Weichert Real Estate has created an in-house online lead network that may well be the industry’s first substantial Internet lead business inside of a existing full-service real estate company. The Weichert Lead Network opened for business 11 months ago and today shovels piles of leads into the hands of Weichert’s 11,000 sales associates, according to Bret Violette, president of the Weichert subsidiary.

“What we saw (at other companies) was (that) it was largely one or two people who fielded Internet inquires, usually it is the relocation department. We thought the opportunity was much bigger than that, so we built a cradle-to-grave system to capture and convert Internet opportunities,” Violette said Wednesday during an Inman News audio conference, “How one big broker is parlaying leads off the Web.”

The success of companies that collect and distribute leads online has given real estate brokers and agents a new source of business–and a new topic of controversy. Weichert has taken matters into its own hands and decided to capture as many Internet leads as it possibly can through any available means. The brokerage is one of the largest independent regionals in the country and has 200 offices in the Eastern United States.

Weichert Lead Network utilizes multiple online strategies to capture Internet leads that then are prescreened by a call center and handed off on the telephone to a Weichert sales associate, who pays Weichert Lead Network a referral fee on any closed transaction. The goal isn’t to turn the lead network into a significant profit center, but rather to “create the maximize number of quality leads” for the sales associates, Violette said. The referral fees help pay for the Internet marketing, the lead network staff and operations and the technology.

The service relies on every opportunity to pull prospective buyers and sellers into the Weichert Lead Network system. That includes direct Internet advertising, partnerships with other lead generation companies and distribution of Weichert listings to other Web sites.

“If you are interested in buying or selling real estate within the Weichert footprint and you use the Internet, which third-quarters of consumers do these days, we want to get in front of you and introduce you to our company. That could encompass search engine optimization, we are a substantial pay-per-click player and other things. We may lose to a lead generation company on a search engine, for example, but with some of the partnerships we have with these companies, we have a second chance to capture that customer. We believe in heavy content syndication, which is the packaging of our listings onto other major Web sites where consumers like to search for real estate,” Violette said.

The strategy clearly encompasses both build-it-yourself and buy-from-someone-else components.

“We just think it makes sense to build the capability in-house rather than relying on third-party vendors to supply 100 percent of your Internet lead opportunities,” Violette said.

Weichert’s technology relies on “business rules and algorithms” to qualify the leads and a computer program decides which sales associates to call while a call center employee qualifies each lead. Violette said if the first sales associate to can’t take the call, the computer will simply dial the next person in line. Multiple sales associates can be tried in a short period of time while the prospect is in contact with the call center operator.

Local sales managers select which sales associates will participate in the program and the mangers have real-time capabilities to evaluate how each sales associate’s performance and track record. So far, the system generates plenty of opportunities, according to Violette.

“The challenge we have is adding enough people in some of our offices–a nice problem to have,” he said.

The system also relies on other Web sites, especially Web sites operated by major local newspapers, to capture prospects and lead them into Weichert’s lead network. The lure is Weichert’s own listings, which are packaged and syndicated to NJ.com, washingtonpost.com, NYTimes.com and Philly.com, among others.

Prospects who ask to be connected with a specific listing agent are connected to that person, who is not charged a referral fee even if a transaction closes from the lead. If a caller inquires about a particular listing, but doesn’t specify the listing agent, that agent gets first crack at the hand-off call and owes a referral fee to the lead service if a transaction closes. Violette said Weichert expects a lot of listings agents to convert both sides of the transaction when a buyer is identified through the online lead system.

Violette discouraged other brokers from trying to build similar systems that potential would compete with Weichert’s setup. He said such a system has to be complete end to end and quite large to warrant the investment and he doubted whether other brokers would have the wherewithal and infrastructure to replicate Weichert’s system.

“If a company is willing to invest millions of dollars and dozens of people, it is fine for them to do so, but it is difficult to do, unless you can convert a substantial number of transactions to help pay the bills. Unless you have something this big and complete, it could become a very expense and a big money-losing proposition,” he said.

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