Monthly Archives: March 2009

It Ain’t the Technology

The second post ever on Notorious R.O.B. was entitled, “More Silliness from Real Estate Connect” and contained this passage:

The Real Estate industry has gone tech-crazy.

Here’s a wakeup call: all that technology does is make your existing processes more efficient. If what you do is crap, it makes crap more efficient. If what you do is valuable, then it makes that more efficient. Microsoft Word is an amazing piece of technology, but it can’t write the next Great American Novel for you. You have to actually write the damn thing yourself, and if you suck as a writer, then Word isn’t going to solve that problem for you.

If only sloganeering created reality...

If only sloganeering created reality...

By the way, I would like to note that I have broken through some sort of dork continuum by quoting myself from a year ago.  The only thing I could think of that might be dorkier is singing She Bangs on American Idol.  (Click on that link at your own peril; I will take no responsibility for brain meltdown and queasy feelings.)

A couple of recent experiences reminded me that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Evidence: Oh, Canada!

First, we get this announcement from Coldwell Banker Canada:

Coldwell Banker Canada Operations ULC today announced the launch of the brand’s customized real estate application developed for Microsoft Surface™.  The dynamic new real estate interface was unveiled during a live interactive demo at the Coldwell Banker® Canadian Broker Meeting and Awards Gala being held today in Toronto. The new Microsoft Surface home search application allows users to interact with thousands of home listings, real estate maps and other features in a way that is familiar, by using simple hand gestures. Similar to the intuitive technology featured in the futuristic film, “Minority Report”, this exploration on the use of Microsoft Surface represents yet another way in which Coldwell Banker is working to harness innovative technologies to benefit home buyers and sellers.

Um.  Okay guys.

So the Canadian real estate market was down17.1% i n2008, and the Canadian Real Estate Association is predicting a 16.9% drop in 2009, but one of the largest brokerage companies in Canada is excited about Microsoft Surface?

Is this really the thing that’s going to turn things around for CB Canada?

Maybe.  But I submit that the real estate industry has gone tech-crazy if folks really believe that Surface is where dollars need to be invested.

By the way, compare what CB Canada put together with this from Perceptive Pixel, the company founded by Jeff Han who pioneered multi-touch interfaces:

If you’re going to do multi-touch, then by golly do it right.  Putting a website that we’re all familiar with on Surface and calling that a “dynamic new real estate interface” doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Evidence: Ubiquity of Social Media

I don’t hate social media.  Nor do I think it’s useless.  If anything, I believe the opposite: it’s damn useful, and quite likely groundbreaking in lots of ways.  But I do think the industry is focusing on absolutely the wrong thing as it comes to social media.

People are focusing on the technology of social media, rather than on the meaning of social media.

Past two weeks, I’ve been on the road, first at RE Tech South and then at the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World Conference.  I’ve sat through hours of seminars and panel discussions and lectures on how real estate professionals and companies can survive, thrive and even improve in the current market conditions.  And it seemed that every other word being uttered was “Twitter” or “FaceBook” or “Blog”.

The emphasis on technology leads to realtors using the technology in all sorts of unsuitable ways: spamming their friends, endless twitterstreams of listing after listing, advertising after advertising, and blogs that are nothing more than digitized billboards.

All that technology does is make your existing processes more efficient.

When your existing mode of engagement is “NOW IS A GREAT TIME TO BUY OR SELL!” (And by the way, how does that work, exactly?) then the technology is just going to make you be more efficiently annoying.

To be sure, there are people like Jeff Turner who are trying to preach the meaning of social media, rather than the technology.  We need more of him, and less obsession about how to create a dozen groups on TweetDeck to keep track of all of your social networks.

It Ain’t the Technology

If I believe in nothing else, I believe that marketing post-Cluetrain is authentic, open communication between human beings.  Technology assists in the transformation, makes some of the interaction possible even, but it is not the interaction.

I firmly believe that a realtor who doesn’t know how to use a computer, but send personal, authentic, and no-bullshit handwritten notes will beat the pants off of the realtor who has thousands of Facebook Friends and barrages them with digital versions of “Just Sold” postcards.  I really do.

