Zoopla felt the ramifications of the coronavirus immediately, as transactions across the UK ground to a halt. Somewhat controversially, the UK government is now trying to get the housing market moving again and has encouraged buyers and sellers to resume their pre-lockdown plans, including viewings. For Zoopla, the last six weeks have sparked a reappraisal of a marketing strategy that was only just beginning to bear fruit.
“Naturally, like every sector, we’ve felt the impact of the coronavirus,” says head of consumer marketing Richard Houston. He joined Zoopla last June following a career agency-side, including a decade at Wolff Olins where he was managing director and global principal.
Houston’'s first stint as the client in control the budget hasn’t been an easy one. He walked into a company ready for change. Having just appointed a new chief marketing officer in Gary Bramall and gone through a $3bn buyout from venture capital firm Silver Lake, bosses had begun the long process of overhauling the brand.
Its then small marketing team was bolstered with top hires from the likes of VCCP and Havas, as well as marketing execs from brands such as Amazon. Houston says it was “fusing the best of the agency and the brand world” as well as ushering in new agency support in the shape of Lucky Generals in a bid to tighten its grip on the competitive market.
In the marketer’s first few months there, Zoopla experimented with a new comms strategy, trying to find a balance between its “rational” marketing that gave people the facts and figures about moving home and the “emotional” brand building activity where it wanted to show it knew how important a decision it is in a person’s life.
This culminated in a major marketing campaign that launched on Boxing Day and told people ‘We know what a home is really worth’ and included a series of executions narrated by BBC star Diane Morgan.
It also created a “Zooploma” where first time buyers could go through a step-by-step guide on what they would likely experience along the way. Over 100,000 signed up to the course, with Houston saying it is just one example of the kind of activity it was focusing its marketing budgets on.
“It’s a statement of intent really. The last 12 months have been a really exciting rollercoaster, but we’re orientating around what Zoopla can be in the future. A lot of the stuff we’ve been doing in the last three to six months has been mini proof points of things we think we can do better in the future.”
But now, that future is looking very different. Until last week, people using its services was down 40% compared with pre-lockdown levels. As estate agents closed their offices, the usual plentiful supply of houses and flats coming to market also dried up.
“There have been about 373,000 transactions held up in the pipeline, which gives you a sense of the scale of the impact and how many transactions were affected,” explains Houston.
So Zoopla halted all major marketing activity and made changes to what channels it would prioritise in an effort to reflect the cataclysmic effect the situation was having on the housing market.
“I would categorise that as being resourceful, smart and lean in terms of budget. I won’t go into specifics, but we’re being balanced and responsive. We’ve tried not to overreact but instead be conservative.”
Despite demand falling, Houston knew the company needed to continue to communicate with people as best It could. With big above-the-line activations out of the question, it instead challenged agency Lucky Generals to come up with a “nimble, low cost” idea that would get people engaged with the brand on social and help them when they are spending more time at home.
“There was pressure to react quickly and we could have had a kneejerk reaction,” recalls Matt Gainsford, strategist at Lucky Generals. “We could have just paid someone to do another yoga class or cook along and that would have kind of been answering that need in some way. But we saw people were building forts on Instagram and Facebook and we felt that could be linked to Zoopla – people building homes within their homes. It gave us permission to reward what people were already doing.”
And so a competition – which is still ongoing – launched to encourage people to submit their best pictures of the forts they’ve built, along with an estate agent style caption describing their structures. Over 900 people have participated so far – a number impressive enough for Houston that he’s mulling how it can continue to use social to better effect as the market begins to recover.
“Since the announcement on Wednesday, search is up by 139% versus the last four weeks,” he says. “We’re optimistic with that news.”
And while there’s been some controversy over the decision to allow the public to view a stranger’s property but insist they still socially distance from close family and friends, Zoopla is nonetheless beginning to ramp up its marketing activity to explain the situation to wary buyers and sellers.
It hosted an exclusive conversation with the UK’s housing minister on its blog, while its content marketing team has been in overdrive trying to help people make sense of the new rules.
“We’re using our in-house research and insights team to really help people understand the impact of the government changes, the health of the market and the potential outlook over the next nine months,” says Houston.
“What we’re trying to do with any of our strategic thinking and marketing planning for the rest of the year is to pull back to the fact that this has been a really disruptive time for people, particularly if they’re trying to move home. In the immediate period, we’re just trying to make sure people can move in a safe way. So anything we can do to make clear the government guidelines…that’s the number one priority.”
But, as time goes on and normality resumes, Houston admits that the marketing plan Zoopla set for 2020 may no longer be relevant. “We have to have a bit of reflection on who is most likely to move further down the line. That’s going to be a significant bit of work for us.
”In the medium to longer term, we’ll have wait and see and base it on the trends we’re seeing in the data to give us confidence to re-enter the market with campaign activity. One of the benefits of being a digital business means we can really see how people are browsing and searching, and that will inform our marketing approach.
“For example, the rental market has bounced back a lot quicker than sales. So that might mean we really focus differently on what we talk about and who we help.”