Social media may well be the exciting area of the digital universe right now, but for many estate agents ‘push’ communications – email campaigns, e-newsletters and digital magazines – still do the heavy lifting in terms of client contact. Email actually has one huge advantage – if someone’s away for a couple of days, and not logging on to the net, they’ll miss your Tweet and probably miss your Facebook post, but your email will still be waiting for them when they come back.
But there’s a huge gap between simply grabbing email addresses and firing out lists of properties, and running a really good digital campaign that can boost your brand and build customer relationships in the long term. At worst, you can lose customers if they feel they’re being bombarded with email they don’t want.
So what’s the right way to handle digital communications?
One major determinant of success is the content. Sixty-four per cent of customers unsubscribe from mailing lists because they don’t feel the content is relevant to them, according to BriefYourMarket.
One of the keys to making content relevant is to think of what your target customers need and want, rather than what you have to sell. Barton Wyatt sends out a digital magazine which aims to promote the agent, rather than to sell properties directly, with lifestyle content rather than simply property related information. James Wyatt says, “Brand awareness is what it’s all about – as that will lead to new business. But it is a tricky balance to achieve as we all know that too many emails simply aren’t what people want. Content is always key. It has to be attractive, interesting and different.”
So, the latest Barton Wyatt magazine included stories about Doctor Who, a travel piece on Ischia, restoration of historic buildings, and the Turner Prize, as well as a fairly small selection of the agent’s properties. It’s a magazine you’d sit down and read with a cappuccino and it caters to the rather upmarket nature of Virginia Water.
But is it a load of extra work for the agent? No, says Mark Burgess at Iceberg Digital, “For most of the agents we meet, one of their biggest concerns is the time and resources that may be required to put a magazine together.
“However, this is one of the primary focus’s of our publishing system – allowing agents of all sizes to pull together a full on property and lifestyle magazine in minutes, with no drop in the standard of the final product as the lifestyle articles have all been professionally designed and the properties will automatically load into professionally designed layout styles for the agent to approve.”
Mark has the research to back his claims. “The statistics from our system users tells us that the average time it takes a one-five branch company to make a magazine from scratch is a little under 30 minutes, from here they can then spend their time going through the pages and making any amendments they require before signing it off for digital or printed production.”
Martyn Gerrard’s email newsletter is rather less lifestyle and more practicality and local interest, local in this case being North London. It has included a fire safety piece, content about lucky house numbers, the impact road names can have on property prices, and how to get a house ready for the winter, and often features discount offers at local businesses.
Our database is worth a fortune now and tracking the e-newsletter helps us to keep that database current.” David Smith, Martyn Gerrard.
David Smith, Director at Martyn Gerrard, says that he did worry at first about getting content, but, “There’s a lot out there if you know where to look for it”. He uses the local paper as a source of stories, and looks for pieces on property websites – permission to use must always be asked to avoid copyright breaches.
(Actually there’s quite a big message building – that you need to think outside the box when it comes to content. Two of the most interesting marketing campaigns recently, Winkworth’s and Martyn Gerrard’s, have stressed lifestyle and family rather than property.)
TECHNOLOGY & TIMING
Making sure content is relevant can be handled partly through technology. Using electronic delivery frees you from the need to provide a single one-size-fits-all magazine; content can easily, indeed automatically, be tailored to customer requirements and delivered as a personalised email. Readers can’t tell that what they have been sent is a subset of a larger amount of content; what they can tell is that they’re not seeing anything irrelevant to them and that they haven’t asked for.
Beresford distributes an email newsletter through website signup which allows users to choose their preferred format and their particular interests, whether sales or lettings, local news, hints and tips, “hot property”, or housing market reports. That ensures subscribers get relevant content, and even better, they can use the website to change their preferences they want different content.
Timing is also important; subscribers who think they are going to get a fortnightly or monthly email magazine will soon be disenchanted if they get an email every day. While it’s always possible to sign applicants or vendors up to email distribution automatically, that can be counterproductive – what outsourced email campaign provider BriefYourMarket calls “batch and blast, spray and pray” emailing can annoy customers if they feel it is disproportionate. David Smith warns: “You can’t flood people with stuff.” His firm has settled on a monthly newsletter, and uses other emails tactically, but he’s well aware that “if you just fire off mass emails all the time, you annoy more people than you’re attracting.”
There’s a lot of content out there if you know where to look – such as local papers, property websites.”
And emails don’t need to be mass marketing, either. Brief Your Market points out that emails can be automated to fit into the transactional process, so, for instance, buyers could be sent an email a month after the move to ask how things are going and in doing so, reinforce the agent’s brand. Using the right data reports, you can also generate automatic emails to ‘revive’, for instance, individuals who asked for a valuation but never came back to you afterwards. Integrating the email campaigns with agency software is perfectly feasible – BriefYourMarket integrates with Dezrez, for instance – and can deliver huge benefits.
Technology also allows you to monitor your emails and this is where a lot of firms fall down, sending out email but never testing to see how well they are doing. At the top level you should at the very least be monitoring the rate of emails that are actually opened, and the unsubscribe rate for newsletters. But there’s much more that can be monitored, for instance, which links are opened from an email (showing you what content is getting the most attention).
