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Jul. 5, 2011 - A Crash Course in Landing Pages

A landing page? Say what???

We’re talking internet marketing here. No matter whether you own a website as an association, MLS, or brokerage, if you don’t know about landing pages for your web site, you’re missing a huge marketing opportunity!

Here’s an example: your association has taken a position on a local political initiative—let’s say the county wants to establish a new real estate transfer tax.   Realtors agree this is a very bad idea and will bring great harm to the real estate business, so they’ve issued a position paper which analyzes the impact of the proposed destructive legislation on homeowners and businesses in the community. The paper is available on the association website: the question is, how does is the public directed to the website so they can easily read and download the whitepaper?

The organization can do one of two things: it can direct the public to its website homepage and let the visitors find and click on the appropriate link, or it can create a landing page. Simply put, a good landing page will be targeted to a particular stream of traffic – in this case from an email campaign advertising the whitepaper - and, because traffic is targeted, and because the page contains an interesting offer (leave your email address to receive the informative whitepaper as well as further updates on the progress of the legislation) the association will convert a higher percentage of website visitors into interested members of the public (leads) with whom it can follow up for this or future public campaigns.

The secret question in using this technique is —as always—“What do you want the consumer to do?” Many associations (and brokerages, for that matter) never ask this question as they design their web pages. “Well, that’s a nice site,” I tell them. “Lots of information on ethics, reasons to use a professional, and why your organization is great. But what do you want the visitor to DO as a result of knowing all of this?” Too often, the answer is a blank stare.

 “Well, if you don’t know what you want them to do, how do you measure your effectiveness?”

There are two general types of landing pages—one is a reference page, and the other is known as a ‘call to action’. In either case, the landing page shows the visitor how to do what you want them to: in our example, we want the visitor read the legislative impact study and become informed about our position on the topic. (And leave her contact information so we have a database of interested local residents for future use.)   

The association not only advertised the landing page, it asked all of the members to provide a link on THEIR websites, thus leveraging the interest and cooperation of the member community.

What’s the recipe for a good call-to-action landing page? A few simple ingredients:

1.      Have a compelling product or offer. “Become informed about how this new legislation affects you and impacts our community! Read this complimentary two-page, clear analysis!” (Or, receive an invitation to attend this exclusive champagne open house for this luxurious residence. Or whatever.)

2.      Make it easy to share.   This rule is, of course, a necessary component of a blog, a newsletter, a flyer, an article or press release: always add the buttons for Facebook, Twitter, email, and other sharing options. Again, leverage your efforts by making it easy for others to spread the word.

3.      Limit the options for the reader to navigate away from your landing page. Direct them where YOU want them to go—to your homepage, to your listing inventory, or wherever seems logical. But don’t confuse them: keep the attention on what you want them to do (leave your email address—that’s called ‘capture the lead’).

4.      Be simple and direct. The best landing pages focus on the task at hand, perhaps adding a relevant and dynamic graphic and – again – ask the visitor for a simple, effective action like “leave your email address and we’ll tell you how to get complete information on the properties for sale on this lake as well as a ticket for boat tour to see these listings from the water.”

5.      Make sure you have a statistical analysis component to your page. A visitor who takes the desired action is referred to as a ‘conversion’ and the efficiency of a call-to-action landing page is measured by its conversion rate (the percentage of visitors who complete the action). The conversion rate is easily tracked because the desired action is isolated to a single page. It’s also simple to find out where your visitors came from, how long each one spent on the landing page, and where they went when they left the site.

“Ok, you’ve convinced me: landing pages are important to web marketing. How do I get one?”

A simple landing page isn’t difficult for an experienced web site designer: you might even try making one yourself. There are excellent informational videos on YouTube: one is by an organization called NextLevel Profits. Google also has some easy to follow instructions for creating mobile phone landing pages .

And, going back to our opening example, the association found that adding the landing page to its arsenal of mobilization tactics really worked by uniting members in a common strategy,  creating an informed voting public, and leveraging the social media communications tools. 

Not a bad return on investment.


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Jun. 22, 2011 - Introduction to Search Engine Optimization


Recently it seems that several of my association clients are involved in rebuilding their organization’s websites. They know the sites need a change: the appearance is no longer fresh, the information is outdated, and nobody really visits there anymore.

Many websites were originally built because somebody told the association it needed a website to ‘be cool’ and appear conversant in technology. More often than not, these sites were electronic brochures: some information, a few photos, and maybe an advertisement or a link or two. Some real estate associations ‘got it’ as far as consumers were concerned: buyers wanted a single place to look at properties, and they didn’t care much about anything else. Brokers worried about ‘competing for eyeballs’, and spend a lot of money on snazzy designs, determined that customers would look at properties on THEIR company website, not somewhere else--like the professional association site, or even their national franchise's property aggregation.

