28 Jun 2017

Communication is a significant barrier to custom build growth says Chris Brown

Communication is a significant barrier to custom build growth says Chris Brown

The custom build industry has a problem – communication. We’re trying to sell the simple delivery of dream homes to customers who have no knowledge of our existence.

We are not self-build nor are we speculative housebuilders (both of which customers understand). We offer new build homes designed for the individual, not the lowest common denominator, and delivered without the hassle of Grand Designs. It feels easier to define custom build by what it isn’t rather than what it is.

I’ve recently done a review of the industry’s web presence and it’s something of a mixed bag. Bear in mind that most people will be doing general searches, like ‘new home’ in Google, which won’t lead them to custom opportunities.

But with a more targeted “custom build” search, at the top level most of the umbrella sites that come up typically feature both custom build and self-build. This further exacerbates the confusion that Government started but then stepped away from two and a half years ago.

Some of these sites still explicitly perpetuate this particular confusion, others talk about how much risk customers want to take, and still others call themselves self-build and then talk about custom build.

Trying to find a decent definition of custom build online means wading through paragraphs of impenetrable text and all the definitions are a bit different. And anyway this is not how consumers use the internet!

The industry would hugely benefit from a simple, well designed, custom build-only umbrella site to explain simply what custom build is. This should be supported with associated social media presence and be search engine optimised (SEO) to compete with the big house builders and Grand Designs.

Custom build essentials

It’s worth starting with the basics. Prospective custom build customers are in two principle categories. Those who are intending to move and those who would move if they knew they could get their dream home in a couple of easy steps.

Prospective self-builders and prospective speculative house builder customers might, at the margin, come across to custom build if they knew what it was and it was available in their neighbourhood.

But for the most part, prospective customers will be looking for a second-hand home that better suits their needs or be thinking about extending or remodelling their existing home.

Most of them aren’t going to move very far and most of them aren’t going round their neighbourhood (or Rightmove) looking for plots of land.

So the leading custom build enablers and HomeManufacturers have worked out that making it easy for customers means offering the plot and the home as a package.

And marketing it to a local market through local channels, like Rightmove (a local channel because of the way search terms work on the site), site boards, local estate agents and local media, together with SEO-focussed web presence using local search terms. Basically doing exactly what estate agents have been doing for years.

There is no evidence currently that social media ads on the likes of Facebook and Twitter have any effectiveness, however well targeted.

The biggest and quickest area for improvement is in website design and SEO. Custom builders’ sites range from beautiful to plug ugly, but almost all of them fail to respond to the likely triggers for action from a prospective customer.

The customer wants their dream home in a particular geographic location and few of us have the coverage to achieve this. Again, there is no cost-effective umbrella site that offers this functionality.

This is not necessarily how custom build marketing works elsewhere in the world. But elsewhere in the world it is regarded as the normal way to buy a new home, so consumers are much more knowledgeable, despite it being an infrequent purchase. Consumer knowledge of custom build has long since seeped into the cultural fabric in other countries.

The toughest challenge is how to communicate, both visually and in text, that an individual can have the home that only exists in their imagination.

As soon as we start showing pictures or CGIs of an interior or exterior we start to look like a speculative house builder. Whereas as soon as we say ‘bring us your plot’, or ‘you can design your own home’, we start looking complicated and risky.

This is most apparent on the portals, such as Rightmove, Zoopla and OnTheMarket. This is because the rules of these portals were not written with custom build in mind. Because speculative housebuilders are great at marketing and happy to blur the distinction with custom build, it is very difficult to stand out in the couple of seconds you get even with a paid-for advert on a portal.

The best approach, subject to cost, might be to use a featured development banner that allows a click out to your own site on which you stand a chance of explaining what custom build is.

How to communicate custom build

So we are in an interesting place. We have a fantastic product that we know consumers really want to buy but the small size and fragmentation of the industry at this early point in its growth means that we don’t have the investment to reach our audience in a clear and compelling way.

The answer to this is likely to be media relations. Custom build projects are being delivered and can become stories for the mainstream media, particularly at this early stage in the development of the sector. This shouldn’t require significant investment because of the fundamental news worthiness of the content.

One challenge though, that we are already facing, is the use of the term ‘custom build’ to describe products that aren’t. In rather the same way that urban regeneration has come to mean property development, custom build is starting to be used for anything from speculative development to self-build.

For this we may have to do what Garden Cities are doing and try and create a body that ‘authorises’ official use of the term. In the meantime we are all going to have to work a lot harder, and with a lot more creativity, to communicate the unique proposition of custom build, design your dream home the easy way, to the huge market that doesn’t yet know we exist.


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