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This article was published on: 09/01/2007

Your Best $1,000 Investment

How do you make valuable marketing dollars work for you? REALTOR® Magazine put that question to readers of our e-mail Business Tips Newsletter, asking them to tell us their best marketing idea for under $1,000.

BY TRACEY C. VELT

The prize: $1,000. The winner: Steve Saunders of Geneva, Ill. He created a simple but clever e-mail newsletter that puts the power of co-marketing to work for his brokerage.

“Most successful businesses have associations with other companies,” says Saunders. So in early 2007, when Saunders was ready to launch his brokerage, The NextProperty Group, he approached local businesses with a proposition: “I asked them to cross-market with me. Many were interested but didn’t know how to go about it.”

That’s when Saunders stepped in with Fat Mouth News,an e-newsletter that promotes local businesses and events. Participating businesses paid a small fee and gave Saunders their e-mail list and information about what they wanted to promote. Saunders did the rest.

Using a simple template newsletter from Constant Contact, which costs about $50 a month, Saunders test-marketed the idea with friends and colleagues. He tried out two other names, Community iLink and The Egg, both of which laid an egg. “I wanted a name that was memorable and had meaning. Fat Mouth News was certainly memorable, and I liked that it was a take on the concept of the town crier,” he said. “Many people didn’t like the word fat — but they admitted it got them to read it, so the name stuck.”

Since March, Saunders has produced several issues. He engages readers not just with the name — “fat mouth” is a synonym for “town crier,” he says — but with lively, interactive content. In each issue, he invites readers to provide a caption for a funny photo. Winners receive a $5 Starbucks gift card.

The newsletter has already drawn results in the form of a $1.2 million listing, an office building the owner wanted to market through Fat Mouth News. “The owner typically works with a well-established practitioner in town, but when I announced the e-newsletter idea at our local chamber of commerce board meeting, he was so intrigued that he gave me the listing,” he says. “Fat Mouth News gave me a competitive advantage over an excellent real estate associate.”

Businesses that advertise are encouraged to include a call to action, such as a coupon or a promotion for an upcoming event. For example, Saunders advertised a forum for real estate investors and featured a link to more information. Another company offered a 25 percent discount on photography and a link to its Web site.

“To lend credibility, I’m encouraging competing real estate practitioners to advertise. This is a community vehicle as much as a promotion for my company,” says Saunders, who doesn’t advertise his brokerage in each issue, though he does write an introduction that features his name, e-mail address, and company name. Each ad is written by a freelance writer and costs about $30. The most expensive part of the entire promotion was the $600 he spent having a company design his Web site.

The e-newsletter typically goes to between 4,000 and 5,000, depending on the size of advertisers’ e-mail lists. He accepts ads from five companies per newsletter. Businesses pay $100 for each ad and submit their e-mail marketing lists to Saunders. “We’re talking about mom-and-pop shops that sell everything from shoes to wine to food,” he says. “Many have their e-mail lists on pieces of paper. So I take those lists, enter them into an Excel spreadsheet, and, through Constant Contact, get the newsletter sent to the lists.”

Saunders says he “probably doesn’t charge enough. In addition to a professionally written ad and, in most cases, a fully updated e-mail database, advertisers get analytics about how many people clicked through. And I usually go out and take a picture of their product or service. This is a grassroots effort.”

The newsletter is sent to the e-mail lists of all five advertisers, but Saunders has also included an opt-in feature. Since the newsletter’s inception in March 2007, he has had more than 1,000 people opt in to receive every issue.

“It’s time-consuming. Each newsletter takes me about 10 hours,” he says. “Eventually, I’d like to hire someone to handle the project — from securing [advertisers] to handling the administrative duties.” But he says that visiting local businesses to get them to sign on also gives his real estate company exposure.

Now, Saunders is considering licensing the concept to others around the country. “I have two friends, a real estate practitioner [in another Chicago suburb] and a doctor in North Carolina, who are interested in the concept,” he says.

Until then, Saunders is concentrating on developing Fat Mouth News in his own community. “It puts you in front of people without asking them directly to be a client, and it helps build the community by strengthening the locally owned businesses’ marketing efforts,” he says.

However you decide to allot your marketing dollars, successful practitioners say the key is to be consistent. Find a program that works and stick with it.

Here are a dozen other ideas — at a variety of prices, most $1,000 or less — that have been effective for other real estate professionals.

Web Commercials

Since signing up for Imprev’s Web commercial marketing package five years ago, Patrick Scheetz, CRS®, broker-owner of Keller Williams Clients’ Choice Realty in Colorado Springs, Colo., has noticed a marked difference in his Web traffic. Scheetz e-mails a Web commercial hyperlink to area sales associates and prospective buyers and sellers. “We also place a link on several [listing database] Web sites,” he says. “Traffic spikes noticeably after I put up a Web commercial and people start getting that e-mail.” You can view the commercials on www.liveincosprings.com.

