“We pour the concrete, it goes hard.” That’s how an experienced property developer once explained his product to me - and he was only half joking. Buildings are amongst the most physical, analogue products on the planet, yet we are marketing them to people who now spend as much time in digital environments as they do physical. It’s the ultimate paradox, using ones and zeroes to sell bricks and mortar, yet some of the world’s smartest property marketers are finding significant competitive advantage in digital channels.
It all starts by understanding your objective.
“For 30 Broad, the focus was on how best to attract young real estate brokers,” explains Bill Brodsky, founder of Tribeca Associates in Manhattan.
“When we bought the asset, which is a 1920s building, it had been totally neglected so, whatever we do, whether it’s facing the brokerage community or facing the tenants, people have to know we’ve dramatically changed and improved the building. If we had taken a more traditional approach to the marketing campaign I think it would not have made the same impression.”
That marketing campaign was built on simplicity of message and an absolute belief in digital. “For the tenants that we are trying to attract to 30 Broad - small companies, young brokers - I don’t think there is a use for print. We didn’t print anything, there are no gifts, there is no brochure.”
Be prepared to work to get everyone on the same (digital) page.
“We had a really big debate at the beginning of the marketing campaign, about how to split the marketing between digital and print.” When the campaign in question is for a luxury residential block in Shoreditch, one of London’s hottest precincts, you can be assured the debate was significant. Lior Rabinovitz, COO of Izaki Group Investments, explains that audience insight and strategy helped steer those debates.
“For our Long & Waterson project we tried to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the market from the beginning. It’s deliberately different from traditional property websites and campaigns. Digital is how we really tried to push the brand, to speak to the audience about how their life might be when they are going to live here.”
If you’ve worked hard to create a unique product, don’t stop when you get to the digital campaign. Image: IGI
Many developers view their websites as virtually limitless brochures, able to deliver pages of highly detailed information about the project. Rabinovitz and his team worked with Wordsearch London to develop a counter intuitive approach to digital content.
“It’s a very complicated property. Within just 119 apartments there are 70 different types of layouts. That’s one of the reasons why our website has no floorplans. We feel that to understand the product the prospective purchaser needs to come to the suite and have a conversation. Based on their preferences we can help them decide what kind of product, out of the 70 types, would fit best with their lifestyle.”
The devil is in the data.
“Go back 20 years and most property purchasers would go a long way through the research process before engaging with the sales agent. The sales process was a lot shorter, from the agent’s perspective.” For a young man, Michael Bird has a very keen sense of history. His firm, Social Garden, specialises in creating customer acquisition programs using big data, social media and CRM tools to allow developers to thrive in the digital age, finding patterns in the digital ‘body language’ of today’s online buyers to help agents prioritise hot and cold leads.
“Jump forward to now and we see a lot of the research and consideration process is done online, which means a huge increase in the volume of enquiries that the property developers are having to deal with. Prospective customers are submitting their details to a wide variety of different developments as they gather information. They’re using email, social media and publisher sites like REA and Domain during their research process.”
Build your online experience to reflect your audience, rather than your product. Image: Tribeca AssociatesThis change in consumer behaviour is being felt most keenly in the retail sector. Not only are customers using digital channels for research, but they are obviously completing their transactions there as well. It’s a significant threat for retail operators, but our expert panellists also see opportunity.
“We are forced to continue exploring how we integrate physical and the digital experiences when it comes to property retail and development,” says Adrian Mezzina, a Marketing Consultant who brings his experience in hospitality and live events to bear on clients looking to re-invent the retail experience.
“People will be left behind if they are not thinking about adding value in both of those areas. When you’re developing bricks and mortar retail or residential communities you’re gifted with human connection and interaction, but you can’t ignore the fact that people are now also connected to their phones.”
We are now also seeing the reverse, with some big digital players taking out leases and setting up physical stores and pop-ups. Amazon is trialling supermarkets and Etsy run regular pop-ups, but it’s starting to look more like a legitimate strategy from those players.
