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Real Estate Marketing Strategies for a Digital Age: Interview with Bozzuto’s Ben Burns
It isn’t a secret that the real estate industry has changed drastically in the last 10—and even five—years. Where buying or renting a home used to be driven by referrals and word-of-mouth, now 90 percent of buyers turn to the internet to solve all their housing needs, from finding out how to get a mortgage to making that final decision.
When I began writing this article on real estate marketing strategies in a digital age, I knew I needed an absolute expert to weigh in on what the most digitally advanced, successful real estate companies are doing to adapt to this change and market themselves online. The answer dropped in my lap when I brought the subject up to Ben Burns, the Vice President of Lead Generation and Digital Strategy at the Bozzuto Group, a privately held integrated real estate service organization with over 71,000 units across five regions from New York City to South Florida to date and over 250 properties.
Currently, the Bozzuto Group spends 95 percent of its marketing budget on digital marketing and marketing technology (martech)—70 percent on digital, 25 percent on martech. I interviewed Ben on how other real estate companies can emulate Bozzuto’s success, and he didn’t disappoint. You’ll find the interview below, which includes actionable tips for realtors and real estate companies to step up their digital marketing game in 2018 and beyond.
The Changing Face of Real Estate Marketing in the Digital Age
BETSY: Welcome, Ben, and thanks for taking the time to speak with me today!
BEN: No problem, happy to do it.
BETSY: You have a very successful background in digital marketing for companies ranging from Marriott Hotels to SaaS startups. How are Bozzuto and the real estate industry different?
BEN: My background in growth marketing-focused roles made me realize real estate is no different than an eCommerce or SaaS company. What the leading real estate marketing teams have realized is that in the end, you’re selling a product. That’s why we are beginning to leverage tactics similar to the likes of Amazon, dating apps, Airbnb, Marriott, and other digital-first organizations.
BETSY: What real estate marketing strategies do you think have changed the most in the past five years that smaller companies and realtors should take note of?
BEN: Five years ago, internal marketing teams would have likely been tasked to list an apartment on Craigslist, post it on Zillow, and maybe think about how best to leverage SEO [search engine optimization]. Fast-forward to today and organizations are investing in growing holistic digital teams with channel-specific depth.
Back then, it wasn’t unreasonable to outsource 90 percent of digital marketing execution and then leave the remaining 10 percent for in-house teams to sort of figure it out on their own. I’m fortunate to have been able to build a marketing performance team that’s composed of specialists in paid advertising, social and content marketing, email/SMS, organic search and SEO, martech, web development, and analytics.
I recognize that I was given a fantastic gift to hire such wonderful team members. For other real estate companies and realtors to step their game up this year and into 2019, they’ll need to transition from hiring marketing generalists to hiring specialists, or they’ll suffer in the long run.
BETSY: What about those businesses that don’t have the revenue to hire a team of specialists?
BEN: My advice for those who cannot hire such a bench of incredible people is to hire someone who has worked and thrived as a leader across all digital channels within both a corporate and start-up environment and let him or her leverage an outside agency to lead the execution from the internal strategy. You may have a sound growth and retention strategy, but if the wrong team is in place, the execution in itself may kill the potential outcome.
BETSY: I can definitely agree with that—executing a marketing plan flawlessly is a whole different beast than creating it. Finding the right people to execute that plan is crucial to the success of any digital marketing strategy.
The New Modern Homebuyer—and What They Expect from Your Real Estate Marketing Strategy
BETSY: Marketing strategy isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the past five years—the expectations of modern home searchers have as well. From your research and experience, what does the modern homebuyer or renter WANT from a real estate company?
BEN: Great question! I’d say both the homebuyer and renter want amazing customer service in the form of honesty, transparency, and consistency. Honesty in what you’re selling through marketing is actually something you can deliver on in person and through the lifetime of the resident and or homebuyer. Transparency is the new norm and can lead to a key differential, pricing, value adds, non-gated reviews, live inventory data, and much more.
I personally looked to Southwest’s campaign “Transfarency” as a great nod to in-your-face-transparency when we were planning the relaunch of Bozzuto’s website. [In] my opinion, the most important aspect of customer service is consistency. As a brand, you need consistency in everything you do, including your marketing messaging, your customer’s experience across all your digital assets, your communication flows—everything down to the smallest details like changing a light bulb in a resident’s home in a timely manner.
BETSY: Expanding on that, how has the real estate buyer’s journey changed in the past five to 10 years?
