Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?
Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

The signboard is one of the most recognisable symbols in real estate. But in a world that is increasingly becoming dominated by digital technology, has it reached the end of its lifespan?

Property Observer took a deeper look at the humble signboard and the changing environment that has seen both industry members and innovators up in arms.

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THE ANTI-SIGNBOARD MOVEMENT
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SIGNBOARD TECHNOLOGY

When many of our most renowned industry members started their careers, signboards were a block of text on a wooden board nailed to the closest tree.

This was the case when Century 21 chairman Charles Tarbey started off in real estate back in the 1970s. But even further on into his career, at Combined Real Estate in the 1990s, little had changed. He provided these circa 1994 black and white, grainy photographs (see below) taken on what was, no doubt, one of the top mobile phone models of its day. The changes since that time have been extensive.

 Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Source: Supplied by Charles Tarbey.

 Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Source: Supplied by Charles Tarbey.

Today, the signs are larger, cleaner, more visual and polished. Tarbey laughs about some agents’ approach to signboards. “In some areas in Melbourne they're actually like billboards that almost cover the entire property behind it,” he says.

Century 21, LJ Hooker, and several other franchise groups have recently undertaken significant redesigns of their signboards. It’s unsurprising that the new signboards are fresher, more modern and appear to be more reliant on iconography.

You can clearly see the changes in signboard design over time in the gallery above, which shows the signboards of a number of real estate franchises.

Tarbey is a strong supporter of the signboard and its ability to instantly signal that a property is up for sale, providing quick information about what is beyond the façade.

However, he also warns that signboards favour the successful and, if not used strategically, can signal a selling agent’s failure.

“A 'For Sale' sign that’s up for four to six weeks is a sign of success,” he explains. “After that it's a sign of failure. A signboard needs to be manipulated, moved, controlled and if it's not taken down or re-installed then it becomes a stale sign and a sign of failure. It's always suggested to anyone, look for the agent with the most sold signs in the area, not the for sale signs.”

Chief executive of McGrath Estate Agents, John McGrath, is also a supporter of the signboard.

“Signboards are still an incredibly important part of the marketing mix,” he explains. “Most buyers frequent areas of interest and signboards provide both local and out of area buyers immediate access to what is available.

“For vendors they are cost effective tools to advertise their property for sale. In a $10,000 marketing campaign, a signboard equates to 3% to 4% of the marketing investment but many yield 10% to 15% of the enquiry.”

Encouraging enquiries is the focus of Century 21 national brand manager, Jane Wilkinson. 

We asked Wilkinson what exactly was the behind the redesign of signboards across the franchise, and the rationale for the information provided on the new signboards. The aim, she describes, is for a “succinct summary”, ensuring that the signboards are not overloaded.

“The new photo boards incorporate design elements which aim to make the photo ‘pop', allowing people viewing the signboard to quickly get a feel for the interior and styling of a home,” she says.

Today’s culture is undeniably visual-orientated, and new look signboards are ever more eye-catching.

In 2011, Century 21's signboards were redesigned with the 'Smarter, Bolder, Faster' campaign launch, and this process is undertaken every couple of years.

This is no small feat and, with several hundred franchisees to keep happy, but she notes that the process has been very collaborative.

McGrath suggested that signboards drive 10% to 15% of buyer enquiries.

“Our signboard review panel then workshopped several designs which incorporated features from across Century 21’s global network before arriving at a final design,” she explains.

And yet, despite the focus lavished on signboards by almost every real estate group, the statistics around interested buyers coming in via the signboard are notoriously difficult to pinpoint. While McGrath suggested that signboards drive 10% to 15% of enquiries, it appears that some agencies place greater emphasis on these signs.

Dennis Vlandis, franchise principal at LJ Hooker Belconnen, says that vendors could be missing out on up to 30% of the buyers in the marketplace if they do not use a signboard.

“Local residents make up 30% to 35% [of prospective buyers] and word of mouth and the recognition factor are important. They might talk to someone who was looking around the corner,” he says. 

This matches up closely with the numbers cited by Century 21 McCann Alliance director, Trevor McCann. He notes that their past figures see around 30% of interested buyers locating a property via signboard. However, new technologies have moved this number closer to 5%.

