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Your Web Site: What's Right for You?

When it comes to designing or updating your Web site, you’ve got options. Whether you decide to plug your information into a template site or hire a company to design it for you, we’ve got tips for doing it better.

Template or Custom Design? What's Right for You?
The Internet is a powerhouse when it comes to selling real estate. That’s why it’s vital for sales associates to build a Web site that brings them leads and offers consumers value. What works best for you? A template site, where the design is pre-set and you just plug in your information or a custom site designed by a Web design firm?

A template site requires less of everything—fewer design choices, less text to write and a lower cost, usually from $1,000 to $5,000. You might even want to set up multiple sites for different functions of your business.

And there are many add-ons and plug-ins that can add important functions to a basic template site. For instance, you could add a language translator, post the local weather or offer virtual tours of your listings.

A custom site provides almost unlimited flexibility in design, messaging and functionality. That flexibility is particularly important for sales associates who want to tailor their marketing to a particular niche or find themselves bumping up against the limits of a template site. But, it can cost you big bucks.

Here are some steps you can take to make the process smoother, no matter what you decide.

Tips for Picking a Template Provider
Looking for a cost-efficient way to launch a new Web site or upgrade an existing one? Consider a template because the basic design work has already been done.

Roughly 50 companies now offer templates for real estate sites, according to Dan Gooder Richard, president of the Gooder Group in Fairfax, Va., who offers the following suggestions for choosing a template provider:

1 Set a budget. By establishing your budget first, you’ll avoid the eyes-too-big-for-your-wallet syndrome. A typical budget could range from under $1,000 to $5,000 or more.

2 Go to the provider’s site and check out several different real estate offerings in your budget category. This will provide a good idea of the look and feel you can expect for your site before you make a financial commitment. If necessary, you can revise your initial budget to include more features or functions.

3 Ask the provider for references. Look for live examples of the firm’s real estate sites and talk to the firm’s clients.

4 Review the provider’s current template designs to see which approach is most appealing. You should also visit your leading competitors’ sites to make sure your design and features are different from everyone else in your market.

5 See if it’s easy to contact the provider and how quickly the firm returns your calls or responds to your e-mail messages. Avoid any company that seems unresponsive. Richard notes that there is no advantage to using a Florida company, since you won’t have face-to-face contact with a template firm. Because the state is such a large market, every provider will have done work in Florida.

6 Identify the limitations of the template. Once you narrow your search, ask each provider, “What are the limitations of this site?” Perhaps you won’t be able to change the menu buttons or add more than a few extra pages.

7 Ask to “test drive” the site’s control panel. This is the user interface, where you would be able to make changes to the content yourself. Find out how easy it is to add a featured listing, upload a photo or revise a section of text.

8 Find out how the site will capture online leads. This is one of the most critical aspects of an effective site. In most cases, capturing leads involves offering a series of Web forms. Ask the provider if there is a limit on the number of forms and where they’re placed on the site.

9 Ask about response mechanisms for inquiries. When a visitor completes a form, does the site offer an automated instant response, sometimes called “drip e-mail”? Because Internet prospects need to be cultivated by e-mail until they pick up the phone, an immediate automated response is essential. At the same time, you should receive an immediate notice from the site, so you can respond quickly to the visitor’s request.

10 Discuss the basics of technical support. At some point, it’s likely you’ll need help from a techie. Find out what level of support is available, how you access that service and how you’ll be charged, by the hour or by the incident.

11 Determine the total costs for the entire first year. To make “apples-to-apples” comparisons among template providers’ offerings, it’s essential to include both the initial setup and 12 months of hosting charges. That’s because some providers might offer an inexpensive setup, but higher monthly service fees. And be sure to find out exactly which services are included and which are extra (see sidebar above). For instance, some providers charge a fee for every change in the site’s content. Asking about the money brings all the features and services into very sharp focus. Otherwise, you can become confused by the technobabble.

12 Assure that you will own the site’s domain name. The domain name of your site——is a valuable piece of Internet real estate. It’s something you should own, so you can transfer the site from provider to provider if necessary. The domain is clearly one of your business assets. You might be able to sell the domain and site to another [sales associate] if you decide to retire or move out of the area.

