Is It Time for Real Estate Marketing to Change?

A relatively brief post today, as I’m still trying to catch up from being on the road so much. Plus, I realized that I’ve been writing about Big Heavy Topics lately, and thought it’d be fun to talk a bit about marketing. Believe it or not, when I started this blog in 2009, my focus was to talk about marketing. Somehow, things went heavy into government policies, MLS, etc. etc.

Last week, I was blessed with the opportunity to moderate a panel of some of the top brokers and managers in Florida at the Orlando Regional REALTOR Association Broker Summit. It was a blast, but we ended up touching on marketing, and I couldn’t help interjecting my opinion into the proceedings, which I normally try to avoid like crazy when I’m moderating. Based on that brief exchange, I realized it’s maybe time to think in a deeper, more fundamental way about how real estate agents and brokers market themselves.

Bottomline: Maybe it’s time for real estate brokers and agents to stop talking about themselves so much?

Let’s dive in.

All Conversations in Real Estate Start or End with Zillow: The Context

Let me set the context. I can’t remember the exact question from the audience, but it had something to do with how Zillow was the evil empire and so on. The panelists on stage were actually fairly divided on the issue, as some felt that Zillow was making money off the agent’s back, while others felt that however we got to where we are today, it is what it is, and they’re serving their seller clients by advertising on Zillow.

But the conversation took an interesting turn as we discussed how/why Zillow won the consumer over. I thought that part of the reason was in how Zillow markets itself. Take a look at one of their extremely effective TV commercials:

I remember telling Amy Bohutinsky, then CMO of Zillow, “Why you gotta try and make me cry all the time with your commercials?” If this didn’t at least make your eye twinge a bit, I worry about you. But go ahead and look through all of Zillow’s commercials from the very first one. You’ll see the heavy dose of emotion throughout, and one other very important thing as well. (More below.)

Now, take a look at an older commercial from REMAX (although it is New Zealand, so there’s that… but it’s what I found, heh):

(To be fair, the more recent REMAX commercials, from America, take a different approach, as we’ll see below.)

Finally, while it’s not a big national company with millions in advertising budget, take a look at what is all-too-familiar from a local real estate brokerage:

What’s the difference between the Zillow commercial and the other two?

Simply put, the Zillow commercial is (and has always been) all about the consumer. Real estate company commercials are (and has always been) all about themselves.

The phenomenon is even worse when it comes to individual real estate agent marketing. Here are a few examples I pulled off of Google just now:



Honestly, I could go on and on, but I know all of you can come up with a hundred examples of Realtor marketing that is more or less the same as the above. I mean, the bottom image looks like a business card. And we’ve often discussed in the industry why real estate agents are the *only* “profession” who insist on putting their picture on the card.

In fact, I have a question for my friends at Nexthome. They have some of the sexiest branding/marketing in the industry, having hired a serious heavy hitter in Pentagram. Take a look:


What I’m curious about is whether the world class designers at Pentagram thought it was weird to have headshot photos on the business cards. 🙂 James? Christine? Any comment on that?

In any event, I can pull up some brokerage websites as well, or agent brochures, or full-page magazine ads, or whatever else. The common theme to all of them is that the ads are about the real estate company or the real estate agent.

Deeper Still: The Listing Presentation

But we could go even a step deeper. As most of you know, I’m the co-founder of Hear It Direct. I’ve helped organize panel after panel of consumers, talking about their experiences directly to real estate professionals in quite a few cities.

In one of the most influential sessions, a seller said something along the lines of, “I don’t really care about your fancy listing presentation with all of your stuff; I assume you know what you’re doing, or I wouldn’t have called you in the first place.” That directly led to my co-founder, Sue Adler, a top real estate agent in New Jersey, to ditch the listing presentation. And her success rate with listing appointments went up. Maybe she’ll come on and comment about her experience.

And my SO, Linsey Ehle, is the Career Development Coach for the largest office of the largest brokerage in Houston: BHG Gary Greene. She and I have talked time and again about listing presentations, what works, and what doesn’t.

What’s interesting to me is that the “default” listing presentation is, once again, all about the agent and the brokerage. Take a look at this “Sample Listing Presentation”:

The first four slides are about the agent. Her picture. Her bio. Her recent sales. Her awards. The seller has now spent the first five minutes sitting there listening to the agent brag about herself.

