Spring is in full bloom, which means hibernating home shoppers are emerging from the winter slump and looking to buy.

The 2018 spring selling season is expected to be hot—mortgage applications were up 4.9% in mid-April and economists are bullish on the growth of the real estate market especially after recent tax law changes put more money in shoppers’ pockets.

BUILDER talked to industry experts about the key things builders should be doing to maximize their marketing during this crucial time of year.

Spruce Up Your Website

According to a study from the National Association of Realtors, 95% of buyers look at online listings first when searching for a home.

“Digital marketing is pretty much the only marketing there is today,” says Myers Barnes, new home sales counselor and founder of Kitty Hawk, N.C.-based Myers Barnes Associates. “Buyers spend more time interacting with a brand digitally than they do physically in a model homes, so a website is the most important tool a builder has to reach buyers.”

Consumers today are very well informed and most do all of their own research online before committing time to come see a home in person, says Tri Pointe Group vice president of corporate marketing Linda Mamet. Therefore, a builder’s website needs to provide as much information as possible.

“In order to be prepared online, we need to have very robust information about the homes, neighborhood, amenities, and all the options available to the consumer, like how a home can be configured, for example,” says Mamet. She says tidbits like detailed pricing information, floorplan options, and what features and products are included are examples of things buyers want to know as they browse listings.

“All of this is research that buyers are doing much earlier in the process and at a much higher level of detail than they’ve done in the past,” she adds. “We have to be willing to be more transparent and able to provide that information to them in a very digestible way early on in the shopping process.”

Experts also recommend having an online sales counselor available for immediate chat to quickly answer questions a shopper might have. Doing so will ensure you’re grabbing a buyer’s attention and providing them with the information to determine if your home is right for them.

“If your website is doing its job, it’s giving the buyer information so that they can take the next step and be enticed enough to want to come see the home firsthand,” says Alexis Udine, account supervisor at Group Two, an advertising and marketing firm for home builders.

Reach the Right Buyer with Targeted Ads

Getting your website in front of buyers’ eyes is key. According to Barnes, one of a builder’s most important channels is the internet search engine.

“Owning the front page of Google is the best piece of advertising real estate a builder can buy,” he says. “Plus, ad words aren’t as expensive as you think they are, because you don’t actually have to pay extra to be the No. 1 hit. You can be in the second, third, or fourth spot, and the effect is still the same for a much less expensive price.”

Experts recommend being detailed with targeted ads online to make sure you’re reaching the right consumer. Use a system like Google AdWords, which displays ads to a specifc consumer based on a combination of unique keywords determined by your company, cookies stored of what buyers are searching online, and a Google algorithm that places your advertisements on pages where it might be relevant to the consumer you are trying to reach. By targeting your buyer by options like age, household size, and location, your communities will get across the right buyers’ screens.

The same strategy can be deployed on social media. Facebook, for example, knows a lot of information about its users from their profile. If you have a specific demographic you’re looking to target, social media ads will be beneficial when breaking down your campaigns to reach the most relevant potential buyer. Targeted Facebook ads can be created directly through the website.

“We love Facebook marketing because you can get really precise with your target audience, and are able to bracket ads by things like age, income, how many children a family has, or location, for example,” says Mike Kalis, CEO of Marketplace Homes. “You can then tailor to a specific buyer, whether it be entry-level, move-up, or active adult.”

Facebook also allows advertisers to enter keywords for ads that might match what someone includes on their profile, such as interests, behaviors, locations, and more, meaning you can market specific home features or community amenities to a buyer that matches those lifestyle interests.

Barnes says that since shoppers look for homes based on locations and school districts, builders should also tailor their ads to match these specific areas.

“Builders should have a specific ad word strategy for each neighborhood, because that’s how buyers today are shopping,” he says. “That way you can drive traffic not just to your site but to your individual communities.”

Of course, builders should also make sure their listings are included in the MLS and aggregated listing sites, like Zillow for example.

“You should make sure you hit all the touch points for buyers—not just showcasing the homes on your website, but on Zillow, MLS, and social media outlets,” says Udine. “You want to stay in front of people as much as possible and keep the community at the top of their mind throughout the different stages of the new home buying process.”

Sell with Visuals

You’ve heard the saying “a picture is worth 1,000 words.” Marketing professionals stress the importance of having a variety of professionally photographed images of both the interior and exterior of the home so buyers can see what the home looks like in detail.

