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By Bill Miles

RISMEDIA, June 19, 2007-Consumers generally, and real estate consumers specifically, have been turning to the Web in extraordinary numbers for a variety of activities over the past 10 years. According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, in 2006, 73% of Americans used the Internet, up from 16% a decade ago. As this relates to real estate, in 2000, 28% of home buyers used the Internet as an important part of their home selection process, while in 2007, 72% of home buyers researched this way (according to the California Association of Realtors® 2007-2008 Internet Vs. Traditional Buyer Report).

Why is the Internet so appealing to real estate consumers? It is efficient. Instead of driving around to see homes for sale and viewing each one physically, the consumer can now get a good feel for the home (at least enough to know whether they want to see it in person), simply by viewing photos online.

Second, researching real estate online allows consumers to eliminate other marketing and sales materials. The newspaper, mail box and e-mail are full of unwanted solicitations. Online, the consumer controls the experience.

Third, and most important, the consumer can remain anonymous. Consumers curious about real estate don’t want to be solicited or sold. They want to remain hidden, and the Web provides the information they want with no strings attached.

Finally, increasingly the Web offers great local information. For instance, a consumer in San Antonio does not want to wade through a national map, drill down to Texas, then San Antonio, to then complete a form to see properties. The consumer wants to go to a site specializing in the specific information they are seeking. More and more the Web is offering immediate access to this local content.

So how do real estate professionals take advantage of this consumer shift to the Internet?

You must be online. There is no doubt consumers are online, therefore, you must be online as well. More specifically, you must be generating business from your online presence. A Web site lost among the millions or an e-mail newsletter with no subscribers is paramount to not being online. Develop and execute on a plan to generate business from your Web presence.

Be Local. As a real estate professional, you have a unique opportunity to provide local information that can’t be found anywhere else. Focus your efforts on important information specific to the neighborhood, including the neighborhood real estate trends, developments at the HOA and everything that makes you and your neighborhood unique. Trying to match the regional or national Web sites is a losing proposition. Focus on your unique advantage: being local!

Keep your site simple. Consumers have thousands of options for real estate information relevant to their interests. Focus on no more than three key areas and do them well. For instance, you could focus on sellers by providing recent home sales, home valuation services and remodeling tips to enhance a home’s value. In these three areas, your site must be best of class for consumers in your target market. On the front page of your site, be clear about the exceptional quality of information you provide on these three focuses and you will attract plenty of local sellers.

Don’t hide the key data. Share valuable information. Too many times, key information is buried within the site, typically behind a wealth of information about the real estate agent or brokerage. Remember, the consumers are typically at your site initially to research. They want information, so make sure it is easily and quickly accessible. Don’t require them to fill out long forms or click more than three times for the information they want. Sharing valuable data creates a sense of reciprocity whereby the consumer is more willing to engage you and trust your motives, ultimately making them more likely to share their information with you when asked.

Create a safe, non-intrusive environment. Design your Web site to build trust with consumers. Don’t overwhelm visitors with your personal information or heavy-handed sales tactics. Always explain why you are requesting their information and indicate you will respect their privacy.

Create reasons to return to the site. Once a consumer leaves a Web site, the likelihood they will return on their own is minimal. You must develop strategies to remind them, including newsletters, saved MLS searches and quarterly home valuation updates.

Think like a consumer. Once a week, take off your real estate agent hat and put on your consumer hat. Then go to your Web site and experience it as a consumer would. If this were a serious seller, what would they think? How about an early stage buyer or someone relocating? Remember, it will be hard for your site to be everything to everyone, so make sure at the very least, your site appeals to your target market.

Consumers are using the Web because it is more efficient, private, eliminates unwanted marketing clutter and provides dynamic, robust local information. In order to attract consumers to your Web site or e-mail newsletter, you must match these elements. Keep your site simple, highlight the key data, be upfront about your privacy protections and provide easy access to local information for your target audience. If you can pull that off, you will find success online.

Bill Miles is EVP of Connecting Neighbors, a division of Reply! Inc. Contact Bill at