What everyone underestimated was the power of the search engine. Customers, it seemed, ‘googled’ things, or used Bing or Yahoo to find what they wanted. To capture these surfers, websites needed to be a bit more sophisticated than electronic brochures and flossy designs and corporate name recognition.

Enter “Search Engine Optimization”.

Simply defined, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a fairly sophisticated marketing process which allows a website to gain higher rankings in search engine results. The idea behind it all is that if your site doesn’t appear in the first page of search engine results, most casual internet users won’t find it at all. You’ve got to build an internet site which is constructed so that it attracts the attentions of Google,  Microsoft, Yahoo, Bing, Dogpile, and all the other search engines in existence these days.

The lesson here for association managers is this: you need to plan a website which has some features which will be noticed by search engines, and you must make certain your website designer understands the SEO process.

Here are some basic thoughts about making your site more visible (and they ARE basic thoughts: I am not a website designer—there are companies which do nothing but assist with SEO design).  

First: Understand Keywords. Keywords are those words which a person will enter in the search engine to produce results, and the search engine will find on your site. Use your keywords in your page title, preferably near the start of your page. You may want to use your keywords, related phrases, and popular keyword modifiers in your page content a couple times, but make sure the copy sounds natural, not forced. If your content is geographical, make sure your site contains the location reference (‘property for sale in Northwest Michigan’).

To sharpen your understanding of how keywords work, use Google Insights. Or read the free “Keyword Research Guide.”    Also, your keyword choices should reflect the words visitors would use about your organization, not the specialized words or jargon your members might use.

Second:  Build External Links.  In today’s internet environment, links are the basic relationship connector on the web. Links from other sites are the easiest way for a search engine to assess the strength and reliability of a web page. (Spend a few minutes with a publication like “131 Link Building Strategies” to better understand how external links work and why they are important. ) A natural link-building strategy for real estate associations, by the way, is to ask members and affiliates to link to your site. You might have to offer them a reward for doing so, but paying for links is a common web strategy. Offer members with linking websites a discount on a product or service, or a luncheon ticket.    And leave your organization’s website links everywhere you can—on forums, Facebook, anyplace you visit. Encourage your staff to do the same.

While you’re at it, include valuable tools and articles that are easy for others to link to—a mortgage calculator, or a glossary of real estate terms, or an article on “10 Tips for selecting the right Realtor”. Useful content is one reason other sites will link to yours, and the more links you can cultivate in your external link campaign, the more accessible your site will be in search engine results.

The final test: Perform a browser search for your organization. Is your site among the top ranked responses? Most internet users begin their information gathering with a browser search: again, if your association isn’t appearing on the first page of the search results, your website traffic will be negatively impacted. Be conversant with the techniques of search engine optimization, make sure your website builder understands how they work, and invest in a professional SEO expert if you can.

(Hint for AEs: Search Engine Optimization also makes an appealing and useful topic for an education seminar for all members with websites, including affiliates.)

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Nov. 10, 2010 - "Make it Fun!" he said.

It wasn’t MY idea, though I wish it had been. Rather, it was the brainchild of the CEO of the National Association of Realtors (which is why they hired Dale Stinton and not me). Anyway, Dale said, “We’ve just completed this great contest for our local associations and now we need a plan to share the results—something fun. Interesting. You know, like a GAME.”

The ‘results’ were the treasure chest of winning ideas from the 2010 NAR Game Changer contest: “What,” the local association executives were asked, “would be your great and game-changing idea for a real estate association—one that you’d love to do, but just don’t have the resources?”

Out of the 250 or so responses, NAR selected a dozen winners and subsidized their ideas with money and a professional consultant to assist in the implementation process. Another group of contestants, the runners-up, received cash awards to fund their ideas. There was also an array of ‘bright ideas’—concepts which were innovative and cool, but perhaps not revolutionary enough to be thought of as Realtor association Game Changers.   The accumulated results were amazing, really: a land rush of new association programs, products and services devised and-- in many cases-- successfully implemented by the associations themselves. 

A remarkable diversity of project products now belonged to all levels of the NAR organization--everything from communication software to a training program enabling Realtors to better serve the returning war veterans, from a new category of association membership to a real estate education self-study program. Some of the finished products were ready to plug and play on any association’s computer system or adopted by its public relations committee; others were brilliant new ideas which could be rebranded and adopted in any location.

