Estate agents: why use local papers?

As a journalist I risk being labelled an enemy within for writing this article, but here goes.

Is it not time for estate agents to stop advertising in local newspapers? And should they perhaps even set up their own more modern alternatives?

Don’t get me wrong. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to see Britain’s local press thriving. A local newspaper can genuinely contribute to building a community.

But in the age of the internet, social media and live streaming of everything from sports events to movies, where is the ‘quality’ in a local newspaper that comes out perhaps once a week and is so badly funded that some of the articles and many pictures come not from professional journalists or skilled photographers but from passers-by and local retirees?

Figures prove my point: local papers are losing readers by an average of 14 per cent per year, with many performing even more badly. The South Wales Argus lost 32 per cent of its print readers in 2013 and the Lancashire Telegraph lost almost 34 per cent.

And while local titles can point to browser hits showing an increase, it is an inconvenient truth that web readers pick and choose what to view - typically excluding the property supplements they have little choice but to see when they flick through a physical paper.

As a journalist, I’m frankly a bit embarrassed by most local papers I see across the country. Which brings me to the question - why do estate agents still advertise in them?

The answer, it seems, is steeped in negativity: agents are simply afraid to be the first to go.

In a completely unscientific experiment, I canvassed 10 agents that advertise in my local newspaper (one of the luxuries of being a freelance is that I do not have to live in London, so this exercise was in the south west of England).

I asked each of the 10 agents three questions.

Firstly whether they got any leads from their local press advertisements? Secondly could they explain why they still advertise in local print? And thirdly where did local newspaper advertising rank in terms of cost-effectiveness compared with the fees for advertising on portals and the cost of running their own website.

In response to the first question, only three agents claimed to have got definite leads for specific properties at any time so far in 2014 as a result of local press ads. Six of the other seven said their worry was that if other local agents advertised and only they did not, they would look as if they were not ‘serious’ players when potential buyers picked up the paper.

In response to the second question - why advertise locally in print? - there was more agreement. Nine of the 10 said the main reason was “to keep the vendor happy”. No one disputes that every professional agent wants to keep their clients ‘on side’ but is it doing anyone any favours to advertise in a medium which now produces so few leads?

And finally in response to the third question - bingo! - complete unanimity.

All 10 agents said advertising in the local press was less cost-effective than the price of maintaining, updating and modernising their own websites, and less cost-effective than paying to advertise on the main portals despite beefs about Rightmove and Zoopla costs.

My conclusion from this small sample is obvious.

Agents want a local profile (it’s vital, of course) but have perhaps too much faith in the local press to provide that profile via specific property advertising. So why not use the local press for brand awareness and use more modern digital means for specific advertising?

It’s easy enough to set up a local YouTube channel; the US local social media service Borders is launching in different parts of the UK complete with house sales sections; some agents are negotiating with local papers to advertise only online and not bother with print; while most agents have some sort of social media presence which could grow too.

It pains me to say it but local print newspapers are on their way out.

Estate agents right now have a great chance to create their own outlets and get a mix of brand-raising exposure and free advertising to boot. Seize the moment.

(This blog first appeared on Estate Agent Today)

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