What’s Wrong With Your Commercial Real Estate Listings, According to the Father of Soft-Sell Advertising

July 21, 2021

Online marketplaces and CRE tech tools have democratized the search for commercial properties. Buyers now self-surface their next deal by sifting through hundreds of thousands of listings.

Your commercial real estate listings don’t just need to stand out. They need to catch the attention of the one buyer that will send a letter of intent.

A generic listing won’t cut it. Who says? David Ogilvy, for one.

During a time when ads were mostly monotonous repetitions of catch-phrases and jingles, Ogilvy—the Father of Soft-Sell Advertising—revolutionized the ad game by framing the buyer as an intelligent individual with specific needs and motivations. Instead of trying to appeal to every consumer, his ads were designed to inform and engage a specific buyer in a way that would be interesting to them.

“You cannot bore people into buying your product,” Ogilvy said in his book, Ogilvy on Advertising. “You can only interest them in buying it.”

Ogilvy’s marketing philosophies are still in play today, selling everything from liquor to luxury cars. Brokers that apply his strategies to their listings will stand out in the most crowded marketplaces and attract buyers for each of the properties they sell.


Your listing needs more information

Ogilvy believed in treating buyers as intelligent people that needed information, not coercion, to make a decision. For a CRE listing, this means going beyond the basic building and cost details to give a buyer everything they need to underwrite the deal.

Ogilvy educated his audience

David Ogilvy revolutionized modern marketing simply by respecting the people that read his ads. His goal wasn’t to talk someone into buying his product but to give them all the information they needed to make an informed decision.

In Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy said: “You insult [a consumer’s] intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”

In a 1954 print ad for The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Ogilvy wrote 961 words of copy—an encyclopedia compared to the simplistic ads of the day. “[If] you are advertising a product which has a great many different qualities to recommend it,” Ogilvy said, “write long copy: the more you tell, the more you sell.”

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The ad sparked a wave of investment in Puerto Rico, and Ogilvy himself considered it one of his greatest successes. “If I had confined myself to a few vacuous generalities, nothing would’ve happened.”

Information-rich listings reduce your buyer’s perception of risk

There are a lot of risks inherent in owning commercial real estate, and buyers often take the lead in assessing it. Information-rich listings ease the due diligence burden, making them more interesting for buyers.

Assessing risk in a CRE deal is basically creating a business plan. You have to be confident that the property will be profitable for a long time. Forecasting potential profit takes a lot of information.

Buyers need prior income information, cost analysis, neighborhood and demographic data, comps, market trends, tenant information, and so much more.

Providing transparency through information builds trust in the deal and in you as the broker. With risk reduced, the deal described in your listing will be more attractive to a buyer.

How to create an information-rich listing

CRE buyers often take on the role of the underwriter for their deals. And even those that don’t still need to provide that information to their financial backers.

Your listing should start with the highlights to pique a buyer’s interest and include all the basics, but it can’t stop there. Continue with an information packet that preps the buyer to underwrite the entire deal.

Lead with a bullet point list of the investment highlights. This is your chance to grab the buyer's attention. Each point in the highlights should include a feature and the benefit that comes with it. For example:

  • Three established tenants on triple-net leases and regular rent increases offer stable income for this investment
  • Keep workers safe with touchless entry, upgraded HVAC, high-res security cameras


Next, list basic property, income, and cost facts. Property type, square footage, class, year built, land acreage, zoning, and parking all belong here.

This information doesn’t need to be contextualized with benefits. If you’ve done your job in the highlights, a buyer is interested enough to take a deeper dive into the particulars.

Finally, stand out with plenty of data for the buyer to evaluate risk and complete their own due diligence.

This should include:

  • Cash flow analysis showing net operating income over a set holding period, cap rate, details of operating expenses, maximum loan analysis, and financial ratios
  • A list of current tenants with background information, lease terms, rent per square foot, schedule of rental increases, value-add opportunities, employment trends, and renewal options
  • Market and neighborhood statistics, nearby transportation, and local amenities


Transparency is important. Include a narrative that explains how you came to each conclusion and where your data came from. This narrative should also help make any complex financial model easy to understand.

Your listing should have a unique selling proposition

Before Ogilvy created an ad, he identified a single unique selling proposition (USP) of his product and then matched it with a consumer that would appreciate its value. Your property descriptions should follow that lead—addressing the most important motivator for a buyer.

Ogilvy matched USP to one ideal buyer

When Ogilvy wrote an ad for a product, he didn’t just list all of its features, hoping to appeal to everyone. He considered a singular value proposition, then presented the features in that context.

“Don’t address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium,” Ogilvy said. “When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.”

This Rolls Royce ad is the perfect example.

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The headline mentions reduced road noise, but Ogilvy’s value proposition is exemplary craftsmanship. The ad copy continues that narrative, framing additional features as further proof that a Rolls Royce is constructed with an incredible focus on detail.

Not every driver cares that their car has five coats of primer and seven coats of paint. Instead, they may want a powerful sports car that handles turns at high speeds. Or a vehicle with lots of space for kids and cargo. Ogilvy’s copy doesn’t try to speak to them. The ad singles out the buyer that obsesses over fine craftsmanship.

A listing with a USP will lead to more offers

Commercial real estate buyers look for properties with a particular goal in mind—stable profit, safe space for employees. A listing that exposes that goal with a strong USP is like a beacon to the buyer that is searching for it.

CRE buyers often focus on a particular asset class (multifamily residential, office, hospitality, and so on). For each of those niche buyers, there is a unique selling proposition.

For example, an investor that mainly buys hotels will want to know that a property has a history of high occupancy. For an investor in single-tenant office buildings, the USP is the stability of the existing tenant.

