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Consumer Focus

January 1, 2007

In response to information-hungry homebuyers who are constantly on the prowl for homebuying and homeselling resources, the National Association of Realtors® has adopted a bold strategy. Breaking out of the traditional mold, the association, whose mission centers around serving its members, now will serve consumers as well through a new Web site and other key initatives.

“This is a major consumer outreach effort that will allow NAR to leverage the natural alliances that exist between Realtors® and real property owners,” explained NAR Executive Vice President and CEO Dale Stinton during a presentation to the NAR Board of Directors at the 2007 Midyear Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo.

The consumer-focused plan that will become a fundamental aspect of the organization’s mission over the next few years is still in development. With the Internet as a driving force, NAR is poised to develop programs that encompass the consumer and the Realtor®. “It’s about completing the relationship [between the consumer and the Realtor®]. And if we don’t do it, someone else will,” Stinton says.
Some state and regional associations have already taken a proactive stance in reaching out to consumers, while others are following NAR’s lead by introducing new initiatives. Then there are those for whom staying the course and serving primarily members makes sense.

Reaching the consumer

Consumer outreach programs, including a Web site for homeowners and homebuyer education (www.leagueofmarylandhomeowners.com), were introduced three years ago at the Maryland Association of Realtors®. Addressing consumers directly is a natural shift for Realtor® organizations, says CEO Mary Antoun. She views the association’s consumer programs as a way to reach beyond her group’s membership base of 35,000, particularly when it comes to housing affordability.

“Homeownership brings stability and economic wealth to any community, but affordability is a big issue in our state,” she says. “Any time we can make it easier for people to buy and stay in homes, we’re doing our part.”

At the Santa Cruz Association of Realtors®, Julie Ziemelis, marketing director, says her members love the opportunity to mingle with consumers at the organization’s annual housing expo. “We get lots of great press . . . and people feel that the Realtors® are doing something to educate the public and give back to the community,” she says.

The Santa Cruz Association also provides members with a “Myths and Facts of First-Time Homebuying” booklet to distribute at open houses and other events. It promotes using a Realtor®, comes from a credible source, and is a great member benefit, as Ziemelis sees it.

According to Santa Cruz Association Executive Director Phil Tedesco, “Consumer outreach is something all Realtor® associations should consider doing as a way of sharing expertise in the real estate transaction with the public, as well as an outreach opportunity to local government and the press.”
Yet, not all Realtor® associations are jumping on the consumer-outreach bandwagon. Ty Strout, CEO of the 52,000-member Arizona Association of Realtors®, explains, “We went through a long exercise of determining what we should do and whom we should serve, and with our limited resources we decided it would be our members directly.” Strout’s association is not alone. Many associations find consumer outreach a good organizational fit, but for some outreach initiatives are uncharted territory.

Return on the investment

Helping the public understand the homebuying process is a noble goal, but there’s no guarantee
of a payoff for members. After enthusiastically marketing a homebuyer education series, the Columbus Association of Realtors®, Mo., found public interest waned after only a few years. Marqué Bressler, communications director, primarily attributed the drop-off in attendance to the fact that many of their companies began partnering with lenders to host homebuying seminars. “Plus, buyers have the Internet for education. Most important, I think the consumer has realized that, if they want their own personal homebuying or homeselling seminar, a Realtor® will provide it in their home and at their convenience,” she says.

Although other associations report similarly sluggish education efforts, programs with a more comprehensive approach, combining education, legislative advocacy, and involvement in community development, are going strong.

Take, for example, the Wisconsin Realtors® Association. Over the past five years, the association created a comprehensive menu of consumer-based programs with the goal of transforming an organization of 18,000 licensees into one that represents 2 million property owners statewide.
“As a result of our consumer-focused programs, we’ve become a much stronger voice in the public’s eye,” says Bill Malkasian, Wisconsin Realtors® Association president. “We have a much greater impact.”

Redefining your goals

Likewise, at the Washington Association of Realtors®, CEO Steve Francks says that his organization’s goal is to advocate for the group’s 25,000 members and their clients. For example, the group runs a multifaceted program that supports building better communities through a variety of principles, such as public awareness of the proposed increases in real estate transfer taxes.

“Working in cooperation with NAR, we developed a public advocacy campaign to educate consumers about the effort underway to increase the taxes on their homes, and what they can do about it,” says Francks, noting that the proposed increase was defeated and that a similar effort recently helped raise awareness of the need for more affordable housing in the state.

Even for those who believe that serving its membership should be a Realtor® organization’s first charge, Francks points out that, in today’s market, this also means serving homebuyers and homesellers who need reliable, accurate information to make the best choices. “When your group’s self-interest coincides with the greater good, and if your efforts to do the right thing blend with what’s right for the community, then you’re doing the right thing,” he says.

NAR’s consumer focus is “a permanent shift in the way the organization does business,” says Stinton, who sees more Realtor® associations getting involved with the Realtor®-to-consumer relationship. “This is far-reaching and long-term,” he emphasizes. “It’s not the kind of thing you get in and out of, and it's not a fad.”