From online showings to all-digital signings and closings, the digital transaction has fully come into its own. All month, Inman examines the companies and technologies driving this new world of digital transaction.

The classic, quote-worthy film Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t really about real estate. But the desperate action of a lead-parched agent is what sets the drama aflame. The David Mamet-scripted movie, first a Pulitzer-winning play, is something to which almost every real estate agent can relate: the constant ache for new business.

As demonstrated by Mamet, finding leads comes much easier for some than it does for others. Lead generation and sales, after all, are skills — and you can learn both of them.

Thankfully, today’s agents are much more technologically equipped than those desk-sitting, dialing-for-dollars agents of the late-1980s, with their fax machines and touch-tone phones. Big data, software algorithms and chatbots make it much easier to get new business than it was even 10 years ago.

Then again, maybe all the portals, marketing automations and sleek customer relationship management tools (CRMs) can make finding the next lead that much tougher. Because if everyone has access to the same technology, how do you win?

The Inman Handbook for Lead Generation explores the larger concepts involved with finding new clients. It doesn’t burrow deeply into the countless tactics and tips and for discovering leads. It doesn’t altogether neglect those, either. You may find new sources.

Agents should know that leads can ultimately come from anywhere, like the line at the grocery store. Or maybe a funeral. Hey, it’s real estate; stranger things have happened.

Table of Contents

Earned leads

You can either rent your leads or own them. Owning isn’t always better than renting, but it’s typically preferred.

Earned leads refers to those contacts you’ve made as a direct result of your own ongoing marketing plan and general client engagement activity. Yes, you pay for marketing, but you earn the lead — that’s the difference.

Earned or organic, leads are more likely to be familiar with you before contacting you about services, having seen multiple ads, receiving your newsletter or listening to a radio ad.

Without getting into the science of consumer response times, copywriting techniques or what pictures work best (there are college courses for that), know that you have to commit to professionalism when it comes to earning leads through traditional marketing.

For starters, watch out for the basics, such as typos in your Facebook ads and all-caps listing descriptions. This may also mean upgrading your photography game, hiring a writer and developing consistent, quality messaging. Earned leads come from a combination of things, and that combination can’t exist without brand consistency and engaging content.

In a 2019 column, Inman contributor Chadwick Ciocci summarized seven ways to earn leads: special events, blogging, social media, email marketing, neighborhood farming, networking and open houses. “Earned leads are far more valuable than paid leads,” he said. “Earned leads may not cost you money, but they will require time and sweat equity.”

Know that each of Ciocci’s recommendations are the corner pieces in the greater marketing puzzle, which when complete, requires an adhesive to stay together for the long haul — a website.

Every text you send or ad you run will eventually push a person to the internet. What a person finds there has to match what they heard or read about you. You have to fulfill the promise your ad or email made to the consumer.

A personalized agent website is the ideal home base to which leads from social media, cold calls, newsletters, postcards and open houses all end up.

Tyler Auerbacher is the co-founder of Dippidi, a digital marketing partner to the real estate industry. He says an agent’s website “is everything.” “It’s the hub of your brand, the center of where your resources and value content live,” he told Imman in a Facebook message.

Unfortunately, larger, more search-friendly brokerage websites often outshine their own agents’ domains, which is a serious industrywide marketing problem and a major detriment to agents’ own lead generation efforts. The portals don’t help, either.

Instead of a direct hit for the agent, consumers land on either a national brand’s “find an agent” page or the local office’s homepage. Exacerbating the issue is the tradition of convoluted branding amalgamations and lengthy office naming conventions that blend national franchises with location or team names, resulting in unclear, inaccurate search results. These brutal user experience mistakes are plaguing the industry and financially harming agents.

According to Morgan Carey, CEO and founder of Real Estate Webmasters, among other problems, brokerage-provided agent webpages lack customization tools, as well as mobility when the agent wants to switch brokerages.

“When you have your own domain, as you build up content and authority, including backlinks from other sources which helps you, you can take it with you anywhere,” he said in an email to Inman. “Agents often change brokerages, and if you build links and content on a brokerage subdomain, when you leave they can redirect that authority to themselves, in essence stealing your hard-fought SEO work and using it to compete against you in the SERPs [search engine results pages].”

The practice of agent subdomains under brokerage homepages is totally within the broker’s purview and absolutely not to the agents’ benefit, regardless of how much weight the franchise name carries.

