Playbook: How Content Marketing Solves A Real Problem for Real Estate

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

By Neil St. Clair

This article was originally published on Forbes.com (April, 2015)

Real estate is a commodity industry. For that matter, so are most professional services businesses from financial planners to lawyers to accountants. Yes, some are fundamentally better than others at what they do and may serve different niche markets. But in broad strokes, what actually sets apart one real estate firm from another? Is it its brand? The services offered? And can that difference be easily distilled and described? Can you tell me what separates Brown Harris Stevens from Sotheby's, or why CBRE is differentiated from Cushman Wakefield?

In short, whether a commercial or residential player, or focused on rentals or sales, most run-of-the-mill end-users only have the faintest sense of top-level brands, and even less of a sense about the real nuts-and-bolts differences. As I've always said, you sell on the whisper and nuance, but generate leads with the broad sword and thunderclap. For real estate companies, pricing and personality are usually what help turn a prospect into a client (since inventory is often common). But first, the company needs to get to this point of conversion by generating leads and creating opportunities to show they truly are different.

There is also a particular quirk within this industry that's important to note: Once a client's worked with a realtor there's a relatively high level of customer stickiness for subsequent transactions. But the question remains: How do you generate the interest, which becomes a lead, which becomes a client, which becomes a return client, which leads to a referral?

The answer is very simple: Content. More specifically, great visual, thoughtful, human-centered content--and lots of it.

Discovery: Creating Elbow Room In A Crowded Space

"But why do I need content?" (a hypothetical realtor might ask) Can't I just create a website and put my listings on Trulia or Zillow? Certainly you can, but that's if you want to make $40,000 a year or less--the 2013 median salary for a realtor according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2015, there were 165,000 companies just in U.S. residential brokerage and management, with an additional 25,000 in the commercial field. Real Estate in America is a $200 billion industry, and new players are cropping up constantly to get a slice of that revenue for themselves. However, the 50 largest companies control around 1/3 of the industry's revenue. And these top players are in a constant battle with each other over the same properties, while smaller players, not to mention the more than 500,000 brokers, are fighting on similar fronts. In such a crowded space (with fiercer crowding for city-based and ultra-high-end realtors), with relatively little differentiation in the client's mind's eye, realtors large and small need to make a meaningful investment to generate a meaningful response. Content is that investment.

The reality is, most real estate professionals will read this and continue to do things status quo: Find a client through some random digital channel or referral, take some pictures of the property, place it on MLS or some other aggregator and move on. This plodding way of doing business is an excellent tactic if you'd like to not work particularly hard or to ensure that you'll continue losing out to your competition for the bigger and better opportunities. Holding this knowledge of content differentiation as a realtor, therefore, creates an asymmetry in your favor. That is, this is your opportunity to become a power agent by doing something truly unique.

Let's now use a real-world example of how to own the digital conversation.

A quick Google search of "New York Real Estate Trends" shows that only one sell-side firm shows up in the first five results: A well-designed and informative infographic from Douglas Elliman. The rest are editorial-style articles from Curbed and similar news/industry trade sites. While I strongly believe Elliman could have elevated a two-dimensional graphic with video content to bring a more dynamic human touch to their piece, I have to give them kudos for making the effort.

But, assuming you're not Elliman, I have to ask why your firm isn't listed in these results? According to a recent study, 69% of home buyers who take action on a real estate website begin by typing a local term into a search engine. And surely most New York realtors have an opinion on New York real estate. Is it overly difficult then to imagine that producing a well-designed infographic, white paper and/or 2-5 minute video on "New York Real Estate Trends" would help claim a spot in these rankings? Surely not.

Now, of course, I'm oversimplifying the process and there are a few prerequisites I'm assuming: 1) That your firm has a strong and aesthetically-pleasing brand 2) That your site is optimized for search 3) That you have proper social and email distribution channels 4) That you have segmented your audience and will target them with your content 5) That you have a paid-for or editorial distribution model for your content that will be rewarded by Google's search algorithm.

