The Charter for the Congress for New Urbanism outlines specific principles and practices which, in effect, serve as a guide for developers, governmental authorities, designers, planners and real estate professionals towards responsible community building. Emphasizing the timeless utility of many classical design principles while embracing many higher sociological and environmental standards that are embraced today, New Urbanism distances itself from “the spread of placeless sprawl” and development that segregates people and communities by race and income while establishing a new model for more economically efficient, more socially practical and practically adaptive standards for community building.
Everything that has been produced to-date in terms of traditional community design that would qualify itself under these standards has taken risks that run counter to conventional design and development practices. New Urbanist projects also often conflict with conventional local ordinances and, to a degree, conventional market standards. Traffic engineering is secondary to social engineering and community structure. New urbanism raises the bar. It is different than the standard subdivision development, that unfortunately came to define the American built environment of the 20th century. And while many new urbanists and traditional developers have achieved tremendous accolades in achieving models with wide appeal, from the simple perspective of creating places that draw people in (from the perspective of: design, social integration, walkability, commercial appeal, public space, civic contribution, etc.), they cannot escape the fact that, when you get down to the nitty gritty, they are still fundamentally participants in the real estate development and sales business.
As a product for real estate marketers, traditional neighborhood developments (TND’s) equip the marketing and sales team with a better mouse trap. No doubt about it, they typically have more attractive product, safer streets, better public spaces for events and festivals, better stories to tell, happier residents, etc. Since TND’s became standardized as a distinct marketing category by market research entities almost 20 years ago, the Urban Land Institute has demonstrated that, on average, TND sells at a faster rate and at a 30% higher premium than a conventional suburban neighborhoods with comparable home sizes. Yet, until recently, when purchasers researched new home opportunities in the market of their choice (either second home or primary residence), TND’s and suburban product are advertised in the basically the same way. They vie for space in real estate and lifestyle media publications; they compete for the same mailbox space via direct mail campaigns, same air time for radio spots, same MLS, etc. They are fundamentally different products, but for all effect and purposes, they are marketed the same.
Depending on the talent of the advertising agency, or the word-of-mouth reputation that has been achieved as a result of the community’s track record and quality, TND’s are better equipped to compete in the area of content marketing. And, if managed properly, they always outshine the competition in terms of public relations efforts. They are good stories for the local media and usually are good sources for stories in industry and national design publications. They are “different” and, usually, refreshing; consequently, the make good fodder for local media. But the bottom-line is that the fundamental marketing principles for marketing new homes are identical whether we are talking about a New Urbanist communities or the conventional suburban subdivision that has clogged our markets with monotonously excessive inventory and, in many cases, financial liability. Why do we operate this way? We are creating new models for more responsible development and a better way to live. Why then to we continue to subscribe to the conventional marketing models for an unconventional market. Why embrace the sales principles that support the very product which we purport to oppose?
The first rule of thumb in any NAHB/MIRM (National Association of Homebuilder’s Association Masters in REsidential Marketing… notice that the “in” is included in the acronym…. there’s creativity for you!) marketing and promotional seminars is that the sales team should always promote “the community first and the home second.” Sell the customer/client on the major advantages of the lifestyle and the home choice or lot selection becomes a secondary formality.
Regardless of price point (starter home, luxury home, mid-range) product type (multi-family, single-family, attached, detached, condo, etc.) or community plan type (master-planned golf community, Traditional Neighborhood Development, apartment community, resort/second home, age restricted, young families, swim and tennis, conservation, equestrian, etc.) new home marketers unequivocally and consistently attempt to promote a certain degree of lifestyle within their advertising and marketing campaigns. From developers with a national & international target audience to the local new home builder who promotes his neighborhood in the local-daily, the mantra a “better way to live” is at least implicitly plugged-in. From high-dollar direct-mail and advertising campaigns to simple headlines in the real estate classified ads, this formula is has been embraced since the advent of new home marketing in this country.
The tool with which these messages has been conveyed over the decades have changed little until recently. Certainly, advertising and public relations mediums have evolved over time (newspaper to radio to television to the website, posters to elaborate brochures, etc.) but the tricks of the trade with which information is conveyed have varied little.
