The FICCI-Knight Frank Real Estate Sentiment Index for Q3 2015 highlights how the current sentiment is negative across all property segments. Future estimates suggest an improvement but the falling sentiment over the last few quarters is a reality check.
Interestingly, the relatively lull period is being optimised by the online domain to create a parallel transacting platform.
Over the last decade, Indian consumers have warmed up to transacting online to fulfil their various buying and selling needs. Online real estate was, in that sense, a category waiting to happen. However, it is one thing to present a consumer with an irresistible deal on the latest iPhone and another to do the same for, say, a 2BHK. The price ticket has now managed to transform an online real estate portal’s communication from a deal-led piece to a holistic
Brotin Banerjee, MD and CEO, Tata Housing Development Company (THDC) speaks about the evolved personalities of online real estate buyers who are still relatively small in number.
“A new class of buyers has emerged, characterised by greater awareness, digital knowledge, busier schedules and greater disposable incomes. This segment has greatly influenced the manner in which real estate is transacted.”
The marketing conundrum
The question now remains: for a consumer who knows how to buy everything from groceries to automobiles online, what will it take to warm him up to real estate transactions on the web?
Tata Housing is currently reaching out to consumers mainly through the print, digital and experiential
marketing route, but the group says it is also now opting for mobile and outdoor.
“Apart from traditional advertising, we are also provisioning for digital and experiential marketing techniques to create an experience for prospective consumers,” Banerjee states. “All our communication is now combined and strongly supported by innovative social media campaigns.” The company currently caters to the budget-conscious consumer as well as premium buyers. To that effect, THDC spun off a separate online platform (other than the primary one) to open up the Tata Value Homes website for interested parties from across the globe.
The consumer starts considering the service capability of a portal depending on value added services (VAS) being provided, rather than going by say, an advertisement. For instance, the VAS for THDC includes secured payment gateways, virtual tours of projects, full disclosure of project details, along with amenities on the website.
In early 2015, Housing.com ran the ‘Look Up’ campaign which relied on OOH and was rolled out in India’s top metro cities. Back then, the portal was providing consumers services to buy, sell, and rent, as well as gain access to a list of agents. It also allowed them to avail of paying guest (PG) facilities and hostel accommodations.
Cut to November 2015. Housing.com, in a bid to ‘re-organise’ the company and its operations, decided to go back to the basics and focus on home buying and selling, specifically. A trimming of the workforce followed. The announcements came while the OOH campaign was still fresh in one’s mind. This raised a lot of eyebrows within the industry as well as amongst consumers — most questioning both the scale (ergo, ad spend) and the objective of the campaign.
From a communication standpoint, the campaign did manage to do two things — get the brand name out and generate conversation. But this raises a point — should online portals borrow a leaf from the Housing.com story and avoid promising the moon?
Ad claims versus reality
E-commerce players are heavily reliant on VCs and will continue to remain so for a good number of years. Brand consultant Anand Halve, co-founder and director, chlorophyll, gives his observations on the current marketing objectives for online real estate. “The purpose of branding here seems to be ‘let me show numbers to ensure the next round of funding.’ Communication is only the last announcement of what it is that you have to offer.”
Halve objects that the space reserved for delivering customer proposition has been taken over by straight-jacketing the message, which doesn’t really address a business problem.“The assumption is that if I shout louder and drown out others, I’ll get customers. But there is no attempt to convey a customer proposition,” he notes.
Communication, it may start to seem in this space, can’t do enough to move things off the shelf, so to speak. Sudhir Pai, CEO, Magicbricks.com concurs that it is more of a category issue. “This is a very high involvement category. We frankly don’t expect too much transaction volume online, either now or in the near future. We don’t expect that to change in a meaningful way.”
What Pai expects to change is the extent of a potential consumer’s involvement with an online real estate portal. The challenge remains that this category isn’t one that a consumer can be sold on by just advertising. He notes, “Where online property portals have succeeded in a meaningful way is driving category adoption. Our internal data suggests over 70% of consumers who are buying a home use the internet at some stage of the buying process.” Vikas Malpani, co- founder and VP, communities, CommonFloor.com, notes that the focus of communication for the portals is a mix of (a) making people aware of the category itself, (b) stating what the consumer can expect from the category when they go online and (c) to build on the needs of the digital consumer. The challenge then for online real estate going forward is to build perceptible differentiators.
According to the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), the Indian real estate market size is expected to reach $80 billion by 2020. That is a long time for online real estate portals to arrive at clearer differentiators given the assumption that a number of builders and developers would have moved online. As Sumeet Singh, EVP, marketing and corporate communications, Info Edge India (parent company of 99acres.com) shares, “For portals, the differentiation is in the quality of the listing, what kind of user experience the site provides, what information is included, and whether quality checks are happening on the listing.”
Take 99acres.com’s first ad, which was rolled out in 2007 to create brand awareness. Since then, it has moved to platforms other than TV. That’s when it grew to bring out communication that spoke about its various verticals. Apart from awareness campaigns, the brand created an ad just for the rent category, followed by something only for sellers.
Overall, the portals use TV for reach, awareness and branding, but this becomes a very expensive proposition from a wastage point of view. Mobile gives them capability to use location as a target parameter and to conduct experiential advertising. Radio is for local reach. On-ground events and festivals prove to be an effective strategy both from a B2B and B2C perspective. Property fairs are used for lead generation. They help with immediate trials which lead to direct business impact. This is in addition to advertising on news apps and engagements on digital.
Essentially, the players in this space realise that they are a good number of business years away from seeing traction online the way other consumer products led e-commerce categories enjoy.
The promise — delivery gap
The question, these portals need to ask themselves, is whether the customer has enough reason to prefer one portal’s offering over the other. The answer to this can only come from giving RoI measurement its due importance. “Here, the brand manager looks down on RoI, because RoI is so ‘20th century’, and for him it is all about engagement,” Halve says.
And therefore, there seems to be a gap between what is promised to the consumer and what is delivered. There are categories where engagement could be more relevant than information and the challenge for such portals is to address issues which make consumers prefer transacting offline when it comes to real estate . Trust needs to be built up .
Till two years ago, a common problem that consumers had with portals was that of hidden costs. Say the listing cited a particular property of Rs 42 lakh. On calling up the builder, the price shared was Rs 49-50 lakh, the raise being attributed to hidden costs such as parking, club and other amenities. The portals say, they are trying to resolve these things. “This sector is not very transparent in this country. Portals are trying to communicate trust and therefore transparency by making choices available and providing information,” Singh of Info Edge says.
The challenge, therefore, before real estate portals is to have a competitive advantage and communicate their differentiators to the increasing number of online real estate consumers.