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Some thoughts on the search for meaningful marketing through drive, autonomy and purpose
“The age of good has ended and the age of excellence has begun. Everything has to be excellent to matter. If you can do something well or good – don’t. Shut it down! Iterate to excellence. Excellence; it’s all that’s left.” – Jason Calcanis: ‘The Age Of Excellence

We live in times of unprecedented change and unparalleled opportunity. An aggressive, modern climate of global markets dominated and determined by rampant technological entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity is forcing disruption of entire industries at massive scale, many of whom are struggling to stay in business. This poses a unique set of challenges, specifically for digital marketers and those wishing to remain visible (especially online), and the exclusive combination of the current economic climate, coupled with digital platform opportunity, often causes a miscalibration between what’s possible and what’s necessary.

Simply put, under the cover of marketing, solutions are being developed to problems that don’t exist.  This often comes at the expense of solving the real, meaningful questions. Questions of economic stability, consumer insight and guidance, and perhaps most importantly, stimulus, recovery, and faith in the services of an industry.

I believe that such a misalignment currently exists within the real estate industry at widespread scale, to the extent that the truly meaningful work of creating effective marketing experiences is not being done.

It’s more than just a lack of focus, it’s an unwillingness and fear of using technology (with specific reference to social platforms, video and mobile) to understand and communicate the current reality of aggressive and disruptive economic forces around the real estate process. As a direct result, there is widespread disagreement and confusion. Not only about what to communicate and how, but even as deep seated as not being able to define who the customer truly is (for example, the evergreen conversation surrounding who the end customer really is. Is the agent the customer of a brokerage,or is it the person purchasing the home?).

I propose a discussion to resolve this.

I believe that there’s a destructive dissonance between the economic realities faced by the rubble of the financial crisis as it relates to the ideas surrounding home ownership, and marketing goals, platforms and advice directed not only towards the industry, but also by the industry towards its customers. We see stark manifestations of this at many of our industry conferences, where economist panels are often relegated deep within the schedule, and eclipsed by the hot young shiny startup that allows you to solve a problem you never even really knew you had. The logistical, economic and financial content of these events is often poorly promoted and as such, sparsely attended, in favor of standing-room only sessions driving home the importance of picking the best filter in Instagram. The huge space of wide open opportunity to correct this misalignment in a dynamic, exciting, social way that’s truly meaningful to the customer, is a problem which has yet to really be solved. It offers the opportunity to go beyond platform choice, in a way that few will be able to do, but that will answer fundamental questions already in the consumer’s mind.

It’s more than just presenting data in novel ways, such as infographics. It’s more than making the content sexier or posting it on emergent platforms. It’s more than sprinkling in a few data points throughout the ongoing stream of the news feed each day. This is no more apparent than inside the social platforms themselves, where there are numerous real estate groups for almost every imaginable platform (‘Foursquare… for real estate’, ‘Instagram… for real estate’, ‘Pinterest… for real estate’), but seemingly none, or at the very least, comparatively few, dedicated to deeper understanding of the economic implications of truly what’s going on at the Federal level, the mortgage level, or the homeownership sentiment level AND how to market to those criteria. It’s just not seen as being as relevant or as a viable means of potentially ‘engaging’ with the customer. It’s seen as ‘dry’ content versus the non-reading media of photos or videos.

Our race to the bottom of the web is impeding our ability to communicate the reality of the market. We hear a lot about the ‘return on investment‘ of social platforms for real estate. I’m curious as to why the economic discussion of what impedes or slows home ownership isn’t part of that conversation (especially because it has direct correlation with the return).

This isn’t an issue solely confined to real estate professionals of course, who are perhaps closest to being able to solve this. This is a more disruptive misalignment for real estate marketers (and I acknowledge the overlap between those two groups), who often operate free of consequence of having to understand the realities of the market dynamics they are communicating within (as illustrated by what happens to the prioritization of discussions of those dynamics, either online or at conferences). Most marketing departments, especially within brokerages, are liberated from having to understand the current economic environment in favor of issues of reach, conversion and distribution for example.

