I have created a monster. My monster is a 95-pound, perennial molting machine. In scientific circles, he is considered a "retriever," but years of inbreeding have rendered that moniker a joke. Retrieval requires movement, and the only action we see coming from Simon’s corner these days involves the doorbell signifying incoming pizza.

My dog is an instinctive, single-purpose being. He eats. Life is one big leftover, with sleep filling the gaps in between. Of course, he also has to make room for the next meal, so he does what dogs do, if you know what I mean.

The funny thing is that doing his business has become one big marketing campaign. We fill his bowl every day with the yummy brown Nuggets O’ Something Healthy, which is in theory enough to sustain him through his next siesta.

But somewhere along the way, we inadvertently established this flawed reward system. Upon his sluggish return from his work in the backyard, we got in the habit of exclaiming, "Good boy!" and honoring his accomplishment with a bonus doggy biscuit.

Now, as a result, he does his business approximately 78 times a day. At the slightest sign of people present, he runs to the back door scratching with a sense of urgency that would suggest he had just consumed a half-dozen bean burritos and a case of beer.

Sometimes, he does need to leave the premises; most times, though, we just spy through the rear window and watch him fake it. Either way, it has become his call to action, and he always returns to the Cabinet of Doggy Delight to do the happy dance and take delivery of his prize.

It was cute at first. He was trying so hard! Now we are wising up. Not only was his shtick getting old, but the back door was on the verge of cyclical failure, and I was running out of Milk Bone money.

So we stopped buying what he was selling, yet he kept on doing his business the same way, even when it was no longer producing the desired result — to get noticed. Slowly, he is learning, but it has taken far too long. In the meantime, he has spent valuable weeks and his very limited resources chasing his tail, so to speak.

The 2009 National Association of Realtors Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers got me thinking again about how we market ourselves to get the prize. Agents who have spent any time at this business are instinctively drawn to print marketing; we were bred to mail, door-drop, and mail some more.

At the same time, newer agents and innovative veterans alike are tossing their marketing eggs into the online basket so quickly they’re making haphazard omelets. And the debate rages on about the value of the open house, many clinging to this approach to winning hearts and business.

What works? According to the NAR survey, 44 percent of buyers chose their agent because of a referral from friends, neighbors or relatives, 10 percent used the same agent they had used in a previous transaction, 5 percent used an agent referred by another agent, and 4 percent used an agent referred by their relocation company. What this means is that 63 percent of the business has little or nothing to do with the way we tend to market ourselves.

Now, there is really no revelation here. We know that referral-based business is the Holy Grail of long-term success. But what is important to remember is that, as we go about spending our time and money trolling for new clients, only 37 percent of the business is really available to us as new business.

If you are a listing agent without an REO (bank-owned property) gig or an effective short-sale specialist campaign, the number is more dismal yet. This is sobering enough for the agent with an awesome database of happy past clients. For the new agent, it is even more daunting.

Of all business, according to the survey, only 10 percent will come from the Internet and less than 1 percent from print marketing. Meanwhile, we can credit open houses for 6 percent of our clients, surpassed by even the simple yard sign at 7 percent.

There is no doubt that we will see these numbers shift over time, particularly where Internet-generated business is concerned, but this big picture is an important perspective-check as we constantly reevaluate how best to allocate our resources. …CONTINUED

Business in my neighborhood must be picking up, because the "Neighborhood Specialists" are once again taking over my mailbox. At the same time, the rate at which new blogs are being introduced into my small community is dizzying, each one authored by an agent more "experienced," "knowledgeable" and "trustworthy" than the next.

And each time, I am instinctively sent reeling, tempted to respond in kind, to go back to scratching at that same door with more fervor than ever, lest they are rewarded with more of what I desire.

In the latest print piece I received, the agent boasted that he was both my "trusted name" in real estate and my community "expert." On the latest blog born in my ‘hood, this agent team, too, was "expert in the field of real estate." Are they scratching at the right door?

NAR’s survey found that 31 percent of buyers and sellers most value honesty and trustworthiness in their agent, followed by 23 percent who are most concerned about reputation. The third-largest group (16 percent) cared only that the agent was a friend or family member. Add these up, and it is remarkably close to that repeat/referral component of our business which will be unaffected by our marketing heroics, whether online or off.

What we are left with, then, is about 11 percent of buyers and sellers who care about our knowledge of the neighborhood and 10 percent who want us to have "caring personalities" (who want to like us).

So, on the one hand, the agent with the print piece had it right. Most customers want to be able to, first and foremost, trust us. The problem is they won’t trust us because we tell them they should. They will need to know of our veracity from experience or hear it from someone they do trust. As for the "expert" argument, well, about one-third of the new business folks give a flip about our neighborhood knowledge, it seems.

You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it takes time. So much of our marketing is done by rote, with little regard for the cost/benefit equation, and we instinctively keep doing it and doing it more often, even though the jig is up.

I have certainly been guilty of this, having created a monster where print marketing is concerned. Simon is in an enviable position; his target audience is well defined, and we, the purveyors of the prize, represent repeat business. Where agents are concerned, it’s a little harder to remain focused and rethink our behaviors.

To have a successful business, we must look to both new business and old. Where our marketing is concerned, however, too often our tendency is to spend our time and our money disproportionately on the lowest return. Yes, we still need to have print visibility (at least in my market), and yes, we need that online presence.

But each time I see another agent knocking at the door in my market, I for one still have a little panic attack, thinking I need to respond with more or glossier, bigger and better. That is not necessarily the case — not if I remember that what we are competing for here is a very small part of the whole, and if I spend any time truly considering what works.

What I really need to be doing is value-engineering my limited resources. Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work again today, and certainly not in an environment where people are buying and selling in fewer numbers. New clients are essential — always will be — but these new clients require both the highest degree of effort to attract and represent the smallest opportunity.

Which is not to say that an all-past-client-follow-up-all-day approach is the right answer, at least if we agree that we can’t turn our back on new business.

The answer, I think, is to start looking at our traditional marketing media in a new way, and I include our Web sites and blogs in this category since they have become marketing staples. It’s not so much what we are saying or even how often we say it, but what we are doing that will inspire people to stump for us.

Referrals don’t just come from past clients and friends anymore, because we are connected on a larger stage now. How to get people talking — that should be the focus of all of our marketing efforts, if you believe NAR’s survey, and that sounds suspiciously like social media to me. One thing I do know is that my time and money are too valuable to be spent barking up the wrong tree. It’s something I’ll have to chew on.

Kris Berg is broker-owner of San Diego Castles Realty. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.


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