Guestbooks have been around since the beginning of website time. Originally they were used for visitors to volunteer that they visited a site. I had one on my wedding website seven years ago. Later, guestbooks morphed into a "lead capturing" tool by being placed over information with perceived value. In real estate you often see these over listings information and occasionally still (perish the thought) over "free reports."
Why do you still see so many guestbooks in real estate? For low tech website vendors, it's the best they can offer for lead generation and these vendors push them like crazy. Don't be fooled by these illusory promises of new business. As explained below, today's online real estate consumers won't fill out these forms. But that's okay. For realtors, another better solution is available.
Consumers Hate Registration Forms Masquerading As Guestbooks
Don't use a guestbook, even if it's cute! They are a waste of time and bad for your brand for at least three reasons. First, consumers are more sophisticated these days. They know that listings information is freely available on the Internet. If a consumer got to your site from a search engine, that consumer knows that he or she is only one back-click away from a hundred of your closest competitors and better, freer information. If the consumer got to your website another way, they know how to find Google, if they are not getting the information they want or need from your site.
Second, guestbooks on top of listings information are the equivalent of meeting people at your office door and not letting them in until they sign your book. Is how you conduct your offline business? Of course not. You need to demonstrate to your website visitors that you have something of value to them before you demand something valuable from the visitor (contact information). The Internet is no place to brand yourself as a mememe taker. You are a service professional. Give a little service (like listings) before you demand anything from these visitors with whom you haven't even established a relationship.
Third, most guestbooks can be faked. Do you really want to annoy your visitor (starting the relationship off on the wrong foot) and get fake information to boot? Who wins there? And don't tell me about services to verify the guestbook information before letting a visitor proceed. Those are the epitomy of annoying for consumers. You want me (as a consumer) to stop my search and go open my email application to retrieve some password or link? No thank you. I'm back clicking to the next real estate website.
A Guestbook Strategy Gone Terribly Wrong
I stumbled on an agent's website today where the agent employed not one, but two, registration forms. I wasn't especially surprised to see one because her particular website vendor is notorious for pushing these worthless forms for "lead generation." I clicked on "Find A Home" and proceeded to fake my way through the form. What did I find on the other side? Listings from another state! Can you imagine being the Florida consumer who just gave up valuable contact information on this Florida branded website to get listings from two states away? That would not be one happy camper.
This was bad enough, but for grins, I tried out her "Our Featured Listings" button and encountered the second registration form. Wait a minute! Why do I have to register again? Didn't I just go through this exercise? How annoying is that going to be to your prospective client? And why, oh why, would anybody put a registration form over his or her own listings? That limits exposure for your listing client. And, if a consumer is interested in your listings, you're in the deal in any event. Is this some lame attempt to grab both sides of the deal? That probably isn't going to happen with this now totally annoyed consumer.
Now I don't want to hear from anybody who is going to defend their guestbook because they get a couple of leads from it. Even if you have good, solid, relevant listings information behind your guestbook, you're still going to lose more and more visitors as consumers become increasingly sophisticated and either click off your site or fake their way through your form. Jump off that sinking ship while there is still time.
What To Do Instead Of Ineffective Guestbooks
Fortunately for realtors, there is a better solution. Your stock in trade (listings) is reducible to database format and you can leverage this database to do the marketing dance with online consumers. You don't even have to create the database. Your MLS has already done it with its NAR-mandated IDX program. Show visitors listings. Show them a lot of listings. It shouldn't matter to you. This is an automated process.
Only after you've provided value in the form of lots of listings, do you even start to think about asking for something in return, but guess what? A good IDX solution can help you here, too. Invite your visitor to save specific listings of interest on a private page, or register to get daily new listing updates by email or see the complete address of a listing. All of these equate to extra value and consumers will be much more likely to give up legitimate contact information once you've already provided value and are dangling added value. Daily new listing updates by email are a particularly strong incentive to give you a valid email address.
This strategy requires a sophisticated IDX solution, but lucky for you these solutions are not expensive. Yes, they cost slightly more than free, which is what your MLS might charge for their IDX solution, but how much are you willing to pay for legitimate leads that you can actually use to grow your business? Sophisticated IDX solutions like the one described here will run agents about $40/month. I don't know about you, but my Starbucks budget is twice that per month. I'd give up a few lattes to grow my business. How about you?
Do you know somebody that is still using a guestbook? Be a swell** person and send them a link to this post!
To your unlimited online marketing success!
** Yes, I've been watching Mad Men on AMC and highly recommend it!