Given the gravitas of the past 5 years, real estate marketing can no longer operate independently of the housing market. It needs to align reality with digital platform, in turn making time spent online with real estate content more meaningful, and even perhaps more trustworthy. Real estate marketing needs to restore purpose to the industry.

This disproportionate focus upon platform for itself (for example the endless webinars advocating ‘why you need a (platform name) strategy as part of your real estate marketing mix’), and the distilled tactical advice so prevalently spoon fed to the agent community, almost always ignores the realities of navigating, or even understanding, a harsh, competitive housing market online. This is in part why aggregation services such as Zillow and Trulia have grown so aggressively – they offer, in small part, a solution to this problem at scale in a way that most brokerage marketing simply is unable to and can’t compete with.

Too often, the discussion online centers around who’s doing what, and best practices.  It’s time to skate where the puck is going to be.  It’s time to seek out those huge, fat, fertile spaces of innovation to truly break the status quo.

As a means of looking outside the industry for inspiration in helping us through this discussion, beginning with a world not too far from that of Zillow and Trulia, I believe we can learn a lot from the world of startups.

“Most people think starting a company is about being your own boss or making a lot of money. Some say it’s about changing the world, but if we’re completely honest that’s mostly just self-affirmation talk, since few of our companies will make a lasting difference. But maybe, we’re looking at it the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about changing the whole world but, just finding meaning in our own world.” – Francisco Dao: ‘The Search For Meaningful Work‘ (Pando Daily):
“I am an entrepreneur because I get to live a life where I can continually feel that I am fully immersed in that process and can live in a space of hope and belief.” (Joe Mellin, Commenting In ‘The Search For Meaningful Work’ (Pando Daily):

Entrepreneurs who choose to work in the fast-paced, stressful and dynamic world of startups have strong working parallels with the independent contractor model so common within the real estate industry. Everyone’s their own boss (at least in principle), must remain perpetually proactive, and essentially eats what they kill every day. No sales, no income; but it’s much more than that, of course.

Much is made in the startup world of founders feeling that they have a cause that drives their product (for example, Mark Zuckerberg’s often quoted “making the world more open and connected” premise), a problem they wish to solve, and this idea of ‘purpose’ is a very common one. This is what I believe is needed, at scale, within the real estate industry.

These founders often hire like-minded folks to work with them, and build their organizations around shared goals and ideas. As a result, this is where the parallels between startups and the real estate industry begin to diverge. That specific sense of intent, and purpose, while present, is almost never discussed at industry events (for example, the fundamental ‘why are you in business?’ is rarely surfaced), but has started to appear as an interesting conversation as National Association of Realtors membership begins to decline, underperforming agents leave the profession, and marketing dollars are aggressively scrutinized for returns.  The notion of meaningful work, that which drives purpose and creativity, innovation and excitement, is therefore often in doubt internally.

Francisco Dao, writing in ‘The Search For Meaningful Work‘ describes the current scenario where very often we simply don’t know what our work produces, which in turn makes the idea of meaningful work hard to find or unfulfilling. As a result, we lose focus on what our business purpose actually is. Is it home ownership associated with notions of happiness through reclaiming ‘The American Dream’ as NAR promotes? Perhaps not, given the data surrounding the rise of a rental generation predicated on life experiences, not consumption. Happinessas equated by conspicuous consumption has shifted over the past 10 years, especially fueled by social technology, where it’s now increasingly defined by life experiences, especially those shared at scale online (for many, a moment unshared is still a moment unrealized).

Steve Jobs often describes purpose and happiness, real long-term happiness, as defined by doing meaningful work, something that truly energizes you, and is more than just a paycheck. For a sales-driven industry this becomes a challenge. Purpose becomes everything, and this idea of not being able to understand the results of your own production is a particularly modern one. For example, Dao writes that 50 years ago, a farmer working a field could look back at the end of the day and visibly see the results of his efforts. Today, that distinction is significantly less clear.