Is this effective?

Then the next seven slides are about pricing and the market and the home. Then we wrap up with 11 slides about the “marketing plan”.

Not one of the slides is about the seller. Not one.

Now, to be fair, maybe the agent already had the conversation about the seller, their motivations, timelines, all of that, but… then that makes me ask the question: Why do you need to bore me with a 23-slide presentation about things that I already assume about you, seeing as how I invited you into my home to talk about listing it for sale?

Imagine if the listing presentation were, like a Zillow commercial, all about the seller. I know Linsey tries to train her agents to make it all about the seller, their motivations, their pricing, their home, etc. etc. I know Sue has had experiences walking into a listing appointment, having a 15 minute conversation, never once opening the laptop, and walking out with a signed agreement… because the entire conversation was about the seller.

Wouldn’t that be more effective?

The Big Picture Question

I wonder in the big picture whether it’s not high time for real estate companies and agents to really shift their philosophy of marketing. For a hundred years, it seems that real estate marketing has been all about “ME ME ME” and so very little about “THEM THEM THEM”. That seems odd for an industry that is premised on fiduciary responsibility and client service.

Zillow comes along and makes its entire campaign about the consumer: their hopes and dreams, their experiences, their life stories. And it resonates with people in ways that no real estate company advertising ever has.

The good news is that the sophisticated marketers in real estate are learning the lesson. Remember that REMAX commercial above? Well, here’s their latest:

Still a bit heavy on the “you need a guide” and “with a REMAX agent” but still, the philosophy is far better. As a consumer, I’d much prefer this focus on me with a touch of the REMAX agent. It’s a huge improvement.

And then you have the pioneer for real estate companies, Coldwell Banker. More than anybody else, CB understood the need to shift the philosophy, at least for television.

Here was Coldwell Banker’s commercial in 2010:

Egads. Ugh. I got in trouble with my never-shall-be-named bosses because I disliked the campaign and said so in a blogpost.

Well, in 2012, Coldwell Banker abandoned the “all about us” philosophy, hired Tom Selleck as the voiceover guy, and started an extremely effective set of commercials:

The Coldwell Banker campaign actually predates the first Zillow TV commercial in September of 2012. I’d say that makes CB the pioneer.

But it hasn’t filtered throughout the entire marketing philosophy just yet:


I do understand that there is a need to differentiate for brokerages and real estate brands. There is a place for telling consumers why they should choose brand X over brand Y, or choose us over the other guy.  I’ll say this… it would be a fascinating assignment as a marketer to figure out how to do that differentiation while keeping the consumer foremost in all of the branding and marketing. How to differentiate, while keeping the overall philosophy all about them, them, them.

Finally, Social Media…

I don’t have a whole lot to say here, because I’ve been making this point since… oh… 2009? For as long as I can remember?

Social media “marketing” is often mis-used by real estate professionals, because their fundamental philosophy is ME ME ME. They want to talk about themselves, their accomplishments, and even post their listings on Facebook.

My social media strategy can be summed up in one sentence:

Get THEM to talk about you on THEIR social media platforms.

The only way to do this, of course, is for you to deliver an amazing consumer experience, or for you to be interesting and valuable and funny and personable and so on and so forth. And since the old adage is “Interested is interesting”… well, you get the picture.

Make it about them, and your so-called “social media marketing” shall pay dividends. Again, this is about the philosophy of marketing.

Time to Change

We can go on and on about this topic, actually, but let’s wrap it up. I think it’s high time for marketers in real estate companies, for brokers, and for individual agents to really think long and hard about their philosophy of marketing. Think really hard about your focus, your stance, your “lean” if you will: is it about THEM or about YOU? Look at your website: is it about THEM, or about YOU? Look at your business card, your brochures, your signs, your everything and ask that question over and over again: About Them, or About Us?

If the latter, well, in the social age, in the Internet era, I’m not sure if that’s as effective. I think it’s time to change.

Your thoughts and comments are particularly welcome on this one, since y’all are the best informed audience in real estate, with far more hands-on experience with marketing/advertising real estate services. What do you think?


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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26 thoughts on “Is It Time for Real Estate Marketing to Change?”

  1. What’s really cool is that real estate agents are poised to kick Zillow right square in the butt where they need it. Zillow cannot deliver the experience like an agent can, all agents gotta do is quit talking about themselves and start focusing on the experience of the customer.

