While online marketing is a growing focus for the real estate industry, its strength still has a lot to do with offline advertising, said industry professionals during an Inman News audio conference Friday. Brokerage-company representatives said they are still spending the lion’s share of marketing money on traditional advertising sources but are increasingly using offline campaigns to drive consumers to their Web sites.

And likewise, online marketing borrows elements from the world of offline advertising. “Marketing online is much the same as marketing offline,” said Kaira Sturdivant Rouda, chief operating officer for Real Living, a large real estate brokerage and franchise company. The yard sign is still one of the most important advertising mechanisms for agents, she said, and that’s not going away.

“What you’re trying to do as an agent or franchise owner or franchisor is to build a brand.” And in the online space, that begins with building a strong Web presence, she said, adding that Real Living has worked to integrate agent, broker and company Web sites and online marketing efforts.

The online world evolves rapidly, said Charlie Young, senior vice president of marketing for Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corp., which is among the largest real estate brands in the nation, and he said the company is constantly testing the performance of its offline and online marketing to determine which provide the greatest return on investment. Coldwell Banker spends about 30-35 percent of its total advertising dollars on online marketing, he said, which has remained fairly constant for the past couple of years.

And Sturdivant Rouda said Real Living spends about 20 percent of its marketing dollars online, though this doesn’t include overall technology investments that support Web site maintenance, for example. Companies need to find the right mix of online and offline campaigns and work to integrate those campaigns, she said.

The panelists said that they have invested in interactive features and multimedia content at their Web sites to improve the user experience. Sturdivant Rouda said that all advertising these days refers back to the Web. “That’s the big payoff … all of your listings are online,” she said.

Young added, “The Web address is on everything we do. We don’t do any marketing without a Web address on it.” The old real estate saying of “location, location, location” holds true in the online realm, too. “Be on the right sites at the right time to reach your intended customer.”

Joseph Ballarino, founder and president of Amerivest Realty, a real estate franchise based in Naples, Fla., said that consumers these days are looking for a personal relationship and a “home-town feel” online and want to avoid the “corporate feel.” He said his company is working to build technologies that enable agents to chat online with Internet consumers, for example, to give the Web a personal touch.

The panelists said that they generally favor more online exposure for property listings as long as the online sites are not competing with them or standing in between the consumer and agent relationship in a transaction.

Ballarino said his company is experimenting with pushing its property listings out to search sites such as Trulia and Google Base, though “we haven’t gotten any measurable results yet to determine whether that’s an effective use of our time,” he said. In deciding who to partner with, Ballarino said it’s valuable to ask whether competitors are using it and how it would benefit the company and consumers. “Does it provide value to the consumer? Do we need to be there? Do we need to be the first one there?”

Young said, “I generally believe in data syndication — getting listings out to as many places and as many eyeballs as possible. I do believe it’s a broker-based decision. And we’ve had some Coldwell Banker companies that have had fairly good success with it.” The company, he said, has also formed relationships to make its property database available on other sites such as CBSNews.com and HGTV.com.

Young said Coldwell Banker has in place robust systems to track and disseminate leads, such as a system that converts online leads to cell-phone calls to agents, and the company has hired an interactive advertising agency that works with its staff “to manage this on almost a daily basis as it relates to our online media activities,” providing an array of Web-user metrics on demand.

Sturdivant Rouda said that Real Living works with a search-engine-optimization company that assists with keyword components in online marketing.

And Ballarino noted that there are free tools available through Google, for example, that allow tracking of Web statistics with some simple coding. Amerivest, he said, has built a system that tracks incoming leads through to closing.

The panelists said their companies generally embrace blogging and social networking, and noted that such forums have served to boost the rankings of sites in search results in some cases. Panelists also said that their companies work to channel company-received leads to agents while also allowing agents to seek out leads on their own.

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