I have been thinking a lot about marketing lately. Fewer homes for sale and fewer buyers have made our competitive business even more so.

We used to say, "There is enough business for everybody." We didn’t really mean everybody, of course. What we meant was every licensed real estate agent. But now that everybody is seemingly licensed, everybody really is everybody, and there just aren’t enough buyers and sellers to feed the hungry agent population. Marketing ourselves to make a distinction is becoming more important than ever.

I have been thinking a lot about marketing lately. Fewer homes for sale and fewer buyers have made our competitive business even more so.

We used to say, "There is enough business for everybody." We didn’t really mean everybody, of course. What we meant was every licensed real estate agent. But now that everybody is seemingly licensed, everybody really is everybody, and there just aren’t enough buyers and sellers to feed the hungry agent population. Marketing ourselves to make a distinction is becoming more important than ever.

When you can least afford to aggressively market is when you most need to be investing. That is the cruel irony of this business. Sure, we can work smarter and redirect more of our resources toward the lower-cost strategies (online being the most obvious), but effective real estate marketing has never been a "pick one" undertaking. If my plan is to generate business just from my Web site, just from my print mailings or even just through sidling up to my sphere, I am limiting myself. To live more than hand-to-mouth, I need to offer the whole enchilada.

Every time I see a new home listed in our core market, it gives me pause. I am not talking about the listings where my name is on the yard sign. I’m good with those. It’s all of the others, the ones where I never had the opportunity to earn the client’s trust and business. Then I remember that I did have the opportunity. It’s just that my marketing fell short of getting me in the door. I can always do better, but defining "better" is not as easy as it might sound.

As agents, we have both tangible and intangible goods to offer. Where communicating these to our target audience is concerned, each presents its own challenges. The tangibles are the things we do, the services we provide, the places and ways in which we advertise our listings. To truly offer more and better is becoming an almost futile keeping-up-with-the-Joneses exercise. Today I have a better IDX platform — tomorrow you publish coffee table books for your listings. Then I do streaming video. Then you do a better streaming video and add one more page to your multi-page glossy brochures, and so forth, until we are really all doing the same thing. So we are left to focus on the packaging.

I see our marketing as the smoke and mirrors in a big magic act. When you get down to it, we all know and are performing the same tricks. There is no distinction to be made when we are all sawing the same lady in half, so we refocus on getting the sexier assistant. We keyword stuff, we SEO optimize, and we "prettify" our sites and print materials. Bear in mind that I am not saying we are truly all the same — it’s just that making that distinction is getting more challenging.

I may pull a bigger and better rabbit out of my hat, but it’s still a rabbit just like yours. I suspect many of our customers would have a hard time telling the difference anymore, even when I know that my rabbit, the one I blogged about, is electronically signed, and I have a coffee table book at my professionally staged open house with lighted directional signs bearing a single-property URL — the one advertised on Craigslist and about 7,000 other Web sites — to prove it. But wait, you probably do, too.

So, I am left with the challenge of communicating my unique value proposition through marketing the intangibles, and this is the trick that continues to elude me. This is where we are each most unique. Yet, how do you convey a higher standard of care, how do you quantify ethics, and how do you convince that customer that you really do answer your phone seven days a week or negotiate more ferociously? How do you assure them that you really do know your market and market dynamics better and that you care more?

How do you instill more confidence in your services in the "he said/she said" marketing game, where everyone is a self-proclaimed "number one experienced and professional agent for life" who will sell your house "faster and for top dollar," even when you know they aren’t and they won’t?

How can we attract that larger audience? One answer is obviously to hold more performances. I could focus on quantity rather than quality, and I am confident that if I mailed 1,000 brochures a day for the next sixth months, additional business would result. The problem is that few of us enjoy unlimited resources, and the minute I quit outspending I am back to where I started. Our clients are transient. They move in and they move out, and they move away. True, a well cultivated sphere will deliver loyalty and ongoing business, but significant market share can never be realized through sphere-of-influence customers alone. What I am talking about here are the new customers. And it is the revolving door of new buyers and sellers coming and going every day that is arguably the key to bridging that gap between a decent living and thriving career. How to wow this crowd without spending myself into oblivion remains a mystery to me.

Whether it be in promoting the tangibles or in highlighting the intangibles, I think the real trick may not be in accumulating the biggest list of little things but in finding that one big thing that will resonate. It’s not about presenting a show consisting of a bunch of smaller acts, but about leaving the impression that the experience in its entirety is uniquely superior. I don’t have the answer yet, but I’m pretty sure I am on the right track. I just need to figure out how it is that I can avoid presenting the illusion of sameness and instead leave the undeniable impression that I am a hard act to follow.

I need to figure out how it is that I can rise above the noise and effectively convey to the crowd that my services are most worth the price of admission, even before they have seen the show.

Kris Berg is a real estate broker associate for Prudential California Realty in San Diego. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.

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