An expert offers 10 suggestions you may not have considered. By Charles Wardell
Like most people these days, when Philippa Gamse was thinking of buying a new home, she started looking at home builders' Web sites. She was decidedly underwhelmed. "I didn't find myself raving about any of the sites," she says. "Most didn't make the emotional connection with me that I needed." Hackneyed phrases, like unparalleled comfort and unsurpassed living, only hurt builders' credibility. Worse, many sites required her to understand what she considered to be jargon.
For instance, she couldn't grasp how 1,500 square feet of space would feel different from 2,000, and none of the sites explained it to her. She suspects that builders, to whom homes are products for sale, lose touch with their buyers' anxiety and excitement. "I want someone to hold my hand and guide me through the process," she says. "This is my dream you're talking about--the biggest investment that I've ever made; it's not about buying a can of soup."
Gamse's frustrations could be typical of any buyer, but her ability to articulate them is unusual. That's because Gamse is a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Web consultant and professional speaker (www.CyberSpeaker.com) who helps companies around the world create technology strategies and tune up their Web sites. Her conclusion: While a failure to see things from buyers' point of view may cause them to abandon your site, the problem is easily corrected. So from the perspective of a potential buyer and a Web marketer, here are 10 tips to help keep people on your site:
1. Get emotional. Good salespeople know how to connect with buyers' emotions. Too bad their companies' sites so often don't. For example, natural light means more to many people than square footage. For some, it's the No. 1 requirement. Give them a feel for the home by giving some indication of how light its interior will be. Are the walls painted a light color? Can buyers have south-facing windows in the rooms where they want them? Views are also important. What will they see out the windows? Will the bedrooms be oriented so they won't hear any road noise at night? Don't expect buyers to understand that it depends on the lot: Tell them their choices. Other people want to know how far it is to the supermarket. 2. Assume ignorance. During her search, Gamse went to one site to look for a multi-level, two-bedroom house. She got a cryptic error message. "I had never bought a home, and I didn't know what the problem was. It just came back and told me I didn't know what I was doing." When she asked someone about it in person, he told her that the builder probably didn't offer two-bedroom plans. How was she supposed to know? Anyway, she had crossed that builder off her list.
3. Give every page a strategy. Whenever someone calls up a page on your site, you should know what they're doing and where you want them to go next. And you should lead them there. Doing so may be as simple as providing a "click here to have us call you" link next to your floor plans. Or if a particular development is sold out, you can invite the visitor to join your mailing list so you can tell them when something similar becomes available.
4. Leverage testimonials. Quotes from happy customers gushing about your company connect powerfully with potential buyers. Gamse says that people often choose a company on the strength of a testimonial. So rather than burying these in the "about our company" section, put them on your start page. Or at least put a "Testimonials" link there, as Kimball Hill Builders do (www.kimballhillbuilders.com). A testimonial can be as simple as a short thank-you note from a customer. You can even write them yourself--and ask customers to sign them. If you've treated them right, you will be surprised how happy they are to help.
You should also capitalize on editorial mentions, which carry more credibility with buyers than paid advertisements. That's why Centex Homes site (www.centexhomes.com) tells you that Fortune magazine named it one of the best companies in America. You can even turn bad news to your advantage. If you've taken steps to make your homes mold-resistant, for instance, say so on your Web site.
5. Market local. Listing your homes on large sites like www.newhomesource.com is great. But if you're marketing to people moving into the area, many of them will start their search at the local newspaper's Web site. You should be there, too.
6. Speak their language. If you work with communities where a substantial number of people speak a language other than English, it should go without saying that it makes sense to have content in that language. But if you have Spanish language listings, make sure you have someone on staff who can respond to Spanish language inquires.
7. Provide floor plans and brochures as a pdf (Acrobat format). Builders often have floor plans on their sites. People will want to print them to show to family and friends. You can satisfy this need with a pdf brochure. Companies like Media Lab in Tampa, Fla., (www.medialabonline.com) let you print custom brochures even when using interactive floor plans.
8. Monitor your functionality. Web sites often lose functionality after a time. If your site is hosted remotely, and the host computer crashes, the hosting company may not reset your forms when its computer is back online. Then, when a potential buyer sends you a note asking that someone call them, you may not get it. To keep this from happening, have someone on your staff go through the site as a buyer would to make sure everything works. Have them fill out all the forms, and test all the functions. Do this every week, if possible.
9. Play traffic cop. Just because you're getting lots of leads from your site doesn't mean it's meeting its potential. To find out, review your site's traffic report. If you're getting 200 leads per month but had 200,000 visitors, you're not getting a high response rate. You may want to ask why people are leaving your site. If you're getting all the leads you need, you may not feel you have to worry about your response rate. But when business slows down you will be glad you did.
10. Consider paying for position. People usually click on the first links returned by a search engine. But since free search engines are increasingly difficult to maintain good positioning in, Gamse recommends that you investigate paid ones, specifically Google and Overture. Google, the better known of the two, supplies sponsored links to AOL, while Overture does the same thing for Yahoo!. Each returns its free search results, along with a number of sponsor links.
Here's how it works: If you searched on Yahoo! for "home builders in Dallas," at the end of July, Morrison Homes (www.morrisonhomes.com) would have been the second sponsor listing and Centex the third. Both bid how much they were willing to pay Overture for each visitor that clicked through to their sites. The same search on Overture would have shown that Morrison was second because it was willing to pay 17 cents per click-through instead of Centex's 16 cents.
These are just a few of the things you can do to increase your Web site's effectiveness. Gamse provides suggestions for promoting your site in a free tipsheet available at her own site. To get it, go to www.CyberSpeaker.com/tipsheet.html.