“A stack of testing goes into the user experience, and the biggest players with serious budgets have the ability to explore that the most. We’ll see them continue to merge the digital and the physical, with geo-targeting and personalisation. The shop or the precinct will know who you are and where you are, if they don’t already, and react accordingly.”
Not all online sales leads are created equally.
One of the biggest impacts of online buyer behaviour is being felt by residential developers. They’re now getting more customer contact much earlier in the sales funnel, which sales agents can sometimes mistake for fully qualified leads.
“We are seeing a huge proportion of prospects getting burned by over-aggressive sales people who are trying to close the sale at a point where the prospect is at the very early consideration stage,” says Bird.
“That mismatch between expectation and experience can be very damaging to the developer’s brand and sales conversion rates.”
So how do you adjust your marketing and sales behaviour to accommodate this change in customer behaviour? Bird describes this shift as ‘ultra-change’, encompassing the need to adapt both the physical infrastructure (software and tools) as well as the way agents ‘read’ the digital enquiry and adjust the sales pitch accordingly.
“Whilst some online enquiries coming through are getting ready to buy right now, a lot of them are going to be one month, three months, six months or even twelve months out. And what we’re seeing is that usually differs based on the segment that’s making the enquiry. Having the digital tools to score and prioritise those leads can make all the difference.”
Marketing is not the only thing that needs a digital makeover
“Developers have seen the impact of digital in marketing, now they’re asking ‘how can we improve the customer purchase process to make it a far smoother process?’ Traditionally, everything was paper-based, but now we’re seeing everything from virtual master plans, augmented reality, virtual reality right through to digital conveyancing, digital community portals and more.” Andrew Coward of Polymer Studios is an urban strategist and communications professional based in Sydney who sees digital extending into the buying process.
Be prepared to develop your online content over time, much like a publisher. Image: IGILike many of our expert panellists, he’s constantly scanning global markets for innovative uses of technology and assessing them for local developers. “We have seen some great things in Japan, for example, where buyers can choose layouts in off-the-plan apartments, but then use touchscreens to explore details right down to where they might place furniture. It works for both investors and occupiers because it helps them get a better sense of whether the product suits their needs and wants.”
Want to find digital innovation? Look for those who need it most.
While digital publishers will always be among the more visible users of new technology, Carl Mogridge, Director of The Property Agency in Sydney, believes that sales agents have historically been at the forefront of digital innovation in property marketing, because they’ve had to be.
“It’s a very competitive, entrepreneurial market. Agents always have had to think of themselves as a brand and be very resourceful with a shoestring budget. They’ve been the first to use platforms like Instragram, Snapchat and Twitter to try to promote themselves. Then the brands who employ those agents start to notice, then it moves out to the developers themselves. The industry is gradually responding to digital buyer behaviour, it’s becoming more innovative in general, but someone buying a $10,000 handbag is still getting a better digital experience than someone buying a $10 million home. There’s still room to improve.”
Is digital a brand builder or a lead generator?
When asked about digital’s role in the marketing mix, most of our panel agreed that it was something of a swiss-army knife, versatile and adaptable. One thing that was clear, however, was the need for a specific digital strategy, one that aligned very closely to the overall sales strategy.
“It’s very difficult because every time you take part of your marketing budget away from lead creation and allocate it to branding, it’s always seen as a bit of a risk,” explains Rabinowitz of The Long & Waterson project.
“But for us, the selling agents work together with us right from the design phase. They really understand the whole concept, they work together with the marketing team to really push us, as developers, into this direction. Ultimately, it was an easy decision to take a digital-first approach to branding, because you always feel more comfortable when the selling agent tells you this is the way you should go.”
If your development needs to shift in terms of perception, your digital choices will need to be bold, too. Image: Tribeca AssociatesBack in Manhattan, Brodsky and his team at Tribeca Associates also find some resistance to a wholesale switch to digital, especially in the more traditional market of luxury condominiums.