BEN: The customer journey has in fact changed and now acts as a framework for how we approach our digital journey strategy. To your point, many individuals relied on word of mouth and local realtors to provide guidance on solidifying their potential next home. Today’s customer journey has significantly been modified due to technology and the availability of data.
BETSY: Tell me about your approach for Baby Boomers in the housing marketing vs. your approach for millennials. How is it different? On that note, I saw you have senior housing—how is senior housing today different than 10 or 20 years ago?
BEN: I don’t believe it’s drastically different in our approach. We leverage similar channels and focus on A/B testing copy, images, and landing pages on our websites that speak to that demographic. We also understand in some cases, the children of Baby Boomers are the ones gathering the initial research, and so we want to make sure that we test speaking to the child about a place for mom or dad.
We have gone as far as experimenting with bespoke dating apps for Baby Boomers, as we do with our millennial population. The major difference is the “courtship process” of signing on the dotted line. Many Baby Boomers are experiencing what we call “right-sizing” which is the transition between the typically “McMansion” or gated-community lifestyle with plenty of space to a smaller living situation—and with that, it simply takes a little more time to acknowledge that change.
BETSY: I know from our real estate clients that the best homebuyers are the ones that refer others and become lifelong fans of your company. What are you doing to encourage that kind of customer loyalty and referrals?
BEN: It begins with being consistent in our brand values and delivering exceptional customer service. It has nothing to do with marketing and everything to do with our people anticipating our resident needs and creating a service-level relationship. When I spent time leading the SEO program at Marriott International Hotels, the level of training and employee preparation was extremely impressive and throughout every level of the organization. That’s how you build brand loyalty and strong retention.
The Biggest Problems Facing Real Estate Marketers in 2018 and Beyond
BETSY: What do you think are the biggest problems in real estate marketing today? For example, what worked five years ago that doesn’t work anymore?
BEN: The biggest opportunity is operating as a data-informed decision making organization. I don’t think marketing teams knew what truly worked five years ago, and the result was leveraging a “checklist mentality.” In other words, they included SEO, PPC, display [ads], and running as many ILS’s (internet listing service sites like Zillow and Apartments.com) as possible while simultaneously employing several offline materials.
My guess is, due to limited analytics—especially multi-touch attribution—they couldn’t truly tell with confidence what single channel was the most effective and delivering optimal return on spend. It’s likely that tactics that worked five years ago may simply be less valuable or important but still play a role in today’s digital journey.
BETSY: As part of a company that prides itself on being data-driven, I can understand how not having the right analytics and attribution could tank a strategy. Data aside, what do you think are the biggest challenges for real estate companies like yours that manage multiple types of properties? For example, how are you approaching your apartment property marketing vs. your single-family home marketing vs. your construction and development marketing?
BEN: Great question, and one we battle with. A great example of this is during our relaunch of Bozzuto.com in early July 2018 we knew all of our websites had to provide value for each company. At the end of the day, we position ourselves as One Bozzuto, meaning the underpinnings of our brand value is consistent. Personally, I treat each company as a single entity when it comes to tactical strategy and deployment—but the output all rolls up into a single vision.
For example, goals are different per company—the property side may be focused on meeting our lease-up goals while driving our customer acquisition cost (CAC) down for stabilized properties, driving brand awareness for our new contract services, driving prospects to our digital home buying experience portal, and introducing our brand in new markets by targeting specific companies.
It isn’t easy, and we are always working towards perfecting our ability to focus across all of our company lines. Focus and execution are always going to be a big challenge when you’re scaling not one company but multiple under one brand. If anything, I believe alignment across our leadership within each company is going to ultimately drive our ability to effectively deliver our best in class marketing deliverables.
Local Real Estate Marketing: Ideas to Connect with Local Homebuyers and Renters
BETSY: Forget mass marketing messages, now it’s all about localized, hyper-personal marketing. With a company as large as yours, how are you scaling that? What challenges are you facing and how are you overcoming them?
BEN: You nailed it—we rarely invest in mass-marketing tactics. Our properties are local in nature, they are part of many urban and suburban communities which are very unique. We leverage a few 3rd party partners that can systematically deliver local-level campaigns across our 250+ communities. My main focus is on providing the right digital message, through the right channel and device, at the right time. By leaning on these partners and providing them with feedback on their performance (not the other way around), they can immediately pivot and drive optimizations at scale.
We strategize from the top to the bottom of the funnel locally—from local print publications and incorporating local SEO into our property and branded content, down to driving the use of mobile geo-fencing particular locations around our properties. One channel that truly shines for local is social media. Think beyond Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—find those local niche digital hangouts and see how you can best position yourself and be helpful.
