Winning the Online War

When Australia’s top real estate brands were announced in December last year, Sticky, an Australian media agency, analysed their in-bound marketing and gave some of the big brands a wake-up call, announcing that the best online marketers were not necessarily the biggest agencies. Story by Stewart Bunn.

Success in real estate has long moved past just being the best salesperson or property manager. Winners have launched into the realms of social media, online profile management and database marketing. While many still don’t fully grasp how websites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn help win listings, there’s widespread acceptance that social media websites facilitate a highly effective form of agency marketing, and, are way more dollar productive.

It’s not just agents and property managers embracing this important new medium either. Australia’s major networks are fiercely promoting the relevance of social media, taking every opportunity to train their agents on how to best exploit their online presence, capturing ever more consumer property searches and steering them to their websites.

This is not without good reason. The rise and rise of consumer blogging websites, where members of the general public discuss customer service in an un-moderated environment, delivers the potential to either destroy or underpin the success of each and every real estate business.

Within minutes of a customer service failure, your agency, its employees and its brand can all be ‘kicked to the kerb’ with devastating consequences. And, if you don’t think one consumer’s rant has much potential to get noticed, think again. Google introduced ‘real-time search’ last year and appears to index and ‘crawl’ web-logs faster than other websites, so a single disgruntled customer might end up with better search engine results, placing their opinion of your business above the link to your own agency’s website. Fortunately, though, the destructive power of social media can be mitigated by making sure you have an active and positive presence in the same online sphere.

The traditional playing fields for the major Australian real estate brands are shifting rapidly and future success will have little to do with the consumer brand awareness that comes from sheer office numbers. As the relevance of newspaper marketing begins to fade, and it is, a mixture of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), Online Profile Management, Inbound Marketing and Social Media is becoming vital to the dominance of this bloody, bloody battleground.

Somewhat of a paradigm shift is occurring as the whole industry gets its head around adjusting its emphasis from ‘Outbound Marketing’ – where you invest hard earned dollars trying to interrupt potential customers with your message – to ‘Inbound Marketing’ – where potential customers find you and decide whether they want to discover more. The major corporates may find this adjustment the most difficult of all.

Last December, Business Review Weekly (BRW) published their ‘Top Australian Agencies’ list, outlining the thirty most influential real estate brands nationally, but in no particular order. As if to emphasise the power of the internet and its ability to rapidly challenge accepted norms, Australian inbound marketing experts, Sticky, took this list and assessed the performance and ‘site stickiness’ of the top 30 brands’ websites, accidentally proving that biggest doesn’t always equate to industry best. The results showed which networks threaten to shake-up the industry, potentially changing the brand pecking order with their Inbound Marketing skills.

IPSOS, an international company whose sole focus is survey-based market research, found that Australia’s top three best known brands are, in order, LJ Hooker; Ray White and Elders. Sticky’s assessment, however, showed that the top three most successful inbound marketers are, in order, First National Real Estate, LJ Hooker and Century 21. So, if inbound marketing is the way of the future, these three may be headed for brand dominance.

So how is it that First National Real Estate, a cooperative that IPSOS research placed at number seven in terms of overall brand awareness, was able to beat six other major brands with a score of 96.2 out of 100?

According to Craig Wilson, Managing Director of Newcastle based Sticky, his organisation conducted its analysis based on six key criteria including On-page SEO, Off-page SEO, Keyword search results, Competitor scores, Social media and Traffic conversion.Scores can vary from month to month depending on search terms” says Craig.Our NLYZR assessment measures websites against up to 568 international search engines and then provides the best recommendations on how to improve search rankings.

The company utilises constantly updated optimisation software, which assists Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft and Mastercard through to small enterprises across the USA and Australia. Sticky’s NLYZR adapts this set of search engine optimisation tools to meet their Inbound Marketing criteria and the company’s website allows real estate agents to submit their own website for free testing. Whilst NLYZR was initially created to meet Australian web marketing demands, the company has increasingly found itself using the technique for international projects too.

What, in practical terms, does First National Real Estate do differently though? The question was put to First National Real Estate’s National Online Services Manager, Suzi Cowperthwaite. At pains to point out the fluidity of results such as these, Suzi is reluctant to take credit, preferring to point to an overall long-term strategy of communicating with the network’s agents, educating and reinforcing the importance of web-based marketing as the future of the profession at every turn.

First National made an unpopular decision to significantly change its eMarketing strategy five years ago says Suzi. While there was some opposition at first, the network determined that it would patiently take every opportunity to outline and communicate how the marketplace was changing and how the network’s brand awareness would be increased over time.

Using a combination of template-based individual member websites, the network encouraged its membership to buy domain names related to their region of operation and also set about buying hundreds of domains itself.

Ultimately, this is just one small part of an overall strategy that involves websites, promotions, consumer competitions, social media, Web 2.0, First National Television and other initiatives-Says Suzi.

The real estate profession now stands at a crossroad, a juncture where leaders will work to re-educate their salespeople and property managers, re-orientating the promotion of their agencies and personal profiles, and finally letting go of the notion that self promotion is a one way street where the consumer is forced to listen to a carefully crafted message. The world has changed and the information age heralds the beginning of a new era for both the profession and its major networks, one in which those who connect and communicate with consumers on their terms not only survive, but prosper.

Stewart Bunn is currently National Communications Manager – First National Real Estate. A licensed estate agent with in excess of 15 years experience in the real estate industry, Stewart has a diverse background that includes professional experience in sales, marketing, strategy, executive management, team building and network communications.

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