Branding Power: Can Brokers Compete with Portals?

By Reva Nelson

It’s no secret that the big real estate portals are on top of their branding game. With big advertising budgets, multichannel consumer branding campaigns, and ample, frequently updated content, you’d have to be living under a rock to be unfamiliar with players such as Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, Homes.com and realtor.com®. Even amid complaints of poor data accuracy on some portals, the flow of traffic to these sites is considerable.

According to aggregate website visit metrics compiled by Experian Marketing Services, the top 10 real estate websites captured 42 percent of total visits in the space during January 2013; Zillow (9.17 percent market share) had the most visitors, followed by Trulia (7 percent) and realtor.com® (6.09 percent). Agent and broker sites, on the other hand, aren’t generating nearly as many pages views or unique visitors. Is the exposure REALTORS® can gain on these well-branded sites good for business? Moreover, are brokers and agents missing the boat on their own branding?

It depends who you ask.

Some, like Jim Abbott, owner and managing broker of San Diego’s ARG Realty Group, argue that portals are bad for brokers’ business. His firm made the decision in January 2012 to pull their listing data out of portals. Other firms, like Minnesota-based Edina Realty, came to the same conclusion in 2011.

“When we looked carefully at this after three years of metrics, we realized these weren’t good for our agents or our clients. These sites extract a very heavy cost for that exposure…your future business is the cost.” Even on portals that capture a lion’s share of home searchers, Abbott cautions that when REALTORS® outsource their marketing duties to portals, they are trading new listings and sales for hits on a website. “In no uncertain terms, hits on a portal’s website and an increase in my business could not be more unrelated,” says Abbott.

Others say all that branding attracts daydreamers – not real buyers. Saul Klein, industry principal at Point 2/Yardi, says that most consumers searching these portals are not actually interested in buying real estate. “The traffic counts of unique visitors continue to increase, but the sales numbers do not.”

Many see benefits of partnering with a portal to increase their exposure. “There are few brokers who can afford to conduct user behavior studies or run TV spots for brand awareness, so it’s useful to extend out your brand awareness by partnering with a trusted company,” says Wendy Froehlich, vice president of marketing for Homes.com.

Dan Forsman, president and CEO of Prudential Georgia Realty, describes his company’s partnerships with the big portals as “coopetition.” He describes a robust syndication strategy that includes partnerships and programs with the big players, as well as syndication to 40,000 websites worldwide. “We realize there’s a significant amount of traffic, and our agents value that.” At the same, Forsman notes, “We do extremely well with our company and agent websites, which have better and more relevant data than the portals.”

Certainly, the big portals have mastered branding. What can agents and brokers learn from these sites about promoting their own brands?

Master the local market. Real estate is local, and brokers have a distinct advantage over the portals when it comes to local data. “Over time, we will continue to fare better because our data is better and more relevant than the portals’ data. What it comes back to is we simply have better insight and knowledge locally. If we’re smart in the way we design our websites and our local apps, we can take advantage of that,” says Forsman.

To win in the local space, Forsman notes that first you have to be found. “We’ve done a lot to our own websites to make sure they’re found prominently by search engines. And, you have to provide more relevant information than the others. For example, our websites and mobile apps can do accurate school searches, whereas national databases lack accuracy. Our information is more accurate because it comes directly from the MLS and listing agents. The portals can’t keep up with our high degree of local knowledge.”

Ramp up your social media strategy. Froehlich recommends that branding efforts among REALTORS® need to be focused on social and mobile platforms, or they risk talking to an empty room. In particular, she urges REALTORS® to keep their agent profiles up to date and complete on sites such as GooglePlaces/GooglePlus, Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest. GooglePlaces is particularly useful, she notes. “It’s important to be getting recommendations there. That’s where their brand is getting built.” In addition, encourage satisfied clients to post reviews of your business on social media.

Master the basics. The simple details still matter in how you present your real estate business. For example, own your own domain, since this is your brand online. “Be consistent online and offline,” says Klein. “Don’t use a Gmail or Yahoo email address for your business. Instead, use your domain for both your web address and your email address. Put them both on all of your marketing materials, signs, cards, riders, flyers, and everywhere you advertise. Don’t overlook using signatures on your mobile devices that includes your brand and contact information.”

Control your data in a way that leads new business to you. It’s important to be very aware of where your data is going, and what’s happening with it. If you “set it and forget it” with portals, you are not controlling your data in a way that leads new business to you. “You’ve decided you don’t want to answer those calls,” says Abbott. “Other brokers can gather those leads and then sell them back to you for exorbitant referral fees.”

Manage your online reputation. If someone is talking about you positively or negatively online, you need to comment on it or address it, says Froehlich. “Keep that conversation going online with consumers.” Some portals, including Homes.com, offer specific tools to help brokers increase their online presence and manage their online reputations.

At the end of the day, it’s not about competing with the behemoth brands of the portals. It’s about attracting buyers and sellers by fostering credibility, trust and relationships in your local community, via traditional as well as mobile and social media channels.

Reva Nelson is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Chicago. She has been writing about real estate and professional services for more than 15 years. Reva lives with her husband, their two sons, and a Russian tortoise.

This post has been authored by Eric Slifkin, REALTOR® serving South Florida’s Treasure Coast. You can reach me at 888-288-1765, or visit my Web site. As your resource for information on new or resale homes throughout the Treasure Coast, please be sure to contact me about any home you may find on the Web, yard sign or ad and I will research the property, arrange showings and handle all the details.

Reprinted with permission from RISMedia. ©2013. All rights reserved.