Homepage calls to action (e.g., chat interaction, home value appeals) may lead a qualified prospect looking for a specific agent to a different team member as a result of lead-routing configurations or other user interface decisions. Yes, the client gets served but at the expense of the agent they were searching for.

The only way you can regularly clear this common marketing pitfall is to ensure your own website stands apart from its parent organization. Register a creative, pithy domain that reflects the brand you want to build. Make it SEO-friendly, include local listing feeds, and commit to consistent, effective content.

You’ll be required to recognize and abide by brokerage brand standards of course, but the leads that land there will be yours to own.

“On your own domain, you are in the drivers seat for SEO,” Morgan said. “You can freely decide what content you are associated with, build backlinks with confidence knowing they will always be yours, and you have a much better chance to rank organically than with any [broker] sub-domain.” Subdomains are not websites, Morgan said.

When it comes to getting results from your overall marketing plan, Auerbacher said that a “flywheel” approach is more effective than the traditional idea of a sales funnel, which relies on volume, not quality, and also neglects your sphere.

“The flywheel approach is more long term, an autonomous way to grow your business,” he said. “You’re constantly attracting new people and engaging existing people with remarketing, your social media folks, website visitors, the people who have already raised their hand.”

The model Auerbacher espouses, which he openly admits was inspired by Hubspot, incorporates lead nurture and management, the “what’s next” after lead generation.

This is where your CRM tools come into play. The software options in this world are immense, and each is becoming more sophisticated by the day.

Many of them offer solutions for the tactics mentioned in this chapter. That’s why choosing a real estate CRM has become such a prominent industry topic, and why major brokerages are making them an in-house offering.

The decisions you make about where to place ads, how to leverage social media, what events to sponsor and what email content to send — and the money you spend executing all of that — will materialize over time into a productive database you can rely on for years, regardless of brokerage affiliation.

Thankfully, there is a tremendously long list of marketing solutions and resources to help agents tackle everything from social media to postcard campaigns. In addition to what was mentioned in this chapter, other tactics that self-sufficient agents should consider for lead generation include:

Organic lead generation is hard. It’s what makes real estate such a tough industry, and is why that two-year barrier is so challenging to summit. You have to make yourself a business, something few real estate licensing classes or continuing education courses cover in depth.

It costs money to run Facebook ads and pay bloggers and print postcards. It takes time to find out what doesn’t work, and what combination of media mix will provide the most return.

Over time, however, it will eventually all click, the gears will mesh, and the marketing machine will power on. The big plus about being a real estate agent is that success begets success. And that’s because the commissions you close are commissions you’ve earned.

Additional resources

Somehow, paid leads have become associated only with the industry’s major search portals, such as Redfin, Homesnap, Zillow and Realtor.com.

And because of all that follows those entities, paid leads have a stigma of ineffectiveness or something only “top producers” can afford to leverage. Worse, some see portal leads as altogether unethical.

The truth is that nonearned leads are typically used as a supplement to an agent’s other marketing efforts. If your success as an agent allows it, why not pay for access to the largest consumer home search domains?

Portals ultimately function in the same way an IDX feed does when populating properties to a brokerage’s website.

The home shopper is rarely aware of the industry’s accepted practices for who “owns” a listing or who should be contacted about it. This is exactly why buyer’s agents work so hard to have clients notify them first of properties they want to visit.

Left out of the paid lead debate are a handful of other able providers willing to accept your money, such as one-time Zillow product Market Leader. There’s also Vulcan 7, Propertybase’s Bold Leads, Inman Innovator Award-winner Offrs, SmartZip, Ownerly, Zurple and REDX.

Lead quality is often the primary concern with paid leads, which stems from the notion of that lead seemingly “coming from nowhere.” Real estate is a personal, historically face-to-face business; so how can an agent best assess a lead that’s essentially a digital persona built by an algorithm?

Paid leads may seem artificial to some. It’s natural for agents to spend time further qualifying an individual even after the lead provider deems them ready to buy or sell.

These leads do offer improved assurance that the individual is deeper into the process than a person, for example, who liked your Instagram story. Portals haven’t become what they are as a result of not being able to identify a motivated home shopper. (They have a lot of data at their disposal.)

Dedicating a monthly budget to lead spends also provides an agent with a predictable cash outlay every month, which is not always the case in traditional marketing. That budget also provides in most cases a steady stream of leads, meaning you’ll almost always be busy and working for a client.