The challenge I see and have encountered is making sure we are in fact being knowledgeable and authentic across all our locations, especially as it relates to providing content via a blog, social post, or video series. In addition, I think we’re still trying to figure out the best way to personalize the language preference—and I’m not talking about incorporating a simple Google translate function, but truly providing a consumer’s preferred language across the entire buyer’s journey from viewing marketing assets all the way through signing on the dotted line. That’s my north star.
BETSY: Now that we’re on the subject of local marketing, tell me about your strategy for ILS properties like Zillow, Realtor.com, and others.
BEN: Well it’s quite simple, we do in fact leverage ILS’s to drive leads. The secret is with so many popping up over the past several years you really need to ensure you have proper analytics tracking your return on investment with these providers.
Another thing to consider is that not all ILS’s have the same quality of leads. It is my responsibility to drive quality over quantity and not focus on purely the lead count, but the conversion of the traffic and determine what amount of leads is needed per property at a given time. For example, if we are in lease-up mode (when a new community just opened its doors) we will likely need to provide a certain volume of leads to meet our internal lease-up goals, and for a “stabilized” asset we’d likely need to throttle a volume just to keep the property stabilized and therefore reduce our investment per package.
In particular markets like New York City and Chicago, the market is driven by brokers, and so we rely on certain ILS’s that specialize in that service offering. Our main focus for 2018 has been right-sizing our reliance on ILS’s. We understand they play an important role in delivering leads that ultimately need to translate into leases to show value, and with that, a true multi-touch attribution model is a strong focus for the remainder of the year. We know that the pay per lease model is nice, but no single customer reviews one site and so I can’t see how they can collect 100 percent of the lease, but realistically perhaps 25 percent is your share in delivering the lease to Bozzuto. This is going to be an industry challenge not just for Bozzuto.
How the Best of the Best Approach Real Estate Marketing Technology (MarTech)
BETSY: We have to wrap up soon, but before we go, I wanted to ask you about your martech [marketing technology] upgrades and your take on how new digital marketing technologies are changing the industry.
BEN: Sure, ask away.
BETSY: Great! When we spoke last, you told me you were doing a lot of new things and using new technology. Give me the rundown.
BEN: Sure, so in general we (the industry) are starting to recognize that real estate thrives on being nimble, adaptive, and optimizing towards growth while not forgetting about retention. As it pertains specifically to our organization, Bozzuto has been concentrating on solving for the customer journey as it relates to the various touch points of our lead gen initiatives, digital assets, and communication paths.
More specifically, the projects in 2018 included relaunching our corporate website (one of the organization’s largest digital marketing projects), piloting new forms of communication (chatbots, SMS, and AI phone answering services), right-sizing and extending lead generation channels through dynamic yield management, optimizing scalability, figuring out if podcasts can deliver on our KPIs, applying predictive and prescriptive analytics management, and empowering our supporting marketing managers through real-time bespoke analytics platforms through Google Data Studio. 2018 has been a busy year, and 2019 is going to be all about consistent execution on our pilot success.
BETSY: Automated bots are all the rage. Are you experimenting with those at all?
BEN: Yes. As my role is ensuring proper use of digital across all aspects of our company (e.g., B2B, B2E, B2C) we want to make sure we’re thinking about the many possibilities in which bots can or should play a role.
In regards to our use case for B2C, we experimented with deploying bots during the prospect phase, to answer or guide the user towards the information they were looking for. I found that bots alone are not the answer, so we are teasing the idea of bots with human support in case of failure in the ability to answer one’s questions. We are continuing our effort in using AI bots during off hours at our properties so that customers can schedule property tours. If you know that if someone is calling to schedule a tour, we want to ensure we have an answer.
Taking a step out of what are typical “chat” bots, we have experimented with Facebook messenger bot, SMS bots for new communities, bots to give our residents the ability to communicate with their property staff, etc. Bots are the future, but you have to figure out and outline the holistic approach with the human safeguards.
BETSY: Last question: How do you feel about using drones in your real estate marketing plan?
BEN: I’m down with drones. A few ways in which we plan to leverage drones include delivering content in a new and interesting way, providing future services for residents (e.g. package deliveries), surveying outdoor event density to provide useful intelligence, or using them for potential security. Drones are not a fad and should be looked at as a service provider and less of purely delivering arial video.
BETSY: I hear you—we use drones in our video marketing as well and think it brings a big impact to visualizations. Well, Ben, thanks for taking the time to talk to me, I’m sure these insights will help a lot of smaller realtors and real estate companies create more forward-thinking real estate marketing strategies!
BEN: Any time, thanks, Betsy!
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