People can’t buy what they don’t know is for sale. For sales and marketing pros, the key is to connect with the right buyers at the right time. We talked to sales and marketing pros — consultants with clients across the country and the managers who are in the trenches — to find ideas for getting buyers to, as one expert put it, “slam on the brakes and turn right.” Here are the tips they shared with us:
1. Reverse Google. Everyone will tell you how important keywords are in search engine optimization for your website. Mario Avila, an aggressive sales rep for Simmons Homes in Tulsa, Okla., recently did a reverse keyword search on Google “to see what keywords people were searching most in my area for new homes.” But he didn’t stop there. Then he went to GoDaddy.com and discovered that most of those keywords were available as domain names.
“I’m in the process of creating websites for my neighborhood on each of the new domain names that all have my contact information and link back to our main builder’s website,” he says.
2. Call a truce with the competition. Samantha LeBoeuf is one of those hard-working sales associates who lost her job in the downturn. Based on the ideas she provided, this Denver-area sales pro won’t be out of work for long because she is a go-getter. Of the many great suggestions she offered, this one is really thinking outside the box: Pick up the phone and call your competition, especially the builders whose homes are more expensive than yours. Ask the sales people who work there to send you customers who are at a lower price point than their community. Offer to do the same for them when you have customers who are looking for something larger or more expensive.
3. Close the office. It may sound radical, but David Skidmore, a new homes specialist with Coldwell Banker in Providence, R.I., says his office asks sales directors to close the sales center one day a week so the team can “personally visit the local diners, gyms, town halls, real estate attorneys offices, and anywhere else that they feel might attract the target market for their project,” he says. “We have also held antique car shows at the active-adult sites and that has really worked well.”
4. Build alliances with Realtors. Wendy Cohen is a strong believer in the value of building relationships with Realtors to sell houses. Even builders who don’t want to pay Realtors commissions can at least structure an agreement to refer their buyer on their resale home. “There are lots of opportunities for them to earn a commission,” says Cohen, who is president of Powerhouse Advisors in Riverwoods, Ill.
To start building an alliance, Cohen suggests finding out which Realtors are selling new construction and then inviting the top agent from each firm to a small, private lunch to do a focus group.
“Sometimes I get pushback on this,” says Cohen. “People will ask, ‘Why would a real estate agent want to be in a group with their competition? Their model is both competitive and complementary. Most Realtors are very eager to sit in a room and have lunch with their colleagues.”
For builders who don’t want to take that route, they can visit the real estate offices and do a presentation on building codes and construction issues. “Educate them for 10 minutes,” she says. “You’re arming them with information that will help them do their job better. We’ve done that and gotten an unbelievable response. I just feel like there’s a whole gold mine out there.”
5. Go viral. Like most builders, CBH Homes in Boise, Idaho, is facing stiff competition from resales, especially foreclosures. The low-price leader in their market, they actually can deliver a new home to a buyer for just a few thousand dollars more than a foreclosure. To get that point across in a way that their target market of younger, first-time buyers would appreciate, CBH created a campaign of eight short videos about the joys of owning a “Shiny, New, Awesome” house. They’re from the perspective of the gunk that pervades resales, such as dust, dander, asbestos, smoke, and the goo that clogs up drains.
“We were trying to create this vision without being too terribly disgusting,” says Holly Haener, director of sales and marketing at CBH Homes. “We’re hitting that younger age range that will appreciate this sense of humor. We wanted something that will go viral online.” Haener’s team pushed the campaign out through YouTube, Facebook, and e-mail blasts, along with direct mail and Realtor broker office presentations.
6. Hold a showhouse event. Parade of Homes events have been a staple of the new homes industry for years, but have been set aside with the downturn. So, Nashville-area custom builder Alan Looney, president of Castle Homes, does his own, including a Not So Big Green House, from time to time with sponsorship help from some of his vendors. One showhouse event drew between 700 and 800 visitors over a long weekend.
7. Launch a YouTube channel with videos from your website. “YouTube is phenomenal for SEO,” says Nick Lovegrove, president of Pottersville, N.J.-based Limeyboy.com, a company that specializes in websites for real estate agents. “If you build a channel there for your business and show projects in various stages, Google wants to always put video results on the first page. It’s a great way of getting visitors to your website. YouTube is huge.”
The trouble with video, Lovegrove notes, is that it’s a drag to produce. “Everyone wants to do it, but they never get around to it,” he says. Translation: This is a way to get a competitive edge.
8. Point the way with human directionals. Yes, we’re talking about people standing on the side of the road holding a sign and waving at people. Inexpensive? Yes. Effective? It can be, if it’s done thoughtfully and executed properly, especially for new communities that aren’t going to show up on Google maps or on a prospective buyer’s GPS.