Assuming these factors are part of your content plan, you have a chance to control a meaningful long-tail search term that produces, on average, 905,270 monthly searches as part of a larger ad group. By extension, you now have the chance to control the conversation around this topic. And in my tautological way, you now have the opportunity to own the leads and revenues that generate from owning the conversation.

There are literally dozens of pages we could dedicate to what type of content you should create (and I'm a big fan of visual and video based content as the most effective communication means), what audience to target, the production values/design, the distribution plan, etc. However, the larger point here is that there is a vast amount of digital real estate (pun intended) laying unclaimed that can translate into meaningful leads and revenue. This is part of the reason why you might engage a professional content agency like AW/CS for this type of work. Yes, it's an investment, but one with a high return.

Before We Advance, Let's Stop and Eat Some Escrow

Three points worth mentioning: One pertains to purely digital discovery, the other to media and the third to social media.

On the first point, I see the most common tactic for "brand discovery" in the real estate space as paid-for ads, SEO and paid social media. In fact, 56% of advertising spend in the real estate industry in now online. While this more passive approach may play well for lower-tier, high-volume shops, they ultimately only serve to raise awareness at best, and yield an upside down return at worst (see: How Digital Marketing Is Destroying Your Business). Another issue is that this approach often yields low-quality or unqualified leads that become a major time waster as there's no vetting or client-side self-selection. Finally, if 56% of the industry is doing it (many with vast budgets), there's a good chance that making this digital ad play merely means adding more noise without signal.

Online ad spend (with targeted display ads expected to be nearly 50% of spend by 2018) for real estate firms is increasing at a rapid pace and will crest above $16 billion this year. But please, I beg of you, ask your colleagues and peers, and discover if any of them have truly tracked the effectiveness of this type of advertising. Were leads ever generated that they could tie back to display ads? If yes, did they turn into sales that justified this outlay of cash?

As I've often said, in order to not get eaten by the bear, you sometimes must be the salmon that swims downstream. In this case, downstream is "video" content, which is expected to continue growing through 2018 (representing more than 25% of spend) as part of real estate marketing spend, but is still in its nascent in 2015. Being at the foot of the momentum curve means you get to ride the positive portion of the wave, and it's what I highly recommend.

On the second point, any marketer knows that often the best marketing comes for free--typically through the media. But first, you have to establish your reputation as a thought leader by consistently producing smart content that shows up at the top of Google rankings. Do this, and any booker or reporter worth their salt is likely to discover you during their research, reach out and put you on their program or in their publication. And while media doesn't carry the same credibility index it once did, it's simply another channel for possible discovery--a content and lead generation echo chamber. This type of "free" effort can be reinforced as your media profile grows and you're asked to speak at conferences or in industry trades--potentially a low-yield, but also a low-cost way to generate business opportunities.

Finally, I'd like to briefly touch on social media. Yes, it is the cause célèbre of our modern marketing age. I won't launch into a diatribe here as I did in this previous piece, but I will note that for realtors, where time is money, do not waste your time on social media if your goal is acquiring new clients. Have a small, meaningful presence and post links to your content, yes. But think of social media as a tool for engagement of an already established audience, not a chance to generate leads.

"And the Answer, Ladies, Is Trust"*

There's a simple reason that content has a high return on investment, and that return starts with establishing trust. According to a recent study, after publicly and clearly listing contact information, credibility is established mostly through various forms of content--especially information on products and services, and an about us page that has a clear and distinct message.

Before we jump in, a bit of a digression. The study cited here is focused on B2B firms, in which I counter-intuitively ascribe real estate companies. The reason? When making a decision to purchase or rent a piece of property for thousands or millions of dollars, the "buyer" acts with greater rationality than emotion. And while emotion for a property buyer typically plays a larger role than dealing with another company, I would submit that looking at the habits and actions of B2B firms more accurately represents the initial interaction of a prospect and a real estate firm. Purchasing a piece of clothing online for $100 is relatively low-risk, but real estate is a totally different psychological animal.

