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Words, words, words: How evocative listing copy helps to sell homes . . .

Mike Price at Mike’s Corner is kvetching about clumsy Realtor lingo, and while I’m with him on the main point, I have turf of my own to defend.

Sez Mike:

I’ve often wondered what consumers think when they are subjected to the same goofy tag lines and incomplete sentences that seem to proliferate the inventory of any MLS.

Indeed. It’s possible to overthink this stuff, though. I think most of what passes for experience in residential real estate is nothing more than thoughtless imitation — monkey-see, monkey-do, monkey-don’t-ever-test-the-results. I wrote about tin-eared Realtor marketing last fall, taking particular note of ‘riders’ on real estate signs.

But: I think there is more to this than clumsy cliches versus just-the-facts-ma’am. If that’s the only choice, I’ll take the facts. But my own preference is to express, as best I can, the features of the home as benefits and the benefits as the story of a life enriched and perfected by the home. We call this rhapsodizing, and the listings I like best are for homes about which I can wax rhapsodic at first glance. Most homes don’t seem to glow of their own light at sunset — ain’t that poetic? — but, even then, I’m looking to sell you your life in the home, not the mere details.

In an ARMLS listing, I get exactly 680 characters to do this. We give up space for the address of the home’s custom web site, so, ultimately, I get about 100 words, maybe 110. As you may have noticed, I can write more than 110 words.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Your Moroccan oasis in the city… The style is Spanish Eclectic, but the details come straight from Marrakech. In the midst of the brutal Phoenix summer, you’ve found a refuge that is… cool, shady, refreshing. From the lush gardens front and back to the interplay of light and shadow in the 1935 residence, from the luxury of the Kitchen, Master Suite and Guest House to the simple understated elegance of the Living Room and Formal Dining Room, from the travertine and hardwood floors to the Moroccan arches, this is a home like no other. Find your respite from the desert heat in this Story Historic District retreat.

I haven’t proved that this style is effective, but I believe it is. We’re specific and detail-oriented, but we’re using the details to evoke images and the images to tell a story.

Here is the same kind of approach for a production home:

Chaminade is as close as we can come to perfection on this Earth: Gated mountainside luxury. But imagine a perfect Chaminade home built and owned by perfectionists: A floorplan that combines stateliness with comfort, spaciousness with a warm, cozy togetherness. Picture thoughtful decorator touches gracing every room. Envision a backyard that is the perfect desert oasis — a shady patio, a masterfully-appointed outdoor kitchen, a beehive fireplace with conversation pit, and a playfully-perfect PebbleTec pool. Imagine all this and so much more. It’s so close to perfect you’ll never want to leave your new home…

My feeling, a rebuttable presumption, is that people can discern details from the listing and the photographs. I’ve got a scant 100 words to sell them. And since I don’t trust other agents to make my points, I’m selling them, too.

My goal is to answer every conceivable objection with passive marketing, since I may never have the chance to speak directly with the prospect. For that reason, we use copy everywhere. We get 250 characters per photo caption in a listing, and most often we use them all. There are miscellaneous wasted fields in the listing form, and we use those for bullet-point selling. I have a side-bar built into my flyer format. Often I’ll use that for just-the-facts-ma’am details, but, for exceptional homes, I use that space to tell a second story.

Witness:

Here, at last, is a home that dares to make a statement. The image of the Phoenix, a Thunderbird, vast, fierce and fearless, is too much betrayed by our architecture. Our homes are small and shy, aspiring only to a blandness and uniformity of form and finish.

This home, by contrast, is outstanding — it stands out from the crowd.

The style is called Adobe Revival. It’s built from concrete block, but it was designed to look like the Classic Adobe homes of the Southwest. It was built in 1936, the depths of the Great depression, when only a few dozen homes were built in all of Phoenix. Even so, it stands on a poured concrete slab, rather than a foundation. By 1940, this would be a common practice in Phoenix, but in 1936 a slab was a radical innovation.

Everywhere you look on the exterior of this home, you see the signs of an active mind — thoughtful details, exquisite ornament, the shape of antiquity with every comfort modernity demands. Where other historic homes were built — rigged, even — this home was designed. This is not a haphazard one-off precursor to a tract home. This is a one-of-a-kind treasure, an experience unrepeatable in Phoenix — or anywhere.

One of the things I’m doing is giving the buyer the rational/logical justifications for doing what he already wants to do. In other places, we’ll go at the same thing from the opposite direction, defending things we normally think of as being purely utilitarian with emotion. Because we build web sites for every listing, we have many opportunities to use the written word to sell our homes.

