by Anh Nguyen
Properties are listed on portals in their millions while estate agents are listed in their thousands. Anh Nguyen explores the marketing strategies agents can use to make their particular box, photographs and descriptions stand out and entice browsers to take that first step towards becoming home buyers.
Instructions are the name of the game for agents in an economic downturn, so how can property portals help? Agents enthusiastically upload all of their stock to portals in the hope that it will attract prospective buyers, but how effective is this strategy, if indeed it can be considered a strategy? Can agents manage this process more effectively to maximise their leads and, potentially, their instructions? For example, is it worth agents uploading all of their available stock? And should they be shelling out even more of their depleted cash reserves - or in the case of many, drawing down on their credit facilities - on portals' premium services to highlight their stock and differentiate it from competitors' listings?
One of the most frequently asked questions by agents is what proportion of their stock they should list. Should it be all or only what they consider to be a selection of the best?
"Home movers expect everything to be online," insists Miles Shipside, commercial director at Rightmove. "They like to do their research online and get a thorough picture [of available sale properties], and if you don't have everything on, you're going to lose out."
He adds: "You might think you're being a bit clever by saying you'll keep something back, but it's the expectations of sellers and landlord that their properties be on the internet."
But then as part of the team of the UK's biggest property portal, Shipside would say this, wouldn't he? Nevertheless, this seems to be the approach adopted by multi-award winning, North West London-based Greene & Co, which uploads its stock on nearly all the major portals, including FindaProperty.com, Primelocation.com, Rightmove, PropertyFinder, Globrix and Zoomf.
"We'll try all the free ones," says Jacqui Daley, marketing manager at the agency. "We want to generate as many leads as possible and we know that available stats say that a potential 85% of people start their property search online.
"Most people will start their search from Google, where you're going to find all these different portals on the first page of the listings, so I want my stock to be found on as many of these websites as possible."
Kristian Turner, marketing manager at lettings agency Accent Property Management, in Cambridge, uses Rightmove, Primelocation, FindaProperty, PropertyFinder, HotProperty and local portal Lettingsearch.co.uk and says that uploading all his stock is an easy and quick method of making a wide selection of different properties available to prospective buyers.
For Alistair Bone, branch manager at Taylors Estate Agents in Gloucester, the lack of physical shop window space in his office makes portals an attractive proposition. He uses Globrix, Rightmove, PropertyFinder, Nethouseprice.com and Homes24.co.uk
"We upload all the stock we have," he explains. "In my shop window I've only got space for 24 properties and I've got 30 properties right now. We sold 11 in January - if one wasn't on there [the portal] they [buyers] wouldn't have seen it," he says.
Ensuring stock listings are up-to-date is crucial. It is a misconception to think that keeping out-of-date properties on portals will fuel interest. "I'd never leave stock on a portal that's not up-to-date or that has been taken off the market," says Kyrenia Gross, industry marketing manager at PropertyFinder. "You've got to appear as though you're moving stock."
Gross says that the portal receives a lot of complaints from consumers claiming that properties they've seen on the site aren't actually available when they contact the listed agent.
"We have to tell them that agents are responsible for keeping the stock fresh, but that they're [agents] keeping them up on the site to show that they've got so much stock, which is when consumers get annoyed."
Once you've listed your stock, consider how it looks, particularly when compared with rivals' stock listed either side of your properties on each of the portals. Are your listings attractive enough to entice prospective buyers to click through and browse the property details further? Do your photographs show a property at its best?
According to Rightmove, you receive 30% more interest in your stock if you upload more than one photo, so at least three or four good quality photos per listing is advisable. Shipside says that one agent achieved a record by listing more than 50 photos for one property.
"Floor plans generate 30% more interest than a property without one; it's about people imagining themselves living there, and [deliberating over whether they] can fit their furniture in," he explains.
"I think a lot of people who oversee the upload of images don't understand the ins and outs of their importance," suggests Turner. "You get some photos on property portals that are extremely pixellated, to the extent that you can't tell what it [the image] is, or it's too dark, or too close up, so that it's practically just, for example, a letterbox when it's been cropped right down by a portal's software."
One of the worst photos submitted to Turner was a picture of a bedroom piled floor-to-ceiling with teddy bears, though the competition for worst picture across all portals is rife.
"There's an agent out there advertising a property with pictures displaying a flowerbed full of weeds - nothing else," he recalls. "Or sometimes there will be something that has been missed, so that there's a nice picture of a kitchen and then a rogue toilet roll on the counter," he adds.
A kitchen shot with dirty pots and pans doesn't help either, warns Shipside, who blames lazy photography for unacceptable uploads.
"We've had photos with wing mirrors in because they're [estate agents] sitting in the car when they are taking the photos," he says. "Wide angles are necessary," he adds. "We had someone trying to take a picture of the bathroom and all they get is the toilet."
Wheelie bins and cars are negatives in exterior shots, suggests Bone. If there's really not much to feature of a property's exterior, focus instead on its location, since people buy a location as well as a house. Shipside recommends uploading pictures of the local park, good local restaurant or local school, which buys into the lifestyle marketing strategies of many of the high-end market agents.