“We always have a debate whether magazine advertising is helpful. That, to me feels wasteful. You spend thousands on a magazine ad that runs for one week and it feels like something you would do so your mother sees it, but people still do that all the time. There is no way to prove that it doesn’t work or that it is working. If I was the only decision maker, I would not run ads in magazines.”
Is it time to go ‘all digital, all the time’?
“I don’t think digital works in all circumstances. High-end luxury residential is a good candidate where digital is not always required. Most of the very high-end sales are done with a more gallery style approach and the technology element is kept to a specific floor-to-ceiling video wall. Things like Virtual Reality and laptops in sales suites become an unnecessary distraction,” says Mogridge who recently delivered the campaign for ultra-premium Opera residences in Sydney.
“It’s not about the demographic, either. Facebook, for example, has 55+ as one of its strongest demographics, so you might think technology would work in that respect, but people don’t want to be peppered with a whole range of technologies that they can’t control. That’s not the experience they are looking for.”
On the other end of the demographic spectrum, Coward advises taking a longer-term view of the role social will play for the next generation of property purchasers.
“Gen X and Gen Y use these things 24/7. Australians in the 20-35 demographic have some of the highest rates of social media usage in the world. So, if a developer is trying to market to this group, looking at basically a million-dollar housing product over the next ten years, you have got to have a social media strategy. Especially for campaigns for the major urban precincts. Make a conscious decision to set up your channels to be able to control the social connectivity to your services, but also thinking forward to support the community that inhabits and uses the development.”
Choosing the right tools for the job.
Once you’ve made the decision to follow your audience into their digital lives, it becomes imperative to have the right CRM technology to take you there.
“Every property marketer, our own business included, has a big decision to make early on whether you are going to try and build it yourselves or to licence an existing platform,” explains Bird, who now provides CRM-as-a-service to developers of various sizes.
“Personally, I am really glad we decided to license proven technology. We now use Salesforce as our chosen CRM for almost all of our clients, mainly because of the way the data can move in and out of the CRM and be utilised in places like social media, email marketing tools, marketing automation and also SMS.”
If your development has an interesting feature, like an art gallery, look to create a digital version of it as well. Image: Tribeca AssociatesContrary to expectation, it’s the open API frameworks of the big platforms that make them less of an implementation risk.
“We are seeing some of the bespoke marketing CRM technologies have created huge headaches for our clients and ourselves, because the data is locked in. Selecting a CRM really comes down to the transportability of data into other tools. While we generally recommend Salesforce, there are other tools like Sugar and Microsoft Dynamics which both have really great data infrastructure, allowing you to pass data from one tool to another.”
Having your strategy defined and your tools in place is the right foundation, but property marketing in the social age takes stamina, too. Where the traditional approach to digital required a ‘launch effort’ to design and build a project website, social media marketing follows more of a publishing model. In this context, many of our experts recommend you pace yourself.
“I am finding that we (marketers) can be our worst enemy, because we sometimes feel the pressure to do everything at once, and it’s just not the case,” says Mezzina. “Think about the objectives and plan your strategy around that. There are hundreds of ways to communicate these days, you need to pick the right ones that you can deliver well, while reflecting the resourcing and budgeting at your disposal. Also ensure that you lean on the right technology and content partners to support that strategy.”
Swipe right to gaze into the crystal ball?
“When we launched last year, everybody was doubtful because we really were quite different from the other campaigns here. But the numbers just proved themselves and we now have around 50% of our sales coming from digital and social leads.” After the success of Long & Waterson, Rabinovitz is confident digital will play an even bigger role in his marketing armoury.
“I think the future of marketing through digital, the advantages that are in digital, will be due to targeting. You can spend your money on those people who are looking for your type of property in your type of location, instead of spending tenfold the amount on print.”
