Housing.com: Laying the foundation for the parr-fect pitch

Snehil Gautam, Chief Growth and Marketing Officer, REA India, reveals how the online real estate portal’s campaigns have fuelled growth, plans to offer home loans, how brand salience has helped lower consumer acquisition cost and more.

By Gokul Krishnamoorthy

When Housing.com’s ‘Parr Se Perfect’ campaign was being awarded at the IAA’s IndIAA Awards in Mumbai this September, Snehil Gautam was caught up with the shoot of its next edition. That explains why he couldn’t make it to the awards gala. The campaign did not just impress the jury, but also managed to rake in the results among stakeholders – real estate agents and developers on one side, and buyers and sellers on the other.

Gautam, Chief Growth and Marketing Officer at REA India which houses Housing.com, Makaan.com and Proptiger.com, is elated with the results. Going by the Brand Track scores and other metrics, he should be.

The online real estate portal was atop its category in prompted and unprompted awareness. It has seen a 107 pc increase from last year in brand search volume, and a 355 pc increase from 2020 to 2023. On social media, it has seen a 20x growth in YouTube subscribers over June 2022 – the number stands at 268,000 as on October 8, 2023. It has 1.7 mn followers on facebook and 236,000 on Instagram. And the brand retains the same quirky but clean tone of voice across platforms.

Take for instance a  social media post from a couple of days ago:

 HR: Salary 3 din baad aayegi.

Employee to HR: Jaanta hai mera landlord kaun hai?

The tone is consistent, including when using celebrities, allowing the brand to cut through with its own voice. ‘Parr Se Perfect’ was no one-off wonder.

Gautam tells us that in early 2015, during the early days of Housing.com (founded in 2012), the brand did a campaign called ‘Look Up’ that got noticed. He was not a part of the company then, but recalls that the outdoor and other legs were well received.

“That campaign definitely put a spot on Housing.com as far as consumers and the sector were concerned,” he notes.

“I joined at the end of 2015 and at that time, the team was focusing on the product. I think we had built a very good, new age product that used to stand out among the competition both in terms of user interface and experience. But we had not given too much thought as an organisation to the monetisation piece. With the acquisition (REA acquired the company in 2017), we started to work on monetisation,” recalls Gautam.

Today, Housing.com claims to be the leader in its space quoting SimilarWeb numbers. “We have been number one for more than 20 months now and we are beating our competition every month in terms of visits. If you look at our app install numbers, we are number one by a huge margin,” claims the marketing head.

“‘Parr Se Perfect’ happened, and that led to the leadership in audience,” he adds.

Gautam explains the significance of market leadership in the category: “Your revenue grows multifold because everyone wants to advertise on the number one platform from the seller side. So, we have seen significant growth.”

Melbourne-headquartered REA Group declared that REA India clocked Australian $79 million (approx. Rs.420 cr at current exchange rates) in revenue in the financial year ended June 2023, up 46 pc from $54 million a year prior. The company did not disclose revenue by brand, but one gathers that Housing.com contributes substantially.

“And this year again, we are seeing huge growth and continuing on the momentum,” notes Gautam.

Focus on Property Owners

The 2023 edition of ‘Parr Se Perfect’ builds on the popularity of the successful campaign, while shifting the focus to property owners. Staying true to the original, it brings a hearty laugh to the viewer while making its point.

“We are continuing with the momentum. The real estate sector is doing pretty well. But we see a huge opportunity of working with the owners directly. And that’s where we have come up with this new campaign, which is an extension of ‘Parr Se Perfect’. There are certain issues that owners face that we have highlighted,” explains Gautam.

The campaign addresses three such issues. One is ‘non-ready buyers’ as they are termed who are not ready to buy right away. The other is the issue of price mismatch between seller and buyer. And the third is fake buyers who are just ‘window shopping’. These instances are brought alive hilariously. A new product addressed at property owners – Housing Assist – is pitched as the solution to these issues.

Across the category, brokers come into play in a big way in property buying and selling given documentation and hand holding needs, notes the spokesperson. But when it comes to renting, there is a trend of prospective tenants wanting to look at owner properties first.