“I think all human beings crave a meaningful life, and I wonder what opiate the working man has used to numb his passion for living that he can grind through the days, year in and year out, without producing any work that instills him with pride.” – Francisco Dao: ‘The Search For Meaningful Work‘ (Pando Daily):

Meaning (and persevering on the often laborious search for meaningful work) draws people together, it creates a sense of community, gives energy, and makes us feel part of something special. It gives purpose. This idea of collective purpose (what some might call a mission statement or brand premise) is absent or at best, severely diluted within the real estate industry. It is rarely discussed at industry events, yet remains a fundamental reason why there is so much discord and discussion over the inconsequential.  At scale, the recent issues surrounding syndication, which notably have appeared to drift off the radar recently, are a good example of this in action, or rather, inaction.

Yet the challenge, particularly in the real estate industry, is to remain true to the purpose of why we’re all in business at all. If there’s no clarity of purpose, success will always remain intangible. It’s more than just sales volume, these are different metrics of success – sentiment, recall and insight. It’s both quantitative and qualitative. We’re really describing the industry as a brand in and of itself, and how to define our evangelists, celebrate them, and understand why people do or don’t love us.

For The National Association of Realtors, it’s currently a conversation surrounding the importance of home ownership and its place within a quasi-fantastical world predicated upon a vague assumption of a collective American Dream. I argue that the more accurate premise of finding homes is not specifically predicated upon consumption or ownership as mentioned earlier. For brokerage marketers, it’s a way of connecting with customers in a way that’s often liberated from economic consequence or responsibility. And for economists, it’s exploring hypothetical scenarios, contingency planning, and watching and commenting upon recovery and sustainability tactics.

These are currently three disparate worlds within the real estate community that offer incredible opportunity for marketers in particular, to combine and thread together. It’s an opportunity to go beyond the database, beyond the statistics, and to truly create insightful, data-driven marketing that communicates much more than we are currently doing. It’s an opportunity to communicate purpose, and mastery of the issues. To truly create meaningful work. Shared opinions, however beautifully they may be communicated, that are devoid of statistical grounding, are dissolving online faster than ever, and simply no longer viable marketing outlets (if indeed, they ever were).

But what threatens this premise is scale. For many in our industry, scale is all that matters,especially when it comes to marketing. More followers, bigger reach, more sales. Meaningful work and the resulting customer connections are most at risk from scale, yet we maintain an unhealthy focus upon items such as social capital, reach, distribution and even the absurd ‘homes viewed per second‘ inside of mobile apps.

“The more time I spend my hours working with a computer, the less meaning I find. I’m getting to the point where I’m longing for the physical labor I had to endure at my first job. Longing to use my hands to move things around. Longing for the time where I was on the go and moving more.” – Francisco Dao: ‘The Search For Meaningful Work‘ (Pando Daily)

Echoing Dao’s sentiments, and speaking directly as a pseudo-representative of the startup community itself, Jason Calcanis takes the idea of meaningful work further by combining it with the perception and adoption of the work itself. Describing a climate of rapid business change fueled by technological transparency and fast-changing global marketplaces, Calcanis describes how ratings and reviews are now driving almost instantaneous decision making (he cites both the App Store and Yelp as powerful examples of this). So much so he suggests, that there’s simply no more room left for average, or even good products and services. Anything below four starsis essentially being ignored, and unless your service is excellent, it is just dissolving into the noise of news feeds, television broadcasts, or otherwise ignored media.

Being excellent is simply the price of admission for remaining visible at all, where good or even great isignored. Calcanis continues by explaining how traditional marketing approaches of distribution, location, marketing spend, celebrity endorsement, traffic buying or the dark arts ofsearch engine optimization are all either irrelevant or inconsequential in an era where only excellence matters.

These are, notably, all practices still rampant within the real estate industry. The end result of the climate Calcanis describes is that ‘hit’ products become megahits, and lock up disproportionate amount of market share for their category, something we all aspire to as a marketing goal. We’re seeing this strongly in the listing syndication world as aggregation eats brokerage site traffic alive. In an app example,’Words With Friends’ and ‘Draw Something’ get 98% of the share  within their own marketplace. This is much more than just being first to market, or even being best follower, this is about making the best product possible, and then having your own users fuel and funnel that marketing growth themselves. It’s simply not something we can spend our way out of any more.

