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Building a comprehensive website is one of the most critical tasks for any home builder. Most buyers begin searching for a new home online, and their decision to purchase occurs long before they step inside a sales center.

Buyers want most of their questions to be answered during a website visit, experts agree. Not everyone has the time or patience for a 2 p.m. showroom visit on a Wednesday afternoon.

But what are customers looking for on a builder’s website? Trust, transparency, and a wealth of information that’s easily navigated, especially on mobile, where 80 percent of customers are conducting their research.

Greg Bray of Blue Tangerine, Meredith Oliver of Meredith Communications, and Livabl’s Steven Greco and Karyn Bonder go beyond their International Builders’ Show panel discussion at the end of February to share website must-haves for home builders.

Trust and the Emotional Connection

Trust comes from creating an emotional connection, says Bray, president and co-owner of digital marketing consultancy Blue Tangerine.

“Before the customer even has a conversation with the builder, they are researching the builder online,” he says. “The builder needs testimonials, galleries, maps, and so much more. There needs to be a personal connection. Builders need to demonstrate they aren’t a faceless company.”

Bray says a critical factor in building trust goes into the simple quality and design of the website.

“If it’s ugly, you lose trust. An ugly website has nothing to do with building a home, yet we judge that way,” he adds. “I’m not a psychologist, but we make decisions so quickly. You may not lose every customer with an ugly website, but they can move on to other sites.”

A Testimonial Goes a Long Way

Clients also build trust and an emotional connection from the inclusion of testimonials. Reading and viewing firsthand experiences from other buyers helps website visitors gain a clearer picture of what a builder has to offer and the quality of its customer service.

“From a testimony standpoint, people trust online reviews more than they used to,” Bray says. “Video testimonials connect in a much better way because they are harder to fake.”

Testimonials can also come from happy clients showing off their new homes via social media. Builders should always encourage buyers to tag them in their posts for that extra boost.

“Social does connect with that—you’re looking to provide social proof,” Bray says. “Facebook can be a place to collect the reviews when a community comes in—have people showcasing their brand-new house. Existing customers are excited and happy, and you can get that conversation connected back to you. That’s powerful. It’s not for a sale tomorrow, but you’re planting seeds.”

Testimonials add another layer of texture to the online search, notes Oliver, president of Meredith Communications.

“You’ve answered the basic questions on your website,” she says. “Then the buyer is going to want to know about the builder. That’s where social proof testimonial reviews come in and give you the credibility you need. They bolster the reputation that gets you the lead—the phone call, the email, the text message.”

Maps Point the Way

It doesn’t matter to the buyer if the house is perfect—if it’s not in the right place for that person or family, they won’t consider it.

Greco, vice president of sales for Livabl, says things have come a long way from the old days, when a physical map would be the key focus of a showroom.

“You’d walk into the sales center environment, and somewhere in the middle of the room, there would be a table with an island,” he says. “There would be a site map, a static map, nothing electronic. Those builders with a little bit more money to spend might populate the lots with monopoly houses.”

Livabl provides builders with interactive maps that do more than just show where a house is located.

”The demand is far beyond the information we saw in the sales centers,” Greco explains. “It has moved to the website because buyers have become more tech-savvy than ever. The consumer now demands that the builder provide as much information as possible so buyers can make educated decisions and prequalify themselves.”

Interactive Floor Plans

Interactive floor plans are another way buyers connect emotionally during a website visit. What initially begins as daydreaming can become legitimate questions looking to be answered via an interactive floor plan. ”Can this bedroom serve as an office?” ”Will my truck fit in this garage?”

”When people start spending time on a builder’s website, they build a connection, and it’s harder for them to go on to the next house,” Bray says. “It’s a powerful tool that most builders still aren’t fully taking advantage of that is readily available and affordable. There are other options that are more expensive, like augmented reality, but interactive floor plans also have a lot of power to create connection.”

Sites such as Livabl give builders an edge by providing customers with the interactive floor plans they seek and the information that can help them close with buyers.

”Livabl’s virtual products are incredible because our interactive site maps, floor plans, and virtual tours are extremely detailed,” Greco says. ”Our solutions are innovative because of the ability to drill down to that lot and then thumb through the different plans.”

Self Tours

Data shows that self tours encourage buyers to take the plunge, because it’s another way for them to gain information on a new home in a low-stress environment on their own time.

Tom Nelson co-founded UTour, a leader in unattended access tours. He explains how his research led to the value of self-guided exploration for new homes.

”Home builders get about 30 percent to 40 percent of their leads to schedule an appointment from the phone calls, form submissions from the website, and digital format leads,” Nelson says. ”But what happens to the other 60 percent? That’s what we were trying to figure out.”

