The Secrets to Success

Commercial Real Estate Leaders Reveal Their Trademark Strategies for Self-Promotion.

Boiled down to its essentials, marketing is whatever makes the phone ring. It's whatever encourages potential clients to seek you out initially and whatever drives repeat clients to pick up the phone and call you again.

At one time, the three key words of a successful real estate practice were "location, location, location." Today, the key words are more like "network, network, network." As the commercial market becomes more global and less face-to-face, practitioners need to establish an identity that reaches beyond their area. Conversely, as local markets open up to outside competition, brokers may need to increase promotional efforts locally to remain the name that comes to mind for a referral. Although most commercial brokers are adept at marketing properties, some don't think past the business card and matching stationery when it comes to marketing themselves.

Promote Yourself with Others
For small- and medium-sized firms, teaming up with others is often a good marketing strategy. Sharing the cost and glory puts your name in front of a larger audience. You can do it so you don't get lost in the shuffle, but first you need to decide how you want to be known.

Making that decision was simple for members of the Florida Southwest District CCIM chapter-they wanted to promote themselves as CCIMs. "No one knew how great we were except us," says Warren Barry, CCIM, of Florida Investors REALTOR®, Fort Myers, Florida. "We wanted to get the designation in front of the community and let it know what CCIMs did." They looked into doing a newsletter but found the costs-$10,000 to $12,000 a year-too high to afford on their own.

At the same time, Barry was on the boards of other real estate organizations and discovered they all had a similar problem. After initial discussions outlining expectations, the groups decided to work together.

The result was The Commercial Real Estate Journal of Southwest Florida, now in its third year of publication. Run by a board of directors, one from each organization-the CCIM district, the Real Estate Investment Society, the Southwest Florida Real Estate Exchangors, the Building and Office Managers Association, the Economic Development Coalition, and the Commercial Investment REALTORS® of Southwest Florida-the journal has become the primary source of commercial real estate information in the area. It includes news and editorials on legislative issues, education, industry and market trends, along with a calendar of real estate events.

The front page features a color photograph, a lead story highlighting one of the sponsoring organizations, a table of contents and each group's logo. The rest of the 81/2-by-11-inch publication is in black and white. Members and guest authors write articles, while an outside publisher handles the details of editing, layout, printing, and mailing. Originally the organizations split the costs; now advertising revenues cover all costs.

As a marketing tool, the journal has been enormously successful, according to Barry. "We're getting out to the people we wanted to reach," he says. "It's gotten great play locally and helped promote the CCIM designation. Local newspapers have even reprinted some of our articles."

The publication reaches an audience of 5,000. The mailing list includes members of each organization, local government officials, CPAs, accountants, real estate attorneys and practicing lawyers, business leaders, and a group of commercial real estate investors worth at least $500,000, culled from county records.

Does this exposure translate into business? Barry thinks so. He recently wrote an article on a detailed construction cost survey that he did for southwest Florida. "The article was just highlights of the report and I offered a complementary copy of the full survey at the end of it. I received 42 mail requests for the survey and about nine phone calls," he says. "Out of those responses, I have two very promising build-to-suit opportunities that I'm working on."

Barry also sees a spillover effect into other marketing efforts: "One of the most well-received features is our two-month calendar that lists all the real estate events in the area," he says. "We have greater turnout at CCIM events, and people recognize the designation."

The Group Effect
Though creating a newsletter on your own is a tempting possibility (given that powerful new desktop publishing software you recently purchased), consider the advantages of doing it with others:

  • Credibility-"We've established ourselves as the movers and shakers in southwestern Florida," Barry says. Some of that effect is a result of the size and regularity of the journal-16 pages every other month-which is difficult to achieve without becoming a full-time publisher. And the sum is also greater than its parts: a publication coming from six real estate organizations is going to have a depth of coverage that one organization, firm, or person would have a hard time creating.
  • Advertising clout-By combining mailing lists, the cooperating organizations behind the journal are able to reach practically every member of the local commercial real estate community. A target audience of this size gives them a basis for selling advertising, which a publication with a smaller circulation would not have.

    When organizations decide to publish a newsletter, members often agonize over whether or not to sell advertising, when actually the question is "who will want to advertise with us?" Often their circulation is too small, the frequency of publication not often enough, or the audience not well enough defined to attract regular advertisers. Although advertising is a side issue to the marketing effort, it can't be overlooked as a way to offset publishing costs.

