Trulia's $45 million ad buy involves more dollars than sense

By James Robinson , written on March 17, 2014

From The News Desk

In the online real estate listings game, where Zillow goes so inevitably must Trulia.

Trulia, founded in 2004, is a year older than Zillow but since its inception has played the role of copycat. Zillow went public in 2011. Trulia followed the next year. In late 2012, Zillow filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Trulia which remains unresolved. Zillow announced a $30 million national marketing campaign in mid-2013. Trulia kicks its $45 million ad blitz, which will run through the Fall, today.

Trulia’s $45 million ad campaign is so bold as to be preposterous. The company, which makes money by serving leads up to real estate agents, made $113 million in 2013. Last year it took on $222 million in post-IPO debt funding. In its 2013 annual report, it admits that it has never been profitable on a quarterly or annual basis since it was founded. This new ad buy for Trulia sees the company spending roughly 40 percent of all the money it made in 2013, and represents a nearly 600 percent increase on its 2013 marketing budget.

Trulia’s stock price has flagged about 30 percent from a peak above $50 last year. Zillow surged throughout 2013 and has held steady in 2014. Its stock is three times as valuable as Trulia’s. Neither company returned a profit last year, but Zillow has in the past. Zillow’s relative financial strength is one thing Trulia hasn’t been able to emulate so closely.

In the context of these numbers, when Trulia’s Micky Onvural, the Senior Director of Consumer Marketing, tells me that this campaign is Trulia “pouring gas on the fire” of its product and experience, her words take on new meaning. The campaign is a massive gamble, like watching a possibly insane card player calmly go all-in on a hand.

The “Moment of Trulia” ad spots, even if the truth/Trulia pun is a little hackneyed, are decent. As Zillow did last year, Trulia spotlights its adaptable platform, with couples using Trulia to collaboratively house-hunt from both tablet and smartphone, accessing it on the go and at their will. Both companies campaigns tie house-buying into the idea of family, but Trulia goes for broad laughs where Zillow tried to pull on the heartstrings. Viewed side by side, they’re remarkably similar ads. Someone only half paying attention (television viewers, say) could mistake them as the same company.

Trulia’s radio spot, destined for Pandora and iHeart Radio, will drive listeners insane before the year is up, with a voiceover relentlessly rapping on the word Trulia: cruelia, foolia, youlia, carpoolia, toolia.

Onvural says that Trulia took a market focused, densely researched approach to this campaign, which will go out to cable TV - with an emphasis on home renovation and DIY shows - as well as Internet radio, with outdoor spots rolled in later in the campaign. Through 900 hours of research and talking to 2000 people, Trulia found that women hold final decision making powers on buying a house, that its average customer was affluent and more likely to buy sooner rather than later. Trulia’s campaign is a cost-effective campaign done on a national scale to try and play to those strengths, she thinks.

Trulia has a performance focus for this. Brand awareness is secondary, Onvural claims. The TV ads, which end with a call to download the app, will be measured by the amount of downloads attained and the engagement thereafter. “This is a not a Coca-Cola teaches the world to sing type of campaign,” she says.

The problem is, when Onvural tells me that the cost per install with Trulia’s previous marketing efforts was 64 cents, you’re looking at about 70 million app downloads in this new campaign to get parity with that. It is hard to do direct-response marketing well on TV. With how sophisticated retargeting is online today, finding people while they’re actively searching for property is a relatively simple accomplishment. You’re either in the market for a house, or you’re not. By going as big picture as it has, Trulia risks missing its audience all together. There seems little sense in pumping tens of millions of dollars that your company can’t afford to lose into an ad buy that relies on a call to action placed on the TV screen for a few seconds.

Onvural says that the housing market is bouncing back and Trulia wants to cash in on this. But whichever way you focus, $45 million still comes out like a precocious and possibly foolhardy marketing investment. Coming so soon on the heels of Squarespace’s Super Bowl flash in the pan and $20 million national campaign, it’s easy to wonder if we’re about to see a rash of Web 2.0 companies trying to step out of of their niche and search for mainstream acceptance. But given how splintered today’s audiences are and how much profit can be made just be serving your strengths, what’s the point?