Zillow Fight: Realtor.com Aims To Give Competitor 'Black' Eye

Online Video Goes Directly After Real Estate Rival With Mockumentary

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In a not-so-neighborly move, Realtor.com today launches an aggressive comparative ad campaign aimed squarely at competitor Zillow.

Realtor.com's new online "mockumentary" tells the story of a blacked-out house that doesn't seem to exist because it's not listed on Zillow. The series of videos by Pereira & O'Dell, New York, feature overly distraught neighbors and frustrated home buyers fretting to the camera about the wrapped black house looming in almost every shot, while creepy "Twilight Zone"-like music plays in the background.

In one scene, a dad breaks down over the fact that their perfect house is now missing online, while a little girl asks, "Mommy, what's Zillow?" The mother backward glances at the dad muttering to himself in the corner and replies, "I don't want to hear you say that word."

"It's a fight to win the hearts and minds of consumers and we really ultimately believe we have the best offering," said Andrew Strickman, head of brand and chief creative at Realtor.com.

As the No. 2 in the online real estate market, Realtor.com has moved aggressively, especially this year, to market its services to consumers. Its largest national ad campaign to date launched in May to positive reviews, which featured actress Elizabeth Banks and was directed by actor Fred Savage. That branded work, tagged "Real estate in real time," continues.

In 2014, Realtor.com spent $16.1 million compared to Zillow's $56.4 million on measured media, according to Kantar Media; however, in 2015 through September, Realtor.com has already spent $34.5 million versus $35.9 million for Zillow, according to Kantar data.

Realtor.com wasn't always the underdog. In fact, the 20-year-old service, which is also the official website of the National Association of Realtors, was the No. 1 visited online real estate site until about four years ago, Mr. Strickman said. Part of the problem was that Realtor.com had focused on real estate agents instead of consumers, but when new players like Zillow and Trulia came along "with a more consumer-oriented promise, we found ourselves challenged," he said.

It's been three years since Realtor.com changed strategies to target consumers and launched its first consumer advertising. Mr. Strickman said the tactics are working. In the last year, its consumer audience has grown 45% and now averages around 46 million unique users every month, he said.

In November, Realtor.com had 46.5 million visits for a 10.8% share of hits in the real estate category, second to Zillow, which had 101.7 million visits for a 23.7% share, according to Hitwise.

The new work is meant to highlight the listing advantage Realtor.com has over its competitors, based on its own research that shows it has an average 20% more Multiple Listing Service inventory nationwide than Zillow. Four 15-second spots will run on Facebook and YouTube, while a longer 2-minute film will run on Facebook and Unruly, with plans to expand to more publishers after Jan. 1.

"Any of the major (real estate) search portals would fool themselves thinking that consumers only use one portal. Most consumers go to more than one portal, but when they find differences between those portals in the same market and same Zip code, that can be really confusing," Mr. Strickman said.