On Marketing, Getting Started, and Challenges in the Industry: Mike Samm, Keller Williams (Chicago)
Every month we’re interviewing real estate professionals in Chicago to get their perspectives on the market, career tips, and industry trends. Today we’re talking with Mike Samm of Keller Williams.
Mike is one of my favorite Chicago real estate agents. Not only does he have a great background in marketing with a bunch of lessons for new real estate agents, he exemplifies what being a true Chicago market expert really means.
We cover Mike’s background from his career in marketing and PR for Keller Williams in Hollywood Hills + Studio City through his recent move out on his own. He offers tips on marketing for real estate agents and the fact that national real estate firms missed a huge opportunity of which companies like Zillow and Redfin took advantage.
It’s 70+ degrees outside when I meet Mike at the Cabana Club at The Robey Hotel in Wicker Park for a great conversation that’s occasionally interrupted by the sounds of the passing El and sips of Iced Tea.
Be sure to also check out Mike’s West Town Team real estate website where he offers his real estate expertise to clients looking to buy or sell a home in Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Loop, Fulton Market District, Humboldt Park, Logan Square and the entire near northwest side of Chicago.
The full transcript can be found below, but here’s the cliff notes:
I did PR for Choose Chicago for two and a half years and it was my job to know the neighborhoods of Chicago inside and out. Even though I had lived in Chicago prior to that for ten years before I moved to LA, I learned that there was a lot more to explore in Chicago’s vibrant neighborhoods.
Mike’s background in marketing and PR has helped tremendously in carving out his real estate career. He was the first marketing manager for the Michael Lewis Marketing Suite working at Keller Williams Realty in Hollywood Hills + Studio City. He translated that skillset into a career as a real estate agent, and has continued to find ways to leverage his marketing skills and intimate knowledge of Chicago neighborhoods.
You can hop on as a buyer’s agent, you can take some of that business off their hands, they can mentor you, show you how to do a basic real estate transaction, and you get business right away, and you start learning.
For new real estate agents, joining a team as a buyer’s agent with a great team leader who can provide mentorship and experience working with home buyer clients right away is critical.
Me, being a marketing guy and a PR guy, it was super easy to get used to these in-house marketing systems, but I wanted to go above and beyond what the brokerage was offering me, and that’s where my expertise and my past has helped me.
When it comes to real estate marketing, less can be more. Delivering high quality, hyper-local, and actionable information in your marketing emails on a less frequent basis can be the difference between a phone call and being dropped in the Spam folder.
Content writing is the most important, and it’s the most time consuming. It takes the most time to write really good content, especially for SEO purposes.
Mike has put a lot of effort into his websites, which he’s designed and optimized for search engine real estate keyword rankings. In fact, he’s a rare breed that is seeing success through his own website, as opposed to relying solely on buying leads from Zillow or Realtor.com.
As a real estate agent, you have to have leads coming from multiple sources. You can’t just rely on just one source of leads, you can’t just rely on your sphere of influence, you can’t just rely on buying leads on Realtor.com or Zillow, plus those are expensive, you can’t just rely on your website, you have to do everything well.
Successful real estate agents must have multiple lead sources. Similarly, actively promoting your listings, your closed deals, and yourself across multiple social media channels is equally as important.
I think that’s the most challenging thing for most agents, just making sure you make the phone calls on the days and times you need to make them, not letting yourself slide, not letting yourself get too far behind, because then you get frustrated and want to throw your hands up in the air.
The hardest thing for real estate agents is staying on top of your sphere of influence. There are tools out there to do it and putting in the time and effort to building your personal contact database will help you avoid falling behind and throwing your hands up in the air.
Austin: So tell me about yourself and how you got into real estate?
Mike: My background is primarily in marketing and PR, I graduated from Columbia College Chicago and right out of school I worked in the music industry, I was doing some event production, traveling around the country for Fortune 500 companies and through a series of events I ended up moving to Los Angeles. LA is where I was influenced to pursue a career in real estate. I was hired as the marketing manager for Keller Williams Realty in Hollywood Hills and Studio City and I helped launch the Michael Lewis Marketing Suite, which is the custom marketing suite that Keller Williams offices around the globe can subscribe to since each Keller Williams office is independently owned and operated. I was the guinea pig for the Michael Lewis Marketing Suite and since I started that job, it’s grown immensely. I was the first marketing manager that Michael Lewis hired and the program is now in hundreds of offices across the United States.
