Here’s a free publicity case study I’ve been meaning to post for a while.
Years ago, when I first heard marketing consultant, Jay Abraham, talk about getting control of a marketing asset you don’t posses, I understood the concept but didn’t have the faintest idea how to execute it.
Here’s a paint-by-the-numbers way to do it and how it resulted in over $52,000 in traceable business for my most important client at the time: my wife.
But to really grasp the nuances of what I’m about to share, you’ll need to imagine a world quite different from ours today.
And it’d help if you’re acquainted with Bizarro World in D.C. Comics — the place where incompetence is rewarded, stupidity is praised and ugliness is treasured. Interestingly, Bizarro World boasts a popular financial instrument called the Bizarro Bond, “guaranteed to lose money for you.”
The backdrop for this story gives Bizarro World a run for its money.
Imagine a place where…
- Little things like collateral, income and creditworthiness are totally irrelevant factors when buying a home.
- Property values can go nowhere but up.
- Generous credit lines are given to anyone with a beating pulse.
- And similar to the Bizarro Bond, something called the sub-prime note is the preferred ruinous investment of choice.
Well, you needn’t imagine it. This was that very strange year known as 2005 and the place was the good ole’ US of A.
But don’t worry. Even if you resided elsewhere, we almost certainly exported these to a place near you.
Recalling this brings to mind an oft-used quote of Woody Allen’s:
“80% of Success Is Showing Up.”
Great quote Woody came up with except in 2005, he was off by 20%.
This was a year in which money ran uphill.
Almost everyone in the real estate, lending, construction and related industries made a nice living just by showing up — from the spec home builder to the journeyman electrician to the girl making photocopies at the title company.
Those who brought something extra to the game enjoyed the gravy.
During this astonishing time, my wife decided to jump into real estate, after watching her energy trading markets implode in the post-Enron world.
She faced a challenge.
Unlike her previous industry where she had plenty of credentials and bountiful press, including a front page article in the Money section of the USA Today (12/11/01), she had no obvious competitive advantage coming into real estate.
But since money was running uphill, she got her license, jumped in and cashed her commission checks.
After a year of enjoying the fruits of being in the right place at the right time, we realized it was time to sit down and…
Craft A Real Competitive Advantage
But how to do it?
How does a newcomer differentiate herself from the masses? Moreover, how can she turn her lack of experience into an advantage?
Smart marketers know almost any challenge can be broken down into a set of concrete steps. And our first step was to leverage an asset we didn’t own.
Almost immediately, she mentioned a technology-laden home that was several multiples more expensive than anything else in town. It was also a home with a major marketing challenge.
Since Tucson is far removed from the glitz of the Coasts — it’s a winter haven for frozen mid-westerners, an hour’s drive from Mexico — finding a buyer for a 17.5 million dollar home was no mean feat.
And from what my wife told me, the listing agent was spending far more marketing this property than most agents were making at the time.
So, we decided, (don’t laugh) “let’s put the home on eBay.”
You have to remember, this was 2005, the height of the housing bubble, and real estate marketing on eBay was a trend in full force.
And like anything else that’s trendy online, whether it’s eBay in 2005 or Facebook in 2010, the marketing opportunity lies somewhere between the overhyped to the underutilized.
So, Anjelina went to the listing agent with a simple proposition. “With you and your seller’s permission, I’ll market this property online at no cost to you and if I find a buyer, I’ll receive full commission as the buyer’s agent. Deal?”
Hard to argue with that. They wanted to get the place sold, so they gave her the green light.
Since this was over a half-decade ago and literally was a house ad, I’ll make a confession that I’d never make to my copywriting clients today.
The ad I wrote was a midnight write.
Yet, it was wildly successful because I unearthed the right hook and linked it to a trendy channel.
My main material to craft the ad was a coffee-table sized prospectus that looked more expensive than a small trailer home. Of course, it was loaded with the kind of gushy superlatives that makes copywriters like me cringe.
My first job was…
Finding The Hook…
A strong hook or power concept is a must for even a chance at creating a winner. Fortunately, this home was so loaded with technology, that it leapt right out.
“Amazing ’22nd Century’ Tucson estate boasts every luxury and technology innovation you could ever conceive of…it even comes with a 602-page owner’s manual”
No time for fifty candidate headlines. This was a midnight write because we told the listing agent the ad would be published by morning.
As soon as I learned of the 602-page owners manual, I knew that was it. What was a barely legible footnote in the prospectus was transformed into a dynamite advertising hook.
The rest was straightforward.
I added captions to the photos and made a bulleted list of the most compelling features of the home. Features, not benefits — this was pure cut-and-paste.
