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The need to inspire action in the mind of the digital customer

“The more marketers can evoke social actions, the more likely it is that their wonderfully crafted narrative will stick to people’s screens.”

–Steve Rubel, “Why Marketers Must Think in Verbs or Face Increasing Irrelevance” (Ad Age).

Looking around real estate syndication portals is an inherently dull experience. Importantly, it’s unreflective of the way people look for homes in the real world. The experience today is more about the competent, funnel-driven navigation of a seemingly endless database of digital information, rather than capturing the inspiring, life-changing, amazing experience of what it feels like to walk into the home of your dreams. The place you’ll raise a family. The place that will be a constant in your life as the world turns. The place at the heart of the story of your life. Syndication sites capture none of the sentiment, emotion and life-changing energy of what it truly feels like to own a home.

They imply value in serving up thousands of matching results, where more isn’t actually more. Many do find real value in that, and they have been incredibly successful in building an interactive business around such an idea. In digital real estate, in just the same way as an agent works with a customer, less — but more accurate information — is more. It reflects the fundamental, antagonistic difference between searching listings and finding homes. Browsing a soulless database under the premise of starting with “everything” and simply using filters to refine the overwhelming volume of search results is fast becoming the unfortunate norm for how users are being guided toward agents. But it’s missing something emotional that many marketers are beginning to focus on this year: verbs.

When browsing property pages, search results, or the home pages of real estate websites, how much is there for the user to do? Outside of search, and going to other searches, very little. We see the same standardized types of information served up in slightly different ways almost everywhere, but essentially there’s very little difference between the sites themselves. This fuels a sense of homogenous brand awareness, in which the customer can’t tell the difference between brokerages. It’s address, photos, price, a description, a map, contact information, and perhaps some tertiary financial details. If the user is lucky, there’s a video, but that’s essentially all that’s presented to the user. This approach misses the point in answering the fundamental question in the mind of the prospective customer: “What does it feel like to live there?”


Verb-driven design: Milk Processors’ Education Program’s “Got Milk?” campaign.

Advertisers, particularly within the real estate industry, have traditionally traded in creative, aspirational descriptions of their products (or in our case, listings). Adjectives and adverbs are rampant within real estate writing. We hear of sumptuous, gorgeous, beautiful dream homes. We read of attainable luxury at affordable prices, of incredible kitchens with all modern conveniences, and of gorgeous views overlooking stunning sunsets. However, what this kind of content, layout and user experience often ignores is the dwindling attention span of the online user, which forces brevity of copy, with the need for a much stronger call to action.
If you buy into the idea that the Web is becoming a more active place, with a stream-based infrastructure at its core, then the notion of giving customers things to do becomes an important idea to include. How much can the user ‘do’ on a property detail page? The user can share, and perhaps “like” it, but as the idea of frictionless sharing begins to take hold across the Web, working with a verb-based marketing approach becomes one of the primary ways to remain visible.

The importance of the context of working with the stream is well documented elsewhere online, as we begin to experience the Web as filtered through the social sharing of our friends and digital connections. Facebook’s like and share were recently joined by “listen” (from Spotify) and “read” (from many online publishers, including The Washington Post). It’s predicted that “watch” and “buy” will be following very soon, heralding social TV and social commerce.

What these options reflect is a fundamental shift in user behavior from one of passively grazing pages and documents, to one where the user is at the center of their own digital experience, and no two versions of the Web are the same. Everyone’s experience of the Web is now different, and personalized. Steve Rubel, executive vice president of global strategy and insights for New York digital agency Edelman, characterizes this as a call to action for marketers to work harder in evoking social actions in order to remain relevant and visible online. These kinds of actions are already proving highly successful in driving more traffic back into the site source of the original piece of content, but it raises an interesting question for those in the real estate industry: “What’s our version of a ‘like’ or a ‘listen’?” Perhaps “visit” — for open-house sharing? “Watch” for a video tour? Maybe “loved” for more recreational real estate experiences, such as the ones currently happening inside of Pinterest? Defining the core verb for our industry might hold the key to how to create unique, beautiful and magical marketing experiences in the future.

Verb-driven design: Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign.

