Sweet Home On The Market

My house is on the market. We weren’t really looking around frankly, but something fell into our lap on the other side of town a couple of months ago, and sure enough, we’ll be moving over the summer.

In the four years since we last moved, the real estate industry has completely transformed itself. Today, thanks in no small part to the Internet, finding a home is an easy, efficient, almost entirely online process, where buyers and sellers are perfectly matched in a fraction of the time it once took.

Ha, ha! Of course I am totally kidding. The fact is, nothing much has changed in the four years since I last sold a house. Sure, buyers can search for homes on the web at places like Realtor.com, but the descriptions are vague, the pictures are small, and the goal of these sites is (as it always has been) to get you to pick up the phone and call a broker.

And that, I now realize, is what’s been bothering me. Here I am, sitting on a house and property that I know has many terrific, interesting, not so obvious qualities, and yet to any potential home buyer, these features are completely hidden by the established approach to marketing a home (i.e. six tiny photos and a one paragraph description).

In other words, I know that many of the people who walk in the door will like what they see, but how do I break through the clutter and get them in the door in the first place? If this sounds a lot like the dilemma you face every day in marketing your professional service firm, stick around, I’ve got some suggestions.

After describing the situation to my friend Howie Jacobson – one of the most insightful direct marketers I’ve ever met (he’s so insightful, he doesn’t even do direct marketing for a living any more) – he suggested I build a web site. A web site which tells the story of my house in a personal, authentic, more-than-just-how-many-bedrooms-and-bathrooms-does-it-have kind of way.

I thought it was a terrific idea, and so on Wednesday, I spent all day writing it and putting it together (you can see it here: www.28WestElm.com). When I was done, I realized one very important thing…a thing which completely relates to how you as a professional service firm market your business:

Forget the features, spend time telling stories. I’m not saying features don’t matter, but if everybody has the same ones, features quickly fade into the background.

Take a look at this. Here’s an excerpt from the one paragraph description of my house on Realtor.com:

“The cabinet packed cherry eat-in kitchen has a bay window overlooking a level back yard with a large deck and screen porch nearby.”

Not bad, until you read an excerpt from another, similarly priced house in town:

“The home features a cabinet packed kitchen, hardwood flooring, open floor plan, good size bedrooms, master suite with bonus room and fireplace and finished lower level.”

And another:

“Upgraded woodwork & moldings, cherry kitchen w/granite counters, hardwood floors on all 1st floor.”

Frankly, I can hardly pick my own house out of the mix, since all the descriptions use the exact same tone and nearly the same words. If I’m having trouble, how can I expect to attract the perfect home buyer?

Similarly, when you describe your firm and its principals with overused words and phrases like “conscientious;” “dedicated;” “committed to excellence;” “offering personalized service;” etc., you sound like all the others.

Stories on the other hand, have two important things going for them:

  1. Stories add warm flesh to the dry bones that are features. A disgusting metaphor I admit, but accurate all the same.

    It’s one thing for me to tell you that my property is 1.44 acres. It’s something else entirely for me to show you a photo of my kids skating on a 70 x 30 foot ice rink in the front yard, accompanied by this snippet: “Sure, we could all skate across the street on the pond, but that’s a three or four times a year event. As close as it is, it’s still a hassle. My kids are out on our rink every single day, all winter long, and it’s like a magnet for their friends (plan on going through a lot of hot chocolate).”

    Suddenly, 1.44 acres means something.

    You’ve got the same opportunity, every time you publish your newsletter or update your web site. Start by showing pictures of real people in your firm, and get rid of those antiseptic, stock photos of “businesspeople” looking vaguely constipated as they eagerly take in a PowerPoint presentation. Why hire models or buy images when you’ve got real, live, human beings right there in your office? Hire a photographer (or do it yourself) to walk around your office with a camera for a couple of hours.

    Talk about real client projects in everyday language. Focus in on what you learned, as opposed to what you do. In essence, help readers (your prospects) smell the hot chocolate and hear the blades sliding over the ice. That’s when they’ll decide to hire you.

  2. Stories are hard to steal.

    One thing I’ve noticed since putting my house on the market is that at first blush, most homes seem to have the same stuff: bedrooms, basements, kitchens, decks, etc. I can use all the flowery adjectives I like to describe my particular stuff, but in general, all you hear is “blah, blah bathroom,” “blah, blah, screen porch.”

    If, on the other hand, I tell you the story of my screen porch, and describe how I, “…dedicated an entire weekend to installing new screen wherever it was needed. I even spent half a day crawling around underneath the porch floor (yuck) with a staple gun in one hand and a roll of screen in the other, just to secure the floor from bugs,” I own it. Nobody else can tell my story (authentically).

    Your firm’s experiences are similarly unstealable. Nobody else can write about how you and your partner raised money for charity in a 5K run last year. Nobody else can talk about the president’s dog who comes to work every day. Nobody else can explain how attending an overcrowded pool party over the weekend reminded you of one of the principles of good market research.

    You’ve got an endless supply of unique experiences — we all do — and by weaving them into your communications, you differentiate yourself from your equally skilled and equally qualified competitors.

Bottom Line: The truth is, I don’t yet have proof as to whether or not this unconventional approach to marketing a home will work (although I intend to get it). What I do know however, beyond any doubt, is that when it comes to marketing a professional service, personal stories told from real experiences absolutely make the difference.

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