Several years ago, retailers began inserting electronic billboards into video games. Sony has an advertisement in the virtual world Second Life, and the Adidas logo is splashed across a soccer stadium in the game FIFA.
Last winter, Century21 applied a similar strategy to real estate marketing and tapped into mobile gaming — a move that earned the firm’s chief marketing officer, Bev Thorne, a Stevie Award for Women in Business several weeks ago.
After watching a brief promotional video, users of We City — a smartphone device emulating real estate development, pictured above — can populate a virtual metropolis with homes and office buildings branded with the Century21 logo.
400,000 structures have been uploaded so far, and will remain a permanent fixture in the game. Already, the video has received 300,000 views.
“The goal is to reach young consumers,” said Mike Callaghan, the company’s vice president of digital marketing.
In 2008, according to the National Association of Homebuilders, over two thirds of first-time homebuyers were under the age of 35.
For Gen Y-ers planning to make a purchase further down the road, Callaghan’s team figured that a cell phone game would be a fun way to expose them early to the brand.
As a result, with the exception of a SuperBowl ad that aired last January, Callaghan said, “we’ve shifted a significant portion of our budget over to the digital side.”
Century21 is not alone. In a survey conducted by AT&T earlier this year, 88 percent of respondents expected to expand their mobile marketing programs over the next year, with smartphone apps the most popular choice, followed by the barcodes now ubiquitous on bus shelter ads and for-sale signs.
Since launching his own firm last year, Doug Heddings, a broker with offices in the Flatiron District and Southampton, estimates that 98 percent of his marketing budget has been devoted to web and mobile applications.
Much of the Heddings Group’s digital presence is directed towards making life easier for clients, rather than spreading word about the company. “One of my favorite apps is Open Home Pro, which basically allows you to run your open houses on your iPad,” Heddings said.
Through their smartphones, prospective buyers are alerted to price changes and updated meeting times.
Century21 has an app of its own, which allows house hunters to browse photos, prices, and descriptions of listings they happen to come across in real life.
“If they’re standing in front of a house, they can call an agent,” Callaghan said.
A related mobile tool clues in clients to the vibe of the surrounding community. “It shows what’s going in a neighborhood, what the demographics are,” Callaghan said. “It’s based on census data, so its accurate information.”
In addition, the app displays panoramic images of the area surrounding a listing, and links to a Wikipedia entry on the neighborhood or town. “It’s a useful way to explore and then narrow choices,” Callaghan explained.
Corcoran’s house-hunting app, which launched several years ago, links to Curbed articles to provide background information to buyers.
In October, Prudential Douglas Elliman — New York’s biggest residential services company — partnered with OnBoard LLC, a provider of local information on homes, schools and places of interest, to launch SpotIt, a social media application that identifies the best “Spots” in every neighborhood by pairing a nationwide database of local places with user generated votes.
The service, provided through the www.prudentialelliman.com Web site, engages consumers by providing them a way to both find and submit answers to such questions as “where is the best movie theater for kids?” or “Where’s the best dry cleaner near this home listing?”
“SpotIt is turn-key Web 2.0 for the real estate industry,” said OnBoard chief executive Marc Siden. “We built it for the express purpose of empowering our real estate industry partners to become Web 2.0 compliant right now. No delays, no development time or huge capital investment.”
Dottie Herman, Prudential Douglas Elliman’s president and chief executive officer, said the company recognized the power of SpotIt immediately.
“With SpotIt, we are able to offer a richer experience to consumers researching neighborhoods that goes well beyond anything available on the Web to date.
Now, someone looking at a community can not only pinpoint local amenities on a map — they can get the lowdown on which are the best from the people who actually live there.”
To keep up with the competition, smaller, newer firms have been quick to develop similar technology. “We have meetings on a regular basis to discuss our own branded apps,” Heddings said.
Though he works closely with an IT professional, Heddings does much of the firm’s digital strategizing himself: he has long been immersed in cyberspace, having launched True Gotham, a blog that tracks citywide real estate trends, years ago.
But for brokers just wetting their feet in mobile marketing, there’s a course at Broker Heaven, a continuing education company, on the use of apps like Bifolio, another favorite of Heddings’. “It’s an app to make the search and buying process more efficient, with online communication for all the people involved,” Heddings explained.
At Century21, where Callaghan said social media platforms like Facebook “have not been forgotten,” brokers are encouraged to ease into digital marketing by posting on Facebook or Twitter once a day, and responding regularly to comments.
“We’re not asking you to be on it eight hours a day. Start small, and then expand,” he often advises brokers unfamiliar with social media.
“We’ve heard some great success stories of people gaining listings through these channels.”
Indeed, the National Association of Realtors found that house hunters who used the internet in their search were more likely to purchase their home through a broker than those who steered clear of the web.
“Even three years ago, people were still skeptical about the power of the web to sell property,” said Eric Gordon of RealPlus, a technology consulting firm.
“Nowadays I wouldn’t be surprised if 50 percent, 60 percent, maybe 70 percent of leads are coming in through the internet.”
Gordon founded the company 27 years ago, when cellphones and computers were just filtering on to the scene.
Six years ago, he developed RealPlus Mobile, a PalmPilot tool that allows brokers to scour available properties on the go. “If they’re riding in a cab with a client, they can search for listings,” he said.
And if a client is enamored with a development, but not a specific apartment, the app lets brokers search what else is available in the building. The app, he said, is now available in a faster, more colorful format on the Android and iPhone. “It’s evolved,” he said.
With so many new-and-improved devices available, drawing in clients is a matter of clever design.
More Facebook “likes” translate to business, for instance, when the target audience is well-defined, according to a recent study by FaceItPages.com, a digital marketing firm.
At first, Susan Milner, a broker in Florida whose website was the focus of the FaceItPages study, received no calls whatsoever from house hunters that stumbled on her listings through a Facebook ad.
After adding two distinct tabs to her site – one directed to investors, another to buyers seeking waterfront property under $200,000 – and requiring fans to enter their name and email address before browsing listings, Milner began receiving two leads per day.
“Web-based marketing is everything now,” said Gordon.