“That’s a shift we are seeing on our platforms on the buy side,” he observes, adding that brokers still remain the majority with about 40 pc of queries going to owner-listed properties.

Staying Visible

The brand needs to be visible throughout the year. The marketing head reminds us that real estate is not a push product – no one buys a home by looking at an ad, unless they are planning to.

“Whenever the need arises, you will go and buy or rent a property. So we want to be sustainable across 12 months, which is obviously not possible. We try to remain active for at least nine months and we take breaks between campaigns. And our media plan is becoming more and more digital,” explains Gautam.

This is a shift from the TV-heavy media plans from three or four years ago. Now, OTT and digital platforms constitute the majority.

While both tier 1 and 2 cities are growing, and tier 1 cities contribute more to the business, Housing.com sees tier 2 markets growing faster. That explains expansion with offices in Indore, Goa and Vadodara in FY 23 and stated plans to launch in Bhopal, Bhubaneswar and Vijayawada this fiscal. An on-ground sales team offers visibility packages to large real estate developers and brokers across cities and a call centre is operational to take care of the long tail.

Besides advertising and listings, which form the core revenue streams for the classifieds player, there is another stream in Housing Edge services. This cross sells services like rental agreements, movers and packers and so on. There’s also a service to pay your rent through your credit card.

“There’s a home loan product that we are working on. We are quite bullish on it because if you are coming to Housing.com for buying a home, the natural, organic extension is a home loan. We are getting into these services big time, and that pie is also becoming bigger for us as every year passes by,” Guatam explains.

Digital Authenticity

In the context of increasing spends on digital, we asked the CMO about questions around the medium including the authenticity of numbers and actual returns.

He points out that the medium is still nascent in India. Even traditional companies have to move to digital because the consumers have moved and whenever such movement happens, there will be questions on efficacies in the early days, he reasons.

“But with us, we have been digital first from day one. So it’s not that much of a problem for us, but yes, as an industry, it is a problem. There are ways to figure it out. I was working with one of the Israeli companies last year that has products and services to figure out what percentage of your traffic is useless, whether your advertisement money is going to areas where it should not and so on. So there are products and services which will evolve with the time. And advertisers can use them to figure things out,” states Gautam.

“We have taken care of those levers from day one. And we understand this (digital) world much better,” he adds.

What about privacy and cookies?

“As we all know, the Privacy Bill has been passed by the Parliament. We’re still trying to figure out what exactly the consequences are. Whatever the rules are, we are very clear that you need to be very transparent with your users as a platform. You should give information about where you are going to use his or her data. Transparency is key and we have been working on it for some time. You will see some of some of the implications very soon on our platform as well. We’ll have all the options to opt out from our database. And we will also clearly tell the users how we are going to use their data – which we do even today,” he responds.

The Celebrity Lever

In 2018, Housing.com launched a campaign themed ‘Ghar doondna koi inse seekhe’ featuring actors Vicky Kaushal and Kiara Advani.

“I think that the first (big) campaign was with Vicky and Kiara, and they were not big stars when we shot it. After the shoot, Uri happened, and Vicky Kaushal became a star overnight. So we got lots of mileage from that campaign,” recounts the CMO.

The brand was not the market leader back then and wanted all the ingredients in its campaigns that could get consumer attention – celebrities were a necessity.

“The celebrities, the song, the quirky ad, the good chemistry between Kiara and Vicky, all of that helped us get attention from consumers and raise our awareness. The numbers started to climb from there on. When we did another campaign – again when we were not the leaders but had started to see good traction – we enrolled Manoj Bajpayee and Rajkummar Rao,” he adds.

The quirky tone that is maintained across social media and advertisements was getting cemented by then. The idea was to seek attention, but also convey some tactical messages.

By the time ‘Parr Se Perfect’ happened, the marketer says Housing.com was neck to neck with the then market leader.

“We wanted it to be a very relatable campaign. And when we came across the situations, it was so relatable that we thought there was no need for celebrities. In fact, celebrities might bring down the relatability of the ads. This year while we have maintained the relatability part, we are number one. As a brand today Housing.com needed more relatability, not attention. We wanted to talk about the problems and the solution as a product. So there has been a clear evolution,” he surmises.

