Why Zillow Group ungated its B2B content

Editor's note: this is Part 3 in a three-part series on Zillow Group's content marketing strategy. Part 1 and Part 2 deal with the real estate media giant's B2C content strategy; this post focuses on its B2B strategy.

Producing engaging content for specific audiences with specific goals for each lies at the heart of content marketing. Zillow Group knows this very well. Its strategy encompasses two distinct audiences -- consumers and real estate agents -- two separate goals, and, consequently, two content marketing strategies.

Consumers don’t buy goods or services directly from Zillow Group -- instead the giant strives to capture their attention around everything home and sell that to its money-maker audience, real estate agents, who pay Zillow Group for the consumer exposure they get on the firm’s suite of sites, which include Zillow, Trulia, StreetEasy, HotPads and Naked Apartments.

We’ve covered the consumer side in Parts 1 and 2 of this series -- the agent side is just as compelling. Its agent army paid the firm $604 million for exposure in 2016, the overwhelming majority of its revenue. In this way, Zillow Group is a classic media company.

Ungating engagement

When Cheryl Channing joined Zillow Group as a content marketing manager in March 2014, the media giant's B2B marketing wing handled its agent-focused blog, Zillow for Pros.

Cherryl Channing

Cherryl Channing

At that time, the site's primary goal was lead acquisition. It featured guides for different sets of real estate expertise, all gated. Leads went to the sales team.

Following the arrival of media-minded Stephanie Reid-Simmons, a former assistant managing editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in November 2014 as director of content marketing, things started to shift to a more message-focused strategy with a content production team that operates more as a newsroom and less as direct marketers. She's the one that redefined and reorganized Zillow's consumer-focused content marketing site as a "digital magazine."

The agent-focused blog relaunched as the Premier Agent Resource Center (PARC) in August 2015. Version two hit the streets last July. It features crystal-clear agent client success stories (check them out, a great blueprint for a client case study), real estate agent tips and tools such as a listing flyer template and text message scripts, training courses and upcoming events.

Clear, detailed agent success stories on PARC elucidate different facets of the Zillow Group value proposition. Every real estate tech startup should have one of these.

In addition to huge changes to the user-experience design, the firm decided to ungate content, meaning that visitors didn't have to register and become "leads" to access the content. If you're a real estate agent, you know all about this process -- leads are the lifeblood of many modern real estate businesses.

The decision to focus on relationships over leads in a content strategy is a profound shift in philosophy and one I've instilled into the heart of HageyMedia's work. As Channing explained, Zillow Group went for engagement in version two, making it easier for agents to access a suite of new content.

Zillow Group had data to support the decision because they do one of the most important aspects of content marketing -- they measure results (see more below). The gated content, they found, simply wasn't leading to conversions, which is the ultimate reason (in most cases) we're here. In fact, Channing told me, the company found that direct sales emails had higher engagement than content marketing emails.

PARC is Zillow Group's most fleshed out B2B content channel. Channing and her team of two writers and an editor also manage three other content hubs: the multi-family rentals-focused resource center for an audience of landlords and property managers with 50 units or more; a rentals resource for investors and landlords with at most a few properties; and new construction, a new audience for the firm. The company has a lender-focused content hub, which its mortgage wing manages.

Messaging

In the PARC revamp, Zillow Group took the opportunity to develop a broad view of their audience and hone their strategy around the content trifecta: the right content to the right person at the right time.

That takes sales funnel awareness and an assessment of what different clients and potential clients care about no matter where they are in the buying process: agents new to Zillow may just come for the information on online strategy and courses in branding, which fosters trust and familiarity; agents already familiar with the firm may then look at content that shows how Zillow can take them to the next level.

This perspective broadens an audience and recognizes the full spectrum of relationship; whereas, a content strategy focused on just direct, immediate sales remains slot-canyon narrow. There's no pipeline and no nurture.

PARC features streamlined self-paced agent courses on important topics like how to manage online leads effectively and grow your brand.

The other perk of this new content focus was the opportunity for Zillow Group to create the world in which its stories live, giving them the most punch, relevance possible. For example, the firm sees real estate teams as a huge opportunity, since many of them operate as streamlined digital marketing machines who convert online leads better and at a higher clip than many individual agents can and thus can pay more for impressions on Zillow Group sites. 

Helping agents see the benefit of building teams and providing a blueprint in the form of a PARC course and then learn how Zillow Group's tools and advertising can support and accelerate their business creates and defines a sales funnel that perfectly aligns with its business goals.

The agony of measurement

Zillow Group does a lot of measurement and tailors its strategy accordingly, but Channing said the company, like all of us, continues to strive to measure ROI; with long incubation times and soft calls to action, a long-tail content strategy is inherently difficult to measure.

The firm, of course, uses Google Analytics to measure traffic to specific pieces of content including unique users and pageviews (stay tuned for a HageyMedia post on how to set up Google Analytics to optimize content performance). It also measures engagement on the links it pumps out on its pro-focused social media accounts. It tracks downloads of its handouts, reports, guides, scripts, anything provided as a PDF, and tracks content's performance in email marketing -- open rates, clickthrough rates, unsubscribes -- and A/B tests headlines.

The team also takes SEO into account, as all content marketers should. It reviews keywords and results to monitor how its content ranks.