A: I can imagine that was a pretty nice place to start …
M: I learned a lot about real estate in that environment, the wants and needs of agents, how to promote listings, how to create listing presentations, how to create custom logos and graphics, how to thrive in an office environment and so on and so forth. I learned about myself and I think Michael Lewis learned a lot about the services he was going to offer through my experiences in helping to launch his business. That is how I got into real estate.
From there, I left Keller Williams when I got a job offer from Choose Chicago — the city’s tourism arm. I co-produced an Emmy award-winning video series on Chicago’s neighborhoods called ‘Beyond the Loop’. It was a contract position, and after we completed the series, I got a job offer for a full time position to do public relations for Choose Chicago. I took it and moved back to Chicago permanently. I did PR for Choose Chicago for two and a half years and it was my job to know the neighborhoods of Chicago inside and out. Even though I had lived in Chicago prior to that for ten years before I moved to LA, I learned that there was a lot more to explore in Chicago’s vibrant neighborhoods.
A: How did you get to understand the Chicago neighborhoods and what they have to offer?
M: Through all the research for Beyond the Loop — I got to know all the local businesses, the business owners, the chambers of commerce, so on and so forth. After I left Choose Chicago, I wanted to get into launching my own business and I felt real estate was going to be the best path forward because I had experience in real estate and I knew the best way to break into the business. I knew that I needed to join a team, I knew I needed to join as a buyer’s agent, and through the team leader, I knew that I could get a lot of business off the bat. Experience and business — those are the two things I needed right after I got my broker’s license.
A: Was your ability based on your background in marketing since you knew the Chicago neighborhoods? Was that was something your team leader was looking for as most valuable? How can new agents carve out an area of expertise?
M: The best way to break into the business as a new, young agent is to, 1) get your license, and 2) join a team. You want to join a team with a successful team leader, that has a lot of business, more than they can handle personally. You can hop on as a buyer’s agent, you can take some of that business off their hands, they can mentor you, show you how to do a basic real estate transaction, and you get business right away, and you start learning. Those are the most important things for a young agent — learning and getting business right away. So Mike Saladino hired me as his very first buyer’s agent and I helped launch his team, which is now very successful. After two years on his team, we ended up in the top 1% of all real estate teams in Illinois. Now I’ve started generating enough business on my own so I left Mike Saladino’s team. Since then he’s hired even more buyer’s agents, transactions coordinators, showing agents, etc. He’s done well. I see myself as a team leader in the next 3–4 years.
A: What do you feel are the most important marketing services a brokerage can offer to their agents?
M: A lot of the marketing systems that are being designed by real estate brokerages come included with a monthly fee you’re paying as an agent to your brokerage and they’re relatively easy to use. There’s a little bit of a learning curve, but there should be, not everybody is a marketing professional or has that background. Me, being a marketing guy and a PR guy, it was super easy to get used to these in-house marketing systems, but I wanted to go above and beyond what the brokerage was offering me, and that’s where my expertise and my past has helped me.
I started to formulate some ideas once I joined Mike Saladino’s team and I wanted to focus on the near west side neighborhoods of Chicago, specifically because I think the near west side is a great opportunity for Chicago home buyers — you’ve got the expansion of the West Loop right now and everything that’s happening: Google, McDonalds, boutique hotels opening, the new Fulton Market district streetscape redesign, etc. Back when I was in college, the West Loop was full of old meat packing factories and abandoned warehouses, and now the West Loop has completely transformed. You can see the tech startup industry really starting to gain momentum in Chicago, even surpassing San Francisco and some other tech hub cities. I just saw a lot of opportunity in the near west side neighborhoods of Chicago so I started to formulate some ideas. That is when I decided to launch the West Town Team website and it has really helped me to generate a lot of business. My goal was to optimize my website for search engines and since launching WestTownTeam.com I have gained a lot of momentum.
(A: I met Mike looking for agents to Beta Test Homebloq — I Googled “West Town Real Estate Agents Chicago” and there he was).
A: Tell me more about that, how’s that snowballing?
