Storytelling Innovator Series

The Greatest Brand Story a Company Can Tell: An Interview with Coldwell Banker’s Victoria Keichinger

12 Minute Read

This will come as a surprise to no one: the internet is full of unreliable advice and shoddy content. And as companies invest more in content marketing and turn up publishing dial, that’s likely to increase.

Luckily, there are brands that make it their mission to publish stories authored by local subject matter experts—people who know what they’re talking about because they live it every day.

In June, at Skyword’s content marketing industry conference, Forward 2016, we learned just how successful Coldwell Banker’s regional blogging program has been. Pageviews on regional content are up 60 percent year over year, organic search views are up 44 percent, and the program represents a 20 percent of share of voice for the Coldwell Banker Blue Matter blog—impressive numbers for a brand whose network of content creators casts a wide net. Coldwell Banker, a residential real estate franchise system, has over 84,000 agents in various corners of the world. Through its regional blogging program, the brand has empowered its real estate professionals to tell stories on a local level, sharing their expertise and connecting people to the true value of a home.

I recently spoke with Victoria Keichinger, manager of brand engagement at Coldwell Banker, about Coldwell Banker’s origin story, how it manifests in each of its real estate agent writers’ content, what possibilities VR opens up for local subject matter experts, and much more.

For brands that want to implement regional blogging programs similar to Coldwell Banker’s, what are the keys to making sure brand voice stays consistent? What’s most important?

It’s a bit of a delicate balance. Our brand ambassadors have to be able to tell the story their way. But, of course, we have to keep some lanes to establish where liberties can be and can’t be taken. We have very strict brand identity standards that establish guidelines for different things like the logo, the standard brand font, and the way we use our trademark. Those are things that can’t be touched, but there are also places where, while there’s a little bit more liberty, we still need to provide some guidance. For instance, we can’t allow our regional bloggers to make predictions about the real estate market on our Coldwell Banker branded platform. We also can’t allow them to promote a particular business in an explicit manner.

Our regional blogging program guidelines, which are distributed to all our agent authors and any freelancers who participate, establish all those ropes. They cover everything from broad generalizations (you can’t say the real estate market is going to take off in the next month), to more specific things like tone of voice, where to source images, and which point of view to write from. We have an editorial team that enforces those guidelines.

That’s how we’ve achieved consistency on the regional blogging side of things, but I think another integral piece is explaining your marketing to your brand ambassadors. As marketers, sometimes we’re too close to our own messaging, and we forget that the journey to how we got to that messaging is just as important as the final product. Explaining that journey of how and why we crafted a message helps our brand ambassadors understand those core values—that act of story—and then they are able to retell it.

What’s the balance between allowing local experts to report from their personal voice vs. brand voice? How do you reconcile the two?

We try to allow for that freedom as much as we can. At the end of the day, the authenticity of content is most important—it’s integral to successful storytelling. If it doesn’t sound like the author, it’s not believable.

We always take into account the personality of the writer. We tell our authors not to shy away from the way that they normally talk and converse. The way they structure their content is different, the way that they format is different. We have some regional bloggers who always include video in their posts, and we think that’s great. We have some only doing listicles. Others love long form. We welcome all of those formats, because that’s what makes our content unique and gives the author that differentiation.

Have you had any points with the program where you had to make a strategy shift? What did that look like? How did you communicate that to your agents who are dispersed across the world?

We started the program as a pilot. We selected a number of brokerages that we knew would be active and receptive to joining the program. It was a small group—four regions—and we wanted to test the water. Was there an appetite to create regional content among our agents and brokers? After all, their first job is to help people buy and sell real estate, it’s not to be marketers or content creators. And then secondly, what challenges were we going to hit along the way? Not just from a platform perspective, but also the perspective of what questions were we going to be asked, and how quickly would we be able to answer them? Once we felt comfortable enough with our pilot group, we saw that yes, there was an appetite to create regional content, and yes, it was something that we’d be able to handle.

We then opened it up to a larger network. We use a lot of the same vehicles we use to communicate with our agents on a regular basis. That includes our Facebook group, which is a private Facebook group for only Coldwell Banker-affiliated broker agents. We also created content about the program on our intranet, and several agents have asked when the program will be coming to their regions. We also use traditional methods of communication, such as email and face-to-face communication through our brand ambassadors to local companies.

And it’s really a rolling program. There are some months when I have upward of 20 new requests to join the program, and there are other months when it’s a little quieter—during our mid-year months—but it’s something that’s continuously growing. The more agents we onboard as writers, the more attention the program gets.

Like you mentioned, having a private Facebook page where the community of agents can share their stories and experiences is a cornerstone of the program. How do you incentivize bloggers to communicate with each other and make each other’s stories richer instead of just serving their own needs?

It’s funny: at the beginning, we created the Facebook group with the incentive of, “Join the Facebook group and be the first to know about plans and initiatives.” It was our vehicle—an exclusive communication tool—for internal announcements. It was a very “push” model. But now, with over 15,000 active members, the incentive has turned on its head. Now it’s the place where our network is able to share their successes with their peers and seek advice. We’re even seeing people seek referrals for business, saying, “Hey, I have a buyer looking to buy a house in Nashville, is there anyone who can help her?” And they’re making those business decisions on the Facebook group.

