PR reliance makes Zillow a hot property

Targeted outreach helps the real-estate Web site find a home with media, bloggers, even agents

Targeted outreach helps the real-estate Web site find a home with media, bloggers, even agents

When Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink started their dot-com company, Zillow, in 2006, more than five years after the great start-up crash, they needed a good idea. A past success wouldn't hurt either.

During the creation of their new real-estate Web site, Barton, the Expedia founder and former CEO, and Frink, his former SVP, could point to their travel Web site, one of the Internet's consistent successes from its nascent days, and confirm that they knew how to make money from the Web.

So this April, Zillow.com went live. And it did so with just a PR campaign.

The name is a combination of words. Providing zillions of pieces of data, mixed with the fact that a home is more than just a piece of property, but also the place to rest your head (like a pillow), Zillow aims to empower consumers with tools and information to transform how they buy and sell homes.

People can plug in any address and get information about the home: specs like the square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, year it last sold, and the current value estimate - or as Zillow calls them, "zestimates." In all, the site offers valuations and data on 68 million US properties.

The Seattle-based company, which works with Fleishman-Hillard in San Francisco for PR, launched the site with no advertising whatsoever.

"[Zillow] made a crucial decision early on: that it would devote all of its limited marketing resources to PR, depending entirely on PR to drive traffic to the site," says Louise Callaghy, SVP and partner at Fleishman.

Traffic is crucial to Zillow's success, Callaghy says, because its business model is based on selling ads on the site.

"It was vital that the PR teams develop both the right creative ideas and the right chemistry to be true partners," she adds, "because a PR failure would mean a business failure."

Part of the launch strategy was keeping quiet beforehand so that details would not leak early. When the site went live, Fleishman and Zillow got widespread media attention by using proactive media relations, among other tactics, the PR team says. It earned the site high-profile features in The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, and on ABC's Nightline, among other outlets.

The team promoted Zillow as a credible data source by issuing the first in a series of quarterly home-value reports. They offer data and insights into changes in house values nationally, and in five key markets: San Francisco, Seattle, LA, Miami, and Phoenix.

It also used seasonal and local angles to speak to local and real-estate reporters at titles across the US. The PR team met with Web site editors and local newspapers to show that Zillow produced informational reports relevant to their specific areas.

In September, the site's database opened to homeowners, allowing them to edit the data on their homes, such as adding remodels or other changes that affect the home's value.

Blogging became central to Zillow's communications early on, says Amy Bohutinsky, Zillow's director of communications.

The team incorporated a heavy blog strategy, which included both Zillow's own blogs and outreach to real-estate blogs, because the influencers in this space are often online.

"Internally, we spend a lot of time on blogs," Bohutinsky says. "We post corporate news there almost every day. For me, personally, this is the first time I have used a corporate blog as a primary communications tool."

According to Zillow, the site had 3.7 million visitors in August. It also became the fourth largest real-estate Web site, according to business research firm Hitwise.

One challenge Zillow faced head-on from the start was anticipated resentment from real-estate agents. Zillow has been proactive about addressing people who work in real estate, repeating that it's not trying to take over the market or make the agents obsolete.

Frink, who serves as Zillow's president, spoke at the recent California Realtor Expo 2006. He wrote on his corporate blog how his product is like a free research tool.

"Having spent time in both the travel and real-estate industries, I'll repeat something I've said in other forums: Real estate is not travel," he wrote. "Real-estate agents will not be replaced by people on the phone or by a Web site. They play a [vital] role in guiding and advising customers in the most important financial decision of their lives."

At a glance

Company:
Zillow

CEO:
Richard Barton

Headquarters:
Seattle

Competitors:
HouseValues.com

Key trade titles:
Realty Times, Inman News, blogging activity

PR budget:
undisclosed

Marketing and comms team:
Amy Bohutinsky, director of communications, Zillow;
Louise Callaghy, SVP & partner, Fleishman-Hillard

Marketing Services Agencies:
Fleishman-Hillard

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