M: Yes! I’m getting listings from my website without any paid advertising.
A: That seems really rare when everyone is buying zip codes and Zillow leads. I think you stand alone in the ability to draw consumers to your website?
M: I’m not alone, there are a bunch of agents out there that are doing it, but I definitely think I have a hold on what I need to do next, I have momentum, I know what I need to do to keep building my online presence. As a real estate agent, you have to have leads coming from multiple sources. You can’t just rely on just one source of leads, you can’t just rely on your sphere of influence, you can’t just rely on buying leads on Realtor.com or Zillow, plus those are expensive, you can’t just rely on your website, you have to do everything well.
A: How long did it take you to start generating referrals from your sphere of influence?
M: It took me a good two years. But keep in mind I’m not just closing deals, I’m promoting them! I’m on my Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. always promoting my closings with pictures of my clients with the keys to their new home! LinkedIn in particular has been really important for me. People all the time say to me: “Man, I see you closing deals all the time, you’re doing really well!” and that just further solidifies you as a respected Chicago real estate agent. Because when you first get into real estate, people think: “ah, another real estate agent” so it’s really important when you close deals, when you get listings under contract, that you are letting people know you’re doing great real estate business in Chicago.
A: As a marketer, which is actually a really quantitative field, can you survive as a real estate agent without the soft skills?
M: I don’t think so. You have to have good communication skills. You have to connect with people on a personal level and make them feel like you care. And for those people who are in my sphere, I absolutely do care. When you call you gotta let people know you’re also a real estate professional and that you can help them with their needs in real estate, and connect with them.
A: Sounds like you have a great process down..what’s the hard stuff?
M: The hard stuff is really staying on top of your sphere. Who’s in your database, when to follow up and there’s a lot of tools out there that help you with that and I’ve found those tools really useful. I think that’s the most challenging thing for most agents, just making sure you make the phone calls on the days and times you need to make them, not letting yourself slide, not letting yourself get too far behind, because then you get frustrated and want to throw your hands up in the air. It’s really, really important to stay on top of your sphere, because timing is everything, especially in real estate.
A: What would you like to see change in the industry for better?
M: I think what you guys are doing with Homebloq is definitely needed in the industry. We need to give people more personalized control over their home search. It’s really important to go over the MLS search with your buyers in detail the very first time to set it up, but once you’re up and running and your client is getting search results, they should be able to change their search criteria freely without having to get their agent involved but the agent should be notified via email that their client’s home search criteria has been updated.
We moan and groan about buying leads from Zillow, but at the end of the day, you can’t fight technology, you can’t fight advancement, you can’t fight the future because you will lose. Just like my grandparents didn’t want me listening to rap music but it happened anyway.
I think what companies like Redfin is doing is great. I think there’s a tremendous amount of value in websites like Zillow and I think that the big brokerages like Keller Williams, Jameson Sotheby’s, Berkshire Hathaway, etc. — the national brokerages that have been around a long time, they missed the boat. I mean, they were in this industry and their agents had the listings. They could have built online real estate search platforms before Redfin and Zillow existed. They were around when the internet came to fruition. Zillow wasn’t there. Redfin wasn’t there. They had that power in the palm of their hands and they didn’t seize the moment.
A: Lastly, you’re tech-savvy. What are the best tools and apps you use?
M: First and foremost, I use SquareSpace and Wix to build my websites. They’re excellent. You watch the commercials and it’s easier said than done though. You don’t have to know all the programming language but you have to spend a lot of time in front of those programs in order to get the website you want. Content writing and graphic design skills are also useful when using website design tools. Content writing is the most important, and it’s the most time consuming. It takes the most time to write really good content, especially for SEO purposes. Having a beautiful website is one thing, having an effective website is another thing.
Total Expert is what I use as a CRM. My preferred lender is Michael Cain at Guaranteed Rate, and what Guaranteed Rate has done is created a relationship with Total Expert that allows their loan officers to offer their preferred real estate agents they work with on a regular basis a free subscription to Total Expert, which I think is very valuable as a CRM and has helped me stay organized.
A personal thank you to Mike for his time. I wrote this as CEO of Homebloq. Like this article? Follow our blog for much, much more!
Are you a Chicago Real Estate Agent and interested in being interviewed? Let us know at [email protected]!