Career Advice from Expert, Barbara O’Connor, Chief Marketing Officer for Realtor.com
Marketing is a personal connection between two people, two companies, a person and a company. Barbara O’Connor, Chief Marketing Officer of Move Inc., the parent company of Realtor.com, Moving.com and others, began her marketing career before the advent of internet and mobile apps when relationship building was the cornerstone of any marketing campaign. She has managed to give web-based marketing—long considered cold and impersonal—a personal feel by fostering relationships with consumers even through the internet.
Before landing at real estate giant, Move Inc., the parent of Realtor.com, O’Connor worked for Apple, Netscape, Yahoo and various startups. She entered Move Inc., “With the great challenge to start to build the company’s internet brand presence” and has been there two years, during which she has been instrumental in the creation and growth of their direct to consumer internet presence.
“I got to help reinvent the company that had been around for 20 years and have it adapt to the changing landscape of mobile and brand differentiation where the consumer experience is essential,” O’Connor said. Prior to that, Realtor.com had a strong presence in the Realtor community with plenty of partnerships with multiple listing service (MLS), state and local partnerships, and national associations. But there was a dirth in consumer marketing that O’Connor was passionate about and excited to fill.
O’Connor used every ounce of her extensive experience in consumer marketing to bring the company the marketshare in consumer marketing that they had for years within the Realtor community. She asked a million questions of everyone from coworkers to end users to learn everything she could about their product and looked for the gaps.
“In the age where it’s brick and mortars and the internet, sometimes it is not the first to market that wins, and we have so many examples of that.” Instead, take the time to differentiate your company and product and to create a sustainable plan. For Realtor.com, that sustainability came from their ability to merge all aspects of the real estate process from the initial mobile or internet search to finding a local Realtor to the location of services such as moving companies or contractors. In an age where human contact can be scarce, Realtor.com introduces buyers to potential properties while it also introduces them to what a Realtor is and how a Realtor can assist in their search—primes them—for the next step, human interaction with a trusted Realtor adviser. “You come to Realtor.com to get the most accurate information, so when you’re ready—and it may be a long while—then you can come and get information on neighborhoods and schools and everything that is important to families…” said O’Connor.
“We did a lot of research with our consumers to find out what really matters. What is the most important experience in mobile that matters when buying a house or finding a house for a rental?” Repeatedly, accuracy was the most important piece. Realtor.com’s 20-year history gave them the advantage to create the most accurate site on the internet.
O’Connor and Realtor.com not only met the need for accuracy, but they also added a human factor to their marketing campaign. Realtor.com’s newest advertisements demonstrate the company’s commitment to providing consumers accurate and current information with a human connection. Over 90% of their listings update every 15 minutes—compared to an industry that traditionally updates every 24 hrs. Each ad brilliantly captures individual moments to which a consumer can relate, such as finding the perfect home for the family and their dog, only to watch (while their dog whimpers) as a Realtor places a“Sold” sign in the front yard.
O’Connor’s marketing success reflects a well-though out and executed plan that makes it look easy: listen to the current knowledge base within the company, look for gaps with end users or customers to figure out where the opportunities lie, ensure you can establish a sustainable differentiation, and understand how the margin requirements work. Then, she said, “Get with finance and make sure the margin works within the portfolio of the company.” That’s a tall order, but the proof is in the Realtor.com pudding.
What else can we learn from a marketing veteran like O’Connor? She offered some great advice for women in and out of marketing. First, realize that you aren’t on this journey alone.
Build an Exceptional Team. O’Connor said, “I like to surround myself with people who complement my skills and who are as smart as they can possibly be so that I always think of succession plans. I look for women and men people who complement your skills and are as smart as they can be. Look for women and men who are hungry to learn, and that’s because the industry is changing so quickly. I would rather have someone with a little bit less experience and who is willing to take classes and be coached over an MBA from a prestigious school who thinks they know everything and should have your job within six months.” Be a good collaborator. No great work is done in isolation. Can your team members lead and follow? They need to be capable of taking the lead on some projects and be willing and able to be the second in command sometimes. Look at their emotional IQ. Can they get along with others? At Realtor.com, O’Connor inherited a great team that she proceeded to round out with the best and the brightest of her co-workers from other companies at which she had worked. Perhaps most insightful, O’Connor is a “worker among workers and part of the team.”
O’Connor credits her mother, who was a widow with four daughters under the age of eleven, for her strong work ethic. But she said her team building skills and management style she learned from Nick Besbeas, her former boss and mentor, now at LinkedIn, who treated her as a partner, and who often said he learned as much from O’Connor as he could ever teach her. She applies that approach to her team and interactions with coworkers.
Get a mentor. Find a great mentor. Make sure your mentor offers you real guidance and tells it like it is, not what you want to hear. Keep learning and never allow yourself to become stagnant. O’Connor said, “I tell my team, I’m here to coach you whether your career is safe within the company or whether you want to go somewhere else.” O’Connor thinks, “A lot of women, and men, are willing to do that (mentor).” She advised women to ask. Say, “Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee?” and then pick that person’s brain for a few minutes. Mentors can help you to stay relevent.
Stay Relevant. Stay Current. How does a woman transition from the world of marketing without the internet, as the marketing world was when O’Connor first started in marketing, to the internet culture we have today? How can young women whose business world might be changing faster than anyone can imagine, keep relevant and able to advance? O’Connor was fortunate to have gotten experience with E-commerce and real estate at Yahoo, but she said the biggest key for women is to stay current. Keep up to date with the data analysis.
“What I would say to both a woman getting started, as well as to older women who want to do something new, get online, go to social groups, start making yourself known and then make some contacts with your local community. Nothing takes the place of human to human, but the internet is a great bridge to get you there.”
Know your industry trends. According to O’Connor, one of the biggest trends in real estate, and marketing overall, right now is the use of mobile devices. In March 2014, consumers viewed 60% of Realtor.com’s residential listings on mobile devices. That information is applicable across many industries from fashion to legal to restaurants; it’s mobile, mobile, mobile. People aren’t tethered to their desktop computer anymore. Whom are you missing if you don’t optimize your website for mobile?
Part of relevance includes possessing the right skills sets. If you do not have them, acquire them.
Lateral Moves are Okay. When she mentors women, O’Connor reminds them that the career path is different these days. Sometimes there are lateral moves that round out your portfolio. Therefore, the pathway to success may be “Up and to the right,” but you may take some lateral moves and other steps in between due to a need to develop different skills sets. Lateral moves can also have a similar effect to those college classes you took because they would be easy electives, but that turned out to be life changing when they opened doors to aspects of yourself you didn’t know were possible.
Define Success Yourself. O’Connor is committed to helping other women to grow even stronger and faster in their careers than she has. What career or leadership advice would she give to other entrepreneurs or professional women? O’Connor said to ask yourself, “What does success mean to me?” Realize that you have to develop your own concept of what success means to you. It is easy, especially in very driven environments like New York City or the Silicon Valley to buy into society’s version of success. Success for you may mean having a challenging job that also allows you time for your family or your outside interests.
You can begin with the question, “Twenty years from now would I have any regrets?” said O’Connor. Define success for yourself and do not let society or the company define it for you. O’Connor is a self-described “recovering workaholic.” She was always very driven but eventually realized that her parents aren’t going to be around forever, and that she has great friends, a wonderful husband and family, and exciting hobbies for which she wanted to have more time. The lesson she wishes she had learned a little earlier is, “I love to be challenged at work, so I will always pick a challenging job, but it doesn’t have to be 24/7.”7
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