Reworked, revised, and revamped sites link builders to buyers at last. By Jay Holtzman

Can Internet marketing save the retail world? Well, no, despite claims to the contrary. But it can generate more and better qualified sales leads, cut sales cycle time, build prospect lists for e-mail marketing, create efficiencies throughout the sales process, and build the foundation for future move-up home sales. So say a growing number of builders who, with their second or even third Web site redesigns, learned how to get tangible results.

"Of those who purchase homes, our Internet leads close 40 percent faster than the leads we get off line," says Robert Brown, manager of Internet marketing for Phoenix-based Del Webb, now part of Pulte Homes. "I think it is because of the breadth of information available on our site. They are getting their questions answered on the Web before they come in to see us."

At Web-savvy Beazer Homes, the information that buyers pull from the site has similar effects, compressing the selling process. "Our most recent customer satisfaction survey showed that more than 56 percent of our buyers used the Internet for research during their new home search," says Jonathan Smoke, vice president and chief technology officer for Beazer Homes USA. "They know what they want, and a lot of the early stages of the selling process have been greatly changed by our providing information online."

Upgraded, beefed-up, and otherwise refined sites are beginning to pay off for builders like Del Webb and Beazer, who took top honors for their sites at last year's Nationals competition. Reaping substantial benefits from Internet marketing isn't nearly as easy as businesses were led to believe just a few years back. Both of these sites are the result of years of effort and thousands of dollars. Given what's involved, it's not surprising that most builder sites are still operating well below the potential of this dynamic and often maddening medium.

Web Dynamics

The nature of the medium and Web users' expectations of complete, accurate, and timely information combine to demand more from an organization than any traditional marketing tool. The more aggressive a company's Internet marketing, the more difficult it is to separate from IT, finance, construction, or other corporate functions. To do effective Internet marketing, consultants say, a builder has to put his own house in order first, and that may not be as easy as it looks.

Thomas Weston, who heads a Los Angeles advertising agency that has done Internet work for more than half a dozen major builders, has been surprised at how basic he needs to go. He recalls one big builder who recently wanted to develop a better Web site but hadn't taken into account a major impediment to efficiency: the computers in the company's sales offices didn't have Internet access.

"The very assumption that the site would be dynamic was undermined by the fact that the salespeople, who should have been in the most direct and intimate contact with their consumers, basically couldn't access the Internet unless they happened to have a connection at home," says Weston, president and CEO of the Weston Group.

It's not that builders are any less prepared than other types of businesses to embrace this new technology, Weston explains. "It is that some business structures may be at odds with full and decisive integration, especially when viewed as a cost, not an investment," he explains.

Building Credibility

Increasingly in this 24/7 world, prospects use the Internet as a fundamental part of their home search, whether they find a builder online or through traditional means.

"In the focus groups we conduct regularly, our customers tell us they researched builders as part of their decision process," explains Bill Pisetsky, vice president, sales and marketing for Shea Homes in Walnut, Calif.

A study Shea conducted recently in each of its market areas found that the home builder's reputation is either very important (73 percent) or somewhat important (20 percent) in consumers' purchase decision.

Pisetsky says this underlines the need for a site offering complete, accurate, and consistent information, which enhances and strengthens a company's reputation. "Our fundamental goal was to make all the information on the site 100 percent correct at all times," says Kellie Prince, manager of customer solutions for Shea Homes.

"What we are trying to do is drive the production of the Web site from our operational systems. This way you'll never have a scenario where you have one price listed for a home on our Web site and another at the community sales office or in the contract," Beazer's Smoke explains. Beazer does this by sending a data feed from J.D. Edwards via a new online sales application to company sites.

Goal: Interactivity

This also points out the need to coordinate not only information but the thrust of the site with that of the overall marketing program. At minimum, the Web address should be on all the marketing materials you create -- from brochures and billboards to radio and TV commercials. As always, the marketing should deliver a consistent message across all vehicles, not only to enhance the brand, but to avoid confusing prospects or putting them off. That's been standard advice since the Web first blipped onto our radar screens, though it's still not a matter of standard building industry practice.

Ideally, a business will think like customers to determine what they want and need. This was a driving force behind the latest version of Beazer's site, says Amanda Johnson, corporate marketing and Web director for the company.

"We wanted to make the site as user friendly as possible so they can get the information they are looking for with a couple of clicks," she explains. The goals: education, she says, and "providing them a reason to get to the sales office."

That's step one. Step two is engaging the buyer. The best builder sites are increasingly interactive to draw and hold prospects and give them an emotional stake in choosing a particular home.

One case in point is the "My Beazer Folder." It enables prospects to create a personalized folder where they can compare communities and house plans by a number of criteria. They can also sign up for automatic updates on plans and communities, all of which helps them make a decision and become more firmly committed to buying a Beazer home.

Once state-of-the-art, interactive tools such as a mortgage calculator, interest rate shopper, downloadable loan applications, and pre-qualification forms are now the basics. On the Del Webb site, consumers can apply for a loan and track its status through the borrowing process. It's this kind of interactivity that consumers increasingly want and expect.

Stronger Links

For builders, Internet marketing is big and getting bigger. The Web site "is probably the most important element in our marketing program," Johnson says. Del Webb refocused its advertising, with the tag line, "Log on. Live on," to drive consumers to the Web site, not directly to a sales office, according to Del Webb's Brown.

These and other builders continue to enhance their Internet marketing capabilities, creating opportunities to collect prospect e-mail addresses so they can maintain contact and reinforce the sales message -- and to interact more effectively when buyers arrive at the sales office. They are bringing traditional functions online. Shea's Prince, for example, expects later this year to deploy "a buyer application that will integrate the Web site and the process of buying a home." Johnson says the goal at Beazer is "to share lot, plan, and even community information from the operational systems to allow for more consistency and efficiency."

Many companies are working to make better use of the information they now get from consumers. "If your prospects are willing to give you that information, if they trust you and they want you to guide them," Johnson says, "you have to ask yourself what you're going to do with that. Our focus is to truly educate the buyers, stay in front of them, and get them to come back for that second home in seven years or less."

--Jay Holtzman is based in Jamestown, R.I.

To get a sense of how far interactivity has come, visit these state-of-the-art sites:

BIG BUILDER Magazine, March 2002