Bone says that as a general rule of thumb, if an agent doesn't include a photo of a property's interior, it's safe for consumers to assume that there is probably something wrong with it. Then again, interiors have to be suitably prepped to maximise consumer interest, so don't be afraid to ask clients to clean and tidy up, as well as temporarily lock up their children and pets, to show the best features of each room. Agents uncomfortable with engaging clients in such a sensitive subject could consider employing the services of an interior design company, as Greene & Co has done with Pad of London.
"Some vendors don't see stuff [that could deter prospective buyers]," says Pad of London design director Jo Wooler, a former fashion designer. "I've been into a £1.2m property in Richmond [London] where the owners had a clothes horse in the shower room with clothes all over it, actually in the shower cubicle, and then I went into the main bedroom and almost couldn't get through the door because there were three piles of clothes against the wall.
"Ensure they [owners] get rid of all the clutter that everybody accumulates over years of living in a property, whether that means putting it in cupboards or in storage."
If there's dated furniture, Wooler's company may replace it with new pieces, highlighting the current season's colours on cushions or curtains. And if a carpet's badly stained, she recommends either covering it with a rug or replacing it. Pad of London can also tend to an overgrown garden, and even tidy up roof terraces in the process.
Agents should be equally attentive to their property literature. Aim to be creative with property descriptions, but not at the price of accuracy. After all, you don't want your property not to appear in a search result because you got the number of bedrooms wrong. Moreover, no-one wants to be found in breach of the Property Misdescriptions Act.
Shipside says: "Descriptions have got to be exciting. People have got to be careful on factual elements, but stuff that's based on emotion is important. For example, ‘watch the yachts go sailing by as you sit on the veranda with a gin and tonic' is far more appealing than putting ‘sea views'."
Turner agrees. "We make sure that everything's accurate, correctly spelt, correctly worded, that grammar is spot on, which we feel is quite important, but a lot of agents overlook it. We're as thorough as we can be without being too verbose," he claims.
Gross agrees that adverts should be succinct: "We find that copious amounts of text don't get read. Sell the property in bullet points; enough for the potential home mover to contact you for more information."
Conversely, PropertyIndex.com recommends that agents be generous on property details, claiming that it will make a listing more likely to be picked up in an advanced search or a keyword search if visitors narrow down their search by selecting certain criteria or keywords. Hence the importance of including details on a property's location, to maximise your site coverage - what's termed in tech-speak as Search Engine Optimisation. For example, Greene & Co includes additional information in its descriptions, such as school catchment areas, special feature details, such as loft conversions, plus a brief history of the building before it was converted.
All portals have some means of allowing agents to highlight particular properties, to help differentiate them from competitors' stock, but the extent to which they're used varies between agents. For example, Turner finds most portals' services too expensive to use, opting only to use Brand Plus on Rightmove, which allows Accent to include its logo on its listings for £100 a month.
Meanwhile, Daley is keen to use as many premium services as possible, which range from £20 a week up to £250 a month per branch.
She explains: "We use them [premium services] on Rightmove, FindaProperty, Primelocation and PropertyFinder. It's the first thing that people see and it helps, in terms of vendors, getting instructions on. And you see from the stats an increase in enquiry levels for the property you feature in that week."
Greene & Co also uses a premium service on Globrix that allows it to brand location specific search results. This means the firm's logo and branding will appear across all property searches generated in, for example, West Hampstead.
PropertyFinder has a Feature Property service which allows agents to display slightly larger photos, while a Guaranteed Top Spot ensures that agents get the top spot in a search in addition to three photos and more information about the property in the search results. This service is charged at around £50 a month while Feature Property is bundled up into the portal's subscription costs.
Rightmove offers two premium services: Premium Display makes properties stand out in a larger box with a different shaded background and displays four photos instead of one. For £25, this service lasts until the property is sold; Rightmove also offers a discount for bulk purchases.
Another Rightmove service is Showcase, which places properties at the top of the page for around £50 a week and which Shipside says attracts three times the level of interest, compared to 20% more enquiries through Premium Display.
However, Bone, who uses both these services, is unsure about their effectiveness.
"We do get a hell of a lot more hits, particularly with Showcase, but does it actually get more viewings? Probably not," he concludes.
"But the Premium Displays; I've seen they work on there - we get more viewings from them," he adds.
While floor plans or featured property slots may be a cost issue for many agents, Shipside says some agents are turning it into a revenue spinner by selling the vendor a Home Information Pack with extra features such as a floor plan, professional property photos and a featured property slot on a portal as an initial marketing package with a mark-up on cost.
Of course, to make the most of portals and their premium services, agents need to monitor their traffic, whether it be through statistics provided by portals themselves, using Google Analytics, or simply by tracking the source of all enquiries. There's no point splashing out on portals that aren't generating you leads - in any market.
Gone are the days of concentrating on the attractiveness of your show window; lead generation spans a multitude of technology, be it phone, email or both via property portals, but that doesn't mean that agents should take a blanket approach to marketing for each of these.
Savvy marketing is crucial given that agents are competing with thousands of competitors and their stock for the attention of prospective buyers, so ensure your property is the big fish in a big pond by using great photos, succinct and creative descriptions and premium portal services where appropriate. Successful agents will be the ones who regularly monitor the quality of their stock and its listing particulars, not the ones sitting on their laurels expecting their uploads to work for them.
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