Scheetz pays $299 a year for Imprev’s marketing package, which offers Web-based templates for everything from virtual tours and Web commercials to print products, such as brochures and postcards. Sales associates have unlimited access to the online templates. “It takes my assistant 15 to 20 minutes to download pictures and customize a commercial for a specific property,” says Scheetz.

“You can choose from 48 different online Web commercial designs, with music included, and upload two to six photos for each commercial,” says Renwick Congdon, Imprev’s president and CEO. “Each of our designs also includes space for the sales associate’s contact information, company logo, and photo.”

Web commercials can be hosted on a Web site, sent by e-mail to a client, or saved to a CD. “Web commercials autoplay, without the need for special software or even Internet access,” says Congdon.

“Sellers’ eyes light up when I tell them I provide a Web commercial,” says Scheetz. “It definitely sets me apart.”

Pay Per Click

With 17 offices and 300 sales associates, ERA Stirling Properties in Covington, La., was looking for a way to gain national Web site exposure. “We signed up with Yahoo!’s campaign and spend about $45 a day,” says Monica Milazzo, director of Internet marketing. “In our latest report, we increased traffic to our Web site by 40 percent week over week.”

With Yahoo!’s program, “you set up a series of keyword phrases that are pertinent to your brokerage and Web site. The program will also suggest phrases for you. Then you bid on those phrases,” says Milazzo. For example, one phrase may be “New Orleans real estate,” and Milazzo will offer a maximum bid of $1. When someone searches that term, if you’re the high bidder, your site shows up first. Each time someone clicks on your site, you pay your bid price. “I try to be in the top three, preferably the third,” says Milazzo. “because that’s where your eye falls on the page.”

The campaign is working so well that Milazzo says the brokerage decided to bump up its Yahoo! budget. “We know we can get the campaigns to pay for themselves,” she says. Because it takes time to cultivate Internet leads, Milazzo can’t be more specific about dollars earned, but she says, “All the leads we generate go through our LeadRouter system, and they’re being monitored by that department.”

Milazzo monitors the Web site’s traffic and other statistics weekly. “It’s a smart investment because it guarantees that your site placement is where you want it to be.”

CMA software

“I easily get 15 to 20 leads a month from Homegain.com,” says Bill Eiseman, e-PRO®, with Prudential Decker Realty in Virginia Beach, Va. “For each of those leads, I produce a comparative market analysis using Realty Tools’ ToolKit CMA Internet-based system and e-mail it to the prospective client. When the sellers see that I’m the only one of 10 practitioners who’s giving them a market analysis, they immediately choose me.”

Eiseman uses ToolKit CMA because “it’s an online CMA program that allows me to e-mail the presentation without having to convert it to a PDF file. Someone can just click a link rather than download the presentation,” he says.

“With ToolKit CMA, you can create flyers, CMAs, listing presentations, and more, which can be printed or e-mailed to prospective sellers and buyers,” says Wes Shaffer, director of sales and marketing for Realty Tools Inc. in Hunt Valley, Md. “If you have an account, you can log on from anywhere and create a presentation and CMA, branded with your company logo and customized.”

Individuals can subscribe to ToolKit CMA for $168 a year, which includes MLS interfaces, presentation content, program updates, and customer support.

Virtual Tours

“Before I bought VisualTour software, I did some research on the MLS in my farm neighborhoods to see whether homes with virtual tours were selling faster than homes without,” says Virginia Patrick, ABR®, CRS®, a sales associate with RE/MAX Assured Properties in Charlottesville, Va. “I was shocked to see that the homes with the most pictures and virtual tours had fewer days on the market than the ones without.”

Patrick uses VisualTour for every listing. It’s priced at $29.95 a month for unlimited tours, and there’s a one-time $199.95 setup fee. With the software and her own photos, Patrick stitches together multiple still images and can select from 25 different musical selections for background music.

“VisualTour was designed for anyone who has a computer and a digital camera,” says J.L. Winn, vice president of marketing and business development for the company. “We offer unlimited pricing because we want to encourage agents to use this for everything from neighborhood tours to CDs sent to out-of-town buyers.”

“I notice that I now get more calls from people who live out of town,” says Patrick.

She credits that to buyers who do online searches via her MLS’s public search site or who find her through REALTOR.com and pull up her virtual tours.

Web Sites

In 60 days, Michael J. Clarkson, broker-associate with RE/MAX Alliance in Westminster, Colo., received about 70 leads from his Web site, “all with no [pay-per-click] advertising through Google [Adwords] or Yahoo!,” he says, testimony to the fact that having a solid Web site is vital to success. “I use strong search engine optimization and push more meaningful content out to my Web site to increase my Google ranking. I also have a blog and redirect folks to my site from the blog.”

