By Alastair Sherriffs, vice-president of marketing and growth, Property Finder
If there were to be semantic analysis done of corporate email as the Covid crisis struck, I’d bet a socially distant hop drink that the phrase ‘cash flow’ would be top trump.
At Property Finder this was no different, and we had to think about cash flow primarily through the lens of our clients’ businesses. Scar tissue from the 2008 financial crash meant there was a visceral reaction to the impact the global real estate market saw, and conserving cash was an understandable priority for our clients. We also had to consider the other side of our marketplace, the property-seeking users. How would this affect their lives and how could Property Finder provide an appropriate level of support? Therefore, cash flow from the perspective of what we should vs could spend on advertising was imperative.
Property viewings dropped aggressively at the start of March when it was announced that schools were closing. Our UAE platforms saw a 45 per cent drop in people contacting agents, and our other markets didn’t fare much better. We then entered a 10-week trough.
Property Finder was the first in our sector to launch a webinar. This wasn’t doing a webinar for webinars’ sake, however. As an official government partner via our Mo’Asher Price Index, we have exclusive access to rich market data and we wanted to give as much transparency, guidance and confidence to our clients as we could about what was happening. Our insights arm, Data Finder, and our data science team empowered us to give real insight and draw live comparisons to other markets globally that were further down the road than the UAE. The take-out here is do not underutilise a unique asset that you possess as a business. Leverage it to its fullest and be a real partner to your customers.
In that same spirit of data, having machine learning at the heart of our digital marketing was a journey we were already far along with. This meant our ability to adapt to changes in consumer demand was flawless. Scaling down spend whilst still capturing all available demand was as smooth as the pump action on your favourite hand sanitiser. For those who live in a world of single-keyword adgroups and labyrinthine campaign structures, for those who say we tried automation and it didn’t work, I can say, with confidence, that you just weren’t doing it right. We now have the security of knowing this approach is battle-tested, that any future storm can be weathered.
This created space to focus on looking forward. This situation would ease, but when? What could be done to stimulate the market during lockdown and to ensure that when things started to abate, Property Finder was the first brand considered by property seekers? The mix between pure performance and brand advertising inevitably shifted.
In two weeks, a platform-native live-stream property-tour feature was created by our product team. Learning? You need to be agile and ready to pivot and have singular focus when needed. To promote this, in-house video content was created with a ‘House Hunt from Home’ theme and safety at its heart; people still wanted to view properties and, as lockdown rules eased, agents could go out and live-stream properties to a wide audience. Property Finder was the second portal globally to go to market with this functionality. The effectiveness and impact of this campaign demonstrated to us how powerful reactive and well-structured brand advertising can be.
This investment not only drove property seekers to attend Live Viewings (which were massively popular with our clients); it also put us top-of-mind for when lockdown ended. We knew there would be pent-up demand and we made it a focus to be ready for that on behalf of our partners that advertise on our platform. This paid dividends; now life has returned to relative normality, we see brand consideration proxies such as brand searches and direct traffic significantly higher than the expected seasonal baselines.
The lesson is that digital brand advertising works in performance-marketing verticals. You can move fast, but only if there is a strategic framework in place. We had to polish and refine this framework on the fly, but it enabled us to scale. Sticking a celebrity on OOH or other old, established tactics will drive short-lived uplift but we’ll use the observations of this period and continue to reach our core audience consistently with creative, considered and insight-driven executions.
As for hindsight, we’re better now as a team at scrutinising effort versus impact, at zeroing in on what drives results, and this is something we could have always done with more rigour. I hope for Property Finder and other businesses that, despite all the hard choices, we all come out the other side of this thing maybe a little bruised but a lot stronger.