Within a short-time, the “Amazing 22nd Century Tucson estate” listing rocketed up eBay Pulse.
At $13.5 million (not including the surrounding 10 acres of property) it was the most expensive piece of residential real estate on eBay for two out of three 30-day ad insertions.
The barrage of emails and phone calls from all corners was relentless.
After all, this was classic bootstrap-entrepreneur, needle-in-haystack lead generation.
Since the percentage of people with a net worth of over $50 million is small compared to the number of eBay users, most of the inquiries came from curiosity seekers, plus a healthy share of outright nutters.
Ultimately, the lead-gen process, though tedious, worked. Several qualified respondents took tours of the home. One even flew into town on his company’s private jet shortly after making a telephone inquiry.
Step 2…Contact The Press
With several thousand page views taking place each day, it wasn’t long before Anjelina’s name became associated with this property. And all she did was offer to help the seller and his agent market the property in a way they hadn’t considered, while spending almost nothing out of pocket.
Now, it was time to contact the state and local newspapers and let them know about the eBay auction.
All it took were a handful of emails before the state’s second biggest newspaper called. Within a week, there was a front-page article in the business section about the property and Anjelina’s role in marketing it on eBay.
Even though this happened over a half-decade ago, there are plenty of timeless marketing and public relations lessons in here.
The one that still jumps out at me is what I call the “newcomer’s advantage.”
Most people are accustomed to looking at a lack of experience as a negative. And while it’s true there are some spin-resistant professions like heart surgeons and airline pilots, you can make a case in many fields that the old, entrenched way of doing things doesn’t work as well as a bold, novel approach. That was one of the clear take-aways from the article.
The Lifetime Advantage of Free Publicity
Besides achieving the major marketing advantage of having prospects come to you, after a front-page story like this hits, you now hold the lifetime advantage of being able to say: “as seen in The Wall Street Journal” or “as reported in The Oshkosh Northwestern.”
Oftentimes, you can parlay one story into many.
In Anjelina’s case, she was later written about in a real estate industry trade journal, as well as interviewed on a local TV station.
And the best part is, you don’t need to spend thousands on publicity agents or PR courses to do it.
In fact, the absence of a marketing or a publicity budget has often been an advantage for me because every time I’ve thrown money at a problem, it’s usually gone down the drain.
My PR approach today can be best described as a bootstraper with a budget. Here are my…
3 Guidelines For Getting Press For Yourself And Your Business
- Keep your eyes pealed for unexploited marketing channels. Are you a specialist in one or multiple areas? Look for ways to bring something being marketing successfully into your pet area. (Example: I’m now working with a company that does over $20 million in sales through direct mail but they have almost no experience with online marketing. I’m condensing and translating their strongest direct mail packages to the web, then helping them push this offer to proven online lists in their market. News outlets are often interested in stories like this which would benefit both me and my client.)
- Find a hook or create one yourself. “22nd Century Tucson Home.” Cliche-ish? Sure. But it’s memorable. You want something where readers and viewers will have as close as possible to 20/20 recall.
- Join two ideas together in an exciting way. The attraction of social media for business development is it’s trendy, and to a degree, a black box. But the problem with social media marketing is it can be a boringly generic. Solution? Join the use of social media to an exiting business model. Example: Curtis Kimball runs his business from a crème brûlée cart on the streets of San Francisco. On any given day, he can be miles from where he was yesterday. Curtis’ customers not only follow him on Twitter to find out his location but also about the flavors of the day. The New York Times liked this enough to lead with Curtis’ story in an article over the summer. Think what that’s done for his business.
Epilogue of the 22nd Century Home Story
As you may have guessed, we didn’t sell the home. We came ever so close but as they say close only counts in horseshoes.
Had the home been sold, a $500,000 commission from this marketing and PR adventure would have made a great 80/20 case study but no complaints…we got plenty out of it.
And we weren’t ready to quit. A year after this, we gave it another go.
We suspected the sellers were using direct mail to contact people on the Forbes 400 list who lived in the States.
So, we asked ourselves, “who could they have overlooked that this home might make sense for?”
And someone came to mind.
Today, Carlos Slim of Mexico City is the world’s richest man, but at the time, he was relatively unknown in the States.
How do you get the attention of a billionaire like Carlos Slim?
The same way you get anyone’s attention — do something different, even slightly outlandish.
So, we FedExed him a black leather briefcase containing a prospectus for the home, an invitation to come and see it, and a letter making a case for how the home could be a valuable cross-border asset as a corporate retreat.
