In the 1980s, real estate agents had to advertise properties in the newspaper to compete. With no internet, almost no exclusive listings, and no co-broking, the only way to attract customers (other than through your sphere of influence) was to attract them with newspaper ads.
For us in New York, that meant placing as many New York Times classified ads as we could afford (I remember feeling elated when, at 29 years old, my ad budget was increased to 3 classifieds per week!) and fighting for the coveted spaces in our monthly New York Times Magazine ad. That was it.
The Classified section of the Sunday Times ran to a dozen pages in those days, with all the major firms underwriting two or three full columns per week. It was simple. It was direct. It worked, at least in part because real estate agents held the keys to the kingdom of available listings.
Buyers couldn’t get in without them.
The internet: Same, same but different
All that changed with the advent of the internet.
Today’s system for marketing listings has completely changed, while remaining strikingly much the same. While much more extraneous noise exists around the basic process, that process still involves agents displaying listings (now online instead of in print) and hoping that prospects contact them.
The rise of exclusive rather than open listings has brought other changes. Now, agents market as intensively to other agents as to potential clients.
This too has become an online process; we create e-brochures which we send agent to agent and company to company through email channels to highlight our properties, and our competitors do the same, all across the country.
The big aggregators, like Zillow and Realtor.com, have seen a huge opportunity here to jump into this multi-billion dollar marketplace and create huge, heavily marketed websites which, in one form or another, sell agents the leads which used to come to us directly. Thus the extraneous noise…
Social media advertising
Increasingly, agents also depend on social media to promote themselves, their listings, and their recent sales. Facebook for the older generation (and Instagram for the younger) can offer enormous reach to a curated audience for a well-crafted message. Best of all, unless one opts for targeted ads, these promotions are free.
How to sell sellers
Print advertising no longer sells properties in most markets. As a result, most companies nationwide have cut way back on print marketing.
Expensive and time-consuming to design and implement, it serves today more as a corporate brand builder and seller palliative than anything else. Sellers love to see their properties in print (I have been a seller so I know it’s true), even if they understand somewhere deep inside that that beautiful print ad will likely remain irrelevant as a spur to sales.
As we say at my firm, print ads don’t sell property, but they do sell sellers. We continue to place one or two print ads in a widely seen venue each month, trying to make them as visually appealing as possible.
The rise of agent branding
Twin notions of corporate and individual agent branding have, at the same time, transformed the marketing landscape.
Today, anyone can find listings online, but most people don’t have the experience or understanding to interpret them or follow a sale through to the end. Agents must therefore sell their knowledge and experience as trusted advisors. Branding, a concept that didn’t even exist in our industry when I began, now occupies a critical space in the strategies of both companies and individuals. Nowadays, as many dollars are devoted thereto as to listing promotion.
Print, in its various forms in newspapers and magazines and billboards and bus shelters, can create memorable images to promote a company or a broker or a team. This has become the primary utility of print media for the real estate agencies of today: creating name recognition and visibility for our companies and our agents.
Buyers got their own agents, too
Every buyer now searches online the same way they used to comb the classifieds. The big difference is that online listings provide much more detailed information, including prices and addresses. Still, most buyers feel safer with a buyer’s agent representing them. It’s usually these buyers’ agents who then set up appointments to tour the properties – both those they have recommended and those the buyers have found online. So most sales today involve two agents rather than one as it was back in the 80s. That’s better for everyone; each side now has an expert representative advising them.
Why public visibility matters
The fundamental rhetoric of real estate ads, whether in print or online, has remained pretty much the same. Nice photos and good copy attract interest now as they always did. The biggest differences between marketing then and now are twofold: the aggregators and the branding.
Zillow and Realtor.com both work by using our listings to attract clients to their sites, where they can either be offered additional services or sold back to us. One of the few protections against this for agents is personal branding. In our ever more brand-conscious world, creating public visibility matters more than ever; it enables agents to build a large enough network of referral business to depend less on the aggregators.
The next decade will likely bring additional changes to the ways real estate, and real estate agents, are sold to the public. As agents, we are always trying to stay ahead of the curve.