That the signboard enquiry conversion rate could have decreased to a sixth of its former prominence for McCann suggests that something greater may be at play.

See over page for the 'anti-signboard' argument.

 


THE ANTI-SIGNBOARD MOVEMENT

That “something greater” has seen a growing, vocal, anti-signboard wave of real estate agents – typically from those not connected to the larger franchises where signboards are a mandatory part of the selling approach.

Just Think Real Estate’s Edwin Almeida, notoriously outspoken on the signboard issue, created the humorous below video to illustrate exactly why he doesn’t use them in marketing for his clients.

Is the idea of driving the streets and looking for a signboard redundant?

{qtube vid:=p6kIrJTEWvI}

He hasn’t used a signboard in approximately five years.

This argument is, however, countered by the concept of the ‘passive buyer’ who stumbles on the signboard, rather than actively searches for it, and then contacts the agent. Someone who is on the verge of buying and perhaps needs that extra nudge to push them down the path.

Almeida suggests signboards are advertising the real estate agency and not the property itself. In fact, he could barely come up with a reason for using a signboard.

“[To] alert the potential neighbourhood buyers that don’t have computers or internet access, know that your home is for sale,” he jokes as a potential reason.

He points to a recent situation where he drove down a cul de sac and saw multiple properties offered for sale in the same dead-end. He snapped the photos below for this article.

Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Source: Supplied (mobile phone image, taken by Edwin Almeida)

Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Source: Supplied (mobile phone image, taken by Edwin Almeida)

Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Source: Supplied (mobile phone image, taken by Edwin Almeida)

In fact, he says, a 'For Sale' sign takes away from the front aspect appeal of the home and encourages people to knock at the door rather than call the agent.

At the end of the entire process, the signboard just “advertises the agent”, believes Almeida. He argues that the agent should pay for the board.

The idea that these signs are part of an agency’s branding is clear through the frequency of redesigns.

“They’ve been known as the ‘silent salesperson’ in the industry, building brand awareness and recognition in the streets which assists in generating interest in our clients open for inspections,” explains McCann. A well-marketed agency helps bring in more interested buyers, build a real estate agent’s database and therefore helps the buying process all round.

But Almeida’s argues that an individual vendor would be better off spending the money on sprucing up the home itself, with most of the enquiry coming from online sources. A signboard can cost from $250 to $800, depending on the style and provider.

Is there a place for the signage board in real estate, where does it work best and what are the limitations?

Homely.com, a new listings website with a focus on the visual, also delved into the worth of signboards.

Throwing around the questions “Is there a place for the signage board in real estate, where does it work best and what are the limitations?” at the Homely office, the team had a direct 50/50 split for and against, with very strong opinions in both camps.

Here are their pros and cons the team came up with:

Pros

  • The sign can serve as a great marker as to where the property for sale is in the street. If you are searching for a home and it is in a long street, the sign can generally be viewed from quite a distance making it easy to spot.
  • Some people here believe it maximizes ROI. Because of the culture we have come to expect it for our property search, by not having it we are limiting the exposure of the property and the experience for consumers searching for it.
  • Another key positive for the board being used is the way it maximizes leads for an agent. If an agent is able to showcase their personal agent details, this can lead to both enquiries about this house, but also leads for future people looking to sell who can see that this agent is a trusted local expert.
  • It assists in marketing collateral. One of the key themes a few people in our office mentioned was that by having a signage board you essentially up your marketing collateral, this was more of the belief that the more exposure the better.
  • They can showcase a wealth of information if displayed correctly. If converted in to digital boards they could display in depth images, floorplans, agent details, and be linked to 3G data to request further content of the sign to be emailed over.
  • Staying on the digital theme, it could be an opportunity to sell in joint partnerships, with partners having the ability to display their material on your board at certain engagement times. (e.g if you walk past at lunch time, near by lunch options could advertise whilst you view the sign)

Cons

  • One of the key concerns with signage boards was security, with some people stating that if the house is unattended and it has a board out the front, it may encourage people to try and break in as they believe no-one is there
  • It can be an invasion of privacy. One of the main things people like to do is to have a sticky-beak at what properties are for sale, if you have a sign out the front you could get unwanted attention out the front of your house.
  • It seems outdated. It was mentioned here that signage boards are outdated and consumers don’t get listing information from the board. They prefer it from their own personal mobile device, and if they want to go through the house they should know by looking at the online images, not the board.
  • It doesn’t work for a market where there are lots of building in a premise. Apartment complexes that have hundreds of units and can have a large number of properties for sale and lease at one time can’t really display as it would take up too much room and not show the property in the best light.
  • Static boards are much like newspapers and becoming redundant, they need to be replaced with at minimum digital boards

In essence, they could not agree over whether there was a need to eradicate the use of signboards, as those who are wandering the streets can see them. However, as digital engagement grows, they acknowledged that a signboard may turn into more of a “marker, with consumers using digital devices to view the details”.