  2. An agent could increase their revenues by a double digit percentage just by crossing out every instance of “my” “mine” “our” “we” “I” “I’m” and “I’ll” in their marketing and rewrite the statements to use the words “you” “your” “yours” and “you’ll.” This is copywriting 101, it’s been proven for over 100 years, and you can do this in an afternoon.

    Most people are just like most agents… they really don’t give a damn about anybody other than themselves. All they want to talk about is themselves. So if you want to successfully market given that truth simply stop talking about what you care about (You, and how awesome you are) and start talking about what they care about (Them and their needs). Don’t write to your entire market, write to one prospect in your marketing and talk about them and the experience that they will have with you.

    The war cries against Zillow clearly demonstrates this lack of understanding: “They stole MY listings. They’re selling me back MY leads.” They’re not YOUR listings. That home is the vast majority (or ALL) of your client’s net worth, not a bunch of data on a website. Not bait for your next lead. If you can respect that and demonstrate to your client that you are 100% there for them, not 100% there for yourself, then you’re going to win.

  3. This may be a bit direct, but it’s honest. Most brokerages offer consumers the same value proposition; the four “P’s”. That leaves the personal portrait as their differentiator. Probably not going to be enough as we work through the changes brought on by the Internet. ☺

  4. RSH~ as you know, when you talk about Zillow I have something to say. Something that blows my mind is you feeling “Zillow” is all about the consumer. In spite of what you believe, I say Zillow does not care about the consumer, instead Zillow cares about getting eyeballs to their site (at all cost) and Zillow cares about filling their own pockets.

    Let me explain. The reason I say Zillow doesn’t care about consumers is simple. First let’s look at the dreaded Zestimate. By choice Zillow’s Zestimates are inaccurate and I know for a fact Zillow loves the attention. Every day a home owner goes onto Zillow and complains about the inaccurate home value placed on their home by Zillow (real nice.) But Zillow loves that because every day Zillow gets eyeballs onto their website. Just think of the Howard Stern syndrome, people that hate Howard tuned in and listened longer than the fans of Howard. And let me tell you more home owners hate Zillow verses liking Zillow (and I don’t blame them.)

    Secondly, “if” Zillow cared about consumers, Zillow would not have a plethora inaccurate outdated listings. I can’t tell you how many times I have to tell a buyer “sorry” the home they thought was for sale sold six months ago. And believe me when I tell you “when consumers find out just how awful Zillow’s listing information is, they end up hating Zillow, too!

    And BTW: Zillow’s traffic numbers are way off, too. Zillow overstates their traffic. Zillow counts one visitor as four visitors

    The notion Zillow cares about consumers is just crazy, or at least it is from my position….

    • “By choice Zillow’s Zestimates are inaccurate and I know for a fact Zillow loves the attention.”

      Do you genuinely believe Zillow is keeping Zestimates inaccurate on purpose?

    • I am 90% convinced that Zillow killed your dog, on purpose, and it’s been hushed up. Either that or your wife ran off with Spencer Rascoff. Trying to think of a reason why (a) you’re so obsessed with Zillow, and (b) why you hate them so much. 🙂 It was the dog, wasn’t it? You can let go now. She’s in a better place…. 🙂 Heh.

      Read my post again: “Zillow commercial is (and has always been) all about the consumer.” The key word there is “commercial”. 🙂

      • RSH~ no Zillow did not kill my dog and no my wife and Spencer did run off together. Once your trust has been broken, it is hard to ever trust that company again. And Zillow broke my trust along time ago. And as far as letting it go, I have. But Zillow continues their evil ways, and because of that I am continually disgusted by there actions and behaviors.

        And as far as the commercial goes. Caring about the consumer means providing the consumer with valuable information, and when it comes to buying or selling a home; a local professional REALTOR is the most valuable asset a buyer or seller can have. And since Zillow hasn’t ever mentioned that important fact, I say they don’t care about providing the best message to consumers… On the other hand does an amazing job providing consumers with valuable information and they show they actually care about the consumer. (

  5. “Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.”
    ― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

  6. Zillow is doing their job, and doing it well. They are quite correctly concerned with returns to their shareholders above all else. They balance their treatment of Brokers, Agents and Consumers against their need for profits and will do what makes them most money while keeping Consumers, Brokers and Agents happy enough to stay with them. That does not make them bad people. They are simply working in their interest, not yours.