Tenured agents and top producers are what they are because they can quickly identify a worthwhile lead and afford to make the occasional mistake in that judgement.

Paid leads then, are a good option as your career progresses. Between experience and an inevitable referral cycle, the need to execute organic marketing campaigns diminishes as your annual GCI grows.

Agents paying for leads need to come to grips with the fact that they may be entering a financial arms race for the names and numbers of a finite number of people searching that portal or filling out a random form. Competition can drive you to spend more than you should.

Paid leads don’t allow you to respond as easily to fluctuations in business as commissions ebb and flow. Yes, you may have a regular list of new names to work, but you can’t understand as quickly if your brand is resonating. Traditional marketing gives you feedback, data on what people react to in your advertisements and outreach.

Leads can be purchased and found in all kinds of places these days, including service provider ranking and business recommendation sites such as HomeLight, IdealAgent and Yelp. Niche social media site NextDoor accepts agent advertising that targets only existing homeowners.

When it comes to websites, tools and tech that produce leads, agents should recognize that many of today’s most popular software providers have sketched out a fine line between paid and earned leads.

BoomTown, Chime, kvCORE, TopProducer, LionDesk and Ylopo, merely a few examples, all run highly sophisticated marketing campaigns on behalf of their customers, and they’ve all been proven to be very good at what they do. Yes, they generate organic leads. However, the intrinsic hands-off solutions they offer cloud the definition of earned leads.

There’s a notable difference between finding success with your own business plan and letting software do it all for you. Mainly, it comes down to understanding why those methods are effective.

Yet, industry software companies can soundly argue their value as service providers alleviating a burden from the agent and catalyzing the evolution of a critical industry. No doubt, they’re correct.

Balance is best achieved by agents who use these tools and seek for themselves an understanding of the underlying sales and marketing principles. What makes the cadence of a LionDesk text campaign effective? Why is kvCORE’s Marketing Autopilot a better behavior response solution?

Learn all you can about what sales concepts and tactics these tools augment. Doing so will help you better understand what triggers consumers to take action, and thus, help you better serve the clients they produce.

Paid leads will require faster follow-up because of a lack of intrinsic loyalty, and they’ll likely need more nurturing to remain in your orbit. Both needs are a direct result of that lead not being subject to your long-term messaging. Remember, you didn’t earn their business, you paid for it.

Still, a lead is a lead, and it’s what you do when you have it that matters most. Your annual income doesn’t won’t know the difference.

Additional resources

Sphere of influence

The benefit of working your sphere of influence — essentially the people you know — is that it’s typically not as expensive as it is to find new contacts, and it’s certainly cheaper than buying a monthly stream of leads.

Don’t let the ease of reach fool you into thinking that your sphere of influence is automatically yours to claim. Your friends and contacts have other friends and contacts.

Your job as an agent is to always be ahead of the other agents your sphere knows. You can do this by continually reminding them you’re still in the business — and that you’re also good at it.

Newsletters, social media posts and other general notifications create consistent awareness for those in your network. It’s important that you segment these individuals; don’t send them the same content or appeals you would a new prospect, such as someone you recently met an open house.

Use testimonials as a tool to remain in touch with your sphere. If you’ve worked with them, ask them to submit a few lines of recommendation to publish on a website or in an ad.

Something real estate agents tend to forget about their sphere is that they also want your business. If you know an accountant, contractor or car mechanic, make sure they know you care about their well-being, too. Frequent their businesses or at least refer people their way when not in need of what they offer.

“The key to successful networking is to give way more than you get. In fact, you should make a habit out of giving as much as you can to as many people as possible without ever asking for anything in return,” wrote Inman Contributor Anna Johansson in an article about connecting in the age of COVID-19.

Be creative in your efforts to stay in touch, which remains a necessity as in-person activities remain limited. In an article for Inman, Marco Del Zotto, global real estate adviser for LIV, Sotheby’s International Realty, in Breckenridge, Colorado, said that networking today has to go beyond the traditional.

“Generic drip emails asking for referrals are unlikely to be effective,” he wrote. “While we can use technology to make a first contact with other professionals, scheduling face-to-face networking meetings for lunch or dinner, handwritten cards and phone/Zoom calls are key elements to build long-lasting business relationships.”

While marketing to your sphere isn’t as expensive as farming for new leads, it still requires you to have an up-to-date professional online presence. You will be Googled.