Clarkson says that his “Web site communicates the message that I care about helping buyers and sellers meet their goals. And my buyer’s search function has shortened my closing window to as little as 23 days.” His site allows buyers to search for homes by price, new listings, and more.

Clarkson chose Myers Internet Inc. to set up his Web site. He spent $199 (one-time setup fee) and pays $35 a month for hosting. “We offer a customizable template Web site the users can easily update themselves,” says Erich Stiegler of Myers Internet in San Jose, Calif. “We provide IDX service, lead-capturing forms, guest books, and a custom e-mail address as well as free customer service.” He says there are literally 100,000 different customization choices.

Clarkson likes the flexibility and the reach he receives from having a professional site: “As part of my business plan, I looked at ways to leverage my time. Having a Web site was a key part of that strategy because it allows me to offer information to people 24/7.”

Signs

When it comes to getting properties noticed, a big, glossy sign can be a huge advantage. “People are busy, so we like to use large signs that feature all the information they need,” says Jim Ferrell, auctioneer and broker of Event Realty in Orlando, Fla. “Since I specialize in foreclosures, auctions, estate sales, and short sales, our signs pull in the majority of our business. We get 10 times the number of calls about a property when we post a large sign.”

Ferrell uses services provided by 1-800-the-sign.com. “We serve a very niche market in that we produce only large signs for vacant property, commercial listings, large homes, estate sales, and more,” says Bill Cepek, CEO of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company. “For residential agents, a large sign can serve as a more cost-effective billboard to use for farming.”

The cost is anywhere from $100 for 4-foot-by-4-foot signs to $148 for full-color, 4-foot-by-8-foot signs. They can be hung on fences or posted on a lightweight PVC post that’s provided by the company.

“Signs increase my exposure, especially when they’re advertising an estate sale or auction,” says Ferrell. “I’ve had many buyers show up because they were driving by and the sign [piqued] their interest. In this market, with so many houses for sale, you need a way to make your sign stand out.”

REALTOR.com

The listing enhancement package Gregg Pilcher bought for $1,245 on realtor.com paid for itself in one day, when Pilcher scored a listing for a home and two vacant land contracts. “Another practitioner referred the seller to me on the basis of my listing enhancements on REALTOR.com,” Pilcher says. “As a peer, that associate recognized the value I would offer.”

Basic listings on realtor.com are a part of your membership in the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®; however, sales associates who want more exposure may choose to boost their listings with branding and by adding more photos and detailed property descriptions. They do that by subscribing to listing enhancements. “You can showcase the features that make a particular property unique and appealing to home buyers,” says Errol Samuelson, president of Westlake Village, Calif.-based REALTOR.com. “Soon you’ll be able to add a video showing the property’s features.”

Pilcher is sold on the benefits. “The listing enhancements brought my properties out front and helped me get listings,” he says. “Buyers tend to look at the showcase-type ads because they’re professional looking.”

More than 6 million people visit realtor.com every month, according to Samuelson.

“I’m a smaller, independent brokerage, and [this service] puts me on a level playing field with the larger offices,” says Pilcher.

GPS System

On the day Mike Hyles, broker-owner of RE/MAX 1st Choice in Pleasanton, Calif., was to show the new Oakland Raiders’ quarterback some houses, he spent 20 minutes programming his Lexus’ global positioning system with locations of the houses they would see.

But the quarterback had other plans; he wanted to take his own car because it was easier to transport his three children. Hyles took it in stride and pulled out his handheld GPS, the Hewlett Packard iPAQ 5910 Travel Companion. “I entered the addresses and off we went,” he says. “If I hadn’t had that device, I would have had to get a map out.” The football player was duly impressed. Not only that, “he made an offer on one of the homes,” Hyles says.

The iPAQ Travel Companion is preloaded with maps, and the screen size is larger than that of most GPSs, says Lisa Hopkins, vertical solutions marketing manager for Hewlett Packard. “It features full Windows Mobile 5 technology, so you can synchronize it with Outlook for e-mail. It also has pocket-size versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint,” she says.

“If I have 10 listings to show, the iPAQ will automatically route them from the closest to the farthest. The GPS in my Lexus doesn’t do that,” says Hyles. “It took me one hour to learn how to use it. I also fly as a corporate pilot, and I love to pull it out and find directions to our hotel.”HP is a REALTOR Benefits® partner, so REALTOR® can buy the iPAQ at the discounted rate of $499 through www.hp.com/go/realestate.

Web Newsletters

“Sometimes prospective home buyers just want to search for properties without my calling them every week to tell them what went on the market,” says Sally Jacob, an associate broker with John L. Scott Real Estate Inc. in Vancouver, Wash. “Advanced Access designed my Web site, and I use its QuickHomes product, which allows users to search for properties freely.”

