Home Is Where The Engagement Is: A Chat With Coldwell Banker

SeanBlankenshipWhen real estate franchise Coldwell Banker conducted a consumer satisfaction survey last year, the company was presented with a few home truths.

The most jarring finding was that 87% of respondents felt like there was room for improvement in the home-buying and selling process. Add to that the fact that 64% of those surveyed said that if they were selling a house, they’d be more likely to work with a real estate agent who let them share their own videos, photos and personal stories with potential buyers.

Sean Blankenship, SVP of marketing at Coldwell Banker, realized he and his team had some work to do.

“When more than 80% of consumers say that a part of the process is broken, you have to find a better way to do things,” Blankenship told AdExchanger. “Sellers simply didn’t feel like they were allowed to be involved in the process of marketing their own home.”

At the beginning of November, Coldwell Banker launched a digital platform that embraces the seller perspective. Sellers are invited to share content, including stories about their home and personal memories, through a mobile-friendly digital interface where they can connect more directly with buyers. It’s a storytelling play with a digital spin.

“Starting this year, we’ve really started to focus on what we can do to bring customer engagement into the digital sphere,” Blankenship said. “Right now, we have a mobile-first strategy. Pretty soon, we’ll have a mobile-only strategy.”

AdExchanger spoke with Blankenship about what’s happening in Coldwell’s digital house.

AdExchanger: Coldwell Banker has been around for more than 100 years. What’s the brand’s approach to digital marketing?

SEAN BLANKENSHIP: Coldwell Banker was founded in 1906 in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley.

We’re fairly diversified. A large portion of our overall spend is on the digital side, especially content. “Content” has become somewhat of a buzzword recently, but we got into it early about four or five years ago. We were actually the first of the real estate companies to launch a dedicated YouTube page. At the moment, we’re focusing on content creation and weaving that in with our social channels.

Speaking of YouTube, Coldwell does quite a lot with video.

YouTube is what launched us into content development. Now, we have more than 50,000 videos on our YouTube page. That’s not just your average focus on creative content. In terms of video and social engagement, we’re the leading brand in our category according to Klout every year.

What do you do on the paid media side?

We do some paid display. We’re actually in the middle of a big Q4 push to create awareness around the digital seller platform we just launched last month.

Do you do anything in the programmatic space?

We do paid display, as I mentioned, and we do paid search with a heavy focus on mobile and retargeting, but we haven’t done programmatic buying yet, although we are evaluating it for next year. I must say, though, that I’m not all that impressed for several reasons.

One, our content-focused marketing strategy isn’t particularly well-suited to the programmatic environment and there are certain quality issues that I’m skeptical about right now. Two, we’re very much about brand engagement and when we use paid media, which we do mostly through GDN [Google Display Network], it’s for branding purposes. That’s why we do a lot with TrueView on YouTube, because we can see the engagement, and if someone doesn’t watch, then we don’t pay.

How do you approach mobile?

In October, more than 50% of our overall traffic was being driven by mobile, as opposed to about 40%, where it was hovering previously. Some of that is the result of the advertising we’re doing, but some of it is organic. Our goal is to use technology to make it easy for consumers to search for real estate and related content.

We have a mobile site and apps for both iOS and Android, and we started to see engagement really start to take off around the middle of last year, mostly on the mobile web. In terms of behavior, we’ve noticed that when users download an app, they’re in the mindset to start doing business rather than just browsing or exploring. Much of that activity takes place on the weekends.

Real estate has a particularly long purchase cycle. It’s not like you buy or sell a house every day. How do you stay on a consumer’s radar?

I came from the auto industry where the typical cycle is about four or five years. In real estate, that goes up to seven years or more. We don’t have a lot of transactional data when it comes to our customers, but we can still understand who our customers are. We gather a lot of geographical data and lifestyle-related information that we use both in our B2C apps and our B2B apps for brokers and agents.

That said, it’s a challenge. You might buy a house and not think about us again for a decade. That’s why the question for us becomes, how do we continue that conversation?

How do you continue it?

On the agent and broker side, it’s about staying connected in the local community and establishing relationships to keep the brand in the forefront of people’s minds. We keep a dialogue going with customers through our Blue Matter blog and we also produce things like our home listing report that compares average home prices across the US. We tend to let the email marketing and direct marketing happen at the broker level to help spur the local conversation.

But it’s not easy. We have 86,000 agents and independent contractors, and about 3,000 brokers across the US. We educate our brokers and agents on the benefits of social media and developing a good reputation. We like to say: Don’t worry about “being” the brand. We’ll take care of the brand, you take care of your image.

What kind of customer data do you collect and how do you use it?

We do collect all of the usual CRM data you might expect and we try to use that data to support our brokers, because they’re the face of Coldwell Banker to consumers. We also provide our brokers with market data so they can understand the marketplace around them, including specific data points around our market share, volume of sales, average house sale prices, etc. We provide our brokers with the information they need to be relevant to our customers without turning into spam.

Do you have a DMP or a data warehouse?

We’re in about the third inning in terms of developing our own in-house database. We have a strong partnership with [enterprise software platform] MicroStrategy that sits on top of it, but it’s all proprietary.

As you can imagine, we have quite a lot of data at our headquarters in Madison, NJ, whether it’s related to our customers, our employees or our brokers, and we want to be able to disseminate it through a dashboard so that everyone can make day-to-day decisions rather than us sending out monthly reports.

How do you handle customer privacy?

We’re no different in that respect from anyone, be it a CPG company, technology or travel. Any of the information contained in our online experience is only accessible through a secure logon environment. We take security and PII very seriously.

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