Though I never spoke to him directly, his English speaking secretary, Sylvia, was easy enough to reach. A week after sending the package I rang her up and introduced myself. She immediately answered in a mixed tone of recognition and astonishment: “Oh, you’re the ones who sent the briefcase!”
And after a dozen more follow-up calls with replies like “Sr. Slim is in Switzerland and will examine your proposal on return,” he finally looked it over and declined.
Sylvia related his answer which was diplomatic and portentous — “Mr. Slim is not interested in making any investments in the U.S. real estate market at this time.”
Guess he knew about Bizarro Bonds.
An incredible lesson, I have been reading your blog for a while and I can tell you that have changed my life, than you very much, this is very valuable
Codrut Turcanu says
Now this is the type of marketing insights I like to get from a copywriting blog. Great job Lawrence 🙂
P.S. Eugene Schwartz had this principle too : “Join two ideas together in an exciting way” — did you get inspiration from his works too? 🙂
Larry LaFata says
As always, Lar, a great hold-on-to-your-seat marketing story.
Shows that adapting social media is still a wide-open
Jay Abraham is one of my marketing heroes as well, and often
talks about bringing a successful process from one industry
and applying it to another.
Wall street clearly applied the Bizarro Bond concept to derivatives trading over the last few years!
Sean McCool says
Nice case study even if it didn’t play out. After all, with a plan like that you can make a lot of bets without ever losing.
What a wonderful way to remind people of, not only, the value of thinking outside the herd but having the courage of your convictions to act upon such original ideas. Kudos.
All the best,
Jonathan Dune says
Very good case study Lawrence.
Well done! Good on you mate.
Some years back an eclectic friend of mine from the San Francisco Bay Area constructed a similar type home half-way between La Costa and Escondido in San Diego County in Southern California on the top of a mountain.
Although slightly smaller at only 25,000 square feet, you are confronted by the drive up a private road some mile and half to a security gate, whereupon you then pass through and drive another three quarters of a mile to the front entrance way of the grand entry door, a 15-foot high six-foot thick pivoting hexagram(8-sided) door made of mahagony, as you enter and walk on the imported white Italian marble you feel small in comparision to the huge 30-foot high ceiling receiving area. As you look forward you look through the house on the longest black-bottom inside-to-outside infinity pool within this daunting three-level massive super-sized home sitting on top of a mountain with a full 260-degree view of the Pacific Ocean from Mexico at the South and Orange County to the North with a clear view of Catalina Island off the coast. Let’s not forget the subterranean 18-car bowling alley-sized garage or the dining room setting that slowly spins revealing a 360-degree view of the Pacific Ocean to all those sitting enjoying their meal at the table.
Let’s just say that I have left out so many of the amenities that this super-sized home offers. Did I forget the massive 9-foot entry doors that each of the bedrooms has … or the gigantic mahagony sliding doors that opens up on each side of the inside of the home to the black-bottom pool area down the center… the 8-different bathrooms, the massive theatre room, the family room with the 180-degree indoor see-through aquarium, and the various bedrooms each one different than the rest.
Sorry to say though, I’m not aware of any website documenting this particular home’s massiveness.
An Event To Write Home About
With much fun and excitement my lady Louise put on a mid-century birthday soire for me and a few of my closest friends. After inviting over 75 of them, some 45 lucky guests actually showed up to be amazed.
Although many of my friends, my mates, knowing of my successful history and flair for marketing somehow believed I had “over-hyped” or “over-stated” the event (P.T Barnum-like), were wowed by the truth of my above statements when they all showed up. After seeing, experiencing the magnitude of the house they were all left with a once-in-a-lifetime real story to tell all their friends.
I may post some of the picures up on my Facebook fotos page. Check there if you are interested.
Anyways … again, good case-study Lawrence. Good testing.
P.S. Love your “Bizarro Bonds” idea as well.
P.P.S. Knowing Warren Buffett as well, he would not find much interest in a larger than life home. He afterall has lived in the same house since 1958. He has also said publically that real estate is not his investment choice. I suspect that Mr. Slim feels the same way.
P.P.P.S. And last but not least, Congrats to your lady Anjelina for her big exposure. Today that is as important as ever. May her next entry be a winner.
Excellent stuff. I’ve learned a lot.
Outstanding post, which takes the mystery out of how to get free publicity, and breaks the process down into simple, easy steps any marketer can apply. You also provided us with useful definition of innovation: join two ideas together in an exciting way.
Great content, thank you!
james abugah says
That was indeed brilliant.
I think if all upcoming copywriters took your case study,
modified and repackaged it non will ever look of work again.
Your approach to Carlos Slim reminds of Gary Halbert and his 1 dollar bill letters.