QuickHomes is a service offered to Advanced Access users that allows them to set up a property search on their personal Web site. Consumers enter search parameters so that new listings that meet their criteria are e-mailed to them as they come on the market. “Consumers do have to sign up but only need to give a valid e-mail address,” says Gary Brackle, president of Advanced Access.

“Sales associates can then track what properties users are interested in, without being intrusive,” he says. The QuickHomes add-on costs about $39.95 a month. However, Jacob has the entire Advanced Access Web performance package, which costs her about $500 a month. “I have at least two practitioners call me every month to find out who did my Web site, and they’re shocked that I spend so much. But my average sales price is $350,000, so I don’t need a lot of sales to make up for the cost, especially when it’s generating 50 percent of my business. The only thing I have to do is be diligent about responding to e-mails,” she says.

“I quickly discovered that I had to make my Web site valuable. QuickHomes gives it that value,” says Jacob. “Prospective buyers get updates, and it looks as if I spent hours putting the information together. Since building my Web site and offering QuickHomes, more than half my business is from people who find me through my site.”

Direct Mail Service

“We receive 18 percent of our business from our direct mailers,” says Kristan Cole, ABR®, CCIM, broker of RE/MAX of Wasilla in Alaska. That’s why she wants a way to print and send postcards quickly and inexpensively. She found that in Expresscopy.com.

“We designed a template from the site’s library, then just uploaded our addresses and our design to Expresscopy.com,” says Cole. “Within 48 hours, our postcards are printed and mailed. The return on our investment is four to one — for every $1 I spend, I get $4 back [in commissions earned].”

Expresscopy.com offers full-color postcard printing and mailing for as little as 45 cents a card, with a minimum order of 100 cards. “So for $45, you get 100 two-sided, full-color postcards addressed, affixed with postage, and delivered to the post office,” says Rick Hardy, Expresscopy.com’s vice president of business development. Price varies, depending on the number of cards printed.

“We’re in a culture of skimmers. The beauty of the postcards is that you have to look at [them]. So you have that chance to make an impression,” says Hardy.

Front Desk Scheduling

When Huff Realty in Fairfield, Ohio, was looking for a replacement to the pen-and-paper message taking at its front desk, it turned to ShowingDesk Web Edition to track sales associates’ appointments and listing activity. “We wanted a way to track our listing and sales history strategically. This gives us additional reports that let us see predictive indicators that are vital to our strategic planning,” says Joy Amann, CRS®, e-PRO®, CEO of Huff Realty.

The front desk system helps real estate offices manage showing appointments, gather feedback, track ad and sign calls, and generate listing-activity reports. It connects to the MLS, says Tom Denk, director of marketing for Chicago-based ShowingTime, so users can update office listing information and download the latest MLS agent roster to quickly identify practitioners requesting showings.

Showing agents receive an e-mail with directions to the property and a link to a feedback area where they can leave information about what the buyer liked and didn’t like about the home, says Amann. “The feedback report is a huge time-saver. We used to call salespeople, but now the e-mail goes out automatically, so they can just click a link.”

Cost is based on the number of associates and listings the office has. “A new office of 25 associates typically costs about $5 per associate per month,” says Denk.

Talking House

Ken Brandon, ABR®, had been in business only a few months when he decided to invest $1,000 in the Talking House marketing program. “I ordered the whole package, which included DVDs I could hand out to FSBOs,” says Brandon, a sales associate with Century 21 American Properties in Jacksonville, N.C.

The day the DVDs arrived, he took a photo of a FSBO’s house and downloaded it to his computer. Using a $20 label-maker program, he printed a personalized DVD cover with the home on it and dropped it off with the owner.

At the time, the owner wasn’t willing to talk to him, says Brandon. That’s why he was shocked when a few days later the owner called and gave him the listing. “He said his son noticed that it was their home on the cover, so he decided to watch it and was impressed,” says Brandon.

Talking House is a “comprehensive training program that includes marketing strategies and tools to help agents get listings and generate leads from those listings,” says Michael Miller, president of Talking House Inc. in Des Plaines, Ill. Included in the package are yard signs, training handbooks, and CDs and DVDs with templates. It also includes the Talking House transmitter that broadcasts a prerecorded message about the home. Prospects drive up, tune their car radio to the station listed on the yard sign, and listen to the home’s features, such as seller incentives, as recorded by the agent. “I advertise my monthly homebuyer’s class as well as other things on the recording,” says Brandon.
His numbers speak for themselves, Brandon says. “I went from $4.1 million and 31 sides in 2006 to $3.4 million, with another $2.8 million pending, and 42 sides in just the first five months of 2007. I can attribute some of that directly to the Talking House program.”

Tracey C. Velt is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Fla.

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