Because it ain’t the technology; it’s the person behind the technology.

I'm still Jenny from the block, yo.

I'm still Jenny from the block.

What realtors need isn’t a newfangled technology to be a thousand times more annoying than they are today, but a transformation into the kind of trusted advisor that so many claim and so few achieve.  Companies need to be investing in technology (and processes!) that help realtors become true experts in their local market, the real estate transaction, the financial elements, and client service, rather than in gadgets that win cool points then fade away.

Show people that you care about them as people; that you will work hard for them; that you are a professional with pride in your training, knowledge, and expertise; that you won’t lie to them or bullshit them; that you will advise them to the best of your abilities for their benefit and not your own; that you are neither a huckster nor a servant; that you too are human… and people won’t care if you message them through Facebook or through smoke signals.

They will trust you.


Future of Broker Websites

Matt Dollinger, of @Properties in Chicago, raised a very interesting question at the Leading RE conference that just concluded.  He then raised it again over Twitter (Matt is @mattdollinger) and the discussion threatened to overwhelm the 140-char limit.  It’s time for bloggery.

Matt’s question was this (in essence):

In 2015, with companies like Trulia, Zillow, Roost and others really advancing the technology of real estate search, should brokers have their own search site?

Since the panel was titled “Real Estate 3.0″, it naturally lends itself to these kinds of speculative questions.

This is an important question.  Money is not unlimited.  Brokers have to make decisions today to align their strategy going forward.  And as Matt himself pointed out during session, brokerages are not technology companies at heart.

The answer seemed to be from the panelists that brokers have to do both: create a top-notch brokerage website that is optimized for SEO, has great user experience, and captures leads all over the place, but also send listings to all of the aggregators to drive additional leads, because the big guys have national (global) reach and can grab so many more eyeballs than a single brokerage site could.

Trouble is… that just doesn’t jive logically.

Internet is Not Local

Fact is, while a brokerage may be local, and real estate may be local, the Internet is most assuredly not local.  There is no reason why someone searching for “chicago real estate” from New Jersey would not find a local website.

Google Search on "Chicago Real Estate"

Google Search on "Chicago Real Estate"

Granted, @Properties apparently needs some SEO consultancy love, seeing as how it doesn’t appear on page one, two, or three, but other local brokerage sites are right there: Baird & Warner, Rubloff, Dreamtown Realty, etc. all show up.

And Trulia also shows up.

As a consumer, if I go into a local brokerage site like Dreamtown’s, then go into Trulia, there is a world of difference there from a user experience standpoint.

Dreamtown Homepage

Dreamtown Homepage

Trulia Chicago

Trulia Chicago

The one has all manner of busy advertising, bullshit marketing messages that I would immediately ignore, and so on.  The other has a clean interface, a nice Google map mashup, and easy to use search filters right there on the page.

For Dreamtown to come up to par with Trulia, it would need to spend a pretty serious amount of money and time.  And the Dreamtown website is actually pretty darn good as far as local brokerage sites go.  Having worked on corporate brokerage sites, I think it is no stretch to say that a top-notch custom-coded website with developers, designers, UI design, SEO, and the like can easily top $250K in cost.

That isn’t even taking into consideration what it would cost to develop something actually new and innovative.  A new kind of search, a totally new way to interface with listings data, etc. could mean literally millions of dollars in R&D costs.

In theory, the aggregators and web portals like Trulia are technology companies first and foremost, and have core competencies in design and development.  They should always be ahead of the brokers in terms of technology and user interface.  (And in theory, they should dominate the brokers in SERPS… though often, they do not.)

Branding & CRM

Matt would argue — and correctly — that a brokerage company still needs a website for branding and CRM purposes.

For instance, you have to have a site where your existing seller clients can go, login, view all activity reports on their listings, see where the transaction is, download paperwork, upload paperwork, etc.  (You all do have this, right?)

And it would be difficult to brand your brokerage and your agents as local experts (since real estate is local, even if the Internet is not) without providing some heavy duty in-depth information and data about your local market.

But neither of these things need a SEARCH experience.

In theory, @Properties could have an awesome local website, filled with information about the area, a series of hyperlocal blogs written by their agents, and so on.  But rather than a search experience, just offer a “Search Our Chicago Listings on Trulia” or some such.


