RentNet’s Red Baron

Maria Pietroforte Revs up the marketing know-how and industry know-who for RentNet.

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Those wishing to paint the town red, put on the red light, or simply get the red out, should probably check with Maria Pietroforte.

“When it comes to advertising, we own the color red,” she says. “We want everyone to connect the color red to RentNet red.”

And that’s pretty much what Westlake Village, Calif.-based Homestore Network was hoping for when it hired Pietroforte, a 20-year MF-industry veteran, to run its Internet leasing service a year ago — someone who could make their RentNet division stand out.

Prior to Pietroforte’s arrival, RentNet’s staff numbered around 20, with most of its resources culled from the larger “matrix” of Homestore. With the ILS (Internet Leasing Service) sector showing more and more potential, Homestore decided last year to give RentNet more of its own resources — today, the dedicated head count numbers over 100.

The bursting of the Internet Bubble several years ago forced Homestore “to pull in the reigns organizationally and manage within our means,” says Allan Merrill, executive VP of strategy for the company. “But once we got Homestore back to where it needed to be in order to grow, we started the second phase of our investment strategy.”

That meant pouring money into RentNet and finding someone good to run it.

“We had been operating RentNet out of a more consolidated, more matrixed organization,” Merrill adds. “We needed a focal point for our organization to better service the apartment industry.”

With that renewed focus came the hiring of Pietroforte, a well-known face in MF circles who was serving as president of Washington, D.C.-based KSI Management Corp. at the time.

“We went through an extensive search and interviewed a number of candidates, but I have to say, it wasn’t even that close,” says Merrill, describing Pietroforte’s competition for the RentNet presidency. “Maria has dynamic leadership abilities and she knows the people that our president needs to know. She brought in an enormous Rolodex in terms of the multifamily industry.”

Homestore’s decision to go with an MF veteran instead of someone from the Internet industry was crucial, says Reality DataTrust CEO Mike Mueller, who founded what is now RentNet almost a decade ago. “It’s easier for those in the MF industry to do business with Maria because they know she understands their business,” he says. ” It’s not like she’s some hotshot MBA coming out of grad school to set the world on fire. She’s been in the trenches. She’s set budgets.”

Certainly, as a group, MF managers are more comfortable with ILS’s in general these days, with the five top services increasing their monthly traffic of unique web users 48 percent to 7.7 million from July 2004 to July 2005, according to ComeScore Media Metrix.

The featured ILS on portal giants including AOL, RentNet has seen its monthly unique users spike 33 percent over this period to 2.1 million.

Overall, online businesses specializing in real estate advertising are expected to command $1.8 billion in spending this year, or about 15.7 percent of the market — that’s up from 11 percent last year.

Homestore doesn’t break out RentNet earnings from its quarterly reports, but the company just noted a 16 percent year-to-year spike in revenue for the second quarter to $63.3 million.

With 12 million of the 20 million moving households Homestore now services looking for apartments, Merrill concedes that RentNet’s contribution is considerable. And it’s even more so in terms of Homestore’s long-term objective of bringing in younger renting users and converting them into older home-buying users.

When asked about her contribution to all of this, Pietroforte likes to talk about the marketing campaign she’s spearhead first — more specifically a rather simple business-to-business initiatives designed around street signs.

The campaign’s first ad featured a stop sign — red, of course — advising MF managers to “STOP wasting money.”

“It’s simple, just enough red to draw in attention on a black background,” says Pietroforte. “We used a lot of signs and symbols that were a bit shocking yet easy to read.”

Coming out of myriad ownership changes and using numerous monikers over its nine-year life span “it started in ’96 under Mueller as Springstreet.com, then became Move.com, and Homestore only changed the business to RentNet in January 2004” Pietroforte says establishing RentNet’s brand was job one.

“I recognized that the multifamily industry really responds to name,” she explains. “And with all the name changes, mergers and acquisitions came a lot of brand confusion. My first challenge was to create brand awareness. We needed more flash and sizzle.”

Her marketing principles have carried through to RentNet’s consumer ad campaigns, too — on the web portal pages where it’s featured, for example, the RentNet logo is patterned after a simple “for rent” sign, with the “rent” in red.

“We’re actually getting significant brand recognition now, and that’s come in large part due to the effort on the print side,” says Joe DeTuno, who had left RentNet several years ago, only to be brought back on board as VP of product and marketing by Pietroforte.

“I studied international marketing in college, but my years spent repositioning and leasing up apartment communities prepared me for this,” Pietroforte explains. “It’s the same thing as creating a new community from the ground up.”

Indeed, for a woman who’d never worked for an Internet company before, she’s adapted pretty well to an environment in which people with various body piercings and “blue hair” interact regularly with those in suits and ties.

“You see everything here,” Pietroforte says, which suits her just fine.

A Harley Davidson motorcycle enthusiast and outdoors lover, Pietroforte had already put feelers into the job market in her native Southern California before Homestore called her last year.

Right away, she suspected her approach — “I consider my management style progressive; I’m not a micro-manager,” Pietroforte explains — would be a good fit.

“I want my team to have a balanced life and to have fun,” she adds, noting a planned staff barbecue for the upcoming weekend at her home.

And perhaps more importantly, with Ebay having purchased competitor Rent.com for $415 million in cash and stock recently, Pietroforte has fit in well with Homestore’s overall growth objectives.

“Maria has brought RentNet something it needed, which is an evangelist who can get the industry and the employees excited about the brand and the company,” Mueller adds.

Author: Daniel Frankel