Choosing a Design Company (Expensive but worth it!)
For John R. Wood Realtors®, a custom-designed Web site provides an effective way to build the firm’s brand while attracting business from around the world. “We want anyone who wants to find out about real estate in our market to go to our Web site,” says Phil Wood, president of the Naples-based company.

Wood turned to RBD Studios, in Bonita Springs, to craft a site that reflected Southwest Florida’s appealing lifestyle, while giving consumers extensive information and easy-to-use property-search features.

“A custom site gives the [sales associate] or broker far more flexibility in branding,” says Lu Doan, co-founder and principal of RBD Studios LLC. “It allows the Internet to be a major component of your marketing campaign and [allows you] to promote yourself.”

“High-producing associates understand that first impressions are very important,” he says. “They’re committed to creating a strong brand, they invest resources to build their brand and they take a cohesive approach to all their marketing materials.”

While a custom approach almost always costs more than a template—from $10,000 up—a well-crafted site can attract more visitors, capture more leads and ultimately generate more closed sales.
If you’re ready to make that investment, it’s essential to select the right design company. Here are    Doan’s suggestions:

1 Seek proposals from design companies that specialize in real estate. “They can develop your site more smoothly because they’ve done it before,” Doan says. A firm that specializes in real estate sites can also offer valuable advice on an overall branding or marketing program for companies and associates.

2 Consider using a Florida firm. Unlike working with a template provider—where geography is not an issue—you may have to meet several times with a custom designer. Having a designer located nearby facilitates face-to-face meetings and creative discussions. “Florida design companies are also used to working with our local and regional MLS systems,” Doan adds.

3 Be sure the designer understands the special needs of your business. For instance, if your market includes downtown condominiums or golf course communities, ask the designer for ways to highlight these niches on your site. “You want to be sure the designer understands how you do business,” says Doan, “so your site promotes the right properties and communities.”

4 Ask the designer about the best approaches to branding. Your branding should reflect the needs of the consumer, rather than promote yourself, says Doan. But, you will also want to include at least a short professional biography that might “ring a bell” with prospects.

5 Look for a firm that’s a good personality match. Because a custom site is a collaborative project, be sure you’re “in sync” with the design team, says Doan. An interactive, creative approach can also stimulate your marketing thinking, perhaps opening the door to new business opportunities.

6 Analyze the proposed functional features of the site as well as the design. Today, it’s not enough for a Web site to look cool—it has to attract prospects, capture online leads and create new clients and customers. Pay particular attention to the lead-capture forms and response features, which are essential for generating a return on your investment. If you’re selling new homes, ask the designer about an “agent shield” function that allows you to connect clients directly to a developer’s site while maintaining your role in the transaction.

7 Ask about the firm’s experience regarding search solutions and MLS linkages. Doan says, “It is very important for the firm to have an existing MLS solution, since a search function is one of the most important parts of any site. The better the search system, the more likely [it is that] you will be able to convert prospects.” Designing a search engine that can easily access multiple MLS systems is a complex task, Doan adds. “One of the best ways to compare bids [from Web site designers]—which often look very different—is to examine the MLS solutions that each firm provides.”

8 Look for search engine optimization solutions. A designer can go behind the scenes of your site to enhance its ranking on major search engines like Google and Yahoo. You want your site to appear high on the list of common keyword searches. Your designer can also advise on signing up for a “pay-per-click” or other fee-based optimization strategy.

9 Discuss the timeframe. Custom sites take significantly longer than templates to create, and you need to be involved in the process. In general, the more time you can commit to the process, the more quickly the site will be up and running and the more likely it will be that you will avoid extra costs.

10 Compare costs for developing and maintaining the site. If you already have experience working with a template provider or designer, you can create your own parameters to be sure that proposals from different companies cover the same scope of work. In any case, you should review each proposal carefully to identify any extra fees or costs.

Finally, Doan says, you should consider a custom-designed site as a long-term investment. “With some maintenance and updating,” he says, “a custom site should last for many years.”

Richard Westlund is a Miami-based freelance writer. Consultant Dan Gooder Richard is president of the Gooder Group in Fairfax, Va.