The statistics speak for themselves: Eighty percent of people who shop for a home do so on the Internet. When those 80 percent walk into a builder sales center, they already know the who, what, when, where, and why of the community. What's more, they are twice as likely to buy compared with walk-ins at the sales center.

But how much does the builder know about them?

Some companies, such as Indiana-based Estridge Homes, believe the lack of knowledge about Web-savvy buyers is a huge mistake that's costing them sales in the long run. So they're rethinking their Web sites, rebuilding them to incorporate programs and processes designed to gather information about their online visitors. Not only are these strategies enhancing shoppers' experiences on the Web, but they also are revolutionizing the selling process in the sales center. By the time online shoppers transition from virtual tour to community tour, sales agents are armed with detailed shopper profiles and more sophisticated strategies on how to sell them.

While the early adopters are reaping the benefits of this new approach to managing the online shopper, the rest of the industry is likely to catch up quickly. "Other than design studios, I think this is going to be the fastest growing area of home building," says Charlie Scott, executive vice president of Estridge Homes.

Change in Strategy

Estridge first began re-evaluating its Internet strategy when its newspaper advertisements started to lose effectiveness. Local and state newspaper real- estate sections were littered with full-page advertisements announcing deep discounts and hefty incentives, and Estridge's message was getting lost in the clutter. The company's solution was to focus on its Web site. So it yanked all its advertising funds out of newspaper and sunk them into television ads promoting

In the meantime, Estridge worked with Liquid Advertising, a self-proclaimed guerilla advertising and marketing firm, on a massive revamp of its Web site. In addition to the cosmetic improvements, Liquid embedded visitor tracking software. The software records information such as the number of unique visitors to the site, the frequency of their access, and their activity while on the Web site. From this data, Estridge can identify potential sales leads and generate psychographic profiles for visitors based on the nuances of their click streams on the site. (To see how it works, check out "Point and Buy," on page 78.)

The strategy more than doubled the number of unique visitors hitting the site. (A unique visitor is any new computer that logs onto the Web site.) Estridge's old site attracted, on average, about 5,000 unique visitors every month; the new one attracts about 12,000.

It's unclear whether the TV advertising or the Web site upgrade has played a bigger part in increasing quality traffic to Estridge's Web site. Either way, the swell has given Estridge access to a greater number of online sales leads, especially because the Web site only allows visitors to view a limited number of floor plans without submitting registration information. Under this structure, Estridge is able to capture contact information for roughly 10 percent of unique visitors per month.