”They told us, ‘It’s not that I never want to talk to a salesperson. I don’t want to talk to them during the first visit if I liked the home.’ These people were equating the new-home sales appointment to a timeshare appointment where they would get locked into an hour and sit through a hard sales pitch. And they just didn’t want to do that. They just wanted to see if the home looks as good in person as online. They wanted convenience. They didn’t want the hard sell. If they liked what they saw, they were ready to talk to a builder.”

It may seem odd for some builders to encourage self-touring while still employing salespeople in their centers. However, Nelson says there’s room for both to flourish.

”We know that staffing new-home salespeople is becoming more of a challenge because it’s getting harder to find people to work the weekends,” he adds. ”There are also issues when builders are dealing with close-out communities. Putting a salesperson in that model home costs a lot of money when they’re down to three or four homes left to sell.”

Taking Care of the Back End

It’s easy for a builder to get caught up in dynamic photos and glamorous drone footage for its website. But if its data isn’t consistently maintained, it could be losing customers.

”One of the biggest obstacles isn’t very sexy—it’s data management,” Bray says. ”The product online must be completely accurate. The home can’t be sold last week or two weeks out of date. It sounds simple, but it is not where most builders spend their effort. The same goes for bad and outdated information. Most current blogs are three years old, making the site look neglected.”

Bonder, vice president of business development builder sales and marketing for Livabl, says a lack of updated information can easily cost a builder a sale.

”I think about maybe 10 to 15 years ago in this industry, if a consumer didn’t see pricing or didn’t see availability, they would contact the builder directly,” she says. “But we’re seeing that it’s trending away from that. Now, if consumers can’t access the data they want to know, they will rule the builder out as an option.”

Ensuring your site can provide data wherever it is needed is important, something that can be achieved through the proper use and implementation of APIs (computer scripts that allow different programs to speak to each other and share data).

“The more accurate and timely information on the builder’s website is important because that will translate onto listing sites, especially with an API type of system, as opposed to just a traditional data feed system,” she says. “The closer they can work together, the faster things move forward, and then the more information you give to the consumer. If you’re doing that on your website, it will translate out to other listings sites. Cohesiveness is essential.”

Update Early, Update Often

Builders must update their sites daily because few things turn a buyer off quicker than a broken link or stale sales maps.

“It’s a struggle,” Oliver says. “It is not a lack of motivation. It’s still a lean staff and business model. There’s typically a marketing person that is spread way too thin. Frankly, many builders are still investing in and building sites with partners that lock them into a site difficult for the builder to update and manage on their website.”

She adds, “I feel that the builder needs to find a marketing partner that allows them to be the primary owner and driver of their website. It is not my website; it is your website. If you get busy, of course, we are here for you. And we will take care of it for you. But we encourage and direct builders to get in there and take ownership of this themselves.”

Bonder explains builders can help themselves by hiring staff specifically focused on website maintenance.

“I think builders should be hiring for those positions so that someone can dedicate the right amount of time to making sure that there are daily updates,” she says. “It’s that important. We just have a habit of not sharing data, keeping data close to our chest. It’s not doing us any good as an industry anymore. The more accurate your data on the website is, the better it is for the consumers. Also, sharing that data out where consumers are going to be coming in front of your homes is going to get you more consumer eyeballs.”

It’s also important to be able to respond to queries quickly, something internal staffing facilitates.

“The other piece of that is making sure that you can respond very promptly to any requests. Make sure you staff those important positions or make your homes available outside of the typical 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. hours because people are shopping at all points of the day and night,” Bonder says.

“We just live in that almost immediate gratification on the consumer side,” she adds. “What does that look like in home building? We can’t deliver the home immediately, but we can deliver the information immediately. And I think that’s today’s expectation, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s going to continue to move in that direction. I know some builders are focusing on being able to buy the home online. I don’t know if that’s as critical right now. I think we need to focus on content and responsiveness right now.”

Closing the Deal

The move to share so much information with buyers before even speaking with a salesperson seems shortsighted to some builders. They believe the personal touch and gatekeeping of the assets is still the way to gain sales.

“Many builders are still old school,” Greco says. “They believe that the conversation about what homesites are available, which ones are sold, and the square footage of the lot—they think that’s a conversation that should happen between the buyer and the seller. In other words, they expect the buyer to come down to the sales center and engage with a salesperson to have that conversation. That is not how buyers consume today. Buyers want all the information, and the builder to be as transparent as possible. Builders must understand that once buyers have all the information, by the time they come into the sales center, they’re 90 percent sold.”

How far are buyers from being able to put an online deposit on a home? Greco says he thinks it’s sooner than might be suspected.

“The trend will continue to evolve in that direction,” he says. “Although 80 percent still visit the physical on-site model, 90 percent of the decision to buy there and a particular house has already been made online. I don’t think we’re far from when a buyer might buy completely online. That’s because the visuals are becoming so sophisticated that the consumer is comfortable making the purchasing decision and will put a deposit down via credit card online.”

This story appeared on Builder Online

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