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(From L to R) Anthony Hitt, CEO of Engel & Völkers North America; Michael Mahon, President of HER REALTORS®; Marty Rueter, President of Weichert Real Estate Affiliates; and Jon Coile, President and CEO of Champion Realty, Inc., share their secrets to online lead conversion at RISMedia’s Real Estate CEO Exchange.

Comprised of search engines, listing portals, social media and more, today’s data-driven landscape allows consumers unfettered access to all things real estate. In the industry, this environment has raised a million-dollar question, the answer to which is vital to sustaining success long-term:

How can real estate practitioners turn data, in all its scope and availability, into dollars?

In front of an audience of nearly 200 of the most influential members of the industry at RISMedia’s Real Estate CEO Exchange, five leading brokers took part in an in-depth discussion on lead generation, cultivation and conversion in the age of the Internet consumer. The session, led by RISMedia President and CEO John Featherston and Proxio Executive Vice President of Sales Jose Perez, took place on day one of the sold-out event, hosted at the renowned Yale Club in New York City.

“It’s about taking control of the data—and the leads,” said Candace Adams, president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England Properties. “We’ve determined in our company that we have to be the lead generators, not our agents.”

Candace Adams, President and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England Properties, discusses online lead generation tactics at RISMedia’s Real Estate CEO Exchange.

For Adams, going “all in” with the big three—Zillow, Trulia and®—and search engine marketing have proved beneficial to lead capture. But even as traffic soars among these online gatekeepers, strategies that succeed for some can be ineffective for others.

“Based on the numbers the portals put out, 120 – 140 million people are looking at homes every month online,” said Jon Coile, president and CEO of Champion Realty, Inc. “If we still only sell 500,000 units, how good are those leads? We didn’t find the return on investment worthwhile for us.”

For Michael Mahon, president of HER REALTORS®, success has come through pay-per-click Google and Facebook advertising campaigns—the latter of which generates leads among targeted segments, such as empty nesters and commercial investors.

“We need to keep in mind that 40 percent of the overall activity going into these portals starts from Google,” said Mahon. “If there’s something we need to watch out for, it’s Google.”

For some, technology works in tandem with tradition. Face-to-face interactions still play a pivotal role in lead generation, especially at open houses—“a major source of meeting people,” said Martin Rueter, president of Weichert Real Estate Affiliates. “It behooves us to do more than what the Internet does, know more than what the Internet knows, to engage in the emotional aspect of house sales.”

Once the funnel is filled, the task of converting shifts to the agent—or so it would seem. As many panelists indicated, the broker is primarily responsible for motivating agents to follow-up with incoming leads, even if that means taking on the task themselves.

“As a broker, I make it my business to make sure we’re touching all of those clients at least four or five times a year,” said Adams. “I’m not going to rely on my agents to do that—I’m going to do that for them. We take control of that as a firm. We take control of the data, and we take control of that client.”

“The average conversion rate in the industry is 1 percent,” said Anthony Hitt, CEO of Engel & Völkers North America. “Agents don’t want to deal with the other 99 percent who aren’t ready to buy right now. You have to start by educating the agent, and from there, provide systems, processes and accountability. If you don’t do that, all of these concepts are worthless.”

Proxio Executive Vice President of Sales Jose Perez moderates “Turning Data into Dollars: Broker Strategies for Leveraging Online Leads” at RISMedia’s Real Estate CEO Exchange.

That formula applies whether the client is local or abroad, Hitt added.

“Dealing with an international client isn’t much different than dealing with a domestic one. They want an immediate response—they want information, and they want it now.”

To meet that need, prompt engagement is essential—in five minutes or less, the panelists agreed. With the support of more than 100 staff members at the franchise’s call center, Rueter explained that his team has achieved a lead response time of just three minutes.

“Their job is to engage in conversation with the customer, to determine if they are a prime-time player or not really a prime-time player,” Rueter explained. “Fifty-eight percent are not ready for prime-time; 42 percent might be, meaning there is some interest. The scrubbing process makes agents more inclined to take the lead.”

With a lead response time of five minutes or less, Mahon has adopted a similar, “shot gun” approach.

“It’s the follow-up with the lead that makes our system very advantageous. We have a ‘red and green light’ system…as long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, your light will stay green, and you’ll continue receiving leads.”

For Coile, motivation comes with a dose of fun.

“When trying to raise attention to lead conversion, keep it fun and focused,” said Coile, who hosts contests that reward first responders, as well as those who respond within the first five minutes, to encourage lead follow-up.

But no matter the method of motivation, all follow-up processes share a common goal: build relationships. Forging a genuine connection is key, noted all of the panelists, to converting a lead into a client for life.

“Data isn’t necessarily a dirty word,” said Mahon. “Data was created by a relationship, and that deal is going to be closed by a relationship. We have to be better as an industry in not letting that relationship die.”

“When did a website, blog, or tweet ever reach out and shake somebody’s hand?” asked Rueter, quoting Jim Weichert, co-president and founder of Weichert, REALTORS®. “Sooner or later, someone has to reach out and shake someone’s hand.”

Stay tuned for more coverage in the coming days of RISMedia’s 2015 CEO Exchange.