Gen X, baby boom and "civics," also known as "the matures" who are 62+. "We tell clients, they need to be multi-lingual, to demonstrate in their marketing materials they speak the language."

To reach the Gen X and Gen Yers, agents need to be armed with PDAs and know how to use them. They must be able to text message their young clients, preferable to e-mail for those born from 1977 to 1994. "Instant messaging is a little too informal for the transaction," Ansbach says. "Text messaging is a lot more popular and acceptable. It demonstrates you speak their language."

For many older agents, this may be a cultural sea change. "If you're a boomer, in your 40s or 50s, you speak boomer and are invested in personal relationships. It's not better or worse, it's just different. At the end of the day, you want to be successful. The discomfort is transient and people can overcome it by investing some time and energy."

Yet there remains resistance to change, he notes, which creates a "tremendous opportunity for brokers willing to make this effort now. There's still a window in which you can truly distinguish yourself by getting cutting edge and tech driven. This window will close in three to five years. At the end of the day, the opportunity is there, the investment required not insurmountable. For those that want to play with the new consumer and be successful with these folks, the time is now."

Still, if traditional real estate agents have been slow to adapt, so have some consumers, says Coldwell Banker's Young. "You pick up USA Today or watch the evening news, you think the entire world is doing this stuff," he says. "From a numbers standpoint, adoption is still on the lower side. Adoption is slow but steady. It's incumbent on Coldwell Banker and others to be out there with the tools."