WE'RE HEARING last week I had some fun with football references, or more importantly with the halftime performance during the big game. Some think the halftime show may be a diversion from the big event, and that is often how retail mortgage companies seem to treat their websites—as diversions from the core goal of having loan originators meet with customers. Let’s discuss why that is.

I’ve been focusing exclusively on conversion in this column this year, as you may have noticed. The reason why is that I am thoroughly convinced that effective conversion is the key to success in 2014. Lenders who get this and get good at it will thrive while those who don’t will fall behind. I’m not talking about just converting tire-kickers to applicants and applicants to qualified borrowers and then into closed loans.

I’m talking about conversion at every step of the process. Perhaps the very first opportunity a lender has to convert is by turning a website visitor into a loan applicant.

We already know that many who take out a mortgage loan begin their search for information online. In fact, over 90% of home purchasers use the internet as one of their primary research sources, and over 50% start their research online. Rate table marketplaces have sprung up to provide the most sought out information—interest rates.

As the market continues to turn over to purchase money products instead of refinance loans, we see more lenders working to create websites that will entice site visitors who found them via a search engine to engage with them.

This isn’t easy. First, your site has to get found. In most major cities around the country, clever marketing firms have already set up lead generation websites that will capture much of the search engine traffic aimed directly at loan products from folks searching in those specific cities.

For instance, I live in Fort Lauderdale, so if you do a Google search here for “Fort Lauderdale FHA loan,” you’ll get a few sponsored results from the big lenders who are willing to spend money to be there, and then you’ll find a page or two of lead generation sites, one of which works hard to convince folks that it’s a government site when it’s not. That bit of devious marketing is just one example of how South Florida leads the nation in fraud. That’s right—No. 1!

Before you mock us, we also lead the nation on great weather, so we are likely getting the last laugh as snowmageddon 2014 (v2) bears down upon the rest of the country.

Now, back to the Internet marketing concepts already in progress…For most local lenders, getting found in organic search is hard. But online search engines aren’t the only places prospective borrowers are looking for website addresses of lenders that might help them. One of the most common and least expensive is the business card. Passed from hand to hand throughout the community, these little cardboard tools may be out of favor among the digerati, but they work fine in most of the communities served by local lenders around the country.

Another option is to use data you already have (such as previous customers or bank customers) and use tools to find those customers online and remind them of your ability to help them. We know of lenders who are actually enhancing their existing marketing efforts by posting messages to customers on Facebook (Remember Facebook—it’s that site where you brag about vacations and post pictures of your fabulous children).

In a future column, I might spend some time talking about the hundreds of ways lenders can drive traffic to their websites, but for now, let’s talk about converting a website visitor into an applicant once you get them to your site. This is your very first opportunity to win a conversion and the way you do it will be a deciding factor in how easy it is to win future conversions as you work to move the borrower on to the closing table.

In Stratmor’s Customer Satisfaction research, we have found that, while borrowers expect the lender to have a robust online offering, the website doesn’t seem to contribute as much to the overall customer satisfaction as other factors. In fact, the research nails down that people matter a lot in the process—in fact, certain loan originators, processors, closers and underwriters seem to have high impacts on satisfaction. (Contact me to find out more detail about how underwriters impact borrower satisfaction.).

So, if people matter, then perhaps the way to get more consumers to convert from website visitors into applicants is to engage the right staff member early in the process, and give that person the tools necessary to do a good job for the consumer. There are several ways to do this and Stratmor is working with a number of banks as they build out systems that allow their websites to seamlessly hand off visitors to loan officers. It’s like a touchdown pass. By moving the consumer quickly from a passive environment to an active one, utilizing the services of a well-trained loan officer, lenders who merge their online/offline lead generation efforts will score more often.

Of course, if loan officers don’t handle that initial call correctly, things can still go awry. We’ll talk about that next time.

Garth Graham is a partner with Stratmor Group, and has over 25 years of mortgage experience, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, including management of two of the most successful mortgage e-commerce platforms. He was formerly with Chase Manhattan Mortgage and ABN Amro, where he was a senior executive during the sale of its mortgage group to Citigroup.