Following the implementation period, Dale Stinton’s question was one of leveraging the contest results: how does NAR get busy local and state staff and volunteer leadership to review and consider implementing  these new  ideas? How can the national association incorporate its investment into a value product for its state and local associations?

That’s where Dale’s creative thinking surfaced. “Few people are going to read through the pages and pages of descriptions of these projects,” he reasoned. “We need some kind of search program, some type of interactive tool which is appealing and fun, but which will help our 850 local and state associations find ideas which fit their needs and resources.

“ C’mon, folks,” he said to a couple of us who had been consultants on the original project, “You put together a terrific contest. Now, figure out how to market the results.”

We started by creating an inventory of all the winning ideas. We found that they fell into several common categories—public relations, education, member professional support, communications, and association governance were among them. We also asked a group of seasoned AEs to review a series of observations which staff and leadership might be making about their associations:

                We need to become more influential in our community.

                We need to increase or diversify our association income.

                We need to improve member professionalism.

                We need to provide useful business tools for members.

                We need to streamline our governance procedures.

                We need to identify and groom our future leaders.

                We need to increase our value proposition for our members.

“Okay,” our task force said. “Those are the ‘ need’  statements. Now, what are the concerns that an association leadership might have in selecting a project which would satisfy that need?”

Obviously, available resources (both money and volunteers) will be a major issue.  Other questions might be ‘is the project scalable for large or small organizations?’ ‘Can an association leverage its investment in a project by sharing it with other associations$’ ‘Does the proposed project have the potential for additional association revenue?’

Needs and qualifying concerns—that’s how we agreed to sort through NAR’s data base of Game Changing winners and bright ideas. Then came the hard part of Stinton’s challenge: the process should be fun! “This should not be another dry and dusty database, unwieldy and unread,” he argued. “Make the process entertaining and appealing to the newest leader, the smallest association, the busiest AE. Make it a GAME that truly will enable CHANGE is our associations.”

The task force of NAR staff and the project consultants tossed around a lot of ideas—Monopoly, Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Pac Man, Bingo—and finally decided on a slick game show host and his Vanna look-alike assistant. (I was all for making the host tall and blond, a Dale Stinton avatar. “No,” said one committee member. “That might be a little TOO much fun…”)

We catalogued and cross-referenced all the winners, runners-up, and bright ideas. Then Lars the Geek designed the program, making it easy and—we hope—fun for association staff and leadership. Did we meet Dale’s requirements? You be the judge.

 Visit our solution on Realtor.org and play the Game Changer Challenge. You’ll be a winner.

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Sep. 24, 2010 - The Elephant Climbs up on the Table



Last week was an adventure—a new and fun experience. I was asked by the North Carolina AEs to be a featured speaker at a ‘Fireside Chat’: the AEs submitted questions and I (retired and “experienced”) responded with shoot-from-the-hip answers. 

I hope the AEs found it useful—it was certainly helpful to me as a review of past issues and still-meaningful concerns in association management. “What was the most successful thing I ever did? What was my worst experience? What should I do about an absentee president? How to I convince the Directors to spend down some of the reserves instead of making drastic cuts?” Tough questions.

One particular question has been on my mind a lot since I returned home. It was, “How do I convince our Board of Directors that our association should support the MLS Domains initiative?” Now most of you know that I’ve been supportive of, and involved in, the ‘Dot MLS’ project from the outset. I believe in it because I think organized real estate has an unprecedented opportunity to establish and solidify an important branding position in the next two years. We’re lucky to have this chance to rectify our past oversights with the term ‘MLS’, and we can’t afford to let it slip through our fingers again.

But it is a hard sell to members. First, it presupposes a shared belief in the importance of the internet as a marketing tool—and there are still too many real estate practitioners who are convinced that the internet is a fad, a passing fancy, and that the salesperson will remain useful only if the consumer is kept in the dark and important information is held hostage. Secondly, many brokers are not very knowledgeable about the sophisticated world of internet marketing: what is search engine optimization? How do consumers behave on the internet? What attracts them to a web site? How does the broker monitor her website and leverage the visit of the consumer?

Many brokers feel that if they’ve thrown up a company website and maybe included an IDX feed, they’ve ‘marketed’ their company. It’s the same attitude that prevailed about print advertising: if I put a big display ad in the newspaper, I’ve advertised your listing—no matter that a large portion of potential buyers are from out of town and never see the publication, or simply are reluctant to call a real estate  office to get more information. 