Of course, most folks would assume that like in all debates, the real answer is a “bit of both” rather than an “either/or”.

So a broker would go invest a few thousand bucks to get a templated site from some low-cost website creator, or frame in a search solution from some IDX search provider, and still spend thousands more to feature listings on Realtor, or on Trulia, or pay for leads from some aggregator.

This is, however, a case of “either/or”. One of the following is true:

  1. The money spent on putting in a search into the local broker site is wasted, since consumers would naturally prefer (and only find by year 2015) the tech-sites that emphasize the whole search user experience and functionality, and leads would be sent directly to the broker.  Instead, spend that money on enhancing local info, the brand presence, and the CRM applications.
  2. The money spent buying traffic/leads from Third Parties is wasted, since all searches begin with Google anyhow.  The name of the game is to rank higher in Google, and not having search and all those results pages kills you.  Plus, you don’t need super-duper search; you just need good clean intuitive search that connects the consumer to your agent as quickly as possible.

Both cannot be true as a matter of logic.

Traffic vs. Lead

An important distinction here is between ‘traffic’ and ‘leads’.  Louis Cammarosano of HomeGain is fond of pointhing this out.  A broker or agent, in his view, could care less about a site sending him a billion visitors if all of them are bored-ass tirekickers who wouldn’t convert to a customer anyhow.  They would rather that HomeGain (or whoever) send them ten people who are solid ready-to-buy or ready-to-sell consumers.

In theory, the third-party sites can send enormous amounts of traffic to the spiffy brokerage site with a great search experience.  Since these are just random visitors, the brokerage site would need to do a lot more — including offering a search experience — in order to convert them to actual leads.  And it is possible that these sites could send millions of visitors, not one of whom will ever hit “Request More Info” or “Request a Showing” or pick up the phone.

That traffic, however, is sourced more or less from Google, which brings us right back to “SERPS are what matters, not SEARCH”.

Or, the third party sites are sending enormous amount of leads, which are consumers asking to be contacted.  In which case, they’re past the whole “search for a home” deal and into the “I need more information” deal.  And the brokerage’s spiffy new search technology is completely bypassed.

Real Estate in 2015

So let’s fast forward.  2015.  Hard to make assumptions based on technology today, with our rapid speed of change.  But let’s go with it.  Let’s assume that search technology is so advanced by 2015, and computing has totally changed, with multi-touch computing the norm.

What happens to search-based broker/agent website then?  The answer is directly related to what happens to the big aggregators by then.  And where search technology is by then.

As the fast and furious twitterstream on this topic indicates, this is a bigger issue than one might think initially, with implications across the entire spectrum of online real estate.

I’m looking forward to the discussion and exploration.


My Ten Commandments of Social Networking

1.  Thou shalt not spam thy friends.

2.  Thou shalt not be LinkedIn with coworkers, for LinkedIn has replaced most job sites for recruiting. Social network with thy coworkers around the large container that dispenseth water.

3.  Thou shalt think twice before being Facebook Friends with coworkers, clients, and prospects. And definitely think thrice before posting photos and videos of thee in that club in Cancun with the beer bong.

4.  Thou shalt not network under a corporate name, for silly rabbit, social networks are for humans!

5.  Thou shalt be thyself as much as possible on social networks, for if thou art false, it shall be evident, and thy friends shall un-friend thee with the quickness.

6.  Thou shalt help thy friends in appropriate networks meet and help each other as much as possible, for that is the whole point of doing social networks at all.

7.  Thou shalt unsubscribe from any social network that thou hast not updated in the past thirty days, for thy time is not unlimited.

8.  Thou shalt refrain from ad hominem attacks in debates that inevitably arise in any social networks worth a damn, unless thou truly means to simply trash and flame another person.

9.  Thou shalt venture outside thy circle from time to time, for a social network that ceases to grow might be one that is headed unto death.

10.  Thou shalt have fun on thy social networks, for all work and no play makes Jack a psychotic murderer who freezes unto death.


Brief Note from Leading RE Show

Just a brief note from the Leading RE Show going on right now in Scottsdale, AZ.

