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Editor's note: One of the first steps in becoming a rural lifestyler is to purchase property. We invited United Country Real Estate, a firm specializing in this growing market, to share their insight in how that decision is made and the factors that shape it.

Hobby farmers, lifestylers, ruralpolitans, large property owners, sundowners. It's anybody's guess on the appropriate name for these country homeowners. What's for certain is there are ap-proximately 69 million people living in rural America whose needs are as diverse as the countryside itself, and the migration trend doesn't appear to be slowing.

Dan Duffy, CEO and board Chairman of Kansas City, Missouri-based United Country Real Estate, can attest to the growing allure of rural America. As the only real estate franchise in the U.S. that focuses on properties outside the confines of the city, United Country recorded all-time sales volumes in the first quarter of 2007. This 80-year-old company even added more new franchisees in the first quarter of 2007 than all of its real estate competitors combined. In fact, in 2006, the Wall Street Journal published a study of more than 2,500 U.S.-based franchise systems across all industries and listed United Country as one of the top 25 franchisors in America.

Duffy attributes this growth to "new ruralism." Factors fueling this trend include technology that allows employees to work in remote locations, baby boomers retiring to the country, general population growth and a migration from urban to rural areas.

"Country living is appealing to Americans for a variety of reasons, and United Country is one of the first places they go to start their searches," explains Duffy. "Customers appreciate our depth of property offerings, as well as the knowledge and expertise they find in our 3,500 agents spread across 44 states."

More than 350,000 people a month are actively seeking real estate through United Country, which leads to the questions, who are these people and where do they call home? Duffy, a former CEO of the 2005 Global Partner of the Year for Microsoft Business Solutions, a custom software development company and systems integrator in Dallas, TX, is drawing on his technological background to help his team and other marketers gain more insights into the X factors of this diverse group.

"It's not just about connecting customers with property," Duffy says. "We take it a step further and really learn about the buyer. For example, we enhanced the capabilities and offerings on our Web site to generate traffic while also gathering relevant data to identify what drives the actual purchasing decision. We've been successful on both sides of our approach, reaching volume records of 872,000 visitors a month and gathering new and pertinent data about our customers."

Data collected by United Country identifies two distinct customer segments with unique needs and buying power.

"Approximately 65% of our customers move from metropolitan areas to rural communities. We call these customers 'idyllic lifestyle relocators,'" Duffy says. "The other 35% buy and sell their properties without leaving the countryside. They are classified as 'rural-to-rural relocators.'"

Duffy says some locations growing in popularity include Texas, the Mid-Atlantic, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, Central Florida and coastal regions in general. The Midwest also is becoming a hot spot for recreational and hunting enthusiasts.

Already residing in rural America, rural-to-rural relocators typically prefer to move within the county or state in which they already reside. Data from United Country indicates customers range in age of 35 to 60. The average household income is approximately $75,000 with a net worth of $150,000. Duffy says these customers spend about $6,000 a year on goods and services they need for their new home or property, such as outdoor equipment, appliances, vehicles or property maintenance.

With big dreams of living in small-town America, the idyllic lifestyle relocators have the financial means to find their freedom in the country and spend accordingly.

The age range of this group is around 43 to 57 years. Most are married and have an average income of $100,000 and a net worth of $500,000.

"Of our idyllic customers, 92% already own their homes and 50% own second homes or properties," Duffy says. "They are affluent and have the time and resources to thoroughly do their research before making any decisions. It might be six months to two years before they decide on certain purchasing matters."

Idyllic relocators typically are looking for something to do with their time and money, whether it is recreational property or a vacation home to which they'll ultimately retire.

"Most idyllic buyers come from urban or urban-suburban interface dwellings, so they tend to invest more in goods and services to accommodate their new lifestyle in the country," Duffy explains. "An average customer spends about $32,000 on expenditures like a truck and other property maintenance and enhancement needs."

It's an exciting time for rural America and for the companies who market to these customers. Duffy says there is less brand affinity among customers in the idyllic lifestyle relocator segment, and they actively seek information to aid their buying decisions. While this creates a lot of marketing opportunities, one of the challenges is determining how best to reach this audience in order to deliver effective messages and to build lasting relationships.

If you're looking to make a direct connection with customers actively seeking goods and services in rural America, Duffy says real estate agents are a perfect conduit between companies and rural homeowners.

"Think back to when you bought your home," says Duffy. "If you didn't know anything or anybody in the area, your query typically started with your real estate agent. Our agents specialize in rural America and have a reputation of being among the most well-respected and well-networked people within their communities. They really are the 'first neighbor' to a lot of homeowners."

Duffy is using this concept to launch the First Neighbor Program, a strategic partnership program designed to develop and orchestrate integrated promotions with United Country and other companies. The First Neighbor Program is an innovative vehicle that allows companies direct connection and one-to-one influencer marketing opportunities with the most comprehensive list of qualified customers the market has ever seen.

"Current marketing channels allow companies to reach rural-to-rural customers, but the real challenge is reaching the idyllic seekers, who have yet to make that country connection," says Duffy. "We're helping companies make this happen."

For instance, The Warranty Group, a Chicago-based firm that is the world's largest provider of extended-service plans, partnered with United Country to offer an exclusive home warranty program called the United Country Home Protection Plan. The plan was promoted through channels, such as United Country's Web site, real estate catalogs that reach 1.2 million readers and agent-to-customer recommendations. Within 45 days of the launch, sales of the Home Protection Plan exceeded The Warranty Group's weekly sales goal by more than 50%, and the company is still continuing at this pace.

"We partnered with United Country to reach what has historically been a difficult market to reach due to the highly fragmented nature of the non-urban and transitional urban-to-rural customer base," says Stewart Wilson, Sr VP of The Warranty Group.

Duffy says companies still have the opportunity to participate in the First Neighbor Program.

"We carefully select long-term partners, choosing those who both share our passion for rural America living and can deliver valued products and services to our customers," Duffy says. "For more than 80 years, customers have trusted United Country to help them locate the home of their dreams in the country. We're taking that one step further by connecting them with valuable resources, products and services they'll need to truly find their freedom in rural America. We believe this kind of marketing outreach will revolutionize the way marketers do business in rural America."

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