Returning to our main topic, building trust is the start of turning a website visitor into a prospect. If the potential prospect has come from a referral, the scenario is different and yet the same. In the latter, while trust has already been established through the referees relationship, it's even further underscored if they can make the introduction in tandem with a piece of content. "Jim, meet my real estate broker, Joe. He's helped me on several deals. Know you're looking at some apartment in the West Village, here's a video Joe recently made about trends in that area." Much more powerful of an introduction than a simple email, and one that can lead to a conversation based on an established understanding that you know a few things. This, as opposed to a conversation that's all about sizing up your credibility.

When dealing with a non-referred prospect. content creates the initial bridge of credibility for most buyers and sellers. Providing meaningful education in an entertaining package helps them feel greater confidence and pre-answers certain questions. As with the referred scenario, the prospect is ready to begin a dialogue, and has a sense of the lens through which you view the world. Much better to start the race on your toes than flat-footed.

*Yes, it'a a line from Old School. Remember, Mitch was a real estate lawyer after all.

Content, Content, Content, But What Kind?

If you've been discovered, and a bit of trust has been built as part of this discovery, we've come to the crux of the issue: Is the content you've created enough for a visitor to pick up a phone or provide you with their contact information for a follow up? What we're talking about is generating the big leads for big properties and/or generating quality leads at volume. Leads like this aren't likely to call you simply because your page rank was positive or even because they clicked on your content link. The very definition of these leads, what makes them "quality," is that they're discerning.

In fact, what turns a visitor into a lead is creating content that engages and entertains, and that, ultimately, is memorable. In a commoditized industry if you can make your brand standout so that you're top-of-mind, that's the way in when the lead is ready to make a decision. It can also be a door-opener--leading to a conversation using inbound techniques as we'll discuss later.

Memorable content can take both written and more visual forms. I'm a bit biased towards visual/video content creation, so I'll provide some examples of ideation in this vein, but there are other topics that lend themselves to purely written or data visualization communication.

It's important to note, I do tend to find that video-based content is much more reliant on story-telling than an infographic which provides a quantitative snapshot and analysis. Often, these two types of content (story and fact) should go hand-in-hand to appeal to both the rational and emotional sides of a client's mind. But let's get to a few sample topics for a purely visual piece:

1) Tell the story of the history of a neighborhood. e.g. Why are all the buildings on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston brownstones?

2) Take a tour of the neighborhood--e.g. what are the local hotspots, show me the school, is there a place I can walk my dog?

3) Provide a quarterly on-camera commentary of pricing trends while walking through the "hottest" new property that just came on the market as a backdrop.

4) Offer a video seminar answering the common questions of first-time home buyers.

5) Bring in an interior designer for a set-piece interview on decor techniques based on popular TV shows or celebrity homes

These are some rather simple ideas that can become part of a larger, continuous content marketing play. And what's a critical point, is that content marketing cannot be done drop-by-drop, but must rather be manifested as a fluid stream that's constant, incisive and scalpel-like. Do not try to create a content firehose until you've perfected what you want to say and how you want to distribute/target it. Fail to do this, and you'll end up all wet. Understanding this is the difference between creating a meaningful, strategy-backed, credible brand newsroom and a content marketing equivalent of a boiler room.

I do recommend realtors create another type of content--and this one is meant to help move them away from the standard point-and-shoot property pictures that only tell part of the story. A video tour, hosted by a real person, gives a greater sense of the property and can help make a connection to the realtor selling it. This is sometimes tough in frenetic markets like New York where average listings may only last for two days before being bought. However, for listings that may have a longer shelf-life (e.g. properties north of $10m) or markets that are a little less seller-friendly, this type of content can provide a third-dimension to standard website sell pages.

An important distinction before we proceed. The content ideas provided here are either informational (e.g. house tour), education (e.g. home buyer's guide) or entertaining (e.g. interior designer). But in the end, they tell a story that is more about solving client problems. It is not necessarily about the brand itself, which is what most standard advertising trends towards. Remember, whatever content you create, build it from the audience back to you, and not the other way around.

Finally, do note that while there are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites that provide editorial and other content to which you can link, this is a false premise from the start in real estate. Content aggregation may be useful and low-cost and help educate your potential clients, but it ultimately forces them to click on links that take them away from your page. Custom content that is targeted to your specific audience is always the way to go.

