The Internet has been called the “leveler of the playing field,” offering opportunities for local businesses to gain prominence in search results. In the real estate space, many of the top spots are dominated by portals who have the expertise, resources and consumer recognition to outperform local agents and brokerages. The biggest players in the industry are venture-backed, publicly-traded companies with mandates of growth over profitability. Their online strategies tend to focus on a “bigger is better” mantra, without consideration for the industry metrics themselves. One outlier to the larger portal mix is Homes.com, a private company based in the Mid-Atlantic founded on a traditional print business model, and one of the oldest players in a niche dominated by silicon tech.
“Driving big traffic numbers is a strategy, but it’s not ours,” says David Mele, president of Homes.com. “We’re not focused on delivering the biggest audience, but the right audience at the right time in their buying cycle.”
And despite its smaller stature, Homes.com is delivering on this promise, a true “David vs. Goliath” success story where a quality-over-quantity philosophy is helping the company both differentiate itself and thrive.
Who better to lead Homes.com against the giant industry competitors than a “real” David? Mele came from a successful career in traditional publishing, leading The Virginian-Pilot—the largest newspaper in Virginia—to significant digital growth by introducing web services to their advertising mix and successfully transitioning the 150-year-old newspaper into a digital powerhouse for local businesses.
“When I took over Homes.com and started digging into industry numbers, the biggest disconnect was around the actual number of real estate transactions and the traffic numbers the largest portals were presenting,” says Mele. “The math just didn’t work. How valuable are 100-million-plus visitors a month when there are only about five million actual homes sold each year? We knew agents wanted to reach a much more targeted audience.”
So Mele and his team are focused on delivering exactly that—a transaction-ready consumer for real estate agents and brokers.
A Better Search Strategy
With close to three million real estate listings for sale or for rent, Homes.com’s inventory is equal to or exceeds many of its competitors. And they work hard to make sure this inventory is visible to the right audience, when a consumer is searching for their next home.
“When people use a search engine like Google to search for a house, they typically search using ‘homes for sale’ with the city they’re interested in, e.g., ‘homes for sale Atlanta,’” explains Grant Simmons, Homes.com’s vice president of Search Marketing and Consumer Engagement. “We specifically target these queries because we know consumers using them have an intent to buy or rent, are closer to a purchase decision, and are often at the point where they need a real estate professional to guide them.”
Simmons, who drives the consumer marketing strategy for Homes.com, has over 20 years of experience in diverse online verticals and isn’t blind to the marketplace perceptions—“We’re constantly justifying ‘bigger isn’t better’ outcomes in an industry where traffic volume is held as the primary measure of success. More traffic without better targeting isn’t valuable; better quality traffic tends to equal better leads to our partners,” he says. “However, this doesn’t mean we don’t see the value in growing traffic, but our main focus is on quality, which requires better-managed growth.”
If the total number of real estate transactions in the U.S. is approximately five million a year, where are the massive number of visitors coming from? “Many of our competitors are targeting longer tail or street address-level queries,” explains Simmons. “Those kinds of searches are generally for home values or driving directions, and are much less likely to be consumers looking for an agent.”
A Better Marketing Strategy
“Our primary business focus is on helping transaction-ready consumers connect with real estate professionals,” says Erin Ruane, Homes.com’s vice president of Sales. “We’re not trying to take the real estate pro’s job. Rather, we want to help them through better online visibility and valuable introductions to potential clients.”
Ruane’s 20 years of experience in online advertising and real estate marketing have given her a deep understanding of the marketing options available to agents and brokers. In consulting with them about their online and offline marketing strategies, the goal for Ruane was always the same: connecting real estate professionals with a transaction-ready buying and selling audience. “We realize agents and brokers have lots of choices,” acknowledges Ruane. “We offer a value alternative to the bigger brands, with an audience that is unique to Homes.com, supported by a customer service team that is second-to-none.”
“Our primary marketing strategy to date has relied on better targeting of search audiences,” says Mele, “but we understand that branding plays a key role in why users click on a search result.” Mele anticipates investing a lot more in branding Homes.com to both consumers and real estate professionals, but aligning with his vision of better over bigger, he doesn’t see Homes.com spending big bucks on “chest-thumping” campaigns. “You won’t see our commercials on the Oscars,” says Mele, “as our objective isn’t broad-based blasts to audiences who aren’t even considering a move. We want to be efficient and focus on audiences of value by delivering the right messaging at the right time, attracting the right consumers.”
Quality Data, Better Local Insights
With the large majority of Homes.com’s listings sourced directly from the MLS, Homes.com knows the answer to building trust with consumers is through accurate and insightful data.
“Quality listing data has always been a priority of Homes.com from day one,” says Andy Woolley, a 20-year veteran of the real estate media and technology industry, and Homes.com’s vice president of Industry Development. “Thanks to our direct data-feed partnerships with MLSs and brokers, consumers searching for their next home benefit from timely and accurate listing information, and are able to connect directly with the listing agent representing the seller.”
Although listings are the core component of any real estate portal—and important to consumers looking for choices—the Homes.com team is taking it a step further by aggregating additional local information to provide homebuyers and renters with local insights, giving them the ability to determine whether a neighborhood is right for them. This kind of data includes housing market reports, school scores (Homes.com created their own grading system), cost-of-living analyses, neighborhood statistics and commute calculators. All of these data and tools give consumers a rich overview and an authentic peek into what it’s actually like to live in their area of interest, guiding them to an ideal home that suits their needs and lifestyle.
Homes.com’s focus on quality is deeply rooted in their company’s culture. In seeking a metaphor to convey their vision, they looked at other industries where smaller challengers were proven successful by delivering on quality.
“It wasn’t difficult to find a company with similar values,” says Woolley. “In fact, all of the leadership team at Homes.com were long-time fans of the Whole Foods brand before recognizing the values and vision we had in common. Whole Foods is known for focusing on a quality consumer experience and products, and it’s the same for us. At Homes.com, quality traffic and leads are both a direct result of quality data and information. That’s why we continue to focus on strengthening our relationships with industry partners.”
“We are a little company based in Norfolk, Va., not Silicon Valley,” says Simmons. “We know we’re up against the big guys, so we let ‘quality over scale’ drive our marketing initiatives. From Google campaigns to social media to print, it’s all geared toward attracting a higher-quality audience. Ultimately, we don’t want to be the big guy; we just want to do a great job at making great introductions.”
Better Products, Better Opportunities
With this laser focus on attracting the right consumers and serving the best data, Homes.com has successfully created the ideal audience for its advertising partners. “An agent can work with our sales professional and say they want to target a specific zip code or city and that they have a set marketing budget to spend each month,” explains Ruane. “If the inventory is available, we can offer a very geo-targeted consumer, and if a location is already taken, we have some innovative tools that identify other local opportunities that both agents and brokers can leverage.”
With targeted digital ad campaigns, pros can easily pinpoint a specific audience with a defined budget, making the programs far more effective than the traditional “wide-net” approach.