September is Marketing and Branding Month at Inman. That means we’re talking to the chief marketing officers at major brokerages about how the pandemic is changing their jobs and what it means for agents. We’re publishing a suite of tactical Inman Handbooks for marketing on digital portals. And we’re looking at what pages of the traditional marketing playbook still work. Join us all month long.
David Marine was convinced he needed to spend a lot of money on the rights for a popular song.
Marine, Coldwell Banker’s chief marketing officer, told Inman that it was a couple of years ago when he was preparing a new marketing campaign for his company. The entire time the campaign was coming together, he said, the team “wanted a popular and expensive music track” to play in a video ad.
“We thought, ‘can this message still work even if we don’t have that?'” Marine recalled.
But before plunking down the cash for the song, Marine and his team tested the ad with a generic track that had essentially just been a placeholder.
“We tested it and low and behold the generic music track out performed the popular song,” Marine said. “That saved us financially. And it made our message better.”
Marine shared the story during a conversation with Inman about the work that goes into real estate marketing. The point was not just that marketing requires plenty of effort, but also that the process requires adaptability, change and a willingness to learn.
“It’s blocking and tackling,” Marine explained, “for anyone who is trying to market a major brand or a local company.”
For this piece, Inman reached out to an array of industry professionals to understand how they approach real estate marketing, both generally as well as specifically now during the coronavirus pandemic.
Their comments suggest a field that is undergoing change, even while it remains an important part of the agent, broker and consumer experience. And while the pandemic itself won’t last forever, the latest evolutions in marketing may be here to stay.
Here’s what the experts had to say:
Table of Contents
- Defining what marketing actually is
- Marketing properties verses marketing brand identity
- Holding marketing strategies accountable
- How the coronavirus is changing marketing
- Strategies for improving marketing
In the simplest sense, marketing has to do with getting out the word. That can apply to a particular listing or a company identity (more on that difference below), and it can involve a variety of low and high tech strategies. Broadly speaking, everything from knocking on doors to targeted Facebook ads to virtual open houses falls within the category of marketing.
More specifically, however, marketing has to do with communicating a specific message.
“The purpose of marketing is to communicate the value of your brand to your customers and to your prospects,” Audie Chamberlain, founder of real estate public relations firm Lion & Orb, told Inman.
Chamberlain went on to say that while something like branding typically is about forming relationships with customers “on a deeper level,” marketing on the other hand “is always expected to fuel sales.”
“It’s also about loyalty, goodwill and building subconscious intent,” he added.
Christy Murdock Edgar, a coach and real estate writer, offered a similar distinction, saying that marketing is the messaging that gets attached to a brand identity.
“Marketing is how you reach out to people,” Edgar told Inman. “And how you connect them to the brand you’ve crafted. That can include content, websites. It can include mailers. It includes property descriptions. When you’re in real estate there’s so much.”
And Marine said that “marketing is basically the message you’re delivering, while branding is the perception people have regardless of your message.”
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Real estate is somewhat unique because it involves at least two very distinct branches of marketing: Marketing for properties, and marketing a more general brand or agent identity.
Vanessa Bergmark, the CEO of and owner of Red Oak Realty in California’s Bay Area, described property marketing as simply “getting it out.”
“Assuming it’s a publicly marketed property, it’s all the bells and whistles,” she told Inman.
Bergmark went on to explain that for her brokerage, that means video content and Matterport tours. It means writing clean and effective copy, taking high-quality photos, and finally pushing all that content out via various channels — many of which now are going to be digital and social media platforms.
There are nearly limitless specific ways to market individual properties, and they involve everything from old school mailers to high-end parties filled with Instagram influencers. But regardless of the particular strategy, what’s important is figuring out a way to highlight a listing’s best features.
“It’s getting just really incredible stories that are then pushed out onto all the platforms,” Bergmark said of her company’s approach.
Chamberlain operates under a similar philosophy. His firm specializes in getting media coverage for specific homes, and he’s worked on a number of high-profile listings including one that sold for $22 million and which previously belonged to weight loss guru Jenny Craig. Among other things, Chamberlain’s methods for executing this kind of marketing include offering media outlets exclusive content and building relationships with specific reporters.
But Chamberlain also said agents at any level can do this kind of marketing, even if they aren’t selling homes for seven digits or working with professional publicists. The key is finding a listing’s unique story or feature.
“For the listings, it’s very much about the property itself,” Chamberlain said. “It’s all about the listing’s attributes.”
The other major branch of marketing in real estate has to do with promoting a broader identity.
“You keep promoting the fact that your selling the most expensive listings in the neighborhood,” Chamberlain explained, “and then you keep getting the most expensive ones in the neighborhood.”
In Bergmark’s case, her brokerage has an entire team dedicated to helping agents build ongoing identity-based marketing campaigns.
“What we try to do is have them pick a plan for the whole year in advance,” she said, explaining that her agents have access to a suite of content, newsletters, mailers and other material they can send to past or would-be clients. But she added that whether industry professionals are working with marketing teams or not, even small investments pay off over time.
“If you don’t have a huge budget, put it toward the things that have a compound effect,” she recommended.
Whatever route agents pursue though, the point here is that the experts who spoke to Inman agreed that agents need to think about marketing both their listings and themselves.
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One recurring theme that came up during conversations for this piece is that effective marketing needs to have some sort of accountability component. Edgar, for example, said that whatever marketing strategy a real estate professional pursues, they should “really look at what’s effective, and track that over time.”
“I think every channel that you have, you should have something in place so that you can analyze its effectiveness,” she continued. “If you post a blog, you should already be able to know how you look at the traffic.”