  • Shared costs-Publications are expensive to produce and distribute. You can certainly save money by handling the design and layout in-house, but those services are usually only a third or fourth of the total cost. Other costs include not only printing and paper, but also postage and distribution costs-maintaining a mailing list, creating labels, and meeting postage requirements. (Consider, too, the cost of your own time-writing and designing a desktop publication can be very time-consuming.) By sharing costs with other organizations, you can afford to farm out the whole project to professionals-a publisher, a design firm, or an editorial service that will handle editing, layout, production, printing, and distribution.

Become an Expert
A specialty newsletter is a publication that often can be produced in-house. The purpose of these shorter, less-expensive publications is to zero in on an information niche that gives you visibility and credibility as an expert. The hard part is finding the niche. About three years ago, Barry Spizer, CCIM, of SRSA Commercial Real Estate, Metairie, Louisiana, found his by analyzing commercial property sales.

"In large markets, companies track business activity," Spizer says, "But New Orleans just isn't big enough for that." So he began by tracking commercial real estate sales of more than $500,000.

It adds up to about 150 sales a year. He spends about three or four hours a month collecting and analyzing the information. Then, twice a year, he writes it up in newsletter format. "It takes about 10 hours to do the writing, editing, and basic layouts on my desktop system," Spizer says. Then he turns it over to the printer, who takes care of the production details.

Spizer mails the newsletter to about 500 corporate and individual clients. As a direct mail and presentation piece, it demonstrates the firm's knowledge of the market to new and past clients. But beyond that, it has put the firm in the local newspapers and business journals. "We've become one of the most quotable sources on commercial investment activity in the New Orleans area," Spizer says. "When we release a report, the local media do a number of stories on the material. It's gotten to the point where they're calling me up, asking for exclusive release of the information. So we've gotten a great deal of free publicity that has reinforced our credibility."

In addition to tracking sales, Spizer breaks them down according to market, offering analysis and forecast for retail, land, office building, hotels, and other areas. The newsletter comes out twice a year; in between, he increases his local visibility by offering periodic updates for the press.

Spizer says there is a definite correlation between his name appearing in print and the office activity. "Every time we're quoted, the phones ring off the wall. I can't tell you how many people think I closed on every major sale in town, when actually they saw my name in the paper offering my opinion on whether it was a good deal or not. Of course I don't go out of my way to confirm or deny their initial impression, but it does get my name out there in front of people."

Speak in Quotes
Such free publicity is what public relations experts strive for-positioning clients as media sources whose name and company are mentioned every time they're quoted. In small towns and cities, it's not that difficult to become a source of quotes. Newspapers and local television and radio stations are always looking for local experts.

If you decide to publish a newsletter on a specific topic, spend your time on writing clear, concise, quotable copy. Concentrate on getting your information across in the shortest amount of time:

  • Put important information in headlines, subheads, and bulleted items. People don't read a newsletter, they scan it. If nothing catches their eye in about 20 seconds, they throw it away. For example, the headlines in Spizer's newsletter are hard information: "Commercial Sales Market Is Back"; "Office Building Sales Top $100 Million"; "Apartment Deals Hard to Find."
  • Write in news format. Lead with your most important information; conclude with the least important. Once people decide to read your newsletter, you've got about two minutes to give them what they want. They won't wade through paragraphs of explanation or academic jargon. Spizer's opening paragraph on commercial sales tells you everything you need to know about the New Orleans market:

    The results are in, and the commercial real estate market in the Greater New Orleans area has officially recovered from the oil bust of the mid-1980s. 1993 was a RECORD YEAR with commercial real estate sales of $373,000,000. This represents an 80% increase in volume over last year and the fourth straight year of positive growth.

  • If you want to be quoted, say something worth quoting. The value of Spizer's information is the research behind it. People in his market can't get it anywhere else, and they're too busy to do the research themselves. It all comes from public records, but he's the one taking the time to compile and track it.

Create an Event
The downside of free publicity is the lack of control you have: it may occur when you're looking for business; it may occur when you're swamped. Also, it goes out to everyone-those who need your services and those who don't. To have more control over the results of your efforts, create a program and target likely sources of referrals as your audience.

Seven years ago, members of the Connecticut CCIM chapter created the Annual Update for Connecticut Commercial Real Estate. Does it attract good sources of referrals? "Absolutely," says Barbara Monahan, CCIM, of RE/MAX Commercial Advantage, Middletown, Connecticut. "It's the meeting that all allied professionals in the field look forward to and attend in Connecticut," she says. "They plan for it."

This year, more than 200 people listened as CCIMs presented forecasts about real estate in general and Connecticut markets in particular. "Bankers, attorneys, CPAs, appraisers, other brokers and members from other organizations outnumbered the CCIMs almost two to one," Monahan says. The event is such a part of the Connecticut real estate scene that attendees won't let the chapter change the date-"They want it mid-year," she says.

