Focusing on the right problem…
When we chat about the design and functionality our agency clients want on their websites, all too often the conversation falls back to applicant processes: Finding a house, map based search, polygons, bookmarking properties, efficient enquiry forms, the role of staff profiles, good SEO, etc.. We’re every bit as guilty of falling into this trap as our clients. It’s understandable, we all think about our own usage of a website as a potential buyer – and it’s our job to market properties to prospective buyers or tenants. That, coupled with the fact that the property results pages, details pages, etc. are the more complex parts technically, means the “applicant use cases” end up capturing the lion’s share of the attention.
However, whilst important, applicants aren’t what really drives the profit for an agency business! We all know that. Finding more vendors or landlords is what drives growth.
So, we were happy as Larry recently when we were challenged by one of our larger consulting clients to do some really deep thinking about how we could optimise a website to trap new instructions. And it was an eye opening experience, over a few days of really hard work. We distilled some of the thinking into this one single chart… so we wanted to share it, and run through some of the ideas for the resources library.
Breaking it down…
There’s no point in designing a website as a standalone destination, because your website is not an isolated island, instead it’s part of the fabric of the wider internet, and users journey through your site, in connection with other sites, as well as with physical touch points like press advertising, branches, business cards, phone calls with you, etc.. So any analysis of a website, really needs to be mindful of those full user journeys.
(A) Entry points
More specifically, people are triggered to enter your website for a series of reasons. It might be traditional advertising, or brand building. Your boards, promoting your URL. And of course if you are doing your job well, you’ll be very focused on getting your Google SEO and SEM really nailed to drive potential landlords into the door. These days Social media is an important outreach and traffic driver. And most people underestimate the power of email as an instant traffic driver as it’s processed right on the device that browses the web.
Understanding these entry points, and optimising for all of them is online marketing, of course. But thinking about how the entry points come in from a prospective vendor and landlord perspective, is even more instructive. It’s also important to realise that the touch points work in concert. It often takes a few nudges, before people act, and enter your website. They see a board, they see your brand, they see you in search results, but ultimately perhaps it’s a tweet or an email that drives a visitor in the door.
(B) An efficient mouse-trap
Once you’ve got a visitor into your website – you better make sure you do everything possible to convert them to an action. Site visitors cost so much to get in the door (think about all those Rightmove fees, and local newspaper costs, or the cost of your software system and your email newsletter engine) that you want to squeeze every ounce of value out of it. We’re going to examine the mechanisms of an effective landlord or vendor trap in some detail below. But suffice to say that investing properly in a well thought through, high conversion rate website is crucial. The difference between a good website, and a bad one, can be a 2-3 fold difference in conversion rate. If you believe your website plays say a 30% role in the overall mix of winning a potential vendor enquiry (that’s our best guess), then this swing factor in conversion trap efficiency is worth 10% more instructions next year. That’s why we encourage you to think of your website which as much importance as, say, your third branch. It’s a vital decision to get right, and being better is worth real money.
So you’ve driven a bunch of prospects in the front door, and those that are at the right point in their mindset, have been efficiently engaged by the site. Next up you’re going to want to draw them to action, and you’re going to want to ensure that your follow up to this action is brutally efficient and doesn’t drop any balls. This is where Foxtons have been so damned good. And there’s nothing to stop you being better. We’ll look at the concepts of asking the questions right along the pathway, and asking the questions in different ways, and just asking the questions with strong on page usability. We’ll talk briefly about the efficiency of your infrastructure in picking up and running with the balls that get sent through too.
Diving into the detail…
Let’s look at that diagram again, with some numbers, then we’ll use that to cover each point in a little more detail below…
(1) Lo fi design
At Homeflow we prefer to design and think alongside our design partners using pencils. You might think that odd for an enterprise technology company. Surely we should be comfortable using state of the art tools? Well, there’s method in the madness; we think that it’s the quality of thought going into your site that counts, not the quality of the wireframes. In fact, we’ll go further than that. We think that being too focused on computers early in the design process is damaging. Computers are alienating, and our clients can’t roll up their sleeves and join in the fun. You’ll know the vagueries of your landlords, or your real service strengths better than anyone, and it’s vital we flush out that marriage between your customers needs, and your strengths and get them articulated in the design and content of your site. It’s also more expensive (in terms of time). Pencils are cheap as chips, anyone can pick them up, sketch and idea, identify a customer need, capture an idea for a landlord trap, or tear it up if it doesn’t work out.