This starts out as a kitchen, but I want you to see it as the best part of your marriage:

In every house, not just this one, the Kitchen is the anchor of the home. It’s the most expensive room to build, and the most expensive to maintain and to restore. But it is also the most important room in the house — not simply because it is the locus of cooking, but because it is most often the focus of the lives of families. There is an intimacy to cooking and cleaning up that lends a bond of intimacy to the people doing that work together. It is in service of that bonding, and not merely for purely utilitarian functions, that this room has been so thoroughly restored and updated. A sumptuous meal prepared in a beautiful, professionally-equipped Kitchen — this is the trophy and testament to lives lived together wisely and well.

The truth is, there is nothing I can do to cause you to love a loathsome house. But I can help you find the reasons to love a home, if those reasons are there. And, at the same time, I am not representing myself as anybody’s paragon of copywriting. I stand in awe of giants who understand this far better than I ever will. There is no excuse for clumsy marketing, not in any form. But I think well-thought-out copy can be an important part of the process of marketing a home.

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  • 23 comments

    23 Comments so far

    1. Michael Price September 1st, 2006 12:20 pm

      I can see how the limitation of room to work with can be a challenge in writing effective marketing messages, but I think it’s possible to still make it sound professional. My beef is with the overall quality of the copy, the old school tag lines and just plain goofy use of lingo that seems to proliferate the entire database of most MLS’. Regardless of whether or not it is the MLS description or any other piece of marketing collateral, I think you would agree that copy writing is one of the things that is woefully inadequate in this industry.

    2. Greg Swann September 1st, 2006 1:23 pm

      > Regardless of whether or not it is the MLS description or any other piece of marketing collateral, I think you would agree that copy writing is one of the things that is woefully inadequate in this industry.

      Oh, you bet. We regard it, all of it, as a serendipitous feast set before us to devour!

    3. Jeff Kerr September 6th, 2006 8:38 am

      As the master of listing copy, thought you may get a kick out of this remark intro line below. No joke, a real live remark on our MLS. I couldn’t resist creating a post around this.

      “Sale includes current 951RACINE website domain !!!”

      http://www.chitownliving.com/blog/2006/09/06/domain-and-house-for-sale/

    4. Greg Swann September 6th, 2006 9:13 am

      > “Sale includes current 951RACINE website domain !!!”

      Now that’s enterprise!

    5. Sheron Cardin September 15th, 2006 6:32 pm

      I have been looking for an interesting blog and I believe I have found it. I hope I am not interupting a match game as it feels like I have stepped into one, however, I cannot resist!

      I have a wine broker and when he calls to describe his latest vibe, I just sit down and listen…the places he takes me to do not always translate when the wine arrives but who cares, I lived it for a few moments and I rush to open the highly anticipated juice hoping that this story is going to stick…and that is what sales is all about, right? “Selling a lifestyle”.

      I am adding an ebooklet as a companion to my Home Staging Instructions showing realtors how to tell a story through vignettes… creating the desired lifestyle using as little as possible. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

      Thanks for letting me tune in! I just created my own blog and it bores me so much that I am looking around to see what is going on out there. Thanks!

    6. Greg Swann September 15th, 2006 7:24 pm

      > I just created my own blog

      I like your home page, your weblog not so much, I think you need a more delicate theme for the subject matter. Precisely two cents’ worth of value. Nice to meet you!

    7. Tom Johnson October 16th, 2006 5:26 pm

      Greg- A quick question. ARMLS allows other websites in the public comments? HARMLS fines us if we link ANYTHING off site. I guess they don’t want extraneous linking, as they sell our data to someone.

    8. Greg Swann October 16th, 2006 8:35 pm

      > ARMLS allows other websites in the public comments?

      In the remarks section only. There is no prohibition on web sites anywhere, but you are forbidden to link to anything with the lister’s contact information in the photos, photo captions, virtual tour links or their captions. You can put any link you want in the public remarks section. We went through the rules line-by-line with the compliance officer to make sure we were stone cold righteous.

    9. [...] I think you’re twice a fool. We’re coming after our competitors on price because we already have them beat on service — and you know it. The farriers made your argument a century ago — with the same result. [...]

    10. John C December 27th, 2006 9:47 pm

      Great post! It really got me thinking about ways to use other text boxes more creatively, like the photo description you mentioned. I really need to beef up my photo descriptions. Another one I use is the space for “Lot Description” in our MLS. I noticed that if a “civilian” goes into our MLS public site and searches, the lot description field is one of the 5 or 6 default fields that pop up, so I really try to have a good one there.

    11. [...] Greg Swann over at bloodhoundrealty shows us that words are important when writing listing copy, it may help you sell more homes! [...]

    12. [...] Words, words, words: How evocative listing copy helps to sell homes . . . [...]

    13. [...] Archives There’s always something to howl about « Day of the Long Tail: How broadcasting lost its chokepoint [...]