Network, Network, Network
Networking with allied professionals is a good way to build referrals, but a better way may be getting to know others in your field. Indeed, sometimes the most overlooked marketing tools are your professional designations. Steve Price, CCIM, of Paragon-Price Commercial, Inc., Colorado Springs, Colorado, is one of a growing number of brokers who make use of the CCIM network and actively promote it in their marketing. "Our general marketing pieces tout the national marketing capabilities of CCIMs. I've scanned in the CCIM network map," he says. "That more than anything visualizes for clients the marketing network that we have access to across the country."

But the CCIM connection is not just marketing hype to Price. "I've done a lot of RTC work and I've used CCIMs for several out-of-state transactions. I use the Red Book all the time. Right now I'm involved in transactions in Sacramento, California, and Omaha, Nebraska, that came as referrals from CCIMs in those areas."

Scott Shepard, CCIM, of Beck Property Company, Pensacola, Florida, also actively markets the network. "I show people the CCIM map. They're amazed by the number of markets across the country. I tell them I'm part of that network, 4,000 strong." Shepard has recently become involved with CIREI on a national level and feels that increased visibility has brought him a number of corporate referrals. "I'm doing a second transaction with a broker from Tampa who is a CCIM. I know I wouldn't have gotten the referral without being a CCIM. He would have given it to another CCIM."

Spizer and his partners-all CCIMs-also see the effect of being involved regionally and nationally. "The visibility pays off," he says. "We've gotten a couple of nice referrals from other CCIMs."

Shepard says the other CCIM marketing advantage is access to information. "This business is based on information, and those who are not privy to it will be left behind," he says. "CCIMs are a group of experienced folks on the cutting edge of what's happening in real estate. I've been able to come back from meetings and be ahead of what's happening in my local market. You see things-trends, changing markets-that you just don't see in your own local market."

Going Solo
Suppose you work by yourself, or you don't have the time to commit to these big projects. There are still a few ways to promote yourself that don't require a big investment of time.

Get Your Name in Print. Write articles for trade journals and publications, or offer to write an article or column for a local newspaper. Price sees a instant response to having his name appear in print. "Every quarter, I try to write an article for a local newspaper or business journal," he says. "And I always get calls as a result-sometimes from other brokers, sometimes from principals."

Get Your Face in Front of People. Teaching is a chance to meet 30 or so real estate professionals on a weekly basis, and it pays off. Price, who teaches, has received referrals from students. William Cantey, Jr., CCIM, of Cantey & Company, Inc., Columbia, South Carolina, teaches courses for CIREI, in the GRI program, and at a community college. "I find the public exposure from teaching has led to a fair amount of business," says Cantey. Shepard also teaches because "that keeps me involved at the local level, and that's where most of your business is going to come from."

Market Yourself Creatively. Sometimes a new twist on an old marketing essential such as a business card is all it takes to get noticed. Lee Gast, CCIM, of RE/MAX Properties, Sarasota, Florida, credits his background in engineering for coming up with his unique, multifunctional business card. The 3-by-6-inch card, containing a business card and a short résumé, is printed flat and scored for two folds. Folded in thirds, it fits in a wallet as a regular business card, but with a great deal of more information. Flat, it's a postcard. Gast folds one-third down to use it as a literature hanger.

Although it costs more to print than a regular-size card, Gast saves money by producing the camera-ready art for the card directly from his computer using a 600-dpi laser printer. He uses the same images for advertising. "Having the whole thing stored on my computer allows me to play with the size," he says. "I can hand camera-ready art to a newspaper or magazine without using a designer or service bureau."

Get Personal. Gast also uses his photo on his card and in ads, something he started doing several years ago. "I believe commercial real estate is a personal business just like residential," he says. "I get referrals from using my photo because people respond to your picture. They like to know who you are."

Listen to the Customer. The basis of effective marketing is good customer service. You need to take cues directly from your customers. Are people upset because they can't reach you by phone? Maybe it's time to invest in a portable phone, suggest they contact you by electronic mail, or install voice mail so they have the opportunity to leave you detailed messages. Or maybe it's just a matter of being more responsive to your clients-returning their messages promptly, and acting on their requests within a week.

Improved customer service is how you keep repeat customers calling you back. Just ask Stewart Estopinal, CCIM, of The New Orleans Land Company, New Orleans, Louisiana. He's a one-man office-offering consulting, appraisal, and brokerage. He believes the best marketing is listening and responding to clients. He has no marketing budget, not even a brochure, simply a statement of qualifications. "What I work on," says Estopinal, "is maintaining good client relationships. It must work, because I still have many of the same clients I started with 15 years ago."