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The GTA's new homes industry is not known for innovation. That is what makes Cityzen Developments and Fernbrook Homes remarkable.

It was that happy partnership that staged a worldwide design competition for its flagship condo at the Absolute Community in the heart of Mississauga. The result was a slinky high-rise dubbed Marilyn Monroe.

Then late this summer the pair, along with a third partner - Castlepoint Realty Partners - extended their reach into social media as a marketing tool.

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Cityzen, Castlepoint and Fernbrook were already working on L Tower and the renovation of the Sony Centre at Yonge and Front Streets. The next phase was a 36-storey point tower - an elegantly slim structure - rising from a four-level podium at 5 The Esplanade. The design included a roof garden in the sky complete with a 70-foot swimming pool.

To drive interest and create the necessary sales and marketing buzz, the trio hired Blackjet Inc. - an agency specializing in using social media as a marketing tool - and staged an online name-the-condo contest.

That contest, which ended in September, drew 3,200 suggested names and more than 120,000 votes for favourite names. In total, more than 150,000 site visits were recorded; astonishing results for a Toronto condo marketing effort.

The person who submitted the winning name - Backstage - got $5,000.

Now the builders are taking social media to the next step, creating what they call "virtual brokers."

Blackjet will contact every one of the 3,200 people who submitted a name with an offer: Refer members of your social network to the Backstage website. For every person registered as expressing an interest in the project, the person who refers them gets one point.

Ten points gets a referrer a pair of movie tickets; 75 gets a free iPad. If the person referred goes on to buy a suite, the one who referred them gets $2,500 in cash and the buyer gets $2,500 in free upgrades.

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"We will also issue regular e-blasts to all those referrers and those who register keeping them up to date on progress and to maintain their interest," says Rob Galletta, president of Blackjet Inc.

So why do all this? Is it a matter of reducing marketing costs?

Nope, says Sam Crignano, a partner in Cityzen. Marketing costs will remain about two per cent of the overall budget, which is standard for most new condos. That money will just be allocated differently.

"We review marketing spending about once a week," he says. "At that time we decide where the following week's expenditures should go. If we think newspaper ads will help sell, we take out an ad; if a mail out is likely to help, we do a mail out.

High-rise sales have been moribund since last spring. Bringing another 280 units onto the market, as Backstage will do, especially when the cheapest will start in the mid-$300,000 range, is a sizable risk.

But the trio feels the interest sparked by the name-the-condo contest can now be turned to a competitive advantage when it comes to actually selling the suites. After all, there are potentially 3,200 new brokers working on the campaign.

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"The problem is, some of the traditional sales tools just don't work any more," says Mr. Crignano. "Signage is an example. Signs still draw traffic in the suburbs, but in the city there are just so many signs around that they are a distraction, not a useful tool. We have sign pollution."

By the beginning of November, the builders hope to have 5,000 people registered on the Backstage website with at least half of them coming from virtual brokers.

The downside, however, is that the name-the-condo competition linked to the creation of virtual brokers is not a marketing format that can be repeated.

"Ì think the novelty was a large part of its success," says Mr. Crignano. "Ì don't think it would work as well if we did it again and again."

But what it does show is that there is enormous potential in social networking when it comes to condo marketing. The trick will be to find new ways to put it to use.

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