With the housing market beginning to percolate, many REALTOR® associations are considering whether now is the time to strengthen—or restart—their direct outreach to consumers.
What is the return on investment for consumer-facing association programs? Do they really help build the REALTOR® brand and boost member business? Although reliable metrics are hard to come by, association executives who make an effort to keep REALTORS® in the public eye report positive feedback from members. Yet many associations still struggle with how to balance spending time and money on consumer-focused programs and outreach versus member-focused initiatives when time and resources are tight.
Building REALTOR® credibility
With the huge amount of real estate data now available online directly to consumers, some associations are refocusing more on consumer outreach to shore up the value of the REALTOR® brand.
“We have a lot of reasons behind why we’re boosting our consumer outreach in the coming year,” says Amanda Sue Piltz, director of technology for the Scottsdale Area Association of REALTORS®. “One is that other organizations and people are being quoted in the media more often than we are, and we want to reaffirm that SAAR is a reliable source for real estate information and as an advocate for homeowners. “The big project we’re working on is a new consumer-oriented Web site called Scottsdale Homeowners that will focus on why Scottsdale is a great place to buy a home. This will also be a place where we can issue political calls to action and keep homeowners informed of anything in the community.”
Scottsdale also recently launched a series of classes to turn members into experts on the big issues in the community. “The first in this series was our water summit,” says Piltz, “which brought in experts on water policy to talk about the issues and answer member questions about the future of our water supply. We really believe with this specialized knowledge of the community, our members can become trusted advisers to their clients and be highly regarded in the community.”
Directly educating consumers on housing issues also builds REALTORS®’ credibility with the public and Legislature, says Mary Antoun, CEO of the Maryland Association of REALTORS®. In addition to the association homebuyer education program, its two consumer-focused Web sites, mdhomeprograms.com and marylandhomeownership.com, give members a REALTOR®-branded place to refer clients for reliable information on homebuying, housing assistance programs, and avoiding foreclosure. These portals are also used, when needed, for issues advocacy.
At the Minneapolis Area Association of REALTORS®, CEO Mark Allen believes he builds public confidence in REALTORS® with his association’s public outreach program, which includes putting association leaders in front of consumers to talk about local housing market conditions via radio, TV, and print.
“They’re recognized as the experts on what’s going on with the housing market,” Allen says. The association’s weekly housing market statistics and analyses are quoted frequently in the media, and association leaders have become familiar faces on local TV stations.
MAAR no longer hosts housing fairs because of the labor involved but instead participates in fairs organized by local nonprofits, government agencies, and community groups. In addition to helping keep the public informed about housing issues, these events show how deeply REALTORS® are engaged in the community, empower association members in that engagement, and raise the public perception and value of REALTORS®, Allen says. Though not all members take full advantage of this outreach, he says, “those who recognize it deeply value it.”
Are consumers a core audience?
At the lowest point of the housing downturn, associations that lost members and saw shrinking budgets refocused efforts on programs and products that directly benefited members’ businesses, such as training on profiting from niche markets, advising on home financing options, and stemming foreclosures. Consumer outreach programs were scaled back or halted because there was no budget, little perceived value, or no direct effect on members’ businesses.
Today, however, many associations report a renewed effort on reaching out to consumers, in part due to National Association of REALTORS®’ new consumer outreach and advocacy focus. Last year, NAR launched a communications campaign using e-mails and browser ads to educate consumers about ways in which public policies affect home ownership in this country and began building a network of consumers to support homeownership issues. The campaign was part of NAR’s larger consumer outreach strategy that uses national TV and radio ads, its consumer-facing “Real Estate Today” radio program and HouseLogic Web site, social media, and news stories to build a direct relationship with consumers on behalf of its members.
Time is now for brand building
Another impetus for boosting REALTORS®’ image and community involvement is timing. As housing markets recover, consumers need to know where to go and whom to trust for accurate information, says Marc Lebowitz, executive officer of the Ada County Association of REALTORS® in Boise, Idaho.
Lebowitz has worked to make his association’s housing market data more accessible and relevant to consumers, not just members. After the housing market collapse, “there was real confusion in the community,” he says. To help make sense of the situation, he offered consumers historical data, trends, explanations, and, eventually, charts. “We’ve grown it into something with credibility and good acceptance in the community,” he says.
Associations slowly emerging from a program-austerity mindset are re-evaluating what programs and services will best position members for growth in the years ahead. Many associations recognized consumer outreach as a critical component in the future relevance to members.
“Our association identified REALTOR® and consumer advocacy as one of the three core services our association should provide to ensure our future value,” says Clint Skutchan, RCE, CEO of the Fort Collins Board of REALTORS®.
“As a part of our 2013 strategic action plan, we launched an umbrella campaign called Protecting Our Housing Future as means to broaden our impact in the community this year specifically, but with longer-term thoughts of how we can better foster relationships with the public,” says Skutchan. The association’s advocacy efforts include four pillars of consumer-focused activity: community involvement, investment in key organizations, discrimination of trustworthy local real estate information, and effective influence on local public policy.
Likewise, the Michigan Association of REALTORS® plans to reach out to consumers more in 2014. Since the association focuses heavily on advocacy, its political efforts directly affect the private property rights of consumers, says Joe Kras, MAR’s manager of communications and marketing. “So consumers are an important part of our core purpose.”
Another state planning to boost its communications with consumers is Illinois. When asked if his association believes communications with consumers is as important as with communications with members, Jon Broadbooks, director of communications, says the focus is shifting, especially in light of looming federal policy battles. “I do foresee that balance changing in the year ahead, and already we are taking steps to add more time to the consumer messaging.”
“Promotion of the REALTOR® brand is all of our jobs,” says Downs, who is chair of NAR’s Association Executive Committee work group on AE Consumer Engagement (see sidebar). “We can appreciate, however, how associations may broach the responsibility in one of two ways: either by direct consumer outreach or by equipping their members to have the knowledge and tools they need to promote themselves. Either way can be effective, but in both cases it’s important to research, test, and adjust to be sure the right methods and tools are available and in place.”
NAR Grants to Fund Consumer Outreach
Public outreach efforts are becoming a high priority for state and local associations. That’s why the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® offers a variety of grants for initiatives, from housing fairs and home buyers’ education to minority outreach efforts and public opinion surveys. For more, visit the new NAR Community Outreach Facebook page or search for “outreach grants” at nar.realtor.