Petra Sprekos, general manager of listings website RealestateVIEW.com.au, has a slightly different way of viewing the debate.

She notes that despite the increase in online advertising, it’s worth remembering that a signboard and listing online serve different purposes, and sellers should bear this in mind when making a decision.

“Signboards are useful in attracting the ‘passive’ buyer - those passers-by who may not be actively looking but spot a property they love while walking through the neighbourhood, or buyers who are casually browsing in a particular area. Signboards also provide an anchor for the rest of the marketing campaign, offering a first alert to the interested buyer to either contact the agent or search the property online to receive further information,” Sprekos explains.

“That said, there’s no doubt that serious buyers today are searching for properties online – which is why sellers need to have their properties on real estate websites to maximise exposure on their property. This was reflected in RealestateVIEW.com.au’s recent Housing Sentiment Report, which found the most common tool Australians use to search properties is real estate and property websites (used by 92.5% of property buyers).”

This figure more closely matches the reduction in leads generated by signboards previously mentioned by McCann.

And Sprekos notes that, financially, online does actually make sound sense – costing on average as low as $100 a month for a standard online listing. For a signboard, this could be from $150 to $500, and for print advertising vendors could see themselves slugged from $500 to $10,000.

In February 2014, the Audit Bureau of Circulations recorded circulation declines on all metropolitan newspapers year on year. News Corp’s Sunday Herald-Sun had Victoria's top circulation, reaching 453,268 according to December 2013 figures. In New South Wales, News Corp’s Sunday Telegraph clocks in with 525,123. 

Contrasting this with RealestateVIEW’s 12 million unique browsers per month, it’s clear that competition and value for money is a growing debate as the focus is put onto the ‘value of the lead’ or the likelihood of the person reading or clicking to actually buy.

Vlandis explains that a lot of buyers say that they saw the property online, “but I’ve learned that if you drill down a bit deeper what comes out is that they didn’t see it online, they saw the board and print media and saw it a lot. Not in majority of cases, but significant numbers.”

However, the use of technology isn’t limited to ways that other forms of advertising are growing, but also the way that signboards themselves are changing.

See over page for the latest signboard technology.

 


SIGNBOARD TECHNOLOGY

Despite the success that sales agents say they have with signboards, we’re in the middle of an era of change that is shaking up every industry, from media, to retail and to real estate.

This has prompted two threads of discussion. The first: how will, or have, signboards embraced digital technology? And can the ability to advertise online replace the need for a physical signboard entirely?

The debate is out.

Up until today, many of the rebranding and redesigning of signboards has been done on a somewhat static level.

Several changes have shake up the print, and tried to take signboards to a new level. QR (Quick Response) Codes, for instance, were the trend of the last few years and many signboards sported this black and white barcode box that you scan with your smartphone to be taken to a relevant webpage. It appears that 2010 was the year where QR Codes really became mainstream for Australian real estate. Harcourts and First National have been users of the QR Code. Bushby First National claim that they have been one of the first to use this technology in Tasmania.

{qtube vid:=tnQJ4M3mKn0}

And yet, very quickly, QR codes are becoming obsolete as phones can recognize images and other icons, including text, where the prospective buyer need only scan the picture for it to bring up the same webpage.

And then, seemingly out of the blue, CODY LIVE appeared. Former-billboard designer, Pierce Cody, says that he has a patent pending on this face-slapping “why didn’t I think of that” concept that ended its first practical trials this year. It seems the original design came from Costa Koulis, who came up with the concept in the early-2000s, before hiring Pierce Cody to help commercialise the product. Koulis says that some of his inspiration was from industry idol John McGrath, whose franchise he worked under at the time. Koulis had obtained a patent, and had been given an industry award for the invention. The matter is currently in a dispute before the court around the change from Live Board Holdings under Koulis to CODY LIVE under Cody.

