Marketing real estate ads: yesterday and today

Photo by mali maeder from Pexels

In the 1980s, real estate agents had to advertise properties in the newspaper to be competitive. With no Internet, almost no exclusive listings and no co-brokerage, the only way to attract customers (other than through your sphere of influence) was to entice them with newspaper ads. For us in New York, that meant placing as many

New York Times
classifieds as we could afford (I remember being thrilled when, at 29, my advertising budget had increased to 3 classifieds per week!) and fighting for coveted spaces in our monthly New York Times Magazine. That was it. The Classifieds section of The Sunday Times ran to a dozen pages at this time, with all major companies subscribing two or three full columns a week. It was easy. It was straightforward. It worked, at least in part because real estate agents held the keys to the realm of available listings. Buyers could not enter without them.

Internet: same, same but different

This all changed with the advent of the Internet. Today’s system for marketing lists has completely changed, while remaining surprisingly the same. While there’s a lot more noise around the core process, that process still involves agents posting listings (now online instead of in print) and hoping prospects contact them. Of course, the rise of exclusive rather than open listings has brought other changes. Now, agents market other agents as intensely as potential customers. This, too, has become an online process: we create e-brochures that we send agent-to-agent and business-to-business by email to showcase our properties, and our competitors do the same, across the country. Big aggregators, like Zillow and, saw a huge opportunity here to jump into this multi-billion dollar market and build huge, heavily marketed websites that in one form or another sell to agents. prospects who previously came to us directly. Thus the parasitic noise…

Advertising on social networks

Increasingly, agents are also relying on social media to promote themselves, their listings, and their recent sales.

for the older generation and Instagram for the younger ones, both can offer huge reach to an organized audience for a well-crafted post. Best of all, unless you opt in to targeted ads, these promotions are free.

How to sell sellers

Print advertising no longer sells properties in most markets. As a result, most businesses in the country have cut back on print marketing drastically. Expensive and time-consuming to design and implement, today it serves more as a corporate brand builder and seller stopgap than anything else. Sellers love to see their properties in print (I’ve been a seller, so I know that’s true), even though they deeply understand that beautiful print ad will likely remain irrelevant as a sales incentive. As we say in my business, print ads don’t sell goods, they sell sellers. So we continue to place one or two in a high traffic location each month, trying to make them as visually appealing as possible.

The rise of agent branding

At the same time, the twin notions of corporate branding and individual agent have transformed the marketing landscape. Today, anyone can find ads online, but most people don’t have the experience or understanding to interpret them or follow through on a sale. Agents therefore need to sell their knowledge and experience as trusted advisors. Branding, a concept that didn’t even exist in our industry when I started, now occupies a critical place in the strategies of companies and individuals alike. Today, probably at least as many dollars are spent on it as on promoting registration. Print, in its various forms in newspapers and magazines, billboards and bus shelters, can create memorable images to promote a business, broker or team. This has become the main utility of the written press for real estate agencies today: to create notoriety and visibility for our companies and our agents.

Buyers also have their own agents

Every buyer now searches online the same way they used to browse the classifieds. The big difference is that online listings provide much more detailed information, including prices and addresses. Yet most buyers feel more secure with a buyer’s agent who represents them. It is usually these buyers’ agents who then schedule the appointments to view the properties, both those they have recommended and those the buyers have found online. So most sales today involve two agents rather than just one as was the case in the 80s. It’s better for everyone; each party now has an expert representative who advises them.

Why public visibility is important

The basic rhetoric of real estate listings, whether print or online, has remained much the same. Great photos and good copy spark interest now as they always have. The biggest differences between marketing then and now are twofold: aggregators and branding. Both Zillow and use our listings to drive customers to their sites, where they may either be offered additional services or sold to us. One of the few protections against this for agents is personal branding. In our increasingly brand-conscious world, creating public visibility is more important than ever; it allows agents to build a large enough network of reference companies to be less dependent on aggregators.

The next decade will likely bring additional changes to the way real estate and real estate agents are sold to the public. As agents, we always try to stay one step ahead.

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