    • Don Stewart, you nailed it. Just because you might not like what Zillow is doing, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it 100% right.

  7. How ironic Zillow is winning the hearts of the consumer when Inman just reported a study by Morgan Stanley uncovered listing agents are double siding transactions as a direct result of Zillow paid ads. Here’s the post:
    How is that protecting the buyer or the seller? It doesn’t. It protects the income stream of Zillow and the listing agent. Consumers are duped again but then again…I’m seeing that everywhere. Now we know how the pay for that beautiful advertising. Yuck!

  8. I’m shaking my head at how many smart people are missing the point: Consumers are responding to the focus being on THEM. They’re tired of the average agent/brokerage blathering on & on about how great they are, instead being attracted to someone who listens & understands their own unique needs.

    The issue isn’t about Zillow/Trulia/ or any of that – it is about HOW we market & WHETHER consumers are responding to it.

  9. Can’t we keep bitching about the evil empire and the Zestimate? Isn’t that where every single real estate conversation between agents / brokers should go? Wait… I think I understand. Customers don’t give a shit – what they care about it effective marketing that focuses on them / their needs. Is that it? And, if so, should I stop sending postcards / promoting the fact that I made the platinum embossed gold star club and capped out in March? Because I think that’s relevant to the consumer… said no consumer EVER!

  10. Rob,
    There are real estate companies out there that are trying to connect with consumers on all different levels. The ads you grabbed her suck….that is no big surprise. There is a lot of this kind of stuff – mostly from franchise companies that provide agents with the most basic “technology and marketing”. Yet there are some of us out there that are trying to come up with clever stuff, whether it is email, video, general marketing, mailing, etc. We do focus on the consumer – and maybe that is why we can be successful in separating ourselves from the masses. Anyone who uses the crummy listing presentations that you referenced probably isn’t getting any business. The consumer who says…”I don’t care about that stuf”f, does care about how his property will be uniquely marketed, how we will communicate, how the process work, etc.

    In conclusion there is some good work being done – its just sometimes hard to find.

  11. A recent Fannie Mae study showed that 69% of Americans have >20% equity in their home but only 37% realize they do. Fannie Mae’s conclusion: there are potentially many homeowners wanting to move but don’t realize they can.

    Studies show that between 36% and 40% of Americans still believe you need a minimum down payment of 20% to qualify for a mortgage. This misconception is preventing buyers from moving forward (and not just first time buyers!).

    If we truly want to put the consumer first, it comes down to three words: educate, educate, educate.

  12. Great article Rob! I don’t think any of can disagree about the superiority of the warm and fuzzy marketing that focuses on the consumer. It’s truly what it’s all about. And I’m a big supporter of Zillow and honestly like that Zestimates are inaccurate because it makes ME more valuable and needed. But the the real challenge here is how to keep marketing with a consumer-centric focus while differentiating ourselves in a highly competive field. If I go up against another agent or brokerage in my market and both of us have marketing focused all on the consumer, how can that consumer make an informed decision on whom to choose? So many differences exist in experience levels, marketing budgets, area knowledge and the savvy consumer deserves to know what they’re getting.

  13. I haven’t done a listing “presentation” in years. I take a notebook, pen, and my camera (a professional DSLR). I also hire a professional photographer, but the camera is there to make the point later that we don’t use cell phones or point and shoots. I don’t bring a CMA or anything professional – except one glossy trifold brochure that is all about the SELLERS and what we do for them, not about us. At the appointment I ask them to give me a tour of their home (I take notes) then we sit at the kitchen table. That’s it. I have a listing contract filled out except for price that I pull out at the end and ask them to sign – if we are a fit. But I don’t do a formal “all about me and how great I am” pitch. 90% of the time I am not being interviewed. I walk in and have the listing already – based on my reputation or referral. The times I am being interviewed, I let them talk about them and their needs more than I promote me. It works, but you have to know what you are doing and have confidence to pull this off. Many agents are lacking in one or both those points.

  14. Thank you Rob! Great points about agents putting themselves at the center of the listing process without regard for the emotions and motivations of the seller. Enough of this “me, me, me” mentality.

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