(2) Persona based design
In fact everything starts by talking about your vendors or landlords. Let’s get under the skin of the different types. It may be that more of your vendors are retiring out of area and downsizing. Or maybe it’s predominantly an area with probate instructions. Or your vendors might be time poor bankers, focused on “a deal”. Tell us about them. We’ll give them names. Tell us what they ask you in branch. Tell us what hooks them to use you, over Fred and Sons round the corner. Then let’s see if we can split the site, in various ways, to start to channel them. Let’s focus the entry points straight into those channels a little if we can. Let’s speak to them. In a language they understand. If we do, we’ll win their trust. We’ll coax “one more click” out of them. And ultimately we’ll increase the conversion rate to proactive enquiry.
(3) An efficient mouse-trap
Next let’s think about the offline marketing. Is it all wired up to drive interest in the site. Email footers? Business cards? Property particulars? A vendor fact sheet? Your press ads? Where we can, lets drive the hooks from specific questions, straight to nice clean jump link URLs (things like /selling/10-top-tips – selling/under-duress – selling/maximise-your-price – selling/with-an-open-day, you get the picture). Indeed there’s the old adage that my offline advertising is about brand building / instruction winning? Maybe it’s time to look at those ad templates, to get those messages across, and tune up your offline marketing.
(4) Work your branches
Obviously if a vendor prospect walks into your branch, you’re going to do you upmost to book a market appraisal with them, there and then. But let’s assume I’m still tire kicking a bit. I do have a house to sell, or let, but I’m just researching a bit. It’s a fact that people require a few touch points with your brand before they will move to action. Some people say it’s 3 touches before they will act. So let’s fine tune and codify the process in branch to never let a vendor prospect leave, without both a vendor fact sheet – ideally the most relevant one for their persona type (with some deep links), and ideally their email captured, so you can “email them the link to the maximise-their-sale-price guide” ready for when they get home. Get another one of those pre-action-contact events under your belt. We want them thinking about you again in an hour when they get home, and forgetting Fred and Sons.
(5) All hail the Googletron
Maximising your search engine traffic is a whole topic to itself, which we cover in summary, and in real detail here and here. There are two broad categories you need to consider: SEO and SEM. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), is the art of getting yourself up to the top of page 1 into high natural traffic volumes, and from a potential vendor or landlord traffic perspective (ie the really valuable traffic) it’s a slightly different game than applicant SEO. We can explain to you how to hook traffic that converts into new business, rather than just traffic, for traffic’s sake. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is the brute force approach of simply paying Google to put you right at the top of the page – and again, going fishing with a vendor / landlord in mind is very different than from an applicant perspective. Interestingly in the last year there has been a huge landshift towards agents flooding into pay-per-click advertising with Google, if you are interested to know more about why agents are doing this and how to ensure it is effective, give us a call.
(6) Harness the Immediacy of Email
Email is disproportionately good for driving traffic into your website. And there’s one simple reason for this, people do their email on devices capable of browsing the web. So they’re always once click away when they are reading, and you can entice them with read more links. The one caveat of this is that 43%, and growing, of email is done on a mobile device – so it’s crucial to ensure your site experience works well on a phone. Given this importance, what you need to drive vendors or landlords into your site is to be concerted in taking every opportunity to capture their email addresses, as early in your experience with them, and running a good email marketing system to deliver them interesting content and hooks – relevant to their potential interest as a vendor.
(7) Engage with Social
The reach and serendipity of social media should never been underestimated. It takes your brand and your outbound communication and spreads it further and wider than you might ever imagine. But better, when done well it spreads out your message in the context of somebody the end recipient trusts. If a friend of mine selling her house, posts an article about top tips for preparing for a house sale, I’m 10x more likely to read it, than if you send it to me.
The other, arguably even more important side of Social Media, is the secondary effect it has on your SEO. As your messages pass out into the social web, they lay down links back to you. They bring in more traffic. And they build up your “like count”, “followers” and so forth. The last signals, your “social heartbeat” as we refer to them, are an increasingly becoming a strong ranking factor in the search engine ranking algorithms. That makes doing social media vital to instruction winning. For more information you may well want to read our Basic and Advanced guides to SEO.
(8) Re-target through the life-cycle
For the really advanced, there are now “advertising re-targetting” systems you can deploy to drag users back to your website. If you’ve ever been to Zoopla, then noticed a house you were interested in pop up alongside of your personal Yahoo email, or whilst you were reading the Telegraph website, then you’ve seen retargetting in action. By watching what a user does on your site, and dropping a cookie on them, re-targetting systems can drag them back to their site later, when they may have more time. And in a world where you need 3 touches of a customer before they will drive to action, this form of advertising becomes key to building your brand and moving a vendor to action with you.