It’s become a place where we listen even more than we speak. To join, a person has to be affiliated with Coldwell Banker, and a mediator is there to monitor communication. Our Facebook group has really become an exclusive club that everyone wants in on. Our network is able to share their successes and talk about the challenges they’re running into, too. We see our agents sharing posts they’ve written, and gradually it’s less about the story and more about, “Hey, that’s really cool, how did you get involved in this program? How can I get involved?”

My favorite part of your presentation from Forward was listening to you explain Coldwell Banker’s origin story. [Listen to Keichinger’s session below!] It’s an inspiring one, and one that deserves to be told. However, many companies just throw their company histories on an About page. I’d love to get your perspective on how Coldwell Banker lets its story live, and any tips you have for brand marketers to instill origin story throughout their organizations.

You’re right—oftentimes, that origin story is just a timeline on a company’s website. For us, it’s gone a lot farther than that. It’s really part of our daily lives at Coldwell Banker. Our main headquarters’ conference room is called 1906, the year that we were founded. I’m actually standing in it right now, and it has this big wall decal on the back wall that has a collage of images that represent our heritage: everything from Colbert Coldwell to the first office that was ever opened, and the destruction that happened after the earthquake in San Francisco. It’s something that’s representative of who we are, and why.

Why does Coldwell Banker exist today? It’s because of that story that took place in 1906, and it’s from that passion of a young, 20-something entrepreneur who wanted to change an industry and make it a more ethical business.

It’s something we take into everything we do. Our core values that come from that history are baked into everything. We start every meeting with our mission statement. Our core values are plastered across the walls of our hallways, and we even have a physical representation of our brand heritage (called our brand storybook) that our whole company can not only purchase, but also customize to include their own local heritage. It’s very much an ancestral story, and one that can be added to. At the very core of it is the idea that Coldwell Banker wanted to change “home”—moving it away from being a financial investment and more toward that true value of what home really represents.

I think the advice I would give other brand marketers about origin story is to not think of it as a timeline. Think of it as, what was the why? What was the reason your brand was created? That’s the greatest story a brand has.

How do you go about communicating this why to your many writers around the world?

First and foremost, it has to be a story that people believe in and want to be part of. Beyond that, giving them the ability to tell it their way. Branding is a lot like telling a good joke: the delivery changes depending on who’s telling it, but the punchline remains the same. If it’s got a really great punchline, it doesn’t matter who’s telling it and how they’re telling it. That punchline for us is the true value of a home.

It’s something that’s simple, and it’s the underpinning of everything we do—so it doesn’t have to be spelled out. In our advertising you see the true value of a home, with images of a dad and his daughter playing catch in the backyard. In our blog content, you see the true value of a home in the way people talk about the joy they find in creating a place that’s truly a home.

The punchline always remains the same; the way we tell it changes. That’s what makes it a compelling story to listen to, as far as network goes, because they’re not hearing that mission statement over and over again, they’re experiencing it in different ways—ways that they want to be a part of it.

For our regional bloggers, their stories change exactly because they’re local. We always tell our writers, “Answer a question you’ve heard from one of your clients this week.” From a search perspective, we know these questions are what people are looking for—they’re going online and looking for that kind of content. But it’s also a voice of our brand, because that’s what our real estate agents are doing every single day. They’re answering those kinds of questions for their clients.

Local subject matter experts tell better stories because they know their subject matter more intimately. Yet in the digital age, with everything seemingly available online, freelancers are able to research topics and connect with other experts to create captivating stories. Do you see a globalized content marketing industry still relying on locals for their expertise? Why or why not?

Yes, absolutely. For the same reason that people still use real estate agents when buying homes. You can research all about the real estate process, but when it comes down to it there’s a reason you still turn to a knowledgeable professional. There’s something about hearing it from someone you trust.

It’s the same thing in other industries—not necessarily just speaking global versus local. You wouldn’t have someone who’s not a medical professional writing medical content, so why would you have someone writing about an area who doesn’t live there? Having that expertise and authenticity is really important. It’s “location, location, location” for a reason.

And think about VR. Even when, in the not-so-distant-future, we’ll be able to communicate face to face from anywhere in the world, having local expertise will always be important.

For sure. The VR perspective is so interesting for us. In January we shot a 360° video of Patrick Ewing’s home, which was listed with Coldwell Banker. People can actually go inside, experience sports memorabilia that’s hanging on his wall, and physically be inside Patrick Ewing’s house. I think that’s a direction we’ll start to see the industry go as far as storytelling. First, we started with a listing description. Now we have photos. Beyond that, we even have video, but the next frontier is to physically be in a house in New York while you’re standing in a coffee shop in San Francisco—an experience that’s unbelievable.

360° video is really cool, but it begs the question: Is it just a stepping stone to virtual reality?

Trying on the headsets that StoryUP brought [to Forward 2016] was probably the highlight of my experience. So cool. I tried on the Microsoft Hololens—that was trippy. Imagine if you could stage an empty home with holograms of your own furniture. The future of storytelling is bright, particularly because the possibilities in VR are endless.

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Managing editor of the Content Standard, writer at Monster, Sound of Boston, Trill, and others. Hip-hop producer.

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