Should Realtors have personal websites?
If their exclusive aim is to generate leads, National Association of Realtors data and some marketing experts seem to offer a clear answer: Only if you’re willing to spend big.
While it’s probably worth having at least some kind of web presence for basic marketing purposes, agents must be willing to shell out considerable cash and effort to turn personal sites into business engines — thanks partly to a glut of Realtor sites, perhaps numbering close to one million, along with competition from listing portals.
Historical NAR data provided to Inman shows that, while personal websites have never captured boatloads of prospects for most Realtors, they now generate no business at all for the typical Realtor.
The median number of inquiries for Realtors from their personal websites dropped from one in 2016 to zero in 2017, down from a peak of four in 2013, according to NAR data (see the chart above).
“Websites are billboards in the middle of nowhere,” asserted Saul Klein, a former senior vice president of listing syndicator Point2, and one of many industry vets to post strong reactions to the NAR data in Inman’s Facebook group. “Since the commercialization of the [Internet] browser in 1998, REALTORS have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on websites nobody visits.”
But if that’s true, those wasted millions may often represent half-hearted attempts to leverage websites for business. Plenty of Realtors who have approached the endeavor with a go-big-or-go-home attitude have, indeed, benefited.
One success story comes from Gary Ashton, a Nashville, Tennessee-based Realtor. He says his agent team website generates 80 to 100 inquiries a day. But Ashton, whose team reportedly has more than 100 agents, estimates the website has cost him $5 million over the last 15 years.
Turning a website into a lead machine typically means licensing a website template that’s integrated with a marketing and customer relationship management system, and then sinking cash into search engine and Facebook ads to drive traffic to the site. This can require significant outlays.
A website for a single Realtor from Real Estate Webmasters, the provider of Ashton’s website, can yield 600 leads in a year, provided the agent pays a setup fee of $5,000, a $499 monthly subscription fee and $6,000 to $18,000 a year on marketing (e.g. search engine or Facebook ads), according to Real Estate Webmasters CEO Morgan Cary. Still, when all is said and done, that adds up to a generous return on investment, he contends.
There are surely cases of agents who invest less and receive a smaller number of leads, while achieving roughly the same return on investment as Ashton.
But, “In most cases, an agent’s personal website is like putting a sign on the moon,” said Jim Weix, a Palm City, Florida-based broker. “You really have to invest money and get a good ranking with the search engines.”
And, indeed, most do not. Just over one-third of Realtors with personal sites spent nothing on them in 2017, while only two out of 10 paid $500 or more, according to NAR’s 2018 Member Profile. Even for those who spent over $1,000, only 44 percent received more than five inquiries, while one-quarter received none.
Part of the reason for the lackluster results is that tech vendors have commodified Realtor sites by dramatically lowering their cost.
There may be around 900,000 personal Realtor sites, given that NAR found that 68 percent of Realtors have one and that the trade group counts 1.366 million members. Twenty six percent developed or maintain their site independently, while 42 percent use one provided by their firm, NAR’s 2018 member survey found.
Realtors can even get free personal sites from real estate tech provider Placester, thanks to an agreement that NAR inked with the company in 2017.
Through paid upgrades, these sites can be magnetized to pull in potential clients, but the free versions “are horrible for traffic, let alone for leads,” claimed Laura Monroe.
Monroe is qualified to comment on the subject. She worked with the Placester team when she served as vice president of strategy development at RealSatisfied, a customer satisfaction survey service acquired by Placester in 2016.
Seth Price, who oversees Placester’s user experience, acknowledged by email that, “it would be foolhardy to expect a free NAR website to become a lead nurturing machine.”
But the free Placester sites provide the best option for Realtors to “kickstart their online branding,” and that those who want to build an “above average real estate business,” can purchase the company’s premium websites, according to Price.
Wringing many leads out of personal sites “requires a focused and consistent marketing that only a small percentage of our industry are willing to do,” he said.
But Realtors often set up low or no-cost websites with dime-a-dozen designs and little-to-no customization. Then they practically abandon them without investing much time or money, if any, to reel in traffic, many industry vets say.
“In my days recruiting, I was consistently amazed how few agents took the time to even fill out a bio,” said Bret Calltharp, who now serves as industry outreach director at Zillow Group. “There were three different website vendors that many used in Vancouver and I had each of their ‘stock’ filler paragraphs memorized within a month.”
Personal Realtor sites also are often hopelessly outmatched — in terms of brand awareness, search engine rankings, user experience and more — by listing portals, where monthly unique users have grown to tens of millions a month.
Yet while acknowledging the increased competition and lack of commitment behind many Realtor sites, many industry professionals doubted that the median number of leads that Realtors receive from their personal sites was as low as zero.
Some who did find the statistic credible pointed out that a median is different than an average, and that a median of zero just means that more than half of Realtors with personal sites indicated they received no leads.
Among the minority that did receive leads, many might have netted hundreds or even thousands. If that were the case, despite a median of zero, the average number of leads would have been well above zero.
The median figure excludes all Realtors that do not have websites. NAR filtered out respondents who answered “no” to the question used to calculate the statistic: “Do you personally have a website for real estate purposes?”
The numbers check out for Todd Miller, a Las Vegas-based broker-owner.
“I can say from running a lead generation site, that over HALF of agents registered aren’t using it at all,” said Miller in reference to Homing In, a mobile app he launched in 2012 that lets consumers request home valuations from agents. “The median is ZERO…”
All of this isn’t to say that Realtors should necessarily scrap their personal sites unless they’re ready to pump money into them. If nothing else, personal sites can demonstrate professional familiarity with the Internet.
Paul Bishop, vice president of research for NAR, also notes that they can advance other goals besides lead generation, including personal marketing and “developing a reputation as a source of information.”
“Generating business may be one reason for a web presence, but it is not the only one, or perhaps even the most important,” Bishop added.
And if the site is free, what’s there to lose?
“No aspiring real estate professional should purchase a website without first a business plan with a budget and a technology plan and a website marketing plan,” Klein said. “Anything less is money down the drain.”