This undisciplined pursuit of scale and consumption, particularly in relation to conversations surrounding home ownership, currently stresses the value of pure and deliberate ownership over life experience. This appears to be the position The National Association of Realtors is taking in their promotional materials, events marketing, and advertising creative. However, as Greg McKeown points out, quoting author and economist Daniel Kahneman, the tendency to value an item more once we already own it (what psychologists call ‘the endowment effect‘), is alive and well in the world of real estate marketing. This is not data-driven, insightful marketing.  What McKeown advocates, in order to reach that state of excellence, and to reach that clarity of purpose is the intentional, deliberate and strategicelimination of all non-essential elements in the business environment.

Turn off the distractions. Focus.

The more dissonant noise, the harder (and longer) it will be to restore that shared and collective sense of purpose to the industry. This is a key differentiator between just being successful, and being excellent, and the dissonance pumped out through environments such as real estate media outlets, social media guidance, and productivity ‘how-tos’ is consciously impeding this success, under the guise of advice and counsel.

Importantly, this becomes much more challenging at scale. Clarity of purpose, McKeown continues, leads to success, which leads to more options and opportunities. More options and opportunities lead to lack of focus and diffused efforts, which in turn undermine clarity and success. Those who are teaching based on primitive understanding of widespread options, may in fact be doing more harm than good.

“In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas.” – Maria Popova: ‘The Usefulness Of Useless Knowledge‘ (Brain Pickings)

So where does this clarity of purpose come from? For startups and entrepreneurs, it often comes from simply solving problems by combining two existing ideas, something that’s often referred to as combinatorial creativity. This is sometimes a blessing, but often a curse, and frequently leads to a climate of self-absorbed solutions in search of problems. However, the notion that, as Steve Jobs explained “creativity is just connecting things” allows us to be able to identify where those opportunities, potentially disruptive or not, might at least be found. These ideas are quickly passing from the realms of science fiction into reality faster than ever today. Ten years ago, if we’d have proposed a service that showed us all listings in our local area, on a phone, in a way that meant we all untethered ourselves from agents, many would have simply laughed. Now it’s common practice.

In conversation with Brian Solis as part of his ‘Revolution’ YouTube series, Mark Suster describes how these creative disruptions are currently defined. He proposes that disruptive technology is an order of magnitude cheaper, lower quality, and lower margin than captured by the existing service provider, and that these forces together cumulatively capture a much wider market opportunity. Sound familiar? It should. This is exactly what’s happened with real estate syndication over the past 5 years.

As Suster explains, the person invested in high cost, high quality and high margin product simply can’t respond to the disruptive influence of lower grade, highly scaled product, and this is often what we’ve seen happen in relation to brokerage marketing, distribution and syndication models. What’s missing, what allows these forces to at least be delayed, or sometimes even halted, is that ‘advance scout’ sense of innovation at the brokerage level, whereby, separated from the core operation, experimentation and forward-thinking, truly creative marketing opportunities are encouraged to emerge.

Taking time to understand the emergent, disruptive trends and adapting and embracing them for your own business is becoming a critical, but often ignored practice, to the extent that agents and brokerages are becoming increasingly disintermediated, not only from their customers, but also from their local, state and national organizations.

Simply put, the higher margin brokerage marketing model can’t keep pace with the very technical innovation intended to help it grow its business. As a result, it becomes digitally disintermediated as the technology grows, evolves and surpasses the existing model, taking eyeballs and users with it in massive numbers.



Most importantly, Solis and Suster identify how social marketers in particular aren’t translating sentiment and customer service into business intelligence. Too often, senior executives aren’t part of the digital decision making, and as such, don’t understand how impactful digital data is already within the organizations. This is the space of opportunity for those attending real estate events to skate towards. Business intelligence tracks, informed by economic realities and statistical, meaningful social platform analysis. That’s the kind of sessioned focus that would begin to join the dots on the problems we’ve outlined earlier here, and truly draw some clarity on the problem of shared purpose, backed by data.

So what else can we do to align these opportunities, create clarity of purpose, and make our collective marketing efforts more meaningful to the customer, and each other?

