The Home Building Industry’s Dirty Little Secret about Online Lead Follow-Up

It’s no secret that since home builders and lead providers started generating Internet leads there has been a love/hate relationship between home builders and Internet leads. Builder’s love to get leads, and most sales teams hate to consistently follow up with them. Builders spend a small fortune generating these leads. In some cases, the cost of acquiring a single lead (i.e. a home shopper that registers and requests information on a home builders’ website) can be as high as $80.00. Online Leads are valuable, and most builders today know they need them, but like the dog that catches the car, once they get them, they don’t quite know what to do with them. This confusion about leads is woven so intricately through the fabric of home builder marketing that a cottage industry of lead generation and follow-up training now flourishes. Ask any Sales Manager, Division President or Sales Person from any home builder if they consistently follow up with all online leads, and you’ll get a resounding “Yes”. They bring in speakers to talk to their team about first-class follow up. They train their team in follow up techniques. They create campaigns contests to help their team become better at it, and though some builders do a better job of following up with shoppers than others, the short of it is that, in practice, much of this training seems to be falling on deaf ears.

In spite of the millions of dollars in sales training that builders spend each year teaching their sales team to follow up with online leads, the secret is that other than the automated follow up that happens at the corporate level, most builders just don’t place a priority on following up with online home shoppers.

We recently did an online “secret shop” in four hot Texas homebuilding markets (Dallas / Ft. Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin) to see the level, quality, and consistency of email follow up within the industry. The results surprised even us, but clearly showed us an opportunity for some builders to gain a competitive advantage.

Methodology

During the latter part of Q3 in 2017, we created 12 virtual home shopper identities. The group was demographically diverse and each shopper had a unique phone number, email address, desired location and price profile. Shoppers conducted online new home searches and shops with several builders and other lead generation companies such as Trulia, Zillow, New Home Source, Realtor.com and Hot On! Homes. Each time the shopper visited a new home search site, they registered with a name, email address and phone number as well as any other information requested by the builder or new home lead generation site. The goal was to determine builder response time, type of response (i.e., company or personal email), duration of responses, the type of response (text, call, email) and from whom within the organization the emails came. These virtual shoppers conducted online searches in over 1,200 home builder communities, representing 50 different homebuilders (both public and privately held). The shoppers shopped online for 45 days. The type and timing of all builder responses were reviewed.

The Results Opened our Eyes

Over the course of the next 4 months, builders responded to the 1,200 online shops with 2,116 emails but only 33 phone calls and 7 text messages. On the surface, while the phone call and text responses look pretty anemic, the email numbers seem to be in line with what we’d all expect. However, when we looked a little deeper we started to see some of the ways builders could really take advantage of the industry’s lack of attention toward Internet shoppers.

First Week Follow Up

Based on my discussions with builder sales and marketing teams, most indicate that it’s a top priority to respond to Internet shoppers quickly, but this wasn’t quite the way the responses played out. 89% of the builders that were shopped didn’t even respond to the email lead in the first 24 hours. 11% of the builders that were shopped followed up with a generic email in the first 24 hours with an average response time of just under 30 minutes. The number wasn’t much better for Online Sales Counselors (OSCs); 76% of the builder’s OSCs didn’t respond to the shopper in the first 24 hours. Of the 24% of OSCs that did respond, the average response time was close to 50 minutes after registration. Only 6% of onsite salespeople sent an email to the shopper. In all fairness, not all builders send leads to onsite salespeople, so this number may be a little misleading. The numbers were a little better for the first week (7 days following registration), but still much lower than we anticipated. 67% of the OSC’s replied with an email to the shopper during the first week, which is better, but you can’t help but think of why the shoppers were ignored by 33% of the builders.

Follow Up Fatigue Sets In: Emails Decline and Builders Loose Interest

Overall, each virtual home shopper received an average of 168 emails the first month and then “Follow-Up Fatigue” set in with the builders. The second month, shoppers received an average of 132 emails, 108 the third month and only 56 during the fourth month. Correspondingly, the number of builders participating in sending emails to shoppers also declined over the same term. Each home shopper “shopped” an average of 25 builders during the shopping phase of the study and in the first month, 72% (18) of those builders responded. The numbers started to decline significantly after that with 52% (13) of the builders responding at all during the second month, 40% (10) sent any emails the third month and by the fourth month, only 32% (8) were still in the game. The take away on this was that 28% of the builders that were shopped didn’t respond at all and nearly half stopped sending emails after 30 days.