Tracking results from a broker’s investment of advertising dollars often was, at best, primitive. The salesperson On the Floor might—or might not—check the box that asks if the caller referred to a newspaper or magazine ad. With modern technology, brokers can now know where a site visitor comes from, how long he stays on the site, what he does while there, and where he goes when he leaves. Google, and now Facebook, are adding important dimensions to consumer searching as well: search results can be filtered by a consumer’s known personal preferences, geographical location, and income profile. These increasingly sophisticated tools are dramatically changing real estate marketing—and at the same time, are requiring brokers to become more knowledgeable about how to maximize their advertising investments.

The sad state of affairs is, however, that brokers and MLSs are acting like marketing FSBOs and public relations do-it-yourselfers. Not without reason, of course: there’s just too much going on in the industry and in the national economy to allow much time for the knowledge those modern marketing tools are demanding. Real estate company owners and managers simply don’t have the time and resources to cope with the technology evolution in internet marketing.

What does that mean for us as real estate trade associations? Well, for one thing, it means that we have a new opportunity to service our members by providing education about internet marketing, search engine optimization, web page design, and consumer behavior. Secondly, it means that we can provide some important community resources which enable our members to leverage their advertising dollars. The MLS domain project is one of those, as is a resource like Realtor.com. Learning to use web site statistical tools, tracking consumer preferences, and keeping members appraised of the impact of new marketing developments such as Open Graph is yet another.

Finally, one of the real issues we have as real estate trade associations is the understanding that our very governance structure gets in our way. Our Board of Directors and governing committees are usually comprised of members—who are, by definition, real estate practitioners. They are internet marketing FSBOs, technology hobbyists (if we’re lucky), and short-term volunteers. That’s not to say that they aren’t bright, well-intentioned people who want to do the best for the association and the industry: they are. But it is true that they are first of all real estate specialists being asked to make business decisions in an increasingly specialized and complicated technological environment.

Even more importantly, how do we as association managers and MLS directors, keep our own knowledge level current and useful to our organizational decisions? How do we learn enough to know how to help our members?

I don’t have an answer to the question you asked, Brenda. But I’m thinking. I’m thinking.

Anybody else got an idea?

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Sep. 18, 2010 - One of the Largest Marketing Opportunities in History


During its 32nd International Public Meeting in Paris in 2008, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) started a new process of implementing a policy to take a "significant step forward on the introduction of new generic top-level domains."  Up until this point in time, the internet world knew only the familiar .com, .net, .org and 18 other suffixes — the official "generic top-level domains" (TLDs) administered by ICANN.

But at the Paris meeting, it was clear to ICANN officials that the TLD field was becoming increasingly confusing and disastrously overpopulated.  Of 177 million domain names registered through 2008, more than half, 90.4 million, ended in .com or .net. As a result, ICANN—the entity which oversees the web’s address system-- approved a landmark change in policy which will open up the internet geography to an endless stream of new domain names.

"Whatever is open to the imagination can be applied for," says Paul Levins, ICANN's vice president of corporate affairs. "It could translate into one of the largest marketing and branding opportunities in history."

USA Today reported that “A sea change may be coming to cyberspace with Web addresses ending in anything from .a to .z.” And the result may not be all good: “That (action) has businesses increasingly worried they will have to spend millions to guard their brand names”, USA Today observes. Many brands already invest in buying up internet names just so competitors can’t infringe on their market areas, and a surge of new top level domains will certainly increase the opportunity for scammers to mislead consumers and attack existing brand names.

On the other hand, ICANN’s Levins says the action will “translate into one of the largest marketing and branding opportunities in history."

So why  am I writing about this? Because in my thirty years as a Realtor Association Exec and MLS manager, a large part of my job was protecting the Realtor® brand. “Always put a comma between the company name and the word ‘REALTOR®’, I would admonish. “Always capitalize the ‘R’,” I’d snarl at the local newspaper. And I always envied the Canadians for registering ‘MLS’ as a trademark: they never had to worry about the FSBO MLS website.

The ICANN action, which will occur in 2011, gives organized real estate in the US a second chance to preserve its brand integrity. It is an opportunity to capture the term ‘MLS’ and control its usage on the internet by forming the MLS Domains Association and winning the rights to oversee the usage of the term “MLS”.

Of course it’s a costly proposition for the initial application and for the ongoing administration of the program.  The currently proposed ICANN application fee is $185,000 to acquire the domain, plus an annual "continuance" fee of $25,000 and ICANN will also require operational legal structure, organizational rules and bylaws, and a sustainable enforcement operation. But some of the most influential MLS organizations in the US think it can be done, and they’ve contributed money and other resources to do just that. The MLS Domains Association now represents over a half million MLS subscribers. It has constructed bylaws and rules for use, and employed specialized legal counsel to assist in refining its procedures. It has raised the funds to complete the organizational non-profit incorporation and the ICANN application, and is now accepting general memberships and domain name reservations.

