There doesn't appear to be much similarity between celebrity-endorsed zit cream, exercise videos and RealtyTracker, an online matchmaker for real estate agents and their customers.

But real estate entrepreneur Sean Whitely is banking on it.

Whitely and his partners think that infomercial kings Bill Guthy and Greg Renker can perform the same magic for RealtyTracker that they've done for such products as Proactive Solution and Winsor Pilates.

Guthy-Renker, an infomercial outfit that has been wildly successful in recent years with $1.5 billion in annual sales, recently acquired an undisclosed stake in Los Angeles-based RealtyTracker LLC.

Under the deal, the Palm Desert-based direct-response television specialist will put its considerable marketing muscle toward making RealtyTracker as much of a household name as its signature skincare and exercise systems.

"By leveraging an enormous television audience, we hope to establish RealtyTracker as the first Web site consumers will visit when looking to buy or sell a home," Guthy said.

RealtyTracker touts an innovative lead delivery service which connects residential real estate agents and brokers with consumers who have requested to speak to an agent. The company validates each query by having a staffer call the consumer before passing it on to the agent via email or cell phone. Agents, home buyers and sellers who register with the site, can track the buying and sales process via the company's proprietary, Web-based, contact management tools.

The company makes money by charging agents a $29.95 monthly subscription, plus an additional fee for each lead generated. Subscribers can budget how many leads they receive, with a typical agent spending $300 a month, though some invest as much as $2,000, said Whitely, RealtyTracker's chief executive and co-founder.

"An agent making $60,000 a year usually spends around $500 a month on marketing, and most of it gets spent on branded tchotkies like notepads, pens and magnets that are just a bunch of junk. We are a much better value," he said, citing statistics indicating at least 70 percent of home buyers now start their search on the Internet.

Heavy competition
While best known these days for consumer products, Guthy-Renker also has experience in marketing information-based products and services. Its breakout product in the 1990s was Anthony Robbins' "Personal Power" self-help multimedia program.

RealtyTracker will need that edge if the nearly three-year-old online real estate upstart hopes to take away market share from industry leader Inc., formerly, or the bevy of public or privately-held competitors that have emerged in the last few years. Players in the space include ZipRealty Inc., Housevalues Inc., and

Westlake Village-based leverages its long-standing relationship with the National Association of Realtors in serving a variety of housing industry markets, including renters. Its strength in attracting traffic has been its research tools, such as access to multiple listing services where home buyers can do initial research before deciding whether to contact an agent or have an agent contact them.

"If you don't provide some free content upfront, such as listings, you're going to have a hard time generating traffic," said Avondale Partners equity analyst Frank Gristina, who sees the absence of such data at RealtyTracker as a potential disadvantage. "Lead-based models are fine, but the challenge is giving the person a reason to go to your site and give up personal information so you can generate a lead from them."

However, Homestore, which also offers a lead generating service, was distracted from solidifying its dominance of the online real estate market by a financial reporting scandal in 2002 that nearly sunk the company. The company under new management changed its name to Move in June to reflect its new focus on the larger relocation market.

And online real estate sites have been a growing business, attracting 45.3 million unique visitors in July, a 22 percent increase from a year ago, according to the comScore Networks Inc. tracking service. (Though it's unclear if the clearly stagnating real estate market will cut into that growth.)

RealtyTracker now generates more than 16,000 home buyer and home seller inquiries each month and boasts 5,300 active paying customers, said Whitely, noting that staff eliminates around 45 percent of the queries received, and gives credits to the accounts of subscribers for vetted leads who decline to respond to agents' calls.

"I think what sets us apart from other services is that we're focused on agent success," he said. "We don't want the agents wasting their time on bogus inquiries."

RealtyTracker subscribers Antonio Tubbs and April Childers say the service so far has been a good value for them. Tubbs, an agent with an independent brokerage in Memphis, Tenn., subscribed three months after becoming a real estate agent and the two or three leads he usually follows up on each month has eliminated the need to cold call to build a clientele.

Marietta, Ga.-based Childers said that compared to other lead services she's used, RealtyTracker has provided higher quality leads and quicker referrals to her cell phone.

"Going with a lead company enables me to work with people who already are pretty motivated as opposed to just shopping around," she said. "If I can get to the person first, I can turn them into a client."

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