The concept, however, is relatively simple – a digital board that can play slides and effects, or even mini-movies. It’s self-lit, has a bit of the ‘wow’ factor and can be re-programmed and moved on each time it is no longer needed.

“It is a natural, gentle evolution for onsite marketing from a static signboard to a digital storyboard,” explains Cody, enthusiastically listing his learning curves from the trial.

Below is an image of the electronic signboard next to a static board, in a trial with Belle Property.

Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Source: Supplied by CODY LIVE

Here is another version of the StoryBoard.

Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Source: Supplied by CODY LIVE

He was lucky – the preparation on the boards meant there were no cases of vandalism or thievery (it has installed alarms, cameras and GPS tracking), no pushback on price from the agents who involved themselves in the trial, and the technologically defenses stopped one attempt at hacking the board.

“When you compare it with a static board, it’s chalk and cheese,” he says. He notes that he has seen people huddling around the boards to look at them, and that he hopes to roll them out to the rest of Australia.

Except for Melbourne. Due to a planning quirk, it may require Development Approval for any board to be put up. So, for now, Melbourne residents have to wait.

Until then, and for $900 for a casual booking for the board – slightly cheaper for real estate groups who use them more frequently – Sydney is the target city. One hundred of these brand new signboards are expected to be scattered through the state during this next phase of the business.

But it’s not an idea that’s popular for everyone.

Real Estate Institute of New South Wales’ Malcolm Gunning isn’t quite sure how they’ll be taken up. He does support signboards, noting that even though there has been a transition from print to digital, people do still tend to drive through areas they’re interested in.

He has seen many fads in his 40 years in the industry.

“Signboards went through various stages where they were interactive where you could use your car radio and dial up the channel and get commentary about it,” he explains.

“All these trends have come and gone, but still, even with digital becoming more favoured, the signboard is still used to mark the property for sale, open for inspection and gives a snapshot of the property itself marking availability and the location.”

There is certainly some skepticism around the digital signboard concept, or StoryBoards, as Cody has fondly rebranded them, particularly from some of the “old guard”, he explains. It’s true some people consider the idea a gimmick.

Is it skepticism, or a look perhaps one step further into the future of signboards?

However, some of the thinking is not just skepticism, but a look perhaps one step further into the future.

Tarbey, for instance, is more interested in the idea of signboards that emit a signal that your smartphone picks up and tells you what is on the market when you’re in the area. Imagine – signboards that don’t wait for you to find them, but instead alert you to their existence.

And some of the pushback is on a more basic level. McGrath explains that it’s partially about cost analysis, even while conceding that technology is coming for signboards.

“Technology is playing a greater role in marketing than ever and I suspect will play a greater role in signboards, however at this stage we haven’t seen a working model of a digital board that has met our criteria. Initially costs are high and we also have to be convinced of the visual clarity of any digital application,” he says. Of course, the bottom line is one of the main vendor concerns.

“We see merit in the concept but need a working cost effective model to consider switching from the current traditional signage that appears to be providing buyers with the information they require.   However, a well- executed digital platform would take property marketing to a new level.  Some initial concepts have relied upon third party advertising to make them work and I have concerns this may be distracting to the selling of the property.”

And yet, electronic board, online photos or static signboard – some of the same rules apply. Quality photographs, with an emphasis on the most attractive features, are crucial. All of the real estate agents spoken to explained that strong photography, short and sweet wording and clear detail is crucial for effective advertising, regardless of the platform.

All that remains, is one truth: A picture is worth a thousand words.  

Which signboard would you use to market your property?

Turn page for more signboard images and designs.

 


Property Observer readers - share your signboard pictures with us via jduke@propertyobserver.com.au. Please let us know when you took them, the location and how you would like to be cited.

Here are some that we have taken out and about.

Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Above: Taken in November 2013, Tasmania

 

Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

 Above: Taken in early-2014, New South Wales

 

Signboards: A real estate staple, but do they have a future?

Above: Taken in November 2013, Tasmania

 

Jennifer Duke

Jennifer Duke

Jennifer Duke was a property writer at Property Observer

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