Century 21 brings consumers in the front door with digital platform

Century 21 Real Estate decided to fully renovate its marketing strategy as the housing crunch and the recession were bearing down on the US economy in 2008. First, it had to sell that idea to its own people.

Challenge: The real estate broker group needed to capture a greater share of the market, because the market itself was shrinking fast. It had to translate brand awareness built over 35 years of TV advertising to bring in more of the few home shoppers who were still looking.

“The challenge was how to reach them most cost-effectively in a changing market,” said Bev Thorne, CMO of Century 21. “We did not lack for awareness; what we lacked was volume of people coming in the front door.”

The company made the decision to stop television advertising and create a comprehensive online marketing effort instead. The campaign’s first sales job was in-house, said Thorne. Century 21 was the first real estate franchise to use TV for nationwide promotion, and that meant a lot to its members, she said.

“It was a great source of pride in the organization that we were a leader in TV,” she said. “I had one broker say to me, ‘You can’t do this. Each Sunday morning, I sit down with my granddaughter and watch these commercials.’”

Solution: With agency Zeta Interactive, Century 21 tested various online tools in 2008. Data and statistics were extremely important in the discussions with agents, said Thorne. They showed most home shoppers are looking online, not in newspapers or on TV, and the test campaigns showed online marketing led to lower expenses and better lead generation. Although she didn’t share the results, Thorne said they were good enough to make the franchisees more comfortable with the decision to go online.

Real estate is very personal decision that requires local marketing, said Thorne, so it made sense to equip the brokers to do it themselves.

“It really is a one-to-one transaction,” she said. “You call a brand because you know the real estate agent or are looking for a good real estate agent.”

Zeta Interactive built an intranet, 21Online.com and an e-campaign center. The site allows agents to build lists and segment by markets, including residential, commercial, fine homes and Spanish-speaking consumers, among others. The application comes with hundreds of templates for e-mails, postcards, e-cards, thank-you notes, holiday cards and newsletters, all of which can be customized in minor ways to cater to the market while maintaining brand integrity, he said.

“We didn’t want dealers and agents going out there freelancing,” said Al DiGuido, CEO of Zeta Interactive. “What we wanted was a consistent look and feel.”

Century 21 can gauge which messages are performing better and who’s using them.

“When you’re replacing $30 million-worth of TV advertising, you want to make sure you’re replacing it with something that provides that level of detail,” said DiGuido.

Results: Although Thorne did not give specific numbers, she said the effort beat expectations and keeps building as more agents work with the system. It generated nearly 1.5 million e-mails sent through April, said DiGuido.

“Month after month after month, our response rate increases and our expenses decline,” Thorne said. “Overall, we’re spending less than when we were on TV and our results are much stronger and greater in terms of what we’re getting in quantifiable leads.”

Zeta Interactive is integrating the campaign across other digital channels, such as social media, digital publishing and SEO. Century 21 has also introduced an app for the iPhone and is planning applications for other smartphones, she said.

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