#SP200 leader profile: realtor.com CMO Nate Johnson

Editor’s note: Published by the residential real estate strategic consulting and information firm Swanepoel T3 Group each January, the Swanepoel Power 200 (SP200) ranks the real estate industry’s most powerful, influential leaders. It also recognizes leaders in several subcategories, from technology execs to social influencers.

The SP200 rankings reflect a rigorous, careful evaluation process supported by data and a detailed methodology. To help make its selections, the Swanepoel T3 Group maintains a robust database, with stats and information on more than 1,000 real estate executives and leaders. It spends hundreds of hours poring over data, debating internally and verifying all candidates before settling on its list each year.

Nate Johnson placed No. 190 on the 2016 SP200 Powerlist, which ranks real estate’s 200 most powerful leaders.

In the runup to the 2017 list, the fourth, Swanepoel T3 Group is profiling leaders and executives included on one of the nine 2016 SP200 lists published earlier this year.

As realtor.com’s chief marketing officer, Nate Johnson, 39, is responsible for growing consumer awareness and engagement on one of the nation’s most popular real estate sites. He joined realtor.com in June 2015.

In the 12 months through June 2016, Johnson helped realtor.com grow its monthly unique visitors by nearly a quarter (23 percent), from 34.1 million to 42.1 million, according to comScore stats reported by NAR (20152016).

In addition to overseeing the provocative realtor.com “HouseWrap” marketing campaign calling out chief competitor Zillow last fall, Johnson has had a hand in several of the portal’s light-hearted campaigns, including ones featuring pet listings and a build-your-own virtual haunted house tool.

Johnson answered a few questions from SP200 about his outlook on leadership and the industry.

Briefly describe your career trajectory. How long have you been in your current role?

I’m a Silicon Valley native. I was born and raised five miles from our office (in Santa Clara, California). Technology has always been a part of what I’m doing.

My career has primarily revolved around consumer tech. Early on, I was a marketing manager for Apple, then Google (in its maps division) and then head of consumer marketing division at LinkedIn.

Realtor.com fits this thread. In my position I get to help people make one of the biggest decisions of their lives, whether they’re homebuyers or sellers.

What’s your leadership secret sauce?

Meritocracy makes Silicon Valley unique. Going into my dad’s office as a kid — he worked at a well-known tech company — everyone had open seating and cubicles, even the CEO. Then as now, the expectation is that everyone contributes.

This tech ethos bleeds into my leadership style. I give ownership to my team, and accountability. They own the project and the outcome, soup to nuts.

This minimizes excuses, I’ve found, and induces creative solutions from my team when hiccups do appear in a project.

Favorite “leadership” books?

Although not a gamer, I’m currently getting a lot out of 2015-published “Console Wars,” which chronicles the marketing battle between entrenched gaming giant Nintendo and scrappy upstart Sega in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

The book tracks the month-by-month marketing campaigns the companies battled on. My takeaway: take risks, and then bet on the winners.

Two other books that standout to me include:

  • “Getting to Yes,” the negotiation classic by Harvard professors Roger Fisher and William Ury, published in 1991.
  • “The Start-up of You” by LinkedIn Co-founder Reid Hoffman, which discusses ways professionals can bring an entrepreneurial mindset to their careers.

natejohnson-2016office

Nate Johnson near his desk at realtor.com headquarters in Santa Clara, California.

What’s at the top of your to-do list right now?

I’m 100 percent focused on consumers right now. I’m working with our research and social media teams to map how consumer habits and expectations are evolving, and bringing those insights to our product teams.

Mobile is huge. The smartphone is the most personal piece of tech ever created. It’s the first thing people look at in the morning. It’s the last thing they look at each night. We want to reach consumers with messaging that serves them where they are, such as alerting them to nearby available homes when they’re cruising neighborhood on the weekend.

I want to be there for consumers with the right, effective marketing tactics and have the products that fit that experience. This usually means a seamless line between marketing and product.

For example, we’ve worked with our email team to create great local content that’s personalized to individual buyers. Realtor.com sends weekly emails on new and reduced properties that fit users’ specific search preferences. This has amped open rates and clickthrough rates.

Favorite relaxing activity that’s not hanging with family?

Flyfishing. I lived in Vermont for nearly a decade and picked it up there.

I love it because it can be social, but it’s also cerebral and elemental, a thoughtful hobby. You check environmental factors, pay attention to insects in the air, whether the fish are biting or hiding, whether it’s cloudy or sunny. You have to be strategic.

It’s also peaceful. You might not catch a thing for four hours, but you will have been knee-deep in a trout stream the whole time. It blends nature and sport, a Zen ethos and a competitive focus.

Two of my favorite flyfishing spots are the Frying Pan River outside of Aspen, Colorado, and Madison River in Yellowstone National Park, which provides an added treat when bison wander randomly by.

What are the biggest trends you see in the industry right now?

Personalization. Consumers have high expectations of the companies they interact with. Millennnials, especially, are used to hailing cars on demand and renting from strangers on Airbnb. They’re used to all these personalized experiences.

The real estate industry has been pretty good at this, but it could be much better. Social media networks are showing us what’s possible when the right message hits the right person at the right time.

As this personalization becomes standard in all aspects of life, consumers will want it, expect it. It will be a core competency in real estate, not just a nice-to-have.

Adapting this to real estate will lead to more successful outcomes for agents, keep them at the heart of the transaction.

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