Like most industries, the real estate market is being dramatically impacted by digital. Services like Zillow are dominating home search, and tools such as Houzz are changing the way buyers plan their purchase, renovation, and design their home.
Consumers are also driving change. Smartphone use continues to grow as buyers increasingly rely on connected devices to simplify the home search process. For home builders and real estate businesses, it’s important to not only improve today’s digital experience but to plan for the future – building a roadmap for digital engagement across web, mobile, and other platforms.
Engine Digital recently partnered with TRI Pointe Group, one of the largest homebuilders in the United States, to redefine the home buying experience for their TRI Pointe Homes brand through improved content, user experience, and technology integration. Following are some of the key insights that came out of our process, and what we believe is needed to drive real digital transformation in the home building space.
Constantly evolving marketplace
Home building is an ever-evolving industry requiring constant adaptation to a variety of external factors:
Overall economic conditions
Consumer spending confidence
Changing tastes in how consumers want to live inside their homes
The types of planned communities that serve an overall lifestyle of comfort, security, and convenience
As the market for newly constructed homes evolves from a product standpoint, so too must the marketing and sales approach. On top of that, digital engagement is quickly becoming the predominant starting point in the home buying process – on mobile devices specifically. As of June, 2015, 27% of all home buying searches took place on a mobile phone, a 19% increase year over year. Tablet use is also finding its place as the device’s form factor lends itself to casual exploration whenever the mood strikes. On weekends, tablets alone account for nearly 20% of real estate website impressions.
We’re not yet to the point where new home sales are conducted solely online, but we are seeing large-scale online purchases quickly becoming a reality. Similar high-cost purchase product sectors like the automotive industry are a prime example.
Identifying changing needs of the homebuyer
As with many of our client partners, we set out to not only find new ways to connect with current customers, but to redefine the customer base in a manner specifically aimed at understanding behavioral actions customers may take when engaging with our client’s business.
Our approach to audience definition is to develop persona profiles for each of the key (high-value) target customers. Personas allow us to specifically tailor digital engagement experiences with their unique needs in mind. This approach also allows us to align the specific goals and objectives of the customer with that of the business, and use analytics to measure outcomes more efficiently.
A good example is the way we plan interactions with first-time homeowners versus experienced homebuyers. The former audience requires a more defined workflow through the website to educate the user, while providing information in a contextual manner to move them through the sales process. For experienced homebuyers, who need less information to support their home purchase decision, we provide a more self-directed, mission-based user experience.
Setting An Ideal Conversion Path
Researching and selecting a home online can be a complex process with a number of factors that influence the purchase decision-making process (e.g., Who is the builder? What makes them unique/better? What are my requirements in the home product? Where is the community located? What amenities are close by? What can I really afford?). Combine these decision-making elements with the variety of needs of the different types of homebuyers, and it becomes a challenge to create an efficient conversion path within the web strategy.
Mapping the ideal state customer journey
For TRI Pointe Homes, we met this challenge through a combination of mapping out the ideal customer journey while determining the proper content strategy. We were then able to determine a highly-efficient conversion path that provides the user micro- and macro-conversion moments. Some moments are driven by informational content in contextually relevant forms. Other moments are user interface design driven calls to action as part of our overall visual design strategy.
Developing the digital roadmap
One of our first steps when working with clients is to audit, evaluate, and map out the business’ current and future digital landscape as part of our digital roadmap strategy process. We’re able to determine the historical business impact of existing digital properties and identify where we see potential for existing and new digital engagement opportunities with customers. Each touchpoint plays a different role in attracting, engaging, and converting potential buyers into actual customers.
Our digital roadmap exercise also helps clients prioritize where to invest in digital properties with the most impact in driving revenue and/or economizing sales operations. With a more holistic view, we can unearth opportunities for innovation that may otherwise go unidentified. Inside our digital roadmap strategy, we workshop toward the following outputs:
Define the business – As a first step, we document the existing business through stakeholder workshops and strategic management tools such as the business model canvas. This deliverable is a visual diagram that articulates a firm's value proposition, infrastructure, customers, and finances in a format that is easily understandable. Most organizations have a difficult time summarizing and socializing this information, so the outputs of this step are incredibly valuable even beyond the scope of digital strategy.
Visualize the service – To move towards a user-centered experience approach, we use service design techniques to map out the engagement model to clearly understand how/where the brand interacts and engages with its users. As it becomes more common for organizations to prioritize digital maturity, it’s often the case that the service layer was simply not considered when tackling digital projects in the past.
Identify gaps in the experience – With the previous two documents at hand, we’re able to collaboratively identify where challenges and opportunities exist of the brand, and how the overarching digital strategy can help to create improvements and efficiencies while eliminating roadblocks and dead ends for the user.
Meeting homebuyers’ preference for mobile
As mobile has changed the retail experience, showrooming has become part of the challenge for retailers, forcing the need for better omni-channel strategies that engage users both online and offline in a more consistent way. The same holds true for home buying, with prospects even more mobile in terms of their own research and discovery process. As buyers explore communities, the role of mobile continues to play a greater role in guiding the experience. Simply optimizing for mobile is not enough - organizations need to consider contextual mobile features that help their customers meet their objectives efficiently.
For TRI Pointe Homes, we defined a mobile experience that would provide customers with:
Quick search of all listings
On-the-go directions to home and community locations
Direct access to sales agents
Engagement with helpful tools like mortgage calculators and flagging favorite properties
Through our research, we learned mobile devices are most often used between 6pm-11pm on weekdays at home and throughout the day on weekends while on the road.
In line with best practices, we optimized the experience to ensure quick-loading and easily readable screens. Content is focused on supporting the discovery process including home/community location, pricing, and key home features along with direct access to sales agents.
While the home buying process may start with mobile, it certainly doesn’t end there. Once our homebuyer has enough information to book a show home appointment, we ensured the mobile experience allowed one-tap mapping functionality to direct our homebuyer to the correct community open-house location. At any point, users can easily connect directly with the sales agent.
Five key takeaways
TRI Pointe’s path to digital transformation has begun. With this first-phase effort behind us, we leave you with five key takeaways to consider when planning your own digital transformation:
Challenge your sector status quo – consumers are influenced by brand experiences, regardless the category. Too often, organizations focus on competitive audits and overlook the value of comparative audits - looking out of category for brands their customers have affinity with. Set your bar higher to meet these elevated expectations beyond your own category.
Know your customers – move beyond today's customer and understand the needs of the next generation that will inform how you evolve your own digital engagement approach. As the Millennial generation is set to overtake Baby Boomers this year, the way brands market to and engage with their ideal state customer is going to go through a dramatic change. Millennial buying power and Be prepared for this, and get ahead of the curve.
Allow for innovation – ensure you map out opportunities to provide user experiences not seen before in your category, focused on creating a greater experience for your customers. This takes dedicated budget and time for experimentation and innovation, so ensure funds are properly allocated.
Be brave – approach your digital strategy with a sense of optimism and vision. Getting this right means finding the right partners to help guide the effort and ensure the approach leads to “what can be done” instead of “what has always been done.”
“Do” today, plan tomorrow – a digital roadmap should include steps for immediate impact and a plan for long-term improvement and optimization. Digital is never “done.” Be sure to invest in measurement, optimization, and continual improvement in your digital efforts, and be prepared to evolve in parallel to the constantly changing digital ecosystem.
Visit the new TRI Pointe Homes website at www.tripointehomes.com. Or reach out to us to learn more about how we've helped homebuilders elevate their business through digital strategy and experience design.