With the way we interact with the digital world becoming more verb-driven overall, to the extent where gestural user interfaces, such as voice recognition (Siri), touch (iPad) and motion (Kinect) are becoming widely adopted, the need to create active, dynamic interfaces where the user can do more, especially with their friends, becomes paramount. How much of this happens online with digital real estate content? A primitive “like” or a simple “email to a friend” is no comparison to what’s happening elsewhere. The bar is being raised on how users find and explore content they love on the Web, and the real estate industry has a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on verbs around the idea of homes. Moving away from database search and into verb-driven home search will allow real estate marketers to move away from focusing on simply being seen, and to move toward inspiring action. Such marketing will create deeper, richer brand associations in the mind of the online user, and for longer.

We’re all familiar with the notion of how a brand becomes a verb. Every day we Google things, Photoshop images, or FedEx parcels across the world. This is both a blessing and a curse for brands, as when a name grows so popular that it begins to define all similar products on the market. What happens is what economists refer to as “genericide” — the loss of a trademark by “genericization.” It dilutes brands rather than strengthening them. But do we “Zillow” things? Have you ever asked someone to “Trulia” you? What about a direction centered around “Move me”? That might seem a noble goal for any brand (and also emotionally, of course), and as such, the word “move” is a key one in our industry. We’ve seen primitive implementations using the words “Make Me Move” and other similar options, but I’m referring to “move” in the emotional sense. In the brand sense. In the sense of how your home makes you feel. The word “move” is absolutely key to the DNA of what it feels like to own a home. “Move” is the key verb in the story of your home. It’s where that story begins.

Verb-driven design: Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.

It’s notable how much data is coming out of social media analysis regarding verbs. Nick Diakopoulos, an independent researcher in computational media, looked into the textual and linguistic features of headlines more associated with being retweeted. Which types of words were more likely to inspire action in the mind of the user? By analyzing thousands of tweets inside of The New York Times, Diakopoulos came to two main conclusions: Greater use of verbs, combined with shorter messages, inspired more social sharing. This might be something to consider the next time you’re composing a tweet.

As the Web moves toward a more verb-driven approach, what those same experiences begin to look like is also improving. Think back to what photo sharing looked like five years ago, for example. Now think of Instagram. The quality of our content sharing is slowly beginning to improve around app-driven development and social user experiences. Our content has never looked better. Many of these sharing services take the simple idea of creating beautiful visuals focused on enhancing the quality of our emotional connections with each other. As Edward Aten describes the shift: “visual experiences are becoming the gold standard of Web success.” And it’s easy to see why. With the rise of what he describes as the “emotional web,” Aten pinpoints services such as Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest as experiencing seismic growth as a direct result of connecting with users this way.

Verb-driven design: Burger King’s “Have It Your Way” campaign.
Instagram is of particular note — not making us better photographers, but making us more effective emotional communicators. The service overlays a filter of “feeling” on top of the image, so much so that what we lose in accuracy, as Aten continues, we gain in nostalgia. What’s captured is “how” the person saw what they snapped. Aten concludes that prioritizing the emotions behind the content (like the Instagram example) over the data, by stripping out everything but the feeling of the moment, is a way to ultimately inspire users’ lives to be more interesting and look more attractive. Such content is simply shared in a much more widespread way today.

Where are these deep, rich visual experiences in the digital real estate space? Where are the big, bold, visceral images, fostering a sense of connection with a home? Which sites are answering the question, “What does it feel like to live here?” There’s much we can learn from stepping outside of our own vertical and replicating the best practices of the best in class services for the things we do. Looking inside of real estate for solutions to user-experience problems is futile and simply a race to the bottom. We need to stop talking to ourselves and learn from others.

When it comes to the content of a property detail page, take each individual element — the photos, the maps, the copy — and think about replicating the best-in-class practices for those areas, outside of real estate. For photos in particular, adding that emotional filter and communicating a sense of place and home is vast, uncharted territory in real estate marketing. What does the verb-driven Pinterest of real estate look like? The Tumblr of open houses? The Instagram or Path of homes you’ve bookmarked? These kinds of approaches pave the way for new methods of thinking about how customers find homes, and they begin to break the existing model of listings search.

Beautiful verbs. I believe it’s an exciting moment whose time has finally come.


Further Reading:

Edward Aten: “The ugly truth: why beautiful wins in 2012.

Noam Cohen: “The Power of the Brand as Verb.

Nick Diakopoulos: “News Headlines and Retweets.

Steve Rubel: “Why Marketers Must Think in Verbs or Face Increasing Irrelevance.

Jeff Sonderman: “For more retweets, rely on verbs, buzzwords and brevity.