Over the first decade of the 21st century, housing markets, on the other hand, have changed tremendously, not only representing the greatest loss of faith in the most fundamental of American investment vehicles in history, but marking a turning point in how real estate will be marketed in the future. Without even venturing into the subject of the current financial markets as related to the structure of new home construction and development financing, new projects in the 21st century have dramatically different capacity for funding extravagant marketing programs on the front-end. And, given the anemic rate of absorption in most markets currently, the capacity for existing projects to fund on-going marketing programs has been hindered beyond anything that anyone currently in the industry has ever experienced.
Likewise, from the consumer’s perspective, buyers are not only more educated and equipped with more tools to evaluate real estate purchases on their own, they are gun- shy. Many, having taken their own blood baths, are circumspect about investment and the obligations and risks associated therewith. Many, particularly retirees and Generation-Y buyers, now consider renting over home ownership, for fear of uncertain long-term obligations. Today’s consumer is more wary of the marketplace and suspect of blatant marketing and promotional campaigns that, with the exception of varying degrees of creativity, are fundamentally the same. They know that developers are in a pinch. They see unfinished homes and subdivisions blotting their own towns, as well as the resorts and towns the visit.
Coincidentally (or not?) these industry-wide changes that affect both the capacity of organizations to afford the conventional marketing formula, as well as the behavior of consumers to look beyond the advertising campaign, are occurring simultaneously with another revolution that is changing the way consumers communicate with each other and obtain real-time opinions and feedback form the marketplace that can either support or refute the developer originated marketing campaign. “Sounds like the same old sales pitch to me,” people are saying over and over.
Consumers are now leaning on each other, to both establish the baseline for their research in making a purchase decision and developing basic opinions about products and the businesses that create and market these products. Social media, in all of its variety and platforms, is already delivering consumers very efficient tools with which to bisect the market-place and establish their own sense of comfort with a community, a builder or a home product before they step foot in the place. In a study conducted by social networking site “Myyearbook,” 81 percent of respondents said they’d received advice from friends and followers relating to a product purchase through a social site; 74 percent of those who received such advice found it to be influential in their decision. (Click Z, January 2010). The conversation is taking place about you and about your business right now. Opinions are being formed as a result of this conversation. The question is, are you aware about what is being said and are you participating in it?
Built into the platforms through which one participates in the conversation is the capacity to listen. Content related marketing has absolutely no means of providing this, outside of high-priced complicated surveys and market summary studies that take extraordinary amounts of time and are very expensive. Even “hits” on a website give us nothing more than a vague barometer as to whether or not you are in the game. How the market perceives you is now right at your finger tips. Websites with social media at the core of their design and function are now asking questions. People are responding and, in the best case, they are talking about you and your product. While the bell tolls for many specialities within the world of content related marketing, the light shines on social media as THE means through which we listen to the world and, therefore, influence our own reputation and the market’s response to it.
According to econsultancy.com, ”in today’s internet-enabled world, your ‘reputation’ is arguably more important than it has ever been in the past. Increasingly, information about you and your business will find its way online, and what people say about you online has the potential to become a significant asset or liability.” Many consumer dependent businesses are beginning to take note of this and are becoming proactive in how they both monitor and participate in the multi-dimensional virtual conversation that occurs within the realm of social media. As a a result, more than 80,000 websites have implemented Facebook Connect since December 2008 and more than 60m Facebook users engage with it across these external sites each month (econsultancy.com). Would it not then be intuitive that the industry of and related to New Urbanism retool their mindset regarding marketing strategy to, first-and-foremost, include social media strategy at its nucleus? A Facebook page is great. But are you truly participating?
So, how do we, as New Urbanists, change course, shedding our dependency to outdated marketing methods and our loyalty to mediums which are becoming, if not obsolete, certainly less central in our efforts to Brand our communities, our product and communicate our story to the marketplace? From Linked-in to Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, texting, etc. the platforms through which we are able to participate, and for which we must monitor, are growing at mind boggling pace. How is it possible to keep up with “the conversation” when there are so many languages through which it is spoken?
