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Ann Mirabito, PhD

If you placed the business cards of agents at a real estate conference in a fishbowl, and then put the business cards of the people in the conference room next door in another fishbowl, you're likely to notice a big difference. Many real estate agents, especially those working in residential markets, put their photographs on their cards. While real estate agents have more experience with using their photographs for marketing, they're not completely alone. Plastic surgeons sometimes include their photographs in magazine ads. Insurance agents' photos dominate billboards. More recently, professionals in a range of fields have begun incorporating their photographs on websites and in email communications. But the practice is controversial. Many real estate agents think it is "unprofessional" to use their photo in advertising. Instead, they may rely on their firm's logo or a distinctive sales message to brand their work.

Participants in the Baylor's Keller Center Summit asked us to research this issue: Should real estate agents feature their photographs in their advertising? Our early research suggests yes: including a photograph or a very strong sales message improves buyers' perceptions of an unknown agent's quality and the likelihood of planning to call for an appointment.

Getting Inside Buyers' Heads

We knew if we asked home buyers whether they think it's a good idea for agents to use their photographs in advertising, we would get a distorted answer. It's human nature for people to respond to a complex question like that by trying to weigh the pros and cons in order to discern the "right" answer. That process can be misleading when the real answer is buried deep in the unconscious mind.1000words

Instead, we created an experiment to test the effects of an agent's photograph on buyers' perceptions. Our research participants were told they would be moving to San Diego and were asked to look through an online relocation guide. The guide consisted of four pages: a welcome from the mayor, then three pages of business card-sized ads for services likely to be of interest to people relocating. The ads included a dental practice, a veterinary hospital, a moving and storage service, a realtor, a car repair shop, and a pest control service. After reviewing the ads, the participants spent a few minutes completing an unrelated task. Then they were told they would be buying a new home in San Diego and were asked a series of questions regarding the relocation guide. First, they were asked to recall elements of the realtor's ad. Then, we showed them the ad again, and asked a series of questions about their perceptions of the real estate agent's quality and about the likelihood they would contact this agent.

All respondents saw the same relocation guide, except that the elements in the realtor's ad differed. We created four versions of the realtor's ad in which we varied the inclusion of a photograph and sales message. Half the respondents saw an ad featuring a moderately attractive, middle-aged (about 35), female real estate agent. The other half saw the same ad but without the image. The sales message also differed. Some people saw a tag line stating, "Rated top agent in the area by readers of San Diego City Magazine, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009"; the others saw no tag line. In summary, we created four versions: photograph/sales message, photograph/no sales message, no photograph/sales message, and no photograph/no sales message.

Research participants were in their early 20s; their attitudes are likely to simulate those of first time homebuyers.

Does a Photograph or a Sales Message Influence Buyers' Behavior?

Because everyone saw the same relocation guide and only the realtor ad varied, we can isolate the effects of the photograph and the sales message on buyers' perceptions of the agent. We compared the reactions of buyers who saw the photograph with those who saw the same ad but without the photograph. Similarly, we compared the ratings of buyers who saw the sales message with those who saw the same ad but without the sales message. Bottom line: Buyers generally had more favorable impressions of the agent in ads featuring the agent's photograph and in ads featuring the strong sales message.

Buyers who saw an ad featuring the agent's photograph were more likely to agree that the agent does excellent work for her clients. They credited the agent with strong interpersonal skills, rating her as likable and fun to work with. They also expect her to be a good communicator who will listen carefully and also explain the house buying process. The favorable impressions extend to the agent's office. Buyers expected the agent to have a well-trained, responsive support staff and well-organized processes that would ensure transactions proceed smoothly.

The strong sales message("Rated top agent in the area by readers of San Diego City Magazine, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009") also led buyers to think the agent does excellent work for her clients. Buyers believed both past clients and other real estate agents respected the agent's work. While the presence of the photograph signals the agent's interpersonal skills, the strong sales message signals the agent's technical skills. The message signaled integrity, experience, and strong negotiating skills and led buyers to conclude they'd expect to be satisfied with the agent's work.

But will this make the phone ring? It will help. Respondents who saw an ad with either the photograph or the sales message or both were more likely to plan to make an appointment with this agent.

Is It Time to Redesign Your Ad?

As a service advertiser, you grapple with the challenge of visually illustrating an intangible product. Some services create a brand identity by illustrating the tangibles elements of the service. Holiday Inn Express showcases a sleek edifice, comfortable bedding, wireless Internet, and hot breakfasts. You face a bigger challenge, because your competitive edge lies in an intangible aspect of the service. How do you deal with this challenge?

Our findings suggest that novice buyers respond favorably to the agent's photograph and to an objectively worded sales message. If you're working in a residential market, particularly with inexperienced buyers, consider building your photograph into all of your print advertising. While we didn't test the effect with seasoned residential buyers, we would expect photographs to resonate favorably with those buyers as well. Research on visual and verbal cognitive processing conducted in the context of tangible products shows that visuals can illustrate product attributes and benefits and help create the brand's personality.

Similarly, if you can demonstrate objectively that buyers like working with you, then include that message in your business advertising. Your evidence might come from an independent third party like the readers of your local city magazine or from surveys of past clients.

Stay Tuned!

Does the attractiveness of the agent matter? What if the ad features a photograph of something other than the agent? Do these findings apply in commercial markets? Our research is continuing and we will report our findings in the next issue of the Keller Center Research Report.

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About the Author:

Ann Mirabito, PhD, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Baylor University
Keller Center Faculty member

Ann researches how consumers make complex decisions related to value (quality evaluations, price fairness, risk management) and the role of biases and heuristics in those decisions. Ann earned a PhD from Texas A&M, MBA from Stanford, and BA in Economics from Duke. Before becoming a professor, she was a marketing executive with Time Warner, Frito Lay, and Rapidforms, specializing in revitalizing companies by reinvigorating product lines and infusing employees with a desire to make magic happen for customers.

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