Dan Pink, in the wonderful ‘The Surprising Science Of Motivation‘  explores some ideas around how to do exactly this, and the field of motivational psychology is one from which the real estate industry can learn much (both internally and externally). Many of us will be familiar with ‘20% Time’ (most famously practiced at Google), whereby team members are allowed to work on their own, independent projects for 20% of their work time. This has spawned a number of highly successful projects at Google (including GMail, AdSense, Google News and Orkut), but Pink goes a step further, suggesting that a ‘Results Only Work Environment’, a more extreme version of ‘20% Time’, where the team member can work wherever they want, whenever they want, and where even meetings are optional.

What Pink suggests is that when employees or teams are empowered to do this, they foster a strong collective sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose – three fundamental traits of excellence in product design, service, and creativity. This becomes one viable solution for marketing teams to deliver on those huge spaces of opportunity – untether them from routine and allow them to become entrepreneurial. Pink demonstrates this idea using the example of Encarta vs. Wikipedia, whereby experts writing at scale were simply unable to compete with a community heavily invested in the purpose of organizing and cataloguing the world’s information as never before.

Pink concludes that the secret to passionate, creative results is an unseen, intrinsic drive, the drive to do things for their own sake. This drive allows autonomy to take place in terms of simply getting the work done, mastery of content matter through investment in the subject, and understanding of purpose through shared experiences with others who feel the same way.

I believe this is what needs to take place within the real estate industry, at scale. Perhaps it’s The National Association of Realtors that leads such an initiative as they’re beginning to do with their Re/Think: The Future Of Real Estate project. Perhaps it’s something that happens at the grass roots level at boutique brokerages such as Austin’s GoodLife Team and then spreads at scale. Perhaps it’s something that marketers will buy into as a result of fundamental changes in how agents are advised in how they could use social business intelligence.

Right now, the industry has a choice, but that window of opportunity for correcting the misalignment is closing. Fast.

Further Reading: Paul Adams: ‘Grouped: How Small Groups Of Friends Are The Key To Influence On The Social Web’: James Altucher: ‘How To Have Great Ideas’: James Altucher: ‘The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective Mediocre Entrepreneurs’ Alison Arieff: ‘The American Dream, Phase 2’ (New York Times): Nick Bilton: ‘I Live In The Future And Here’s How It Works’: Stephanie Buck: ‘How To Choose The Best Instagram Filter For Your Photo: Jason Calcanis: ‘The Age Of Excellence’ (Launch): Tom Dahm: ‘Will Recession Spawn Google’s Cultural Revolution?’: Francisco Dao: ‘The Search For Meaningful Work’ (Pando Daily): Mark De Rond: ‘Are You Busy At Work, But Still Bored?’ (Harvard Busines Review): Caroline Fairchild: ‘The Rental Generation Sees No Point in Buying’ (Business Week): Carmine Gallo: ‘The Innovation Secrets Of Steve Jobs’: Malcolm Gladwell: ‘Meaningful Work Through Passion, Not Genius’: Malcolm Gladwell: ‘What The Dog Saw, And Other Adventures’: Rob Hahn: ‘In Which I Solve The Syndication Problem, Once And For All’: Steve Jobs: ‘Passion And Work’: Daniel Kahneman: ‘Thinking Fast And Slow’: Tuhin Kumar: ‘Digital Scarcity’: Jonah Lehrer: ‘How We Decide’: Jonah Lehrer: ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’: Greg McKeown: ‘The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less’ (Harvard Business Review): The National Association Of Realtors: ‘The Rally To Protect The American Dream’: The National Association Of Realtors:’Re/Think: The Future Of Real Estate’: Dan Pink: ‘The Surprising Science Of Motivation’ (TED Talks): Maria Popova: ‘The Usefulness Of Useless Knowledge’ (Brain Pickings): Maria Popova: ‘Combinatorial Creativity And The Myth Of Originality’ (The Smithsonian): Neil Postman: ‘Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business’: Clay Shirky: ‘Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age’: Brian Solis / Mark Suster: ‘How To Spot Disruptive Opportunities’ (Revolution): Vivek Wadhwa: ‘Why I Believe This Will Be The Most Innovative Decade In History’ (Singularity Hub): Gary Wolf: ‘Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing’ (Wired): Mark Zuckerberg: ‘An Open Letter From Facebook’: