For the first 10 years, referrals came effortlessly to Villa Builders, in Arnold, Md. The turning point was the “very bad year” of 2006, says co-owner Joanne Hall. “What happens when you’re not marketing and you come into a major dry spell?”

Rather than lamenting the good old days of taking orders, Hall and her husband, Jeff, got serious about marketing in good times and bad. They hired a marketing firm to map out and execute a year-round plan, designating 3% of projected revenue (4% in 2008) to support the plan and track its success.

Of Villa Builders’ diverse marketing initiatives — including sleek newsletters, postcards, letters to home buyers, print ads, and a new Web site — the most gratifying efforts have been face-to-face.

Donating a “carpenter for a day” to a client’s school auction, for instance, led to a strong relationship with the bid winners and a small closet makeover to be showcased in the newsletter. April saw the company’s first open house at a remodeled home. Nearly 40 people came — “a great crowd, and Jeff and I truly enjoyed reconnecting with familiar faces and meeting new ones,” Joanne says. Expenses were just over $2,200, including invitations, house-cleaning, caterer, a guest book, and small “guest gifts,” and the couple is still getting friendly feedback as a result.

More open houses are ahead; two “raving fan” clients have already agreed to host them. It’s part of the new discipline, Joanne says. “We have learned you have to keep marketing” to realize long-term results. Even walking neighborhoods with door hangers — at first a difficult exercise for Jeff — “is better than sitting here and waiting,” she says.

See Joanne Hall's open-house tips here.