I got to sit in on a great session earlier today with a speaker who I gather was a luxury marketing consultant.  He actually had some great points to make and great things to say.

However, a theme he sounded throughout the session grated with me.  It goes something like this:

Companies should invest heavily in CRM, and segment their clients to identify their “best customers” and then cater to them in order to drive customer satisfaction, which drives referrals, new business, and loyalty.

Now I happen to agree with the general thrust here.  I’ve already written that I think CRM is the killer app for real estate, and that real estate companies need to do a better job with segmentation and targeted marketing.

But applying principles of luxury marketing from the worlds of hospitality and retail and whatever else to real estate doesn’t readily jive with me.  Because of the Seven Year Cycle.

I just think it’s borderline irresponsible for marketers to talk about CRM or whatever without addressing this fundamental fact about real estate: consumers go seven years in between transactions on average.

I don’t know if that frequency changes with luxury buyers — maybe they can and do buy the $20m estate in Beverly Hills, then buy a $10m condo in NYC, and then a $15m villa in Lake Como, Italy.  So it makes sense to treat them as one might treat any luxury buyer of luxury consumer goods.

But if that isn’t the case, and even luxury buyers don’t go dropping $20m plus on a house every other year… then any discussion of CRM has to take this fundamental cycle into account.

That real estate is unique, and the practice of real estate marketing is as a result unique as well, are things I’m learning and relearning every day.  Absolutely non-commoditizable product (real estate) married to hugely commoditized service (brokerage services) with a seven year cycle and independent contractors operating in a significantly regulated industry constitute a truly unique set of factors and challenges for the marketer.

Yes, there are lessons to be learned from other industries.  There are best practices that can and should be adopted.  But adoption requires adaptation to the unique fundamentals of this industry.

Call it a pet peeve, but it sure would be nice if more consultants and speakers and panelists considered not only what is similar between real estate and other industries, but also what is unique and different.


Tribus Cometh: Gehenna or Anarch Revolt?

I have come to hunt the antitribu!

I have come to hunt the antitribu!

At the recent RE Tech South conference, I had the opportunity to meet Eric Stegemann — a self-described 25-year old going on 40 — who is the founder and CEO of a company called Tribus as well as the “Head Honcho” of River City Real Estate, a brokerage in St. Louis.

Eric is really one of the brightest guys in the next generation — the Millenials — with a singleminded focus on real estate, technology, and improving the former with the latter.  That he makes terrible drinks (some sort of Cherry-Nyquil tasting concoction with a bitter aftertaste) really can’t be held against him.  He’s 25-going-on-40; he’ll learn by 30 to savor the mysteries of fine cognac and single malt scotch.

In any event, Eric and I got into conversation and it turned out to be tres interessant.  It appears that Tribus is the “un-Franchise” that aims to eradicate the big real estate brands from the industry.  The idea essentially is to offer brokers and agents everything they need to operate a real estate brokerage, except for the brand itself and any rules associated with the brand.  So, for example, Tribus will give its “affiliates” a CRM system, a listings distribution system, a website, social media tools, accounting package, and so on.  But there won’t be a brand like “Century 21″ or “Keller Williams”, and no brand identity guidelines.  Nor will there be service standards at the Tribus level or any such thing.

Eric believes that the value of these franchises lies in the backend systems and tools, and not in the brand.  In fact, he believes that entrepreneurial broker-owners want the freedom to run their business as they see fit, without the baggage that national brand franchises impose on them.  They, however, want the support of a national entity for technology and backend processing.  So Tribus will provide everything the broker-owners want, and nothing they don’t want, and charge anywhere from 3% – 6% of GCI for those services.

<Geek Detour>

In the World of Darkness fantasy setting, published by White Wolf, an antitribu is a vampire (or Kindred, or Cainite) who has turned against his clan.  Since Eric’s company’s name is Tribus, the notion of Anti-Tribus comes naturally to mind if one wishes to poke holes in the concept.  But then, that leads to the thought that either Tribus will bring about the end of real estate as we know it (Gehenna = end of the world) or that Tribus is just another rebellion against the existing power structures (another Anarch Revolt).

</Geek Detour>

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