Finding the Return On Investment

Content marketing should pay for itself through time by generating business. However, it will not if you simply allow it to lay dormant on your website or YouTube channel. First, you need to capture your leads through basic inbound marketing techniques. The content gets prospects to your site, but you must make it interesting enough that they'll be willing to provide you with a little bit of information--an email, zip code and name, as an example. People hate filling out extensive forms, and 2-3 short answers is more than enough to capture what you need to start a conversation. LinkedIn or social media can provide you most of the rest of the necessary background details.

Having "open " content without some type of information wall in front of it means that you'll spend a lot of time tracking down leads. If your content is intriguing or necessary enough, visitors will take the time to fill out your little form and you'll have captured a meaningful efficiency in your lead-generation process.

Once this information is captured, and the piece is read/viewed/downloaded there's always a chance the lead turns themselves into a prospect by reaching out to you. More likely, however, it's now time for you to send a follow up email. Do not auto-generate this, and take the time to personalize it. I tend to find that a "naked" ask falls on deaf ears: "Hey Joe, saw you looked at our video on pricing trends on the Upper East Side. I'd love to tell you more about this and some options we have up there, can we schedule a five minute call to discuss?" There are very few ways to make this type of outreach "unsalesy."

Rather, I tend to prefer an outreach that has a softer landing. This can be accomplished by asking the lead to take the online conversation you've started offline and into an enhanced forum (e.g. an educational event) or a purely social event with interesting people: "Hey Joe, saw you looked at our video on pricing trends on the Upper East Side. I actually have a cocktail party for real estate investors at this great rooftop bar next week. Think you'd enjoy the folks and we'll get a chance to speak a bit more about your needs."

Yes, it's an extra step in the process, but it's one that begins to establish a human connection rather than a purely business one, and that leads to a higher conversion of prospects becoming clients, and ensures that your content has been leveraged towards its fullest and best result--i.e. a sale.

Of course, you can also utilize your content as part of an outbound marketing play, by locating leads on LinkedIn or through other targeting methods (e.g. Zillow) and sending an email along with your content. I tend to find, however, that this is more like the sound of metal-on-metal for many clients and potential leads, and they will simply cover their ears and look away.

Here We Are At the Close

Before we head to our conclusion, it's important to point out that everything described here applies not only to real estate firms in general, but also to individual realtors and brokers. More than 60 percent of the 500,000+ brokers in the U.S. are independent, and those that aren't are often still looking for a competitive edge to maximize their commission within their own organization. Creating a personal brand is important for executives and most client-facing agents looking to become true leaders. The days of placing your smiling face on a billboard have been left to history, and have been replaced with a digital version of your best self--building trust through constant, thoughtful content creation.

So what have we learned here?

First, we got a sense of why content is a marketing differentiator in what's become a crowded and commoditized industry. What we found is that, ultimately, discovery is about content, content, content.

Next, we looked at content as the bridge that allows trust to traffic from the realtor to a lead/prospect, both in cases of referrals and newly sourced leads.

Dovetailing off that, we looked at the types of content that build this trust and ultimately galvanize an audience into remembering the brand that produced this meaningful work.

Finally, we worked through a few tactics that leverage custom content into conversions--turning a visitor to a lead, and a lead to a prospect/client.

What we haven't discussed in great detail is how to track, analyze and adjust your content campaign post-launch. This is another topic altogether and just another of several reasons why it may be helpful to engage a professional content and business enhancement agency. Similarly, we've brushed over the more advanced topic of content distribution. Again, this discussion could fill a tome, and is likely to require a strategic conversation with internal or external marketing professionals. Distribution can be a bit tricky and quite costly if one makes a false step, so gather some advice before going too far down the rabbit hole.

In sum, content is an investment, just like any real asset. But when done right, it becomes a modular, shareable and potentially viral/networked version of your real estate brand. Creating content consistently can provide methods for discovery and business opportunity, and it may also simply help you collect and clarify your own thoughts so you can get ahead of your next prospect's questions. While following these tactics is no guarantee you'll become the next Barbara Corcoran, it's certainly a start in maximizing the marketing of your mind and personality while producing a meaningful uptick in sales.


Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation.

Follow him on IG @neilstclair