CMO Q&A: Coldwell Banker's Sean Blankenship

Sean Blankenship, SVP of marketing, Coldwell Banker, talks to Lindsay Stein about the launch of a new digital system and restructuring departments.

Where did the idea come from for the digital platform that launched this fall?
We have always taken pride in telling a story about the emotional and lifestyle aspects of home, but we have never had a digital platform to support that. The sellers are the ones who have lived the story. Now they are telling the stories.

About 70% of consumers we talked to said they want to participate in marketing their home, and who is better positioned to tell the story than them? On the flip side, buyers said if they could hear from sellers, they would be more inclined to buy a home because they would know all of the interesting aspects behind the property.

How can sellers use the platform?
We built a relationship database that allows agents, buyers, and sellers to have connectivity and communication. The platform allows sellers to log on and identify their listings. They can write a story or upload photos and videos and share them with agents, who look at the stories and approve them for millions of buyers to see. 

As a seller, I can invite my family or friends and build a group on the platform, so they can see what’s happening and what potential buyers like or don’t like about the house.

Are you worried that the platform will make the agent obsolete?
During conception, it was a point of consideration. However, the agent will always be in the middle. Nothing will go to the site without their approval. The flipside is that agents have a branded platform to bring them closer together, not just with the sellers, but also with potential buyers. They now have a 360-degree perspective of the process.

Were agents trained on how to use it?
We had a training program in October with 3,000 people at an 18-theater Imax. We had two sessions a day. Instead of going through and showing the platform’s features, we had actors act out how it works as buyers, agents, and sellers, so our agents could see the beginning and end and their role in how it works. We launched the platform in beta format in early October.

We gave our agents about three weeks to learn and ask questions before going live.

What agencies helped with the platform?
In the early stages, CooperKatz & Co. recognized the importance of being able to tell the story about the platform, how it’s going to change the industry, and how we interact with consumers, buyers, and sellers. The firm took the lead on bringing this together.

We also worked with digital design firm Nickelfish. Siltanen & Partners created some short films on how we can bring this to life for our network and consumers. MediaCom is our media agency and activated it from the paid standpoint, and Amp is our SEO and content integrator.

How will you measure its success?
We will have a robust performance metric platform behind it. However, success is going to be measured by the engagement from agents, buyers, and sellers.

It’s going to take time because people have to get comfortable with it, but the platform speaks to people whether they’re on a desktop, tablet, or a mobile device. Because it’s integrated across different systems, it should pick up speed very quickly.

You did some restructuring when you joined in 2013. Tell us more about that.
PR falls within marketing. David Siroty, VP of communications, reports to me. His team covers external, internal, and marketing comms. However, we reorganized the marketing department to focus on storytelling through content and the activation of that material. Previously, it was set up in silos, such as advertising, digital, and PR.

It wasn’t designed for today’s environment where content is imminent and can be distributed in many forms to different media. It was about breaking those walls down and getting everyone focused on the idea that we’re going to be constantly telling stories and everything we do is to drive engagement.

We also moved budgets around because they are traditionally the reason why silos exist. So we aligned from a resource standpoint. Once you do that, you start creating new opportunities for employees, as well as your agencies.

Were there job cuts?
We have grown the organization and added some staff with different skill sets to move in this direction.

How are you addressing challenges in the real estate market?
We’re continuing to make sure that it’s not just a financial discussion. That’s what hurt the industry in 2008. If you look at the research CooperKatz is doing, it’s about getting the Millennial generation comfortable with the idea of home ownership.

It’s still very affordable. Some of it is market driven, but a lot is about speaking to emotional aspects. It’s a great opportunity for us to tell our story and use PR to amplify that story across different channels.

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