(9) A beautiful website that’s porous
When a vendor walks into your branch, they look at your shoes, your shirt, your watch, your haircut. They judge you by your accent, and by the general tidyness and appeal of your office. When they walk into your website they do exactly the same. Very few vendors or landlords will trust you to market their house if they don’t think you mirror them, or look the part. After all, they are trusting you to market their property and represent them. And very few will make the instruction without first having a look at the quality of your presentation in the most important marketing medium out there. This is why we believe you should invest properly in beautiful website design, spending a bit more to get this right (and we have designs at every price point) is arguably the best ROI investment you can make this year.
However, as we said before, we also believe that a website is not an island. It needs to integrate properly with the wider web, whether that’s SEO, or curating Youtube content, linking up with your email systems, and integrating properly with your software or having a consistent feeling with your branded advertising. Your website is porous, and needs to work in concert with a whole bunch of external websites and indeed offline processes.
(10) Welcome Home
Your homepage is utterly key. As most of your traffic will pass through here at some point on a vendors journey, even if they don’t enter into this page. As well as creating design impact for a great first impression, it also has to have a very clear “information architecture”. You meet to make sure that the primary and secondary calls to action are clear, and carry much more weight than the tertiary task you need your site to perform. And given the importance of a landlord or vendor to your business, having a site that engages them, calls them to action, seeks to register them, in a variety of ways is vital. This is great information design, at work.
(11) Vendor / Landlord Home
You should seek to be harvesting traffic into more dedicated “landing pages” too. And/or channeling vendor and landlord traffic onto specific pages as quickly as you can. These pages can then have their own information heirarchy, aimed at further splitting down the tasks and communciations without the hinderance of having to be all things, to all men.
(12) Dedicated Landing pages
And you can take this principle further still. You can create dedicated landing pages for specific sub groups: High end vendors. Vendors going through the painful process of divorce. Probate vendor representatives. Experienced portfolio landlords. Accidental landlords. You can even go deeper still, and create landing pages addressing key questions: Legal implications for landlords. First time seller questions. As the pages become more and more specific they turn into content pages (see below), but that blend can happen smoothly. And once you have all these dedicated pages, you can inject traffic into a more engaging, content matched environment, which is far more likely to create a good brand impression, and lead to action. For example, if in branch you hand out a fact sheet to a first time seller, and you follow up by emailing them the same link, landing them deep into your site process, not only do you appear on your game, helpful and professional, but they’re far more likely to instruct you in a few weeks time as a result of that “touch”.
(13) Content is King and Queen, and Jack, and Ace
Content is an expensive investment. But it’s an investment that pays in a world that is moving to content marketing rather than traditional old brand advertising. And where better a place to focus investment that on the main value pathway.
Rather than writing a bunch of area guides (which are also valuable content) you might want to consider real attention into high value vendor / landlord content. However, the key to making this work is to have content with some meaningful value to it. For example, just trotting out a “Why sell with us?” page (we’re local, we’re independent, we care, we focus on customer service, we have more instructions, we market you on all the major portals) etc. misses the real opportunity. The real value comes from deep diving… Giving real examples of why you care, linked in with thought provoking / interesting testimonials – something they will enjoy reading. Or a comparison table of which portals you are on vs all the other agents in town (if this is a point of differentiation), or a chart with your relative market share from Rightmove (if it’s a strong story).
And better still, you could give them really meaningful content about their questions, rather than about you. For example: “Top 10 tips for first time sellers”, or “How we ensure sales completion happens smoothly”. You can target subsets of users – with articles about “Specialisms of selling a flat” / or the “Differences in process when selling a large premium home”, etc. The aim is to have answers to questions, giving you material on hand to fire straight off via an email link following up from a casual enquiry conversation if you couldn’t close them on a market appraisal there and then. If you help them in the early part of their consideration / journey, they are disproportionately likely to think well of you and instruct you down track.
(14) Applicant Search through the lens of a Vendor
Next up we need to consider how potential vendors and landlords interact with the search part of your site. For sure as eggs are eggs if they are selling a £400,000 house, they will search on your site to see what other £400,000 houses you have.
There are a few implications of the fact that you’re going to have vendors and landlords going down through your applicant pathway as well as buyers and tenants. Let’s have a look at some of them:
- First up, never miss the opportunity to “just ask the question” – “do you have a house to sell like these?” / “we’re looking for more properties at this price range…”
- And you might want to work on having a smooth catch message if you have a no results page, even listing the number of buyers you have registered and looking at that price range, or instead playing back a form asking for vendor enquiries, as “you have buyers at that price point but no properties at the moment”.
- You might want to get really smart and play content that is relevant to their search – “House for sale in XYZ village?” or “Guide to selling houses above £500k”
- And finally, for the really advanced, there’s the opportunity to act like a chameleon – once your site knows what kind of property they are hunting for, you can completely redress all your positioning throughout your site, to mirror and behave the kind of vendor you have on your hands, just like you would in branch.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then a video paints a million. It gives a real feeling and flavour for your business. However, good video is not easy to produce, so take care to do it really well. One idea might be to produce testimonial videos with happy vendors (this can work well, if loosely scripted, but carefully edited). But you can also produce company, branch, or staff videos. You can even offer video (vendor funded) as an deal clincher on premium propeties.
Once shot, you’ll want to get your video distributed to as large an audience as possible. You can use video to pre-introduce your agency before you go out on a valuation. Or you can play it on an iPad, whilst you are measuring rooms. And/or you can follow up with it by email after the event, if you couldn’t win the instruction on site. All are opportunities to link the vendors into your site, creating one more of the vital contact points before the vendor is comfortable to move to action. Video is also great content for your social media channels, and if you serve it via your Youtube channel, you get the opportunity to blanket dominate your brand name SEO results pages, pushing your competitors down off your results pages.
Make testimonials meaningful, rather than trite. Try to have lots of them. If you are in lettings, have a look at how Foxtons set the tone with corporate testimonials first (“oh wow, you’re going to fill my flat with a nice safe company let”). Try to make them evidently real, dive for a meaningful, developed story. Consider integrating text testimonials with video testimonials. Break them up into an index page, and multiple full page testimonials. Try to find a specific hook with a Landlord (a story about pets) or a given Vendor (selling a house on a busy road), and email them a follow up to a specific testimonial that you discussed in branch. Run testimonials alongside other content articles (the lead in lines make for great pull quote boxes), or even alongside results listings.
If you have a spreadsheet that your professional landlords use for yield management across their porfolio. Or a mortgage calculator. Or an excel checklist of property preparation tips. Or whatever… then consider making them available as downloads from your site. Have them designed slightly, and branded. Upload an article, summarising the value of the tool, maybe with screenshots or mini testimonials. And put the download function behind a request form: “Fill out this form, to download our Property Tracker”. The price of the tool, becomes a lead / engagement point with the vendor or landlord prospect.
(18) High value guides
As for the tools, except simple, branded PDF guides. Everyone likes “Top 10 tips” articles on preparing your house. Or “preparing for negotiation”. Or “how to choose your estate agent”. The more valuable the content, and the earlier in their decision making process you can address them, the better the value of this content. You can print these out, and hand them out in branch. You can put them on your site as honeytraps, locked up behind the same request download form. They position you as expert in your field, and they can act as soft-warm up contact points, well before a vendor prospect is ready to sell.
(19) Content Marketing Engine
If you are enterprise scale, think 10 branches plus, or have the appetite to invest properly, then you can tie all of the above together behind a “Content Marketing Automation” process. This isn’t trivial, and you’ll need to integrate your site with one of the large commercial tools for this technique, as they aren’t trivial to reproduce. However, essentially the concept is that you assemble a barrage of content articles, guides, tools, downloads etc. and you put them into a “nurturing stream” – essentially a programmatic delivery schedule of emails. Any and every potential vendor opportunity you come across, in branch, via your call centre, and trapped via your website, you insert into the top of this nurturing stream. This system automatically carries them through a sequence of articles, designed to build your brand, and introduce different ideas and concepts to them. If they nibble, and visit your site, you are creating one more engagement point. But the system is also tracking who is engaging. Then you are contacting people who are warmed up and ready to discuss instructing you.
(20) Care in the Community
There are a variety of community tools you can use to hold the engagement of your vendors on your site. For example Q&A tools, even forums. Or if you are a larger agency group, you could curate a private user group for landlord issues, etc. It needs careful mgmt, clearly, but if done well, there’s no better way to deepen your relationships and lock in your most valuable audience segment.
(21) Vendor / Landlord login
Likewise – another way of creating stickiness is to create a private login area for your vendors and landlords. This area might contain private documents and tools – the high value guides above for example. And most commonly it contains a list of properties that you have under management or sale. The software systems are increasinly creating APIs (or just brandable login areas on their own URLs) which you can now use to control and expose information on marketing stats, views, even reactions and viewing feedback if you like. Foxtons are pioneering the way in terms of this kind of client login area, but it’s a hot topic on the minds of many of the larger agency groups we talk to.
(22) A litany of contact points
Once you’ve moved a Vendor prospect to the point of wanting to act, you need an ultra efficient way of getting them to the best contact point. This will depend on your strategy for handling leads. Eg do you want to try and channel everything through forms, into an efficient work flow queue – to deal with centrally? (Have you ever notice how hard it is to get the phone number of an airline or local bank branch – which is probably not a good thing in our industry) Or do you want the contact channeled to branch managers? However you want to deal with it, you need really obvious navigation to this directory of branch, department or call centre numbers. Agents are increasingly offering routes to individual staff (people like to talk to the people they have already met) and, whilst this brings up issues of its own, it does creates a very personal approachable feeling, which sets a good tone for your brand, and without doubt (we’ve measured it) it increases conversion rate on your site.
(23) ABC: Always Be Closing
You need the route to get to those contact points to be clear, wherever the user is on your site. They may enter, with the specific task of calling you as their objective. They may be browsing casually, and you need great content, or a video, to create that call to action. Or it may be their third visit, and a tempting, open response form, right in front of them on the page, lowers the barriers to contact sufficiently that it just tips them over the edge into enquiring.
So, given the trigger for contacting you can be subtle, could be pre-decided, or could be created and encouraged, you need the site to be asking the question at all points.
(24) Ask in different ways
And you want to ask the question in a variety of ways. Some people will only look for a phone number. Some people fill out forms. Some people do their homework out of hours and email you. Others will fill out a valuation request with their address. Some want to speak to an individual, and know who they are getting to. You don’t care. You just want to ensure they get in touch, so you can respond quickly and efficiently, and pick up their business before they are distracted and wander off to your competitors website, who might do the job well and win their instruction instead. You want all roads to lead to Rome, by which we mean, you don’t care what psychological hook drove them to contact, you just want to engage them so that you have the opportunity to work with them.
(25) Ask everywhere
And so you will want to ask the question on the bottom of articles. Sometimes with links. Sometimes with forms. Always in the footer. Always in the header navigation. Sometimes with content calls to action. But ask at all points in your site – to capture all the single page entry traffic from Google, or email referrals and forwards, etc.
(26) Immediate Professional Call Centre Response
And then when they do enquire, you want to pounce on them fast. That’s not aggressive, it’s just prompt, professional response. You want to do that because it’s likely that for some of them they will have sent 3 enquiries to the 3 local agents. The one who calls them first, creates the best first impression. The one that doesn’t call them at all, or misses the lead as they are out on a valuation, and busy trying to close a sale this afternoon, misses the prize.
We’re seeing a huge trend in all agencies above 5 branches (and some of the more efficient 1-3 branch independents are adopting parts of the approach too) towards centralising their response teams, on portal enquiries, out of hours leads, and even all website enquiries, into specialist call centre processes. A certain, large, London agency has totally paved the way on the utter efficiency of this approach, and it’s a whole topic unto itself. They have TV monitors all around the edge of the call centre floor with a live chart reading the average number of minutes from first enquiry point, to customer response, right now! It’s also a way of totally systematically asking the question “and what’s the situation with your current property” with a ruthless reliability.
If you are interested, this is probably the area where we have the most consulting client work in right now.
(27) Professional branch response
And if you are a more personal agency, and you value the traditional approach, or you don’t have the scale for a call centre. Then you want to ensure that you have a professional, courteous, response from branch as promptly as possible. Do you have a checklist of the questions you run through. Do you efficiently ask the situation with their existing property every time, in a non threatening, open question kind of way? Do you respond to every portal lead with the same care and attention? Do you always register them in your software? Do you always create them an account? Do you capture their emails, and email them follow up content, to drag them back to your site?
If you have the luxury of a call centre process (or steps towards it), or even where you don’t but you have efficient, administration staff. You can run background processes between inbound call volume etc. do “re-trawl” your old enquiries. A casual enquiry of 6 months ago, may well be about to become and active vendor instruction prospect. You want to be first in the door for initial contact, and last to perform the valuation if it does have to go to go to several agents for valuation.
If you have good email systems, and new content, you can re-activate old leads. And if you have tenants, it’s always worth a call to the set that are approaching roll off their contract. You can inform the Landlord before they hear the actual news.
So, what next?
So, if you’ve read this far, then hopefully you’ve been interested by the topic, and you’re open to the idea of being better. If so, there might be lots more in our resources library that will appeal. However, what we’d love you to give us a call or drop us a quick email. We’d like to chat to you about working on a more efficient mousetrap for you. Even if it’s just to say hello, and put yourself on our radar, chat about a couple of quick improvement ideas on your own site within your current constraints. Then hopefully you’ll be in a position to working together in a few months time.
We don’t bite – but we will ensure your website does!