When Amy Bohutinsky took the job as chief marketing officer for yet-to-be-launched Zillow in 2005, she had an unusual welcome: On her first day, cofounder Rich Barton walked into her office and said, "I have a goal for you; I want Zillow to have a million visitors a month by month six … and I don’t want you to spend any money doing it."
"I had worked at companies that spent enormous amounts on marketing," she says. "I scratched my head and wondered if I had made the right choice to join the company."
A former TV news reporter, Bohutinsky was not one to back down from a challenge. She says Barton’s goal forced her to "get scrappy. We had to dig deep and think of new ways to build a brand," she says. "This was 2005, before the days of social media. Corporate blogs were rare. We had to take big swings."
Eight months later when the Seattle-based company launched in February 2006, the site had a million visitors in the first three days and 5 million in the first month. How’d Bohutinsky’s team get traffic without a budget and later become the largest real estate network in the country?
"The only way we were going to build a brand is by having a kick-ass product," says Bohutinsky. "The best marketing is creating a product that people use and talk about."
Before its launch, Bohutinsky says there was a tight alliance between Zillow’s product development and marketing teams. The synchronicity became increasingly important with the advent of mobile technology.
"We launched a mobile app in 2009 when the iPhone had been around for a little over a year," she says. "We quickly realized this would be a game changer for us and our industry, so we immediately built an entirely new development team to focus on mobile."
Doing that allowed Zillow to get early leadership on mobile in real estate. Today, two-thirds of its 80 million monthly visits are on mobile devices. "Our tight alignment between product development and marketing gave us significant impact," says Bohutinsky. "A lot of businesses don’t enjoy that type of partnership."
Zillow’s growth can be attributed to a combination of data science, public relations, and social media, says Bohutinsky. At its launch, the housing market was at its peak. Bohutinsky says users had fun watching their homes increase in value.
"Our key brand promise is ‘what’s your home worth?’" she says. "We launched with deep data, and it was the first time you could go on the web and get home valuations. It became an American obsession to go on Zillow each day and it helped us catch on fast."
Novelty drove early usage, but months later when the 2007/2008 housing crash started, it wasn’t such a fun proposition. "Using our data science became a pivotal decision; we had information on every home in America and there was a lot we could see and tell," says Bohutinsky. "We started telling people the truth about the global housing market. It may not be fun, but we decided our users and consumers deserved to know the truth."
Working with its data, Zillow released housing reports in 300 local cities, down to individual neighborhood levels. It offered information such as home values, rental rates, foreclosure rates, the percentage of homeowners upside-down on their mortgages, and the difference between asking and sale prices.
"We started working with media across country with a goal to become the preeminent housing authority," Bohutinsky says. "No other independent company was doing this. We were telling people, it might not be the best time to buy a home."
Bohutinsky says its data became a nationwide conversation. Zillow worked with various government constituents in Washington, including hosting an event with President Obama where Zillow users could ask questions on housing. "We were using data to tell a story through PR and social media," she says. "Today you hear more about data science. At the time, there wasn’t another company doing anything like that."
At its launch, Zillow started sharing data with media outlets, but Bohutinsky quickly realized the company was in a position to benefit from its own information. It started a newsroom, publishing stories about data and trends and created a stronger brand and faster growth.
"The content helped us show up in Internet searches," she says. "Today we publish 20-30 stories a week on various real estate and rental topics, such as celebrity real estate sales, staging tips, and analytical data."
The company also distributes and syndicates its content to a number of outlets and local newspapers.
By early 2012, Zillow’s three organic marketing strategies created consistent traffic of 30 million unique users each month. The company didn’t spend any money on advertising for the first seven years. This year Zillow plans to spend $65 million on marketing, adding traditional marketing channels, such a national television campaign this year and radio, print, and online advertising.
Bottom Line: "Rich Barton’s challenge was something we all felt we needed to rise to," says Bohutinsky. "If he had never set this outlandish goal, I don’t know if we would have swung that hard or aimed that high. It pushed us beyond what we thought might be possible."