Laura Martorano is the chief executive officer of Leo Sterling, the brokerage firm she founded in Dubai at the beginning of 2009. Previous to this, Martorano had been the CEO of Jamal Al Habtoor Real Estate since 2003. Executive sat with Martorano to discuss the increasing importance of e-marketing in regional real estate and strategies companies are adopting online.
E What is the online strategy that you are adopting and how do you think companies should approach Internet advertising, especially since it is relatively new in the region?
Many companies are currently adopting a new marketing plan, which will include the Internet and web activity to gain more exposure and new clients.
We are currently working on improving our internal and external PMA (property management application), a database listing all properties that the company has. It is an interactive program on which you can list your property, search for a property, and get a price and an appraisal for your property. These are integrated with the website and we try to optimize the website when it comes to Google searches and other database searches.
In addition to that, the communication with the client has changed. Before, it was essential to meet the client, to show them the brochures of the property. Now, the first step of establishing the connection with the client is to send them the information by email. So this is truly number one. And let’s say five years ago people didn’t have time to read or send email. Right now our clients always ask if we can send them the brochure by email.
E Since Internet penetration rate in the region is low compared to the West, how does this affect this strategy? Do you think it limits the market?
Yes and no, because if we talk about Dubai, the United Arab Emirates or the Middle East, it is a very new region. Specifically, Dubai is a new city. In the last 10 years we had to learn how to reach the client, sell the property and manage the property. Now the whole business has grown.
The tools that were available were adopted within the business plan of each company in the industry. Right now there are more and more tools that are available in the market, like property portals, and there are other social portals, which are becoming increasingly popular in the web community.
I’m talking on behalf of many companies who are realizing just how important the Internet is and are trying to adapt their business plans to use the Internet as an essential marketing tool.
I do think there is a vast improvement going on, specifically in Dubai. We are adopting a trend happening in Europe and the United States; we have definitely increased the speed of communication and delivering the information.
Before, to get some information about a property, you would be lucky if you got anything within a week. Now you can get it in a couple hours.
E Online advertising is emerging as the leading marketing tool, but how would you fight fraud?
It is true, there have been a number of fraud [cases], but it has been happening around the world and no one is immune. It is the responsibility of the client to make sure he is receiving the right information. I am not necessarily saying that purchasing property over the phone or Internet is the proper way. It is like shopping for clothes online. You see a good picture and then you receive something else.
So yes, unfortunately it happened to very intellectual clientele from Europe and the US but again no one is immune. When you buy insurance you have to read the policy, when you get the loan you need to read the contract. So when you get the property you need to know where it is located and who the developer is.
E Is there anything else prospective clients should watch out for if they are looking online?
Just because you are happy with what you have seen on the Internet, that does not mean that is necessarily the reality. It is used for both sharing information and also [to] market a product. It is a place for both critics and sales people. So it is a huge debate. But I still think that the Internet is the best source of getting such information. I think sometimes in the news you don’t hear as [much] as you hear on the Internet.
E How much of your revenue do you think will come from online marketing and how will the percentage increase in the next few years?
Within the current market situation, online marketing always increases the chance of reaching new clients. For us it is good news. Again reaching a new client does not mean a done deal. There are three stages in real estate: identifying the clients, negotiating the terms and closing the deal, so the Internet only helps in the first step.
It could also serve in negotiating and communicating the offers by email, but when closing a deal, people still like to come and see and feel the property. But more people means there are more potential sales, and more sales definitely means more revenue.
E How much are you investing in your online strategy?
Investment in the Internet is incredibly small. If you compare the expenditure on Internet marketing activity versus media such as newspapers or magazines or exhibitions, it is extremely tiny — it makes up 10 percent of the whole budget, and delivers the same result as any other media activity.
It is still important to have a personal touch, to meet clients directly at the exhibition or a launch of the project, but using the Internet in terms of identifying new clients is definitely a win-win situation for every company in any industry. It has become one of the most important aspects of every marketing plan.
E Are buyers who search the Internet more likely to find a home?
Yes and no. When buying a home, you can buy it for two reasons; you either want to buy a specific home that would really cater to your needs, or you are just looking for the price.
If you are looking for a price bargain, the Internet would be a good option, but finding your own ideal home can best be done by physically visiting.
E What is the future of online real estate advertising?
Online marketing in our particular industry had a lot of hiccups because Internet users have evolved and upgraded — they are so interactive now. Some time ago just having a simple website to list your mission statement and mention your address and a phone number was enough, now it is not.
Now the market demands you invest a lot in your website, and not to be just informative but to be a portal as well. Maintaining such interactive websites is a job for a few people, and often companies don’t like to invest in IT [information technology] or marketing departments by adding people to maintain databases and updates.
We had frustration from clients saying that information on the portal or the Internet was very old. It is still happening since the region is not too Internet-focused. Although lots of people may be using social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, it does not mean everyone is using the Internet for other purposes.
A lot of business people have recognized these weak areas and have slowly started shifting toward investing in IT employees and IT departments. Unless companies recognize that this is important [they will fall behind]. I would say that some companies that are already doing it will definitely have a superior advantage in market share.
While they are improving, people will be inventing. People who are not using it will be left behind in a few years, but Dubai is extremely competitive right now and the whole business community is recognizing the Internet is an essential tool and are now investing a lot in it.