Finally, all these numbers were really skewed by the performance of a single builder (Builder A in the graph below) that significantly outperformed all the others. This builder sent 12% to 57% of the emails any shopper received during a given month. The rest of the emails were distributed among the other builders. Taking this one builder’s efforts out of the mix reduces the number of builders participating by only one builder, the email counts would go way down. So, out of the 168 emails each shopper received on average during the first month, this builder averaged sending each shopper 20 emails, 38 the second (out of 132), 30 the third (out of 108) and 20 (out of 35) the fourth month. And, as you can see, some builders dropped their email follow completely after the first 90 days.

Everyone has a Phone, but No One Makes Calls

The phone call and text numbers are even more telling. Out of all the 1,200 online or website shopping visits and registrations, there were only 33 calls from builders and none were made by the OSCs. 16 of the builders were “one and done” in the phone call department and 7 builders made more than one call. 17 of the calls were made in the first 24 hours following the shopper’s registration. Builders didn’t text the home shoppers either. Out of the 7 text messages that the home shoppers received, only 1 came from a builder. The other 6 came from real estate agents. Contacting Internet shoppers by phone or text is clearly not a home builder priority.

 The Opportunity

In all this data there must be an opportunity for the savvy home builder; The good news is, there is.

First, take advantage of a home shopper’s “Intent Window”. This is the time that the shopper is actually on a real estate website and the only time during the day that a builder can be absolutely sure a shopper is actually interested in shopping for a new home. According to Google benchmarks, most home shoppers only remain on real estate websites less than three minutes. If you can get your email to the shopper during this “Intent Window”, you should have close to a 40% open rate. In our own experience at Hot On! Homes, emails that we send to shoppers while they are on our website shopping have close to a 50% open rate. Most builders have completely abandoned trying to reach shoppers during their “Intent Window” and don’t even respond the first day. The 24% that do respond the first-day average a 20-minute gap between registration and email delivery. If you’re looking for “ready now” buyers, send them emails about your specs or specials while they’re actually shopping for a new home. Dominate the “Intent Window”, and you’ll find buyers.

Second, you’ve got to get the shopper before you get the sale. Online leads and walk-up traffic are two different animals and marketing teams should treat them appropriately. Walk-ups have already decided to buy a home; the only decision is will they buy your home or buy one from someone else. 96% of the online leads you’ll receive won’t be ready to buy for several months and some will even decide not to purchase a home at all. The emails delivered to them make two mistakes. First, they treat these shoppers as though they’re ready to buy in the next thirty days, so the emails are loaded with urgency, inventory homes and limited time incentives, and other offers that are just not germane to the shopper at this point in their search. Some online shoppers are trying to determine if they really want to or should buy a home. Others are curious about mortgage, credit, energy efficiency or sustainable product. Still, others are confused about the real differences between a new home and a used home. Crafting emails that address these concerns, while they incorporate your unique selling propositions and comparative advantages will help them along their path and establish a value-based relationship between them and you. While following up with a walk up is all about the sale, following up with an online lead is all about the relationship. You can’t make a sale online, but you can lose one. This is the stage where builders lose sales- by making online shoppers feel that all you care about is selling them a home. Rather than worrying about losing a sale (that may not happen for 6 months), focus on getting the shopper.

Third, timing is everything in comedy and online lead follow upFrom the standpoint of the online lead shopper, builders seem to be doing everything backward. When the online shopper isn’t really ready to buy, we treat them as though they are, and when they’re nearing the time that they’ll probably start to make buying decisions, we ignore them. A more appropriate approach to home buyer follow up may be to deliver “Buy Now” introductory emails to the shopper during their “Intent Window”, and then reduce the intensity with content appropriate follow-up during the first two months, then increase the intensity during the months 3 through 6 with inventory and promotional emails.

Summary

The secret is that while builders spend a lot of money getting the email addresses of online shoppers and most have convinced themselves that they’re doing a great job of follow-up, there are significant gaps in their approach regarding timing, content, and intensity that leave this lead follow-up landscape wide open for the right marketing team. While their focus is to find a short-term payoff- there are clearly more sales down the road from online leads than there are in the 30 days following their registration. Builders who organizationally take a long-term view of nurturing online leads and cultivating better relationships with these shoppers will enjoy a bountiful sales harvest down the road.

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