Property is the ultimate geo-tagged product, so it makes sense that digital geo-targeting will become more prevalent. Image: IGI
“We talk a lot about virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence in the property industry right now, but I just don’t think the world is ready for that stuff (at scale) at the moment,” cautions Mogridge of The Property Agency.
“I think we are probably about 7-10 years away from widespread consumer adoption of those technologies. My money is on the next wave of social platforms. SnapChat is a good indicator of how quickly these platforms are maturing. We need to be where the audiences are and seek to gain their attention, early adoption is key.”
It’s no surprise that someone who built a business on the power of social media is making a prediction for more social media, but not in the way you might expect.
“I think we are going to see more quality projects rolling through because if you are going to deliver a poor development, and you are not prepared to put your name to it or answer people’s questions on social media, you’re going to get absolutely grilled,” predicts Bird of Social Garden. “Everyone has got a voice now on social, so you can’t get away with screwing people over or delivering sub-par work. We’re entering a more accountable era of property development.”
While both Coward of Polymer Studios in Sydney and Brodsky of Tribeca Associates In New York City nominated virtual and augmented reality technologies as potential game-changers, Brodsky was more selective as to where these might gain traction first.
“It seems like VR is a really interesting tool for condominiums. To walk someone through an apartment that’s not built yet, that would be amazing. But for commercial space, it’s a very simple proposition, very economically driven, so I’m not convinced there is a place for VR in that sector. I don’t think it hurts and I have seen some demonstrations for office space use that were okay, but particularly for condominiums I think VR would be very effective.”
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Thanks to our global panel of Unearthed experts for this episode:
is a founder and principal of Tribeca Associates, a Manhattan-based development company with a diverse portfolio of commercial, residential and hotel assets in New York City. tribecallc.com
is the Chief Operating Officer of Izaki Group Investments, and has delivered property projects in Israel and Eastern Europe. He is currently overseeing several projects in London, including the Long & Waterson residential development in Shoreditch. Longandwaterson.com
is a former agency owner and start-up founder, now a strategic project marketing consultant. He has worked with some of Australia’s most innovative developers and retailers including Westfield, Aria Property, Pointcorp and The George Group. adrianmezzina.co
is a highly experienced marketer with 12 years’ experience across both agency and client side roles. His digital DNA allows him to introduce a unique mix of digital strategy, customer experience and content marketing to help clients develop a true multi-channel experience. Thepropertyagency.com.au
has worked for some of Australia's largest property developers, including Leighton Properties and Sekisui House Australia. Through his company, Polymer Studios, Andrew works with a wide range of stakeholders, providing communications, strategic planning, and research services that help shape the evolution of cities across Australia. polymerstudios.com.au
is CEO & Co-Founder at Social Garden, a specialist property customer acquisition firm that works alongside innovative internal marketing teams and creative agencies to utilise big data, social media and marketing & sales automation. Their clients include Mirvac, 360 Property, CBUS, AV Jennings, Simonds Homes, and Avid. Social Garden ranked #10 in 2016’s Deloitte Tech Fast50. socialgarden.com.au
Coming up: Bricks meet Clicks, the How To Guide
If you’ve enjoyed hearing from our experts, stay tuned at the end of the month when we release our downloadable How To guide for delivering innovative digital and social marketing campaigns. Available as a downloadable PDF, this Unearthed ‘How To’ guide will walk you through the timelines, budgets, strategies, collaborators and ideas you should be considering as you plan your next digital property marketing campaign.
About the Editor In Chief
has over 20 years’ experience in marketing, communications and technology, working with the world’s leading brands in agencies across Australia, the US and Asia. He is the Director of Strategy at Wordsearch Australia. Follow @BarrieSeppings
The Urban Developer
is Australia’s largest and fastest-growing online community for development professionals. Their daily updates are read across the industry and their live events and panel discussions are highly sought-after. The Unearthed Series is the first of an expanding rage of resources for development professionals, published by The Urban Developer and developed in collaboration with the world’s most experienced property professionals.
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