If you stock your website with videos, even better. Barnes cites a study from Forrester Research that found that "a minute of video is worth 1.8 million words,” when it comes to advertising.

“We are a video generation, so people will skip over your website copy completely if they can watch a short video or go through floor plans and images instead,” says Barnes. “We buy with our eyes. Selling today is really all about visual shopping.”

Builders can get creative with video content on their websites. Beyond just video tours of the homes, Ali Peters, account supervisor at Group Two says providing community construction updates, drone videos of the site, testimonials from buyers who have already purchased in the community, and other informational videos will draw in buyers. And, builders should have some fun, too.

“Videos where builders who use humor and showcase their personalities by bringing team members into the video always perform well with buyers,” she says.

Websites that stand out will also have virtual tours, like those offered through platforms like Matterport, that potential buyers can interact with and get a sense of how the home lives.

“Virtual tours are a great way to get prospective buyers engaging with your product,” says Peters. “They're able to literally walk themselves through a floorplan from the comfort of their sofa.”

Buyers will be more enticed by virtual tours that are staged, a process that can also be done virtually, either in-house or through a number of apps, like roOomy, VisualStager, or iStaging, just to name a few.

“You can take your immediate inventory, which is likely empty, and decorate it without having to spend money on furniture,” says Kalis. “A virtually staged model really pops online, helps drive traffic and allows buyers to see how a room looks and what the sizing is like.”

Mamet says Tri Pointe also utilizes augmented reality to help buyers visualize the many configurations and options a home can have. With AR apps, builders can use a smartphone or tablet camera to capture an image of the room as it exists, and then edit the photo to show buyers how adding certain elements or features will change the way the home looks.

“Buyers can walk through a virtual tour or physical model home, and then we can use AR tools to show buyers how choosing a specific option or changing something about a room will allow it to function differently and fit their lifestyle.”

Merchandise your Models

Once you’ve enticed your buyer online, it’s time for them to come see the home in person. While they’ve done most of their research online, a model home is still an important touchpoint for buyers to see and feel the quality of construction. Builders should not just stage models, but help buyers visualize themselves in the home.

“I think the home buying process has become much more consultative now. It’s less about ‘come in and I’ll walk you through this model,’ and much more about talking to the prospective buyer about what they could use each room for, or how the kids would fit in, or how to decorate,” says Kalis. “Sales people might have a Pinterest page of design ideas or examples of how other customers in the neighborhood have set their same homes up, and are able to share that with the buyer.”

Udine says spring is also a great time to host events at your model homes to get buyers out of the house after months of winter and into your product.

“Builders can host an open house to showcase the models, serve food and drinks, and incorporate some fun elements like photo booths and prize giveaways to bring some foot traffic into the community,” she says.

Spring Clean

Before buyers come to your community, ensure that the model home is in top shape.

“Clean is the least expensive marketing you can do,” says Barnes. “I’ve seen builders put their sales office in a bedroom, or have extra supplies stored in the garage, and those are mistakes. Buyers don’t want to see model homes that are cluttered, and you can miss an opportunity for a sale if the home isn’t pristine.”

Udine also notes that doing small maintenance tasks around the property goes a long way, especially after the winter months.

“Long winters and snow can take a toll on the appearance of your community, but buyers visualize themselves buying as soon as they drive up to the community, so first impressions are really important,” she says. “Make sure you’ve done things like swept entryways, replaced model flags so they aren’t faded, picked any weeds, and changed the lightbulbs. You should look at things from the customers’ eyes and be thinking about every detail your prospective buyers might notice as they walk up to the door.”

Close the Deal

According to Barnes, almost three-fourths of buyers spend one year shopping online before going in person to see a home, which means that by the time they’ve come to your model, they’re ready to buy.

“Sales associates have to realize that when a shopper comes in and says, ‘oh, we’re just looking today,” that’s just not true,” he says. “It all comes down to mindset, and builders really need to be ready pitch the home to sell it. If a sales person starts their presentation believing the prospect will not buy, they won’t be disappointed.”

Sales staff should also be armed with the information buyers need to feel comfortable purchasing, especially when most shoppers come in with a catch.

“A lot of buyers will sit down with the sales person and say, “I really love this home, but here’s the thing…,” says Kalis. Usually, these hesitations stem from worry about credit qualifications, mortgage interest rates, down payment savings, or having an existing home to sell.

He adds, “if your sales people are informed and have the knowledge to come up with creative solutions to overcome these buyers’ problems, they’ll be able to move the sale forward.”