Two of the industry’s largest home builders are reaching out to the growing numbers of customers that prefer to research buying decisions online and, increasingly, through mobile devices. Two weeks ago, Los Angeles-based KB Home launched a new mobile Web site that its buyer prospects can use to access information about KB’s communities, floor plans, and prices. Cellphone users can reach the company site, www.kbhome.com, via their mobile browsers, which direct them to the mobile Web site. This feature also allows users to instantly dial the sales office of a community in which they might be interested.
“The goal of the mobile site launch is to ensure relevant and useful information about KB homes and communities is accessible to home buyers wherever they are and whenever they need it,” Wendy Marlett, KB’s senior vice president of sales, marketing, and communications. “As more people view their mobile device as a primary connection to the Internet, we want to ensure that they receive a rich mobile experience.”
Cellphones are becoming the research tools of choice for more Americans, according to a study released last summer by the Pew Research Center, which found that nearly one-third of all users have accessed the Internet through their phones. On a given day, Pew found that nearly 20% of users go online via their mobiles.
A significant number of those mobile units are iPhones or iPod Touches. More than 50 million of these devices have been sold worldwide, and Information Week quotes industry sources who estimate that Apple will sell 10 million iPhones this quarter alone. Companies in virtually every business sector are now scrambling to develop applications that can be offered free or sold for use on these devices.
One of these companies is Shea Homes, which about 40 days ago became the first national builder to make available a free “app” that acts as a digital and interactive brochure, and can be downloaded onto an iPhone from Apple’s iTunes’ AppStore. Walnut, Calif.-based Shea Homes is offering this app for its family communities in Arizona (where nearly 90% of Shea’s customers were already coming to the company first online), Colorado, Northern California, San Diego, and Southern California. Ken Peterson, Shea’s vice president of sales and marketing, told BUILDER on Monday that since launching this application, Shea has had 1,200 downloads of data. A similar app for iPod Touches should be ready by the end of this month. And Shea is planning to launch apps for its new Spaces collection of homes (which Peterson says will be more robust and include picture galleries) and its Trilogy active-adult homes and communities in January. The Trilogy app, he says, will provide more about the communities’ lifestyle amenities.
Shea’s enthusiasm for using social media tools for communications and marketing purposes seems to be coming from its CEO, Bert Selva. “We have had success with Facebook, Twitter, and blogs,” he said in a prepared statement about the iPhone app launch. “Our customers continue to embrace new technology. With our new app, customers will be able to find detailed information about all of our communities.”
Peterson says his company first heard “rumblings” from buyers about mobile access earlier this year in focus groups that Shea conducts regularly. “They mostly came from our Gen X and Y customers” who were asking why the builder wasn’t making more of its community data available through mobile devices.
He explains that the company decided to introduce an iPhone app first because of the growing market penetration of that device. In a PowerPoint presentation the company prepared for its Shea Homes Colorado division, and which Peterson provided to BUILDER, the company notes that iPhones have captured more than 30% of the U.S. market for smartphones, and that iPhone uses account for more than 70% of all mobile web traffic in this country. Shea also states that its iPhone app would cover 70% of the smartphone users who access websites via their cellphones.
Once this app is downloaded, iPhone users who open it for the first time are greeted by a “Welcome” page, which includes some basic information about Shea Homes. From there, they can use touch-screen navigation to find homes in specific communities and drill down to get info about the houses themselves, including elevation images and floor plans. iPhone users can also touch labels on their screen to call or email the community, get driving directions to the development, and share the information with friends. (Peterson says Shea has assigned staff to respond to emails about nine hours a day, seven days a week.)
The app also leads users to Shea’s Facebook page and Twitter feeds, so buyers can learn what others think about Shea’s homes and neighborhoods. Users can subscribe to a “notify” list through which they would get updates about new communities.
“Our goal,” says Peterson, “is to start a conversation with our customers electronically.” In the process, the company should be able to reduce the number of physical brochures and other marketing materials it produces. And if a person is connecting with Shea Homes using a mobile device, the builder also asks: "How did you hear about us?"Peterson says the answer to those questions should help the company further analyze the effectiveness of its other marketing media.
John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.