“It’s hard to be a successful real estate professional — or at least a well-connected one — without having a professional online presence. This includes a website, an optimized LinkedIn profile, and clean, crisp branding that’s reflective of your personality and professional goals,” said Johansson.

She recommends more intimate groups and events. Even outside of a pandemic, it’s often easier to connect outside of a crowd.

“Although social distancing restrictions have relaxed in many parts of the country, large groups are still considered unsafe. If you’re going to do in-person networking, try small intimate groups (meaning just two or three people),” she said.

Birdeye is a company that’s introducing experience marketing to the real estate space. Its software facilitates the management of every client touch point, from what they see about you on the web to what they feel about you after closing.

It monitors all communications, ensures online search profiles are intact, and even rates agents and offices on how the marketplace views them. Birdeye is assigning a level of quality to your relationships. It’s quantifying the odds of a person coming back to you for future business.

The user experience is overlooked in real estate, yet so valuable to your overall lead generation efforts. Whether you use software to do it or not, it’s time brokers and agents take more time to understand how the buying public sees them, and responds to the homebuying and selling experiences. The future of your business — and your future business — depend on it.

Above all else, sphere of influence marketing is an ongoing effort and largely a supplement to your primary sources of new business. There’s certainly going to be overlap in audiences. Your sphere will no doubt see what you’re putting out to the rest of the market, which is good, as it offers them justification for working with you and referring others.

Additional resources

Qualifying a lead

No lead is a lock to close, and likely every experienced agent reading this is nodding in agreement. With around 3 million licensed agents in the country, opportunities for new business are spread pretty thin. A super-tight market isn’t exactly helping things, either.

Thus, it’s only natural for a commission-hungry agent to do all they can to convert even the least qualified lead into a move-in ready buyer. As hard as it is to accept sometimes, you’ll likely learn more from passing on some leads than you will from seeing them to close.

The ever-increasing volume of lead sources combined with the commoditization of the industry has resulted in the collective industry notion that every click, like and page view should be pursued with passion. Browsing homes online is no longer something only aspiring home buyers do.

From Pinterest to HGTV, America’s homes have become more than shelters for our families — they’re online shelters for our emotions. People thumb through others’ houses to cope with pandemics or for ideas on redecorating.

Unfortunately, the agent on the other end of that “like” or save doesn’t know if the digital response is the action of an actual shopper or a way to pass the time from a prison library.

Thankfully, our technology partners are getting better at monitoring website user behavior well before a person takes action. Beyond cookies, user metrics and web traffic tools are powerful enough to track habits over time, even months. CINC’s automated response system can reach out to people after 6o days of inactivity.

Today’s solutions can automate long-term response campaigns tailored to every level of interest, alleviating you from time-consuming nurturing tasks. Some even include in-house teams to handle it for you, working in unison with slick web-based lead-gen features.

BoomTown has turned handling lead qualification into a major system feature. Its Concierge feature (a part of its larger Success Assurance program) actively monitors your database upon account setup to gauge a contact’s level of activity, score them and recommend action.

Verse is another such option. Regardless of how your lead is acquired, whether website landing page, text, social media or bought from a portal, Verse can deploy a custom script to engage them. When the time is right, they’ll pass the lead to you.

Agents need to consider every lead equal until the lead proves otherwise. Have systems in place that help you unearth quality from the muck. (And there’s a lot of muck out there.)

When top producers talk about habits and systems, lead qualification is a major part of that. Challenge new leads to demonstrate true interest, ask to know why they want to sell or buy. Is it because they “maybe want something bigger” or did a partner get a sweet new gig in another state?

Look for software partners that can automate lead nurture, provide quality scoring algorithms and connect to your established lead sources.

It never hurts to pick up the phone. When a lead becomes a person, hold them accountable for appointment times and document signings. Let them know you want their business, but don’t need it, even if you do.

Providing real estate agents with leads is huge business, and any opportunistic entrepreneur with access to data and a developer can sell them to you. It’s not easy to blend skepticism with earnestness, but neither is real estate.

Additional resources

Have a technology product you would like to discuss? Email Craig Rowe

Craig C. Rowe started in commercial real estate at the dawn of the dot-com boom, helping an array of commercial real estate companies fortify their online presence and analyze internal software decisions. He now helps agents with technology decisions and marketing through reviewing software and tech for Inman.

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