NEW YORK — Real estate professionals take note: The key to converting online leads into clients is to make sure consumers have an "amazing" experience start to finish, beginning with your website, according to a panel of speakers at Real Estate Connect Wednesday.

Simply put, a website needs to be easy on the eyes; interactions with agents should be nonintrusive; and agents should respond to questions quickly, speakers said.

But the oft-overlooked nitty-gritty of website design is also important: Which headlines are most likely to make a visitor stay on a page and fill out a contact form? Where should that contact form be on the page? How many fields should it have? What kind of text should surround it? What kind of expectations is the site setting for what happens after that contact form is submitted?

"It’s really about mastering an experience. If you want to convert more leads, you have to deliver an amazing experience throughout the process," said Austin Allison, president and CEO of real estate technology company DotLoop. Allison spoke in the conference’s ConnectTech track on a panel called "Conversion Optimization: Turning Leads into Clients."

"Think about your interactions with your consumers as if you were in the consumer’s shoes," Allison said.

A paradigm shift has occurred where consumers expect their experience on a website to be seamless, Allison added, using as an example.

"Historically, the elephant in the room is that we as an industry haven’t really acknowledged that experience in a huge way," he said.

Many real estate professionals don’t understand that a website needs to be tweaked and measured, said fellow panelist Frederick Townes, co-founder of Placester, a company that builds real estate software applications, and chief technology officer of social media news site Mashable.

"Even if you have a few hundred visitors coming to your site every week, that’s still enough to make some inferences from testing," Townes said. "Make one change at a time."

A classic first test would be to play with the positioning of an agent contact form, he said.

Usually the best position will be "above the fold" in the space a consumer can see without scrolling, Townes said, but a longer contact form at the bottom of a page can also do well as a call to action.

The text around the form can also matter. An invitation to fill it out could begin with something like "Please fill this out for more information. We’re not going to spam you," Townes said.

"Set expectations. Be human," he said. "People use the Web today to safely explore, and what we want to do as real estate professionals is to allow them to do that."

Real estate agents have to strike a balance between avoiding being overly intrusive and still achieving another goal for conversion: qualification.

"You want to spend your time on prospects that are a good fit for your subject matter expertise and are at the right stage of the prospective buying process," Allison said.

"(Find) a way to identify who these leads are so you can focus on who you’re spending your time."

Agents might experiment with the number of fields in a contact form, for example — while few fields may encourage form submission, more fields might indicate a more qualified lead, speakers said.

"If you’re getting a lot of unqualified buyers, you can try adding more fields, or if a lot of spam, you can try setting up a CAPTCHA," Townes said, referring to a program that prevents computers from filling out forms rather than people.

Once a site visitor has submitted a form, it’s imperative that the agent or broker sets and meets expectations for what happens next, said fellow panelist Grier Allen, president and CEO of real estate software company BoomTown.

"Once you actually have a lead you have to focus on the experience on the back end and you have to put in the effort to make sure you have a consistent feel for everything that comes in through the pipeline," Allen said.

While traditional real estate agents know how to do things like listing presentations and property showings, brokers need to make sure their agents also know what to do with Web leads, Allen said.

"The one thing that we do see that’s rather common is our clients telling us is that ‘I got the lead. I called them. They didn’t pick up. I left a voice mail. I’m done,’" he said.

"(Brokers) have to make sure (agents) call four, five, six times trying to get these people on the phone and trying to get them qualified. The most successful agents … have two-week-long scripts. Make sure your agents are learning the scripts.

"If you’re not holding your agents accountable for the leads that you’re getting, you can pretty much count them out," Allen said.

Nick Ratliff, principal broker of Cypress Residential Group in Lexington, Ky., agreed that the key to conversion is learning to respond to leads — quickly. He spoke at a panel called "What Are Real Estate Professionals Actually Doing with Technology?"

Giving the short shelf life of Web leads, "you’ve got to be the first," Ratliff said.

"Looking at it that way, a smartphone is not even an option," it’s a necessity, he added.

Thirty percent of his closed deals last year were from leads he got from property search and valuation site Zillow, he said. He subsequently bought up all the ZIP codes in Lexington and divvied them up among his agents. Nevertheless, he has encountered some resistance, he said.

"It took me a long time to beat into their heads how to respond to (online leads)," Ratliff said.

"(The agents were) too focused on the big picture of the process rather than really servicing the client," Ratliff later told Inman News.

"The agents would try to find all the details on a property rather than asking what (consumers) want to know" without realizing that "speed and communication are more important," he said.

From experience and some help from his sales representative at Zillow, he put together a couple of scripts for his agents that he found to be successful. They spell out how to respond, when, and how often, he said.

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