Real Living turns to mail for growth

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Homeowners in Ohio are receiving regular personalized direct mail from their local Real Living real estate agent that may include a schedule of upcoming games for the Ohio State Buckeyes, lawn-care tips or seasonal recipes.

However, instead of creating and ordering these campaigns every week, Real Living agents can go online, pick from more than 1,000 direct mail pieces and execute an ongoing program up to a year in advance.

"It's important that agents don't lose the personal touch and feel in this down market," says Gretchen Bartholomew, director of operations at Real Living. "This way, when the market's healthier, they've stayed in touch through this integration."

The Web portal that enables Real Living's agents to keep in close contact with customers and prospects gives the company an important advantage in the competitive real estate franchise business, Bartholomew says. The brand message focuses on women age 25-54.

"We are the circle in the sea of squares," Bartholomew says. "We focus on [women] as 89% of home-buying power is with [them]."

For example, where other real estate franchise companies use lots of blues and yellows and images of houses in their marketing communications, Real Living's Web site features lots of red and orange and is full of lifestyle images of women.

This female-focused strategy seems to be working. The Columbus, OH-based company has been around since 1953 but only started franchising in 2002. Real Living has quickly built up 65 franchises in 20 states and plans to continue to roll out the brand to other states.

Before Real Living started working with on-demand print provider QuantumDigital two years ago, the company had an in-house fulfillment department that did all of the printing, sorting and post office runs. But, as Lori Wiley, director of customer and agent services, says, "[In-house fulfillment] became too labor-intensive. We're a real-estate agency, not a fulfillment house."

Now, agents can place an order by 2pm EST and it will be in the mail the next day. Money saved is invested into producing better-looking direct mail pieces.

And, by making the process of creating a direct mail campaign easy for agents while still giving them control, Real Living has been able to encourage agents to send more direct mail. It has printed 2.2 million direct mail pieces so far this year, an increase of more than 500,000 compared to last year. Wiley says that the number is continuing to grow, and that the rise is too large to be accounted for simply by new franchise openings.

Agents can pick from numerous direct mail pieces, target delivery by ZIP code and other criteria, customize them and plan a program a year in advance. Or, they can choose to create a campaign with less customization that takes half the time to order. The portal developed for Real Living by QuantumDigital includes a dashboard so agents can easily keep track of their progress during the design and ordering process. In addition, the Real Living data warehouse of images, market information and other data is completely integrated with the portal.

Real Living is planning to hold a series of focus groups with its agents to see what type of direct mail campaigns they want and what's working for them.

"I see [direct mail] campaigns being a huge focus for us," Bartholomew says.

The other way Real Living hopes to expand its direct mail program is by giving agents the option to send an e-mail in addition to a direct mail piece, or e-mail only, in some cases. A launch date for this program hasn't yet been determined.

QuantumDigital, Austin, TX is giving clients the ability to send e-mail as part of an integrated campaign that can also include direct mail and a personalized URL. The creative is consistent across all elements, the data can be personalized and QuantumDigital tracks results across channels.

"Multiple touchpoints can product double-digit response rates," says Freddie Baird, EVP, COO at QuantumDigital.

Real Living's Internet marketing efforts are already complementing its direct mail efforts. Agents are offered their own Web sites, which generates information they can put in their direct mail. The messaging on the Web, like in the direct mail, is targeted at women. For example, the corporate site offers a MyRealLiving 2.0 option, which people can sign up and be able to save listings and searches, share information with friends and agents, keep a calendar of showings and open houses, track the number of online visits to their current home and personalize to fit their style.

Says Bartholomew, "We resonate with women through our imaging, the way in which we speak to the decision of buing a home, and through the rise of social networking on our site."

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