A listing that quickly tells the buyer, “this property has exactly what you are looking for,” will give the most likely buyer a reason to pause for further review. Then, when the narrative of the listing continues to reinforce that USP, the buyer will know this is the property for them.

How to expose the USP in your highlights and property description

Identify several features of your property that tell a specific story, envision who would most likely be interested in that story, and write your highlights and description around it.

The first step is to surface several features of the property that indicate a unique selling proposition. For example, if the building has three stable tenants all signed to long-term NNN leases with regular rental increases, then the USP is low-maintenance income. If it’s near shopping and restaurants and has a full kitchen and game room, then attracting a workforce could be your USP.

Then, write your highlights and description with your USP in mind. The bulleted highlights should include a feature and a benefit that fits into your overall USP.

A “low-maintenance income” highlight might be:

  • Reliable income: 5 years left on an NNN lease with a stable anchor tenant.

A “good for attracting employees” highlight might be:

  • Attractive location for employees, near historic old town with bars and food trucks on the block

Your description will clearly tell the story of your USP. Don’t be afraid to be blunt. The first sentence of your description can be something like: “Perfect location to attract top executive talent.”

Like Ogilvy’s car ad, finish the description with supporting features and their benefits: “Vaulted ceilings, spacious offices, and natural lighting to keep employees energized.” The goal is to frame it all around your USP—further proving to the buyer that this is the property for them.

Choose images with “story appeal”

Ogilvy believed that when an image told a little bit of an ad’s story, the viewer would be drawn in to learn more from the copy. To follow Ogilvy’s lead, your images should go beyond a pretty picture of a building to expose a little of the property’s USP—its story—enticing buyers to explore the listing.

Ogilvy used images to tell a story

Ogilvy chose photographs for the same purpose he chose text: to tell a piece of a very specific story to a particular audience.  

“The more story appeal there is in the picture or in the photograph, the more people would look at your ad,” he said.

Probably the most famous example of Ogilvy’s “eye” for imagery detail is this ad for men's clothier Hathaway.

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The model in the ad—a Russian aristocrat named Baron George Wrangle—had two perfectly good eyes. Yet Ogilvy saw a chance to add intrigue to the image by having Wrangle pose with an eyepatch. It aroused curiosity, leading viewers to wonder about the man with the patch.

“Harold Rudolph called this magic element ‘story appeal,’ and demonstrated that the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people will look at your advertisements,” Ogilvy explained.

The results were quick and significant. Within a week of the ad’s publishing, Hathaway—a small men’s clothier based in Maine—sold out of the shirt. Ogilvy said the ad made both him and Hathaway instantly famous.

Photos with a “story element” help buyers notice your listings

Your ideal buyer will understand the USP of your listing more quickly and remember it longer when your images match the story you’re trying to tell.

Imagery is a shortcut to comprehension. That’s the conclusion this post’s author came to after comparing multiple studies on text and visual processing speeds in the human brain. They noted that people could understand the meaning of an image 60 to 600 times faster than text.

Visuals also help us remember information longer. In his book, Visual Literacy: Learn to See, See to Learn, Dr. Lynell Burmark notes: “Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about seven bits of information (plus or minus 2). . . . Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched.”

Additionally, this study published in Nature Human Behavior found that people paid more attention to the parts of an image that had meaning beyond the aesthetic. People search for the story in images and are more attracted to the parts of the picture that tell them.

In short, visuals are critically important to catch a buyer’s attention quickly, and photographs that tell a story do it better.

Use listing images that tell the story of the property

Every other listing will feature a “hero image” of the property’s exterior. To stand out, find the fine details of the property that call out its USP, then feature those details in a variety of visual formats throughout your listing.

Your first job is to walk the property with your USP in mind. Look for the details, big or little, that reinforce the message and capture them in photos or video. Use those details to create a shot list. If you’re working with a professional photographer, and you should be, they can help you decide how to capture your USP story visually.

If the story you want to tell is “spacious, luxury office space,” then capture the big corner office, professional-grade kitchen, and fully connected conference auditorium. But don’t forget the small details: a carved marble column or the high-end espresso machine.

Alternatively, if your story is “energy efficiency,” look for a LEED Platinum plaque, green roof, and solar panels. But also share the shiny rating plate of a brand new, state-of-the-art HVAC system.

Just like the copy in Ogilvy’s Rolls Royce ad, each of these details adds up to a common story. You're simply exposing them in visuals so the buyer can process them faster and remember them longer.

Static photographs are great, but consider adding other forms of media. Video of the interior and drone footage of the exterior is really useful to catch a buyer’s attention. In real estate as a whole, agents that sold a lot of properties used drone footage 3.5 times more than agents that were less prolific.

3D tours are also a winning play, especially for landing new clients. 80% of people said they’d choose a broker because they offered 3D tours.

No matter which mediums you choose, the goal is the same. Stand out in a crowd of generic listings with images that tell the unique story of your property.

Use data to guide your commercial real estate listings

Ogilvy never assumed an ad that worked for one product would work for every product. Instead, he tested new ads constantly and used the results to improve. “Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving,” he said.

Likewise, every property you list is unique. Test your listing early and change as needed.

biproxi’s analytics dashboard helps you do it. See what actions visitors take with each of your listings. If they’re clicking and leaving, then you may have great visuals, but your bulleted highlights miss the mark. Use that information to edit the listing so the next visitor is motivated to send a letter of intent.  

Ember Hansen
With over a decade of marketing & business development experience, Ember brings a fresh perspective on CRE to the biproxi leadership team by turning her passion for SaaS into actionable insights for brokers and investors looking leverage technology to create a more successful business.
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