Different industry members have different ways of tracking their marketing’s effectiveness. For example Marine told Inman that Coldwell Banker — which has been proactive about tailoring it’s marketing to the pandemic — does extensive surveys and panel sessions to see how consumers respond to its content. Of course, not every brokerage has the massive resources of Coldwell Banker, but Marine said firms of any size can scan their online reviews, accept feedback via a website or conduct smaller-scale surveys, among other things.
“It’s something that is critical to making sure that your marketing dollars are spent efficiently,” he argued. “It can actually be done very locally and affordably.”
In Bergmark’s case, she also gauges the success of online marketing by how much it grows her company’s following.
“The main goal is to add more followers, to create more engagement, so when people go to buy or sell a house they use your brokerage,” She said. “It’s very hard to make that exact correlation of this equals this, but all of these practices should increase your market share.”
Sometimes technology itself can also help gauge the effectiveness of a marketing campaign. Annie Switt, vice president of marketing for Keller Williams, told Inman agents’ databases are “paramount to consider in all marketing efforts.” And a good database will have technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) that tracks what consumers respond to.
“The AI does the heavy lifting,” she explained, “giving you prescriptive insights regarding what’s working best in your marketing efforts and what can be improved on when it comes to cost per lead and all other KPIs on conversion in a business’ sales funnel.”
In any case, whatever tools or methods agents use, good marketing ultimately means some sort of discernible results. If those results aren’t appearing, the marketing probably isn’t working.
“I think at the end of the day, the question is, ‘is the phone ringing?'” Chamberlain said. “Good marketing means you’re getting inquiries.”
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When the coronavirus first began sweeping across the U.S. in March, Coldwell Banker was just weeks away from airing a splashy new marketing campaign. The campaign was set to air during March Madness, but when the basketball tournament was scuttled Coldwell Banker hit pause as well.
Months later, the company reemerged with a new campaign that tackled the pandemic head on and used a variety of user-generated content. Marine said the experience of pivoting during the pandemic highlighted an important lesson about the way marketing has evolved over the last several months.
“One of the biggest things that I’ve learned from all of this is marketing in this kind of climate has to be true to your brand story,” he said, “or else it is going to fall flat.”
Sincerity has always been important for marketing, but the idea that it has become markedly more valuable during the coronavirus outbreak came up repeatedly in conversations for this story. Chamberlain, for example, pointed out that some of the most successful marketing has tackled the crisis head on, and he suggested real estate professionals shouldn’t shy away from reality.
“The message and the tone right now, it has to be very very honest about what’s going on,” Chamberlain said.
A number of professionals who spoke to Inman for this piece also said the pandemic appears to have accelerated a trend toward more online and digital marketing activity. Real estate has obviously been seeing a shift online for a long time now, but Bergmark for one said at her company they’ve had to “rapid-fire explore and expand” those efforts thanks to the outbreak.
Marine similarly indicated the pandemic has helped push real estate marketing online.
In other cases, the pandemic appears to have simply driven more interest in marketing generally. Chamberlain noted that thanks to the pandemic some industry members aren’t spending money on travel or office space, and as result appear to be funneling more resources into promoting themselves online.
“They’re focusing on their online presence more than I’ve seen in years,” he said.
Going forward, that could change as agents and brokers get busy in the current hot market and have less time to do personal marketing for their brands. However, Chamberlain does not see marketing efforts for listings themselves letting up because, even if houses are flying off the proverbial shelves, consumers’ expectations for marketing have risen — and aren’t going back down.
“The marketing for the listings, that’s not going to change,” he added. “They’ll still go all out on each listing for the seller.”
Indeed, multiple people who spoke to Inman for this piece agreed that things like Matterport tours, video conferencing, remote viewing options and other tools that became more common during the pandemic will likely continue to be standard practice in the coming months and even years.
For his part, Marine thinks that “we will start to see, through the end of this year, a slow return to normality in tactics.” But he also expects that similar to online transactions, some of the evolution toward digital marketing that happened during the pandemic will stick around.
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Many of the experts who spoke to Inman shared tips for real estate professionals at every level. Their comments weren’t comprehensive but here’s their advice for doing better marketing at this particular moment:
Marine called himself an evangelist for video, and Bergmark spoke at length about how her company has hired a professional cinematographer to create marketing content. The idea, they both independently said, is that video is now absolutely essential.
“Don’t put your money into an office,” Bergmark said. “Put it all toward video and technology. Regardless of when the pandemic ends there’s still going to be a need for really good video.”
“This is now the seminal time for people to adapt to video,” Marine said. “It’s an essential part of this process.”
Narrow the focus
Edgar said some agents end up overwhelmed by how many options they have when it comes to marketing, particularly when it comes to online tools. Her advice was to focus on one platform or channel, master it and then systematically expand from there.
“If you try to be all things to all people you end up being nothing to nobody,” Edgar said.
She also recommended agents focus on mastering a particular niche in their markets.
“A narrower niche is often the big differentiator,” she said. “It’s the thing that will really make you stand out. I would say, go as narrow as possible in everything you create.”
Err on the side of too much communication
Lisa Taylor, Redfin’s vice president of marketing, said that her company’s strategy during the pandemic was to provide consumers and real estate professionals with as much information as possible. The resulting reports didn’t look like marketing in the conventional sense, but they helped make Redfin a resource across the industry. The idea was that “over communicating” is better than leaving people in the dark.
Most agents don’t have access to Redfin’s data resources, but Taylor suggested any agent would be wise to “share” more data with your customer lists.”
“As much detail as you can give about what you’re seeing is key,” she said.
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