One agent said good monitoring is a matter of two simple words – “Google Analytics”! Adding campaign tags to emails allows you to see the performance of individual links within the email, which should allow different types of content to be evaluated.
As we use a variety of platforms we also use a variety of tools to monitor our performance on those platforms.” Lucy Pendleton, James Pendleton.
But Lucy Pendleton at James Pendleton says, “As we use a variety of platforms we also use a variety of tools to monitor our performance on those platforms;” and remaining innovative means “testing different ways of measuring engagement.” In other words, don’t get lazy – keep looking at ways to work out how you are doing.
Campaigns need to be compared over time – what worked last year might not work next year – and across other media, to get the best idea of how you are doing. A more scientific approach could include A/B testing – that is, making a single change to your email in order to see which of two alternatives gets the best response. That might be as simple as changing the subject line on your email, personalising, changing the layout, or adding a different call to action – or you might change the time at which emails are sent out, which can have a bigger impact on the response rate than you might think. While stockbrokers like to send out a morning mail, emails that arrive late in the afternoon may be better timed for working people heading home. However, things are changing, due partly to increased use of mobile devices; now, catching someone on the train could be better than reaching them at teatime. (One recent study tracked what devices were being used to open emails – 50 per cent of the emails were opened on a mobile device, whether smartphone or tablet.)
Email, e-newsletters and e-zines are often run separately from the agency’s other media. But linking up and integrating media campaigns can be a huge benefit. At the most basic level, emails should give readers links to the firm’s ‘real world’ and social media presence – phone numbers, Twitter account, Facebook page and website. (And integrate backwards too – add email opt-in prompts to your social media channels.)
You can also use content across different channels. For instance, blog posts can be re-used in email newsletters, while print magazines can be repurposed as digital magazines.
Cross-promoting different media will vastly improve the returns on your total marketing spend. It helps to be imaginative – emails can drive people to enter a competition on Facebook or on the website, for instance.
David Smith says Martyn Gerrard is promoting one branch using a combination of billboards, adverts on the Tube, and email marketing, “So people walk down the street – we’re there. They use the Tube – we’re there. They turn on the PC – we’re there.” It might look like overkill, but it’s the very specific local focus and targeting that makes it work. This isn’t, in fact, a branch opening, but it would be a great way to make an opening work.
REAPING THE BENEFITS
Running your own email campaigns is hard work. The good news is that you don’t have to; as in other areas of marketing, there are a number of service providers who can help. James Wyatt believes strongly that “this is an area that is best left to third party specialists to put together”. It requires both technology and marketing expertise, and digital magazines require design skills as well.
BriefYourMarket is one service provider that’s now being used by a number of estate agents including White & Sons, Williams Estates, David Lee, and Country Properties, to generate email newsletters. Usefully, it integrates with Dezrez, Reapit and other back office systems, so that property details can be incorporated automatically into the email.
But David Smith points out that BriefYourMarket does much more than that; it allows him to see what customers are interested in, and segment his market for more targeted emails. “You can see who opens what. So you know, for instance, they’re interested in buy to let, so then that’s what you send them, a targeted mailing with suitable properties. If they open the tips on ‘Preparing your home for sale’, you don’t have to be a genius to know they might be thinking about selling.”
If you thought your monthly e-magazine or newsletter was primarily for delivering your marketing message to customers, think again. It could be far more important for the information that it delivers to you about your subscriber base – the information coming in rather than the message going out.
Content can be planned deliberately to attract a particular segment of customer; for instance an article with tips for first time sellers will deliver details of potential vendors to the database. That information on customer segments can then be used to target much more specific offers to individuals. That vastly improves the response rate. Not only is the offer better targeted, but as David Smith points out, by the time a subscriber sees one of the targeted emails, they have probably already seen at least a couple of the newsletters, so they are familiar with the brand and more likely to read the email.
However, though David sounds like a brand ambassador for Dezrez, he’s honest enough to admit that early experiences were disappointing. The first few email newsletters they put out had quite high unsubscribe rates, and low rates of clickthrough – or at least, lower than he’d expected. “Once we started to see how it all worked,” he said, “those rates improved,” but it does take time to build up expertise. Even if only 20 per cent of readers actually open an article, that can still be a good response rate if it helps segment that 20 per cent so that they can be marketed to in a more targeted way. And he says proper email marketing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. “It’s a slow burn,” building up a database both of customers and of newsletter subscribers. “Our database,” he says, “is worth a fortune to us”; and tracking the e-newsletter helps keep it current.
Perhaps the key to making a success of email marketing is to get away from the idea of marketing as simply sending an email and getting a sale. Email marketing done properly is at the same time more strategic and longer term than that. Dismissing subscribers who aren’t currently buying or selling is a mistake. Someone who reads the magazine purely in order to see ideas for interior design may well decide to move house in a couple of years’ time and it might be the arrival of the newsletter that jogs that mind towards picking up the phone. It’s a difficult idea to get over in a business where many negotiators and business owners owe their success to the hard sell, but those agents that understand it are building themselves a profitable future.