Riding Cricket and News, on OTT

Housing.com has not been on team jerseys during the IPL, but it is big on cricket with good reason. Real estate, especially buying and selling, is still a male-dominated sector with 65 to 70 pc of activity by males, says Gautam, adding that the share of women is higher at around 40 pc on the renting side. That explains why the brand rides the cricket and news genres.

“So they become extremely important areas for us. Our objective is very clear. While there are lots of media planning companies who will tell you where to take these ad slots, internally, every quarter, we do our own consumer survey. We all used to watch television. But most of us have now shifted to OTTs. Things are moving very quickly as far as media consumption is concerned. The mediums have changed. But what we watch, especially cricket and news, remains the same. That’s the reason why we are on cricket. In cricket too, we are more on OTTs than on television,” he elucidates.

Ask him about measurement on OTTs and the CMO reminds us that if it is just the top 10 pc of the population who are home buyers, the brand targets them through connected televisions. When it comes to mobiles, device-based targeting kicks in.

“We have seen that OTT gives us much better ROI now compared to what it used to, say, two or one and a half years back. That’s because a majority of our HNI users have shifted to these platforms completely. Cricket on OTT is still much better (on ROI) than compared to, say, cricket on HD TV channels,” he emphasises.

Continuous Acquisition Pipeline

The category of real estate has an interesting challenge, cedes Gautam. While brokers and developers are relatively constant on one hand, the process of acquiring consumers / buyers is ongoing because once one finds a house and buys it, there is no reason to engage with the company or app anymore.

“Yes, and is that right? No. One of the issues that any real estate player across the world faces is retention. Once you have bought the home, once you have found a home to rent, there is no reason why you should keep the app. That’s where we brought in Housing Edge as a services platform. There’s a long way to go, but the vision is that if you need anything related to home, you come to Housing.com. That’s why Housing Edge becomes very pivotal in our overall strategy of retention,” he explains.

It makes imminent sense to attempt to retain a consumer who has been painstakingly acquired and engaged, all the way through to a high-value transaction. So while acquisition is a big part of the strategy, there is a focus on retargeting, and keeping the user with the brand. A transaction may take three to six months, reminds Gautam, reiterating that Housing Edge will be the second pillar for the brand that keeps them for longer.

The cost of acquisition is going up in India but it is way lower than in developed countries where a similar Facebook ad will ‘cost a bomb’, reflects the marketer, when asked if scale can actually bring down the cost of acquisition, which is otherwise rising rapidly on channels like performance marketing.

“We are seeing the cost of acquisition going up in India for sure. That’s the reason we focus a lot on brand. We focus a lot on organic stuff because that’s where people will start to come on their own, instead of performance marketing where you have to spend a lot. What we measure now is the percentage of our traffic that is coming through organic sources. And that’s a big metric for us,” he reveals.

The attempt is to ensure that this metric keeps improving year on year. “That helps to keep the overall cost of acquisition at an acceptable level. Once you cross a limit, then it’s a spiral that you can get into very easily,” he cautions.

Gautam adds that with growth in scale the cost of acquisition can actually come down, because then the brand has salience.

“It has started to happen. If you look at our performance marketing cost of acquisition before these ads and now, there’s a significant difference – while at the same time we have scaled our performance marketing in a huge manner. If you combine the scale and the cost part of it, we are doing much better compared to the pre-campaign period. It’s all about the brand recognition and saliency that the campaign has been able to produce,” he underlines..

 Bullish on Branding

 The CMO and his team are ‘very bullish’ on branding. Why? Because they have done it and seen the results. He is quick to add that branding and advertising alone do not make for market success. The product, consumer experience and other elements had to be in place for the consumer drawn in to stick.

That said, branding has turned out to be a critical differentiator in a segment where not every player has attempted to consistently remain top of mind.

“We believe that more money spent on branding will give much better ROI, because performance marketing is very short-term. Branding has a very long-lasting impact. As a company and as the leadership team, we are very, very bullish on branding. So we’ll keep working on the branding piece,” notes Gautam.

The good news is that as part of those branding efforts, we are likely to see yet another edition of ‘Parr Se Perfect’.




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