    14. [...] is better, pure and simple and clean and cool and quiet and breathtakingly elegant. I know that good promotional copy sells homes. Imagine how effective it could be if it were read by, say… [...]

    15. [...] tours,” which are essentially off-site URLs. We use as many of these as we have content for. One of our working precepts is that the listing may be our only chance to make our case for the home…. If we can feed the buyer’s agent a good closing argument, we’ll do that, [...]

    16. [...] tours,” which are essentially off-site URLs. We use as many of these as we have content for. One of our working precepts is that the listing may be our only chance to make our case for the home…. If we can feed the buyer’s agent a good closing argument, we’ll do that, [...]

    17. [...] tours,” which are essentially off-site URLs. We use as many of these as we have content for. One of our working precepts is that the listing may be our only chance to make our case for the home…. If we can feed the buyer’s agent a good closing argument, we’ll do that, [...]

    18. Sue September 1st, 2008 8:22 am

      The key is creativity. I recall that it is good to write in a fashion that appeals to the senses, creates a “feeling” while giving the basic info.

      Sheron, I see you’re still blogging and it doesn’t seem to bore you so much anymore. ;)

    19. Teri L October 6th, 2008 8:14 pm

      >And since I don’t trust other agents to make my points, I’m selling them, too.

      I give an MLS print out to buyers, and I often wonder why more listing agents don’t understand this. I’d be grateful if the listing agent could be help me out a bit more- they know the home better than I. I also wonder if MLS descriptions are written by assistants who have never actually seen the home.

      >My goal is to answer every conceivable objection with passive marketing, since I may never have the chance to speak directly with the prospect. For that reason, we use copy everywhere.

      “passive marketing”? I have to go google that. Your marketing/salesmanship, is always based on answering objections? Everything you do is centered around this? I’m reaching here perhaps…

      Use tons of photos, virtual tours, long descriptive text, custom signs, price riders, open houses, business cards, websites, it’s late and I’m probably forgetting something- it’s all chosen to answer objections?

      Then you test, test, test to see if objections are answered this way or that way… Then when you find something that kills, you look for something that slays it?

      Either I’m stoopidly tired, or I just got a lot closer to figuring this out. :-D

    20. Greg Swann October 6th, 2008 8:41 pm

      > it’s all chosen to answer objections?

      > Then you test, test, test to see if objections are answered this way or that way… Then when you find something that kills, you look for something that slays it?

      All of the above. Taking away objections is half of the job of salesmanship. Inducing enthusiasm is the other half. Much of what we do on the listing side is drawn from direct marketing, the art of making a sale with passive devices like text and images.

      I should write a post about just this much, because it will be progressively more important to Realtors going forward.

      FWIW, this is a lot of what I want to talk about at Unchained in Orlando. Our way of doing things is going to matter more and more, first because the world is trending our way, and second because the Realtors who are playing with our ideas are going to be very fierce competitors in the coming years.

    21. Teri L October 6th, 2008 9:37 pm

      I shouldn’t attempt this when I’m nodding off, but…

      >Taking away objections is half of the job of salesmanship. Inducing enthusiasm is the other half.

      “What’s my added value” does both?

      And you primarily look for marketing ideas that bring/show added value to buyer, seller, and immediate and long term results for the brokerage, all at the same time?

    22. Greg Swann October 6th, 2008 11:04 pm

      > And you primarily look for marketing ideas that bring/show added value to buyer, seller, and immediate and long term results for the brokerage, all at the same time?

      No. I want to do some or all of that, but the primary objective of any particular marketing tactic is to move the customer one step closer to completing a transaction. Everything should close on an objective, and the particular marketing effort is designed to achieve that objective. From the bottom up, it sounds like a lot of eggs to juggle. But if you approach it from the top down — my objective is to close on this particular outcome — it’s easier to build and easier to test.

    23. dana February 14th, 2009 7:50 pm

      After reading a previous post about the importance of selling the benefit, not the feature, I thought it might be a useful exercise to try to identify the benefits in the four listings in this post. By better understanding what the benefits are in those listings, then will help me identify and talk up benefits for my own stuff.

      1142 West Willet: features include lush garden and thick walls. Benefit- cool home in brutal Phoneix summer.

      6509 West Misty: features include decorator touches throughout home, masterfully appointed kitchen. Benefit- move-in ready for somebody who doesn’t need to know or worry about design stuff.

      1102 West Culver: features include esoteric architectural features like hallway and telephone closet, adobe garage, o’keefe range in kitchen. Benefit- live in a historic home with unique story about it

      1134 West Culver: benefit is living in a authentic historic home with none of the work of trying to restore it to its past glory

      Are those benefits right? I’m still having a hard time trying to identify benefits in real estate; its easier for other products and commodities.