The humble For Sale sign is such a fixture in residential neighborhoods that you barely notice it. It’s the only thing in real estate that seems to never evolve, as the changes in real estate have mostly been digital. Often consumers find interesting properties online before seeking a realtor, which creates a more informed marketplace. And with so many photos and 360 tours available at their fingertips, consumers can see attributes of a home they like or dislike before visiting a property.
But despite a ton of property-specific content, sellers often struggle to differentiate or command a premium, beyond the externalities within their specific sub-market. Neighborhood comps and price-per-square foot largely dictate what a house will sell for. Location, location, location wins almost every time.
Because its pricing is efficiently driven by the market, it could be argued that real estate is largely a commodity. But any good marketer knows that the goal is to escape commoditization through differentiation—and find buyers who appreciate your product’s premium differentiators.
To do this, we should take a closer look at the sales process in residential real estate. While realtors certainly make an effort to ensure standard quality photos are provided, and ample listing information is readily available, homes are often presented in a binary yes/no sequence.
External factors drive the majority of a home’s value, with unique characteristics of a home actually serving to lower demand. Unlike non-commoditized products such as luxury cars, the more unique a home, the lower the demand. Case in point: many people say a pool does very little to sell a home.
When unique and premium differentiators fail to drive value, the answer is always the same—the audience is unaware or unenlightened. Fortunately, this situation is very different in other industries, such as in music where niche, specialized bands often find a more dedicated and sustainable audience than generic pop bands.
But while the music industry has a culture of fanatical music education, consumption, and a community where difference is glorified, real estate thrives on sameness.
Perhaps this situation exists because no home can differentiate to the extent that it moves its own market pricing. In other words, real estate is destined to be driven by external factors. It may be the case that location so resoundingly determines value that a home’s features are simply an afterthought (unless they are unique and therefore self-limiting).
But for the sake of this discussion, let’s focus on real estate’s oldest companion, the For Sale sign. The fact that it hasn’t changed in our lifetimes means one of two things.
First, it could mean that the above argument is correct, and realtors are wise to focus on their own retail brand. This is a strategy for selling commoditized products wherein you differentiate with trusty service, access to information, inventory and expertise. However, it might mean the For Sale sign is a missed opportunity, a laggard in a future moving toward better marketing of homes, true differentiation, and a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of a particular house.
Some clues to the correct answer exist in the very makeup of the real estate industry. Realtors are as relevant or even more relevant in today’s information- and content-rich market. This is because for all of the data and media one can consume about a home, there is still information asymmetry; sellers will always know much more than buyers—especially those who are relocating. Realtors serve to correct this asymmetry and therefore sell a property.
With this in mind, realtors should embrace differentiation. Differentiation—especially pertaining to the nuances of a home and its architecture—is the very concept that makes their role in the transaction so important. To reject differentiation and focus primarily on market pricing is to reject the value of realtors.
Embracing differentiation requires a focus on difference. It requires increased sales efforts—and costs—as well as a desire to reject common schools of thought, treating real estate the way an inventor imagines new products. In some ways, differentiation could be worth much more than the typical 3% or 6% a real estate professional gets for a sale. With differentiation, the industry could see an increase in commission, which is the exact opposite from what the commoditization-crowd would like to see. With a shift to differentiation, commissions could profitably surpass 15% and sellers would be happy to pay it.
Improved differentiation would also encourage homeowners to more confidently improve their homes with unique features, knowing relevant buyers would be more likely to find and appreciate the improvements. This could yield a renaissance in residential architecture.
In an industry as mature as residential real estate, with market pricing so entrenched in its valuations, true differentiation at the home level may never match external factors. But this doesn’t mean industry professionals should dismiss this approach.
Nothing says commoditization more than the For Sale sign, yet here, local real estate firms and realtors have the opportunity to hijack the attention of passersby, 24/7. Given this opportunity, firms gravitate towards large printed brand logos, realtor names, and phone number(s). Sometimes you see ‘Pool’ hanging from the sign, or ‘lot size’, but little more. Nothing about home theaters, architectural uniqueness, kitchen upgrades, structural innovation, history or anything else that could be crammed onto a sign. To a real estate professional, such cosmetic elements sound frivolous, but to a marketer, if those features drive impulse and consumer appreciation on a small scale, they can do so on the larger scale, the collective scale too—if the right buyers see them.
For Sale signs are finite in size. But if Twitter can make a splash with 140 characters, much can be communicated on a sign that could inform buyers of premium differentiators. And adding more exciting content to an otherwise archaic sign would be an interesting and successful step in the direction of differentiation, premium pricing, and value created by the very important real estate professionals and the quality products (homes) listed by innovative sellers.
Communicating premium differentiators is best done through content marketing. Reimagining an old channel, such as a For Sale sign, is an innovative approach to content marketing, an exercise in ‘omnichannel marketing’ and a great opportunity to gain a competitive marketing edge by communicating valuable differentiators that will help command a premium for a property.