The quick answer is simply that, regardless of the size of your firm (be you a large scale developer, a home builder or a single agent on-site office), by getting started and sticking our heads into “the conversation” in a tactful way, we can begin to assess the degree of conversation that is currently ongoing about ourselves, our business and our product. The more tweets there are about your community, the odds are that there are more blogs that reference your community and your demeanor, more Facebook postings, etc. A savvy social media consultant can help you begin this assessment and establish tools for you, your company and/or your community harness an adequate cross section of “the conversation” to determine what is being said, what is relevant, and to what degree you should begin implementing changes to your website and your social media campaign in order to participate in an effective manner. How one participates is critical, as blatant marketing pitches within the realm of social media can stigmatize a business as in-genuine (see BlueBeech blog article “Social Risky Business” www.bluebeech.com ). Like the nerdy guy in National Lampoon’s “Animal House” who tried to interrupt the cool guys in the middle of a poker game by saying “You guys playing cards?”, jumping into “the conversation” without being prepared and having something legitimate and interesting to say can kill your business. First impressions are everything, so how one enters “the conversation” and participates in it moving forward are dependent upon the first impression and the relevance of what they have to say moving forward. With social media at the core of “the new marketing formula,” emphasis is less about creative tricks and much more about well articulated sincerity.
From the perspective of marketing and real estate professionals who have the basic tenants of content related marketing principles ingrained in their minds and habits, we are talking about a significant cultural change. But the change has begun already. The conversation is taking place now. The issue is how proactive you are in the conversation in order to utilize it to your advantage. The decision must be whether to establish a position in “the conversation” as a leader or to be dragged into “the conversation” in reaction to what is happening.
“The conversation” can be maintained on every level, from the broad-scale community related issues surrounding a new community and its regional and/or national impact as an innovative new project, all the way to discussions about one particular builder and the broad appeal that his/her green design established a refreshingly comfortable and affordable housing product in the market area. For a resale home in a new home community, the discussion may be about the amazing life experience a family had in a particular home before being transferred to another city. In between there are neighborhood rituals, events and day to day experiences within your community. The story can be motivated by something as simple as providing incentive for people to write about their great experience at the new restaurant in or near your neighborhood, or the memorable evening they had at the Fourth of July party. Third party comments about the quality of architecture, the friendliness of your sales team or the fact that they “dream of living in your neighborhood someday” can blow a conventional ad campaign out of the water. And, if is managed correctly, it can all be handled internally. Even outsourcing ghost writing for a community blog cost peanuts in relation to a media and/or direct mail campaign (and the marketing feedback is built right in).
Its all about real life, real experiences and real conversation, not from the developer or real estate professional but from the marketplace. Every Facebook fan or Twitter follower is delivering direct conduit for you to their contact base, creating a multi dimensional referral network that is quantifiable and, compared to the content marketing advertising programs of the past, almost free. Advertising in strategic media can now take the more practical position within the marketing budget for brand reinforcement and special event promotion; but no longer should it be the central focus of the marketing team. The marketing team is now all about prospecting and relationship building through this potentially endless network of leads, followers, friends, members, etc. It makes sense for every new home marketer to get on the band wagon. For the New Urbanist, it should be a no brainer.
Whether a project or community is new or existing, it will be critical to conduct a marketing assessment which takes into account: the effectiveness of existing branding campaigns; website functionality and adaptability to social media platforms; research and establish cross section of third party social media conversation about you, your project and/or product (what is being said about you now in the conversation? Are there any surprises? ); How many members of your team are personally active in the world of social media? Do they represent you and your product appropriately?; What social media policies should be implemented for your organization? Which social media platforms are utilized by your market base? Which organizations or individuals should you consider following in order to keep you informed about issues related to your market, your product, issues in your community, national issues affecting the industry, social media trends that can benefit you, etc.; What is your story? Why are you and your community, product and stakeholders relevant to “the conversation.”
The degree to which an assessment is necessary depends upon the complexity of your project. A small community with one or a few builders can most likely work through this in a day, establishing a strong baseline and strategy about new platforms to use and a budget (if necessary) for making changes to the website, training, etc. A larger master-planned community, with commercial and/or retail elements, social and cultural and public initiatives will take much longer, as each element that represents the community must be analyzed individually and then assessed to determine its role in fostering community promotional efforts and relevance to “the conversation.”