The first part of the equation is figuring out what to put on the sign. This is not the venue for soft, low-key branding messages with a builder’s name, logo, web address, and phone number. You want a message that will make a person driving down the road “slam on the brakes and turn right,” says Brandon Nelson, vice president for business development at Tustin, Calif.-based Media Nation Outdoor.
As with all marketing campaigns, you need to do some competitive analysis to find out what you have that the other guys don’t. Then boil that down into a few words and put it on a sign with a big arrow — on a busy nearby street at times when lots of people are driving by.
Meritage Homes, for example, had a tough-to-find location that was competing against builders that had lowered the base price on their models and were charging extra for everything. In their model, everything was included. Their sign featured the face of an excited young woman with the phrase, “You won’t believe what’s included! Move-in-ready!”
“The first weekend they put the sign out, they pulled four sales and had 16 for the month,” Nelson says. “This is a model that they couldn’t even get anyone to walk into.”
9. Open a model. Most builders have taken a hard look at building models since the downturn. But if you have a spec house sitting vacant, turn it into a model and market out of it. Looney did that with one of his show houses. “It’s better to do that than have it sitting empty,” he says. “The signage is up and it’s a great location. Some weekends, maybe we don’t get anyone come in, but other times we might have 10 or 12 people come through on a Sunday.”
10. Go mobile. With better data connections — 4G has speeds that compare to the average home-based broadband — the number of potential buyers using their smart phones for Web access is set to grow. According to ComScore, nearly 40 percent of mobile phone users search the Web, use applications, or download content. The number of people who access the Internet via their smart phone is tracking to pass desktops within a couple of years.
Dennis O’Neil, a former Ryland sales and marketing manager, now runs Baltimore-based O’Neil Interactive, a consulting firm that helps home builders make the best use of their websites. He notes that the big change he’s seen is that people using their smart phones to access builder websites are spending more time there now — two to three minutes versus a couple of years ago, when they just spent a few seconds, long enough to find a phone number. They’re also seeing an increase in mobile traffic coming from search engines. “There’s an increasing need to make mobile sites search-friendly.”
11. Speed up broker commissions. Jay Schulman, president of The New Home Sales Connection in Catonville, Md., has some builder clients who pay $5,000 of the broker’s commission at loan approval, rather than making them wait until closing to get paid. “This gets the agents to the door with qualified prospects,” he says. “It has worked well for them.”
12. Add video to your website — and to your emails. O’Neil says that he doesn’t think builders take enough advantage of email marketing. “It’s rare that I talk to a builder who can even tell me where their email database is,” he says. The email that does go out “doesn’t really do anything,” he says. “There’s no action for the recipient.”
O’Neil’s company has found big success with video, especially when it’s used in conjunction with email marketing. “Anytime a builder adds a new piece of video to the website, we use that as a reason to send an email,” he says. “When we compare click-through rates on email that contains a video and one that doesn’t, it’s twice as high. Video is a driver of traffic.”
13. Go local with Google. Google Places offers builders an opportunity to boost their organic search results. It’s like a business directory, says O’Neil. “If a business has a place and phone number, it will show up there. Builders can claim their place. Places that have the most complete listings will show up best.”
You can add photos, phone numbers, videos, coupons, and a link to your website.
It’s probably the easiest way to improve your results in organic search, says O’Neil. Best of all, it’s free.
14. Add live chat to your website. Conversation will always be the cornerstone of selling. “If you’re not talking, you’re not selling and the Internet has been silent,” says Frederic Guitton, vice president of activSalesAgent, a Maitland, Fla.-based web firm that provides live agents for builders’ websites. “Introducing conversation to that informational space makes a lot of sense.”
Guitton says that his firm’s agents convert about 80 percent of chat conversations to contact information for builders. With the addition of live chat, a website actually becomes a sales center in its own right as opposed to being a static, billboard-like environment, he says. “We have people who come back and chat several times,” he says. “That defines a sales center. That’s a major thinking shift in online marketing strategy.”
15. Be specific in your SEO. Most websites don’t show up in search results because the site is trying to be all things to all people, Lovegrove says. Instead, zero in on one location, one type of house, or one buyer demographic. “It doesn’t redefine your business offline,” he says, “but it will help you grow your business because you show up somewhere.”
16. Create a Facebook fan page. You can build the best website in the world, but it’s really hard to get people to come back to it, and no one is going to make it their home page. “Facebook is the perfect gift,” Lovegrove says. “We know they won’t make you their home page, but we know they’re on Facebook.”
Then, if you want to advertise, you can be “phenomenally targeted,” he says. “When someone clicks on the ad, it sends them to your Facebook fan page. Get them to click on ‘Like.’ Then they’re forever linked to your network. You can put an article on your website and post a link on your fan page. It’s a beautiful way to stay in front of people who would never dream of coming back to your website. It’s a web developer’s dream, and it’s free. There’s no reason not to do it.”