Thanks for regaling me with the story of your Pacific Palace birthday bash. Indeed memorable. And don’t overlook your colleague in the Sonoran Desert to the south for the next one. I’ll bring the box wine.
Did you send photos and an evening play-by-play to the 30 people that declined their invitations?
Back to Campbell Cliffs, obviously I enjoyed the 3-hour tour of the home. It’s a nice reference point to have and gives me an appreciation of these ‘spectacular’ spec homes. Not for me though for reasons other than monetary.
At a home like this, it’s nice and cozy — you, the Mrs., the kids and Spot the dog….and a big operations department to handle everything from the landscaping and water management to desert critter care to the team of housekeepers and cooks. Reminds me of living in a museum.
And don’t forget not to put your feet on the ottoman — it’s a $100,000 ottoman.
It’s worth noting that the land above this home is the Coronado National Forest part of the US National Forrest System. This makes it impossible to ever develop the surrounding land. Many developers and homeowners at every echelon of the market make the mistake of not shoring off the land around such an investment, until one day a bunch of hardhats and earth movers show up and break ground.
Interesting that you mention Buffett and his well publicized frugality. Slim seems to have been influenced by Buffet and several of the early American industrialists. Slim’s office is in a modest building in a low-key business district in Mexico City and he walks to work every morning.
During my numerous follow-up calls to his office, I had the chance to congratulate him, via his secretary, on becoming the wealthiest man on record at one point three summers ago when his TelMex stock and other holdings peaked and he surpassed Gates and Buffett.
It was a fun little episode.
Thanks for the comment.
That’s one of my philosophies.
If the upside is worth it and you take action enough times, something has to “hit” at some point.
It was fun.
I appreciate that Miguel. Good luck in Toronto.
Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire says
It’s too bad that the story didn’t have a fairy tale ending, but that was some incredibly powerful marketing that you went through in order to get the message out.
This just goes to show that you can still get people’s attention out there, you just need to take your marketing (and your copy) in a direction that will snap people’s heads around and wonder what they just saw.
I really like the 600+ page owner’s manual idea myself. I have seen a lot of real estate listings and never saw one that contained a manual.
The Underdog Millionaire
Sean Usher says
Lawrence I hope you built a list of contacts from your ebay exploits… Could be very valuable.
Great story, comtent and lessons..
Chris Brisson says
Ohhhh, this is what gets me so excited about marketing. Useful strategies to get the sale. Love the briefcase idea.
Valuable indeed but I wasn’t thinking in terms of “here’s a list, now what do I sell ’em?”
Should have been — my bad. 🙂
Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment.
Yes, it helps to download inspiration from case studies like this. I could definitely use some right now!
Martha Briggs says
Quoting Lawrence ” So, Anjelina went to the listing agent with a simple proposition. “With you and your seller’s permission, I’ll market this property online at no cost to you and if I find a buyer, I’ll receive full commission as the buyer’s agent. Deal?”
This is true except for one important word ONLINE
Anjelina NEVER asked the owner and listing agent for permission to put the home on Ebay. She WAS given permission to market the home at her own expense as long as any advertising was approved PRIOR to running it. In fact, Long Realty (the company she worked for at the time) insisted that the Ebay ad come down as soon as they became aware of it.
Quoting Lawrence “At a home like this, it’s nice and cozy — you, the Mrs., the kids and Spot the dog….and a big operations department to handle everything from the landscaping and water management to desert critter care to the team of housekeepers and cooks. Reminds me of living in a museum.
And don’t forget not to put your feet on the ottoman — it’s a $100,000 ottoman.”
There is no big operations department at Campbell Cliffs. There is a permanent staff of two–a house manager and his wife. A housekeeper does come 5 days a week to clean and landscapers come once a week for about three hours. No cooks. Oh, and you certainly may put your feet on the ottoman.
Again quoting Lawrence” Ultimately, the lead-gen process, though tedious, worked. Several qualified respondents took tours of the home. One even flew into town on his company’s private jet shortly after making a telephone inquiry.”
The last sentence is true. ONE potential buyer came to tour the home.
I want to correct these inaccuracies, not to diminish was Anjelina did which was very forward thinking but because the inaccuracies are, well…inaccurate.
I am Martha Briggs/Long Realty Co. the listing agent for Campbell Cliffs
Lawrence Bernstein says
I hope all is well with you!
Thanks for taking the time to clarify your position on this.
Anjelina and I will look over your post together.
David Yacobucci says
Fantastic case study Lawrence. It was as enjoyable to read as it was informative… an entire marketing lesson in less than 250 words. Keep up the outstanding work.