How Zillow Spends Zero on Advertising


Doubtless everyone reading this is familiar with Zillow. We honored them as a Model of Excellence in 2006 .

They’re now a real estate listing behemoth that sports a market capitalization of $5 billion. We all know what Zillow does and how successful it’s been. But did you know that Zillow launched with virtually no advertising budget?

In a fascinating interview, Zillow’s Chief Marketing Officer, Amy Bohutinsky, explains Zillow launched with the classic “sell data with data” strategy. Using data to promote your data is – unsurprisingly – a marketing tactic available only to data publishers. And it’s a tactic well worth exploiting to the maximum.

Zillow launched itself with press releases aimed at the consumer mass market. It offered free access to data that was catnip to almost every consumer: instantly find the estimated value or your home, or anyone else’s for that matter. Zillow, after collecting and normalizing property assessment records from all 50 states, had developed an algorithm that looked at recent sales and area demographic data to calculate a home price valuation. Sure, it was necessarily imperfect, but the data was credible if not authoritative, comparable (all homes were evaluated the same way) and of course free. This quickly drove millions of page views, allowing Zillow to execute on its business model of selling listing enhancement to real estate agents.

But Zillow didn’t stop with this single gambit. Instead, it allowed consumers to sign up to receive email updates to their home valuation – every time the estimate changed, Zillow would send an email. This created critical ongoing engagement (important because the average person doesn’t buy or sell a home all that frequently), brand enhancement, and an important advertising vehicle (the email also presented information on nearby homes for sale).

Beyond this, Zillow regularly mines its own data to find newsworthy statistics that keep its brand front-of-mind and implicitly credential it as an authoritative and central industry player. It issues press releases on everything from the standard reports on where homes are selling most quickly and slowly, to offbeat data on the “10 biggest homes” or “10 most expensive homes,” and the like. Obviously there’s no shortage of material.

As we noted earlier, you’re most likely to get media coverage if you can provide facts and statistics. That’s hard news as opposed to opinions or transparent gimmicks to try to attract attention. More importantly, every piece of data you release reinforces your central market position, your authority, your knowledge and your expertise. You become generally understood to be the “go to” place for data in your market. There’s no better positioning than that, and best of all if you do it right, it’s practically free.

You can hear how another Model of Excellence winner, Capterra,  pulls of this trick when its CEO Mike Ortner joins us for our infamous “Excellence Revisited” panel at this year’s Business Information and Media Summit. Hope to see you there.