During the past couple of years, I’ve been visiting a lot of associations throughout the country, and Realtors® consistently identify ‘protecting and promoting professionalism’ as a top concern. In my mind, Paul Levins is absolutely right on when he says that the ICANN 2011 actions will be the largest marketing opportunity in history.   How can we not afford to preserve the integrity of the one service which members and consumers recognize as synonymous with professionalism—the MLS?

I commend the Domains Association for the organizing this foresighted grass roots effort. For more detailed information, and to see which MLSs have joined the MLS Domains Association, visit the www.mlsdomains.org website.

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Aug. 21, 2010 - 2011: The Opportunity


Next year in 2011, an event will occur which will change the way the internet looks: ICANN, the international domain registry, will open up the registry for top level domains (TLDs). Right now, over 150 million domain names use the ‘.com’ TLD, but ICANN’s actions next year will make it possible for a whole new wave of top level domains—domains based on products such as ‘.IBM’ or generic groupings.

The process has been slow: During the 32nd International Public ICANN Meeting in Paris in 2008, ICANN started a new process of TLD naming policy to take a "significant step forward on the introduction of new generic top-level domains." ICANN envisions the availability of many new or already proposed domains, as well a new application and implementation process. Observers believe that the new rules will result in hundreds of new general TLDs being registered with ICANN approved organizations.

What this means is that for each new TLD that ICANN approves in 2011, new names can be adopted and registered. It’s a unique opportunity to adopt and maintain an internet marketing brand.   I am personally supportive of the MLS Domains Association a group of US MLS organizations which has formed in order to make application to ICANN for the top level domain ‘.MLS’.   As the association embarks on its membership drive in anticipation of the 2011 ICANN event, it has already begun the process of taking top level domain name reservations--over 120 have been approved by the MLS Domains Association. 

As you can see by browsing the list of reserved names, many MLS organizations have given much thought to their selection. And that’s important: your domain name is the single most important investment in your web presence in the eyes of your members, and of the public at large.

Here are some thoughts as you select your MLS Domain names:

1.       First, adopt a domain name that reflects your location or business and try to make your site name and your url (address) the same. For instance, ‘ChicagoOpenHouses.mls’ is very clear about where it is, and the business featured there. Good domain names must be memorable.

2.       Remember that some sites don’t even have a geographic reference—people just remember them: Yahoo, Google, Amazon, DogPile are examples. If you can’t find a domain name that suits your business, perhaps a word that conveys a feeling or quality will work, as in the previous examples.

3.       Don’t expect consumers to memorize a bunch of letters which make no sense: they won’t do it. Even though your current organization name like ‘consolidated metropolitan regional residential mls’ has been shortened to CMRRMLS, most folks (including your own members) won’t find that series of letters anything they can remember after they log out.

4.       Keep your domain name reasonably short and easy to type. Longer is NOT better, and hyphenated words are a pain in the neck. Practice saying the name aloud, too, and remember that you will probably have to spell it for people in the course of doing business. If you have to say “ThenospaceRecord-hypen-Eagle-dot-com” too many times, you may come to regret the excess.

5.       Avoid site names to which you’ve added ‘the’, ‘my’, or a plural form to distinguish your site name that already exists (like ‘NYCopenhouses’ becomes ‘TheNYCopenhouses’. The confusion is obvious. Also, if you must use an article like ‘the’ in your name, make sure you always advertise your site name accurately: don’t leave out any words.

6.       Remember that your domain name automatically becomes your brand-name, whether you intend it or not. It will forever after affect how your organization is perceived. Find domain names that also describe the purpose of the site and be creative about it. In organized real estate we are accustomed to NAR’s rather strict naming policies, but those policies don’t apply with internet domain names which are primarily marketing tools. You might get started with some helpful sites, like nameboy.com or domainfellow.com—both sites will let you play with work combinations and think about some creative alternatives.

If you’re an MLS with or without an online property search site, you’ll want to carefully consider investing in your online presence. And if you’ve inherited a domain name which is undistinguished and flat, and contributes little to your overall marketing plan, now’s the time to re-invent yourself.

Further information is available at www.mlsdomains.org.

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A behind the scenes look at organized real estate--what works in an association